Elder told us about Frost's poems, which are "steeped in the natural world," but we mustn't mistake him for being "sentimental"--he was "a shadow figure in a real world with real stones and real wood." He read poems to us, pointing to the Vermont landscape to enhance the meaning, or correct in some cases--where some poems might mention empty cellars, it was a sign of the landscape and not as deeply symbolic as, perhaps, some critics might want us to believe. Elder read us "Directive" and told us how the steeple brush is what grows in an abandoned meadow, after the farm has been left behind, implying a haunting and its ghosts. (Philip Booth's AAP's article about "Directive")
by Robert Frost
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
The hike today was to look at the natural world, to read a few poems aloud, and to learn bits about the landscape, naming things. I collected facts as I could:
- It takes about three years for a leaf to become soil. The first, the fisting against the earth, the second coming back as a skeleton, and the third becoming dust.
- We were now in what was a third growth forest.
- Vermont is often dominated by rocky soil, white pines, hardwood.
- The way to tell the difference between two maples is with the leaves: a sugar maple has a u-shape between the three major points, and a red maple has a v-shape.
- He showed us moose wood (as in, the cookbook) and hobble bush, which another hiker called "Indian toilet paper."
- We learned to identify spruce and feel the triangular shape of the needles. The Norway spruce that dominates campus are actually ornamental (not native).
- We learned that some identify beech by its smooth bark and it is sometimes called "elephant legs." Elder told us the bears love the nuts, and they are also sometimes called "nursery trees" because mama bear will send baby bear up to safety as the male bears tend to eat the young in spring.
- We learned of the nectria which is destroying the beech--brought in from Nova Scotia, this insect infestation is working its way south, burrowing and laying eggs, leading to what is called "beech snap," where the weakened tree simply cleaves.
- He showed us the club moss, which, in dinosaur-times was tree-high.
- He shuffled off the trail to show us an old hemlock--a tree whose tannin was used for tanning.
- He told us how the sedge is a sign of (lime/calcium) rich wood, and often we'd also find sugar maples nearby.
- I tucked a piece of balsam fir in the pocket of my notebook for its smell.
This is the sort of nature walk I love the most--perhaps there are some moments of true hiking, but the pause to examine surroundings, to copy down observations, to save those pieces somehow.
I admit to having dismissed Robert Frost for his dominance of the middle school English curriculum (and the misery I had in the Midwestern middle school--my one year in an arts & sciences middle school in Chattanooga was wonderful with an emphasis on wonder and discovery and curiosity as opposed to textbooks and exercises and worksheets), and I also struggle with the swinging rhyme.
Now, I promise to give him a second chance. He seems to be a good one to study in the autumn.
If you feel so inclined, you can find Middlebury's archives of Frost's lectures and readings, which I plan to peruse when I return: Robert Frost at Bread Loaf.
(Aside): New Yorker Article: "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing be Taught?"