The Cheerful Reaper

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.

—Robert Frost, “Mowing”

HH meadow

Of our ten acres, five are forest, land that flies on its own woodsy autopilot.  The other five are a meadow left over from the original farm’s fields, and these require more attention.  The question is what kind of attention.  Our immediate predecessors viewed this expanse as a huge, rolling lawn and mowed it from May through October, a task that apparently kept Paul in the seat of his Husqvarna for many hours day after day.Reaper 01   Early on during our ownership, Edith and I decide that we will mow only a half-acre surrounding the house; the rest of the meadow we will let grow wild.  So far so good:  less work, less use of fuel, more ecological variety, and a bigger habitat for wildlife. Yet even meadows need occasional grooming.  Neighbors warn us early on that if we don’t mow once a year, saplings will spring up, trees will grow, and our open land will gradually revert to forest.  During our first autumn on Hyland Hill we hire Jeff Moran, a local contractor, to “bush hog” the hillside.  This task involves a tractor towing an agricultural mower.  The cost:  $300.  The result:  grass, weeds, saplings, and wildflowers laid low.

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The following summer, my brother-in-law Geoff spots a rusty old scythe hanging in the front shed—one of many tools that Doris and Paul left us when they moved out.  “That’s an American scythe,” Geoff tells me, and he points out the dull blade and the ungainly aluminum handle (which I later learn is called a snath).  Geoff goes on to say:  “Someone told me that these American scythes are almost useless.  They’re heavy and tiring to use, and the blades aren’t very sharp.  The good ones are Austrian—lighter and much sharper.”  These comments catch my attention but prompt no action at the time.  A few weeks later, though, an article about scythes appears in—of all places—The Wall Street Journal.  TitledWho Needs a WeedWacker When You Can Use a Scythe?”,  this piece describes the ancient tool and its contemporary renaissance.  “While Americans persist in cutting grass with labor-saving devices,” Journal author Barry Newman writes, “faithful scythers believe their old tool has plenty of life left in it.  U.S. scythe sales are nearing 10,000 a year now. . . .  Predictably, scythe buyers are small, green farmers; unpredictably, they are also city folk and suburbanites.” [1]  Intrigued, I visit the Web site for the Marugg Company, a Tennessee-based husband-and-wife enterprise that Newman has mentioned in his article.  The Marugg Company, founded by Swiss immigrants in 1873, is one of three main American sources for scythes.  [URL:  www.themaruggcompany.com.]  A helpful conversation with one of the owners, Amy Wilson, leads to my ordering the first of two scythes that Edith and I purchase that summer.  On receiving my order a week later, I try out the tool in our meadow.  I am instantly hooked.  Edith is skeptical at first but soon catches the same bug.  Over the next few months we hone our skills as well as the blades.

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The scythe is essentially a scimitar on a stick.  Excepting the chain saw and the axe, no tool I’ve used seems more dangerous.  It has a dark reputation, too, since most people know the scythe only as the Grim Reaper’s harvest implement. tumblr_mnmh4t07191ro2pzmo1_500The bad rep is unfortunate.  Just about any tool is dangerous if misused.  Surely the most lethal device in our midst is the most utilized, most beloved, and most romanticized:  the auto.  (Given the statistics on how we die in the modern era, the up-to-date icon for Death should be the Grim Driver:  a skeleton behind the wheel of an SUV.)  So, yes, the scythe is dangerous.  But its nature, its modus, and its consequences aren’t negative; on the contrary, civilization almost literally sprang from its blade.  With a pedigree dating back to the pre-Neolithic sickle, the scythe made agriculture so much more efficient that it transformed the pre-industrial world from the Fertile Crescent outward.  Never mind the Grim Reaper’s ghastly harvest; the scythe in human hands was the giver of life.

