Updated: May 24
In sketching and thinking about trees, it has led me to remember with fondness the poem “Birches” by Robert Frost.
This is a poem I have loved since reading it for “O” level, and then went on to teach, many years later. As an inner city child, my experience of trees was negligible. We had two Bramley apple trees in the garden, but the experience of playing in and climbing trees was a somewhat mysterious activity to me. It was only reading the poem much later, with a particular group of boys I was teaching, that I saw it afresh. They had all climbed trees, scrabbled up branches and recognised the wonder and danger practised by Frost’s boy. These boys were not naturally inclined towards poetry, it was something they “had” to read in order to pass an exam, but this poem spoke to them and in turn, through their response, made me see it differently.
Birches are such elegant, graceful trees with ghostly bark and inky, sinuous limbs. Those that I know are not suitable for a novice climber, their branches too fragile and delicate. I can only think that the birches of Frost’s New England are far more robust specimens.
Trees, for Frost, go beyond their physical beauty, and are here used as a metaphor for the progress through our lives, bearing the scars of the struggles and difficulties we may have. The tree begins as agile and nimble, growing stronger and less flexible; here they are bent by the weight of the ice storms and the young boy’s “swinging” on them: some things we spring back from, others leave a mark. We are changed by life, just as Frost’s birches are changed.
But it is the element of playfulness and joy in being within a tree that I love most. I love the boy who swings with abandon on the branches and, as a child who had never climbed a tree, this made me realise I had missed out and it was an adventure I had to experience for myself. Frost had clearly been a boy who was a “swinger of birches” and, while I wasn’t quite up to doing that, I chose an ancient oak that had branches that would act as sturdy steps up into its heart. I wanted to taste a little of that childish wonderment while I still could. Sitting in the supportive arms of oak tree makes you see a tree quite differently. You become aware of its strength, but also your own insignificance: sitting in a tree makes you disappear from the world for a while, and that is a lovely thing.
It is never too late, I discovered, to climb trees and one could definitely “do worse than be a swinger of birches”.
Here is the poem:
“Birches” (1916) by Robert Frost
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 As ice storms do. 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 not 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.