Swinger of Birches

Robert Frost, hands down, is my favorite American poet. For many reasons. For many poems.

While I grew up in Michigan, not New England, like Frost—and grew up in a later generation—I often feel like he felt, see like he saw, and ponder like he pondered. No poem overwhelms me with nostalgia like “Birches” [below]. It paints a portrait of my childhood better than any artist could. The first time I read it, I felt as though Frost had been behind some tree making notes on the activities of we “OAK boys”: striplings Ohlman, Andrews, and Kenfield (Dean, Dickie, and Lanny). [Bent birch image source]

The opening line of the poem captures one of the OAK boys favorite activities: tree bending. Our woods didn’t have birches, so we used tall but thin beech, maple, and hickory trees. We would shinny up these skinny saplings that already had rough lives striving to reach the canopy for their share of sunlight before dying from lack of light. We would climb some twenty feet or so until we felt the sapling begin to bend. At that point, gripping with both arms and legs, we would start the tree to swaying, like those circus performers on tall poles, and attempt to guess at which point we could allow our legs to swing out so our weight would overcome the resistance of the trunk and allow us to ride gently down to the ground. Letting go of it, the tree top would then snap back up—but always bent in the direction of the boy it had gently let down. Never again would it bend but in that direction. When we had made it so limber it could no longer give us the thrill we wanted, we’d go to the next inviting prospects. A few hours of that would leave a dozen or so saplings bent every-which-way in the forest understory.

There were, of course, a few risks in this sport. First, you had to know that it was not smart to choose a box elder or a willow, which would snap instead of bend. And your grip had to be strong. But the biggest risk was what Frost referred to as learning not to “launch out too soon.” Because what would happen if you let your legs swing out before your weight would overpower the resistance of the trunk is that instead of dropping you to the ground in the direction you had intended, it would snap you back like an apple on a twig and try its best to throw you off in the opposite direction at about twice the speed of your original thrust. If you failed to get your legs back around the trunk and hold on literally for “dear life,” you were going to be flung somewhere into the woods at the victorious sapling’s discretion. My worst crash was into the branches of a thornapple tree, the result of which was a late afternoon visit to the doctor’s office where an inch-long thorn had to be wrenched from my skinny arm with a medical “pliers,” my mother’s tweezers having failed to make it budge.

Those memories are stirred up in the fall when the threat of ice storms increases in our part of the country. Though the ice can create havoc with power and phone lines, such storms are often followed by bright sunny days in which every twig becomes a piece of classy, glassy art. Usually by midday the ice-encased limbs start shedding their “crystal shells.” Enjoy this piece of early 20th century sentiment:

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
—From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

See you outdoors!

Dean