 Pieter Bruegel the Younger:  "The Harvesters"


Pieter Bruegel the Younger: “The Harvesters” (c. 1565)

Something else is positive about the scythe.  Unlike the chain saw, the SkilSaw, the Sawzall, the WeedWacker, the hedge trimmer, the push mower, the ride-on mower, the leaf blower, the snow thrower, and all the other strident gas- and electric-powered machines that have replaced so many traditional hand tools, the scythe needs no fuel and makes no awful noise.  It has an ancient, venerable feel to it, and not just because this implement is nearly silent.  The scythe runs on human energy and certainly requires some effort, but it’s surprisingly easy to use and repays the user with satisfaction and wellbeing.  Now, having acquired our scythes, Edith and I have to learn to use them.  There’s no one around to train us—no relatives or neighbors to demonstrate the basics, as would have been true throughout much of the world over the past two thousand years, or to coach us as a refine our skills.  Paintings from the medieval and renaissance eras show men, women, and children working together in the fields; knowledge of using these tools must have been almost universal.  But we have no elders, siblings, or neighbors to show us the way.  How are we going to learn?

Typical for us, our first recourse is to buy some books.  The best of the lot is David Tresemer’s The Scythe Book:  Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small Grains with Hand Tools. [2]  This manual provides exactly what the title and subtitle promise—the information that anyone needs to use a scythe.  Particularly helpful are several chapters on the proper technique for mowing.  Tresemer is reassuring from the start.  “Mowing should be comfortable, not too strenuous, not . . . tiring.  If it is exhausting, it is wrongly done. . . .  At its best, the stroke does not have to be stopped.  It is initiated with just enough energy that the last of the grass is cut and thrown to the windrow [that is, the row of mowed-down stalks] as the momentum of the stroke is reduced to zero; the leftover energy is comfortably stored in the tendons to power the recovery back to the right.”  But instructions like these, even if relatively precise, can be difficult to translate into action.

Soon I resort to the best bad way to learn something:  watching YouTube videos.  I’m not surprised that scything videos exist on the Web, but the number and variety is bizarre.  Options include “Scything,” “Scything with Susan,” “Lawn Scything,” “Scything and Wind-rowing Hay in Scotland,” “West Country Scythe Festival 2010,” “Polish Peat Bog Scything Competition . . . “  The list goes on and on.  Typical of YouTube, many of these clips are goofy—the scything equivalent of cute-cat videos.  Some, though, are useful.  “How to Scythe,” for instance, demonstrates and describes basic technique so well that I acquire my first really effective “feel” for the tool.

“Scything and Wind-rowing Our Hay in Scotland” helps me refine my stance and stroke (and, while I’m at it, my Scottish brogue as well).

And “Martin Kebblewhite Teaching Scything” presents a seventy-something expert’s useful tips on multiple issues.

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 Leo Tolstoy as photographed by X. Prokudin-Gorsky, 190X


Leo Tolstoy as photographed by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1908.

So far, so good.  Oddly, though, it’s Leo Tolstoy who takes us beyond the basics.  In Part III of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy describes how the wealthy landowner Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin participates in the autumn harvest.  Just as Tolstoy himself labored among the peasants at Yasnaya Polyana, his family estate, Levin joins the peasants mowing hay on his own property; and during that days-long communal effort, he finds himself working with an older, experienced mower and a younger, less experienced one.  The harvest passages from Anna Karenina provide the fullest, richest description anywhere of scything as a rich sensory experience. [3]

After lunch Levin was not in the same place in the string of mowers as before, but stood between the old man who had accosted him jocosely, and now invited him to be his neighbor, and a young peasant, who had only been married in the autumn, and who was mowing this summer for the first time.

Levin immediately notices the older peasant’s efficiency and economy of motion:

The old man, holding himself erect, moved in front, with his feet turned out, taking long, regular strides, and with a precise and regular action which seemed to cost him no more effort than swinging one’s arms in walking, as though it were in play, he laid down the high, even row of grass.  It was as though it were not he but the sharp scythe of itself swishing through the juicy grass.

By contrast, the younger peasant works harder but less effectively:

Behind Levin came the lad Mishka. His pretty, boyish face, with a twist of fresh grass bound round his hair, was all working with effort; but whenever anyone looked at him he smiled.  He would clearly have died sooner than own it was hard work for him.

Somehow Levin reaches a compromise between these two states of skill and grace; and as the work proceeds, he manages to attain a rhythm that makes the work easy and almost automatic.

Levin kept between them. In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work to him.  The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun, that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigor and dogged energy to his labor; and more and more often now came those moments of unconsciousness, when it was possible not to think what one was doing. The scythe cut of itself.  These were happy moments. . . . The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself.  These were the most blissful moments.

 Arkadi A. Plastov, "Reaping" (1945).  Source:  see Note 5.


Arkadi A. Plastov, “Reaping” (1945). Source: see Note 5.

This state of being—familiar to athletes, artists, meditators, and lovers—is flow.  The doer and the act he or she performs are one and the same.  It’s a state not just of efficient work but of mindfulness—at its best, of pure being. “Levin did not notice how time was passing. If he had been asked how long he had been working he would have said half an hour—and it was getting on for dinner time.”

The sun sank behind the forest.  The dew was falling by now; the mowers were in the sun only on the hillside, but below, where a mist was rising, and on the opposite side, they mowed into the fresh, dewy shade.  The work went rapidly.  The grass cut with a juicy sound, and was at once laid in high, fragrant rows.  The mowers from all sides, brought closer together in the short row, kept urging one another on to the sound of jingling dipper and clanging scythes, and the hiss of the whetstones sharpening them, and good-humored shouts.

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So there you have it.  Wielding the scythe properly, you get a good full-body workout, a flow state, a bonding experience with your fellows, hours of sensory delight, and communion with nature.  You get hay or wheat, too, while you’re at it.  You aren’t grim at all as you reap, but rightly cheerful.

The scythe is the bestower not of death but of life.

Edith and I have no peasants toiling on our property, so we can’t partake of the communal experience that Levin enjoys in the fields.  We are our own serfs.  We enjoy the work, however, and we revel in collaborating on this task.  In September of that first year of scything, we hand-mow our entire meadow.  We then wheel many barrows piled high with cut grass into our big vegetable garden to use as mulch.  The rest of the hay lies mounded across the hillside where, once the heavy frosts arrive in October, the windrows look as white and as glittery as snowdrifts.  All winter the old grass withers and deteriorates beneath the real snow—so much the better to nurture the new grass that will spring forth in April.

*     *     *

Notes

[1]  Barry Newman. Who Needs a WeedWacker When You Can Use a Scythe?”  The Wall Street Journal Online.  June 29, 2012.  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304782404577490583379647566.html

[2]  Tresemer, David. The Scythe Book:  Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small Grains with Hand Tools. Chambersburg, Penn.:  Alan C. Hood & Company, Inc., 1981, 1996.]

[3]  Tolstoy, Leo.  Anna Karenina (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, translators).  New York:  Penguin Classics, 2004.

[4] “Women with Scythes in Art”:  http://scytheconnected.blogspot.com/2010/05/women-with-scythes-in-art.html

[5] Arkadi A. Plastov, “Reaping” (1945). Source: http://www.hayinart.com/images/960.jpg.

Night Fliers (Part 1)

Dumping the garbage one Vermont summer night, I find my attention drawn to the spotlight mounted on the front shed.  The lamp casts a big cone of light outward from that structure. Illuminated in the beam, a cloud of moths billows in the air—hundreds upon hundreds of them, individually small but collectively as thick as a snow flurry.  Their wings, though insubstantial, are so numerous as to create a faint yet easily audible hiss.  What impresses me even more than the multitude in flight, however, is the smaller but visible array of moths on the wooden doors.  The wood is speckled with them.  They are so abundant and so varied that no two appear to be of the same species.  Some are little wedges. moth 03 One, triangular and pure white, looks like a corner snipped off a piece of paper.  One resembles an inch-long model airplane, narrow wings jutting straight out from the fuselage, a little tail at the rear end. One appears to be the world’s smallest space shuttle.  Several are unimaginably delicate, almost angelic:  ghostly pale, nearly transparent, like a shred of a woman’s negligee.  Their beauty is obvious, shocking, and almost totally unfamiliar.

Minutes pass.  The tumult of their light-drawn flight continues.  I watch them, amazed, for a long time.

Butterflies generally fly in the daytime, while moths usually fly at night.  There are exceptions to this pattern, but the day/night distinction is a significant feature differentiating one order of lepidopteran insects from the other.  It’s also part of what makes moths less familiar than butterflies:  they’re harder to see in dark settings, and few people are around (or even awake) to see them.  The nocturnal nature of moths also gives them an air of mystery.  As a boy prowling about my yard each summer, I was frequently startled by the sensation of almost intangible wings brushing against my face and by the sight of nearly invisible wisps flitting by.  Most eerie was the tapping of moths at the windows, the unsettling arrival of unbidden presences—messengers, it seemed, intent on delivering their news.  I also felt unnerved by the strangeness of moths’ legendary obsession:  seeking out lights even at the peril of incineration.

During my boyhood I noticed moths in the same places where most people do:  circling light bulbs, swarming under streetlamps, tapping at the screens in summertime.  I wasn’t afraid of bugs––I collected them, examined them under a magnifying glass, and observed them mating or eating one another––but I found moths more mysterious than other insects because of their nocturnal ways.  They always seemed beyond reach, longing for light but otherwise going about their business in the dark.  When I was ten or so, my mother found a Cecropia moth, and the creature’s great size––the wings easily four inches across––appalled and alarmed me.

moth 02

My interactions with moths intensified when I was twelve.  That summer, thousands of inch-long, slate-gray caterpillars swarmed over the trees in our yard.  The plum and apple trees, especially, suffered great damage:  caterpillars stripped many branches completely bare of foliage.  The plague grew so severe that my father paid my brother and me to collect and destroy as many of the invaders as possible. moth 06 We shook them out of the trees and stomped on them, picked them off one by one, and sprayed them off the branches with the garden hose.  The infestation and the resulting damage continued.  Then summer ended; the caterpillars simply disappeared.  We had won the war.

Except that we hadn’t.  During the cool Colorado autumn, I noticed moths emerging from the air vent in my bedroom:  dark little inch-long triangles that crawled out through the grate and launched themselves into the air, then fluttered about, seeking and orbiting my table lamp.  They seemed harmless enough; I swatted a few but otherwise ignored them.  Then the number increased.  What had begun as an occasional insect’s arrival became more frequent––two or three at once, then five or more, then a steady launching of insects into the air, soon a stream, one after another, until my entire room was aflutter with tiny winged creatures.

I decided to fight back.  Rummaging through our family’s cleaning closet, I found a can of aerosol insecticide; now properly armed, I retreated to my bedroom to repel the assault.  I stood on a chair, raised my weapon to the air vent, and sprayed the moths as they emerged into my bedroom.  They would flit about for a few seconds in midair before falling to the floor and flopping there like beached fish.  Hundreds came out; I sprayed them; they fell; they died.  I would stand there all night, I decided, if that’s what the battle required.  I would wipe out the entire swarm.  Soon enough, though, I felt so dizzy and sick from inhaling clouds of insecticide that I abandoned the fight, descended from my strategic roost, opened all the windows, and let the cool autumn air wash in.

moth 07

Clearly I needed a different approach to avoid a Pyrrhic victory.  On cleaning up the dead and dying moths with our vacuum cleaner, I realized that the ideal armament would be mechanical, not chemical.  The vacuum itself would be my secret weapon.  Removing the head from the stainless steel wand, I turned on the machine, returned to my chair, raised the wand, and suctioned the insects right out of the air.  Dozens of them emerged from the duct but instantly disappeared into the wand with a little noise:  Thlup! Thlup! Thlup thlup thlup!

Why are moths drawn to light?  What accounts for their insistent, counterproductive, often fatal attraction to lamps, candles, and other open flames?  This behavior is phototaxis, an organism’s automatic movement toward or away from light.candle  Cockroaches, for example, are negatively phototactic, while moths are positively phototactic.  There is currently no definitive explanation for why moths seek out lights, but a number of intriguing theories exist.  One concerns migration.  Since some species of moths are migratory insects, perhaps lights in the night sky, especially the moon, provide navigational cues during their travels.  Alternatively, positive phototaxis may figure in moths’ escape reflexes:  flying toward the light (usually in the sky, or at least upward) tends to be a more advantageous response to danger than flying toward darkness (which is usually downward).  In any case, the phototactic response probably served moths well up to the modern era, but the proliferation of artificial lights over the past century has presented challenges far beyond what their evolutionary development is prepared to handle.

If nothing else, these insects’ intense attraction to light—especially light in its pre-industrial forms as candles, oil lamps, and other open flames—has given rise to one of the most persistent and widespread metaphors present across human cultures.  Drawn like a moth to the flame . . .  But moths and butterflies turn up in other images and other myths as well.  One of the most prevalent is the notion that conflates these insects with souls or spirits.  The Greek word psyche, for instance, means soul, but it can also designate a butterfly or moth.  The Latin word anima can have the same dual meaning.  This double entendre may derive from these insects’ evanescent lives.  In addition, a fundamental aspect of moths’ and butterflies’ nature—metamorphosis—provides such a powerful, undeniable image of transformation that human beings can’t help but extrapolate from this natural phenomenon to the supernatural.  To observe a lowly worm or caterpillar disappear into a cocoon, then emerge a short while later transformed into a completely different, ethereal, often beautiful creature—one capable of flight, no less—is an irresistible inducement to images of human transformation.

house image

Lovely, Dark and Deep (Part 2)

Stone house - stockphoto

Photo credit: Andrew Burmon

One November morning, Edith and I visited the Robert Frost Stone House Museum, currently maintained by The Friends of Robert Frost, in South Shaftsbury, Vermont. We had stayed overnight in nearby Bennington with intent to visit the Stone House Museum early in the day, all the better to avoid the schoolchildren who often tour the place on field trips. The parking lot was almost empty—a good sign. Then we noticed a small slate hung on a fence near the path to the house: CLOSED TODAY. The museum’s website hadn’t mentioned this change of schedule, so how could we have known? Edith and I stood near the car for a while and discussed our options. We could’ve come back some other time, of course . . . But South Shaftsbury is a nearly three-hour drive from our town, so it was frustrating to think we’d have to make another trip. Maybe we could have a look anyway? We walked up to the house, spoke with some of the contractors whose renovations had prompted the closure, and got their go-ahead to explore the grounds, at least.

Stone House - back 1The house, built circa 1769, is fairly unremarkable despite its age. Two stories tall, it has a stone front and gabled ends. Double windows flank the centered front door. There’s a pointed dormer in front and a single, wide dormer with three windows in back. Brick chimneys rise from each end of the roof. The main roof slants down to a long, closed-in back porch with sashed windows and plaid curtains. The window trim throughout is maroon. The back door opens out onto a small, stone-bordered plot of grass, then a much larger lawn stretching out toward a big gray barn, a single large white birch, and the woods beyond. Circling the house, Edith and I peered in through the windows, but we couldn’t see much, given the bright reflections on the window panes, and we didn’t want to annoy the busy workmen; then, feeling abashed to behave like a pair of literary peeping Toms, we left the house walked west across the back lawn toward the line of trees.

Stone House - back viewIt’s not as if I had necessarily expected Frost’s South Shaftsbury woods to be The Woods he described in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—the poet’s best-known poem and, for most of the Twentieth Century, arguably the best-known, most-beloved poem in America. I hadn’t even assumed that these particular woods were his inspiration. Surely the forest he described was a grove in his mind, not on his property. Even so, I wanted to see the property he owned during his decade in South Shaftsbury. I wanted to walk among the trees that Frost might have gazed upon through his kitchen window as he wrote early one morning in June of 1922.

path to woodsEdith and I followed the grassy path—once a road, surely—that took us away from the Stone House and its back lawn. Parallel, dilapidated stone walls bordered the path, with rough meadow grasses rising alongside the rocks. This path declined for a hundred yard until it reached the forest. That morning, the trees were bare. Maple and birch dominated the forest, though I saw a few stout pines as well. What was most striking about the landscape was the thorny underbrush. Brambles rose both to the left and the right along the path and deep into the forest. Walking off-trail would’ve been possible but not easy or fun; pushing through would leave a hiker scratched and bleeding. Edith and I kept to the footpath, which was wide and fairly even. We proceeded for several hundred yards. The trail took us to the right, then started to decline. Many of the trees ahead looked damaged, with many ragged limbs dangling. We continued on the footpath, letting it take us gradually downward until it opened up rather quickly into a . . . swamp. I was struck at once by the unappealing nature of this forest—not lovely, not dark, not deep.

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Robert-Frost photoIn late June of 1922, following an entire night of writing at his kitchen table in the Stone House, Robert Frost realized that morning had come. “Having finished ‘New Hampshire,’” he wrote later, “I went outdoors, got out sideways and didn’t disturb anybody in the house, and about nine or ten o’clock went back in and wrote the piece about a snowy evening and the little horse as if I’d had an hallucination.” This experience of “piggybacking” one poem on another wasn’t unusual for Frost. “Sometimes one [poem] would grow out of an idea, leaving me relaxed.  At other times the idea would produce a second growth, coercing itself as a Siamese twin on its predecessor . . .  ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ was written just about that way . . .  But I must admit, it was written in a few minutes without any strain.” [1]  Frost immediately recognized that he had written something unusual.  In a letter he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer, Frost described this poem as “my best bid for remembrance”; it received widespread acclaim following its publication in 1923; and “Stopping by Woods” is arguably the best-known, best-loved of Frost’s works. [2]  Many generations of students have read it in their English classes; countless mourners have heard its last lines quoted at funerals; millions of people have cherished it; and millions of others have mocked it for what they perceive as its picture-postcard sentiments.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What has amused and puzzled me about “Stopping by Woods” ever since I first read it as a teenager has been the disparity between the poem’s sunny reputation in American culture and its much darker substance. Perhaps this reaction is partly a result my habitual tendency to see the skull beneath the skin. It’s possible that one or another of the writers in my parents’ circle of friends—among them the American Studies scholar Stuart James, the novelist John Williams, and the poet Alan Stephens—pointed out the shadows in Frost’s snowy landscape. In any case, I’ve never felt inclined to see this poem as the dollop of maple syrup that many people consider it to be.

Frost himself struggled with its implications. Although he wrote the first draft quickly, the ending caused him some difficulty. Jay Parini, one of Frost’s biographers, writes: “The whole poem may have come to Frost in a flash, but he experienced some degree of trouble with the last stanza. It was some time before he thought of solving the problem by simply repeating the last line:  ‘And miles to go before I sleep.’” [3]  Even early on, many readers immediately caught the ambiguous but troubling implications that derive from the repetition. Some raised the issue with Frost at public events, though “in countless readings of the poem in public, he would leave it open to the listener to decide what was meant by the poem’s suggestive final stanza.“ [4]  Now and then he would be more explicit—and even reassuring. “To an audience at Bread Loaf,” writes Parini, “[Frost] once said that the ominous-sounding last lines don’t necessarily mean that ‘you’re going to do anything bad’ when you get home.” [5]  Frost even took umbrage with suggestions that the final stanza suggests a longing for death. As late as 1962—the year before he died—Frost was still denying the element of thanatos suffusing the poem. The American poet Louise Bogan commented on a November reading that year: “He insisted that ‘Stopping by Woods’ was NOT concerned with Death . . . “ [6]

My own belief is that the poem itself refutes Frost’s own denials. Another of Frost’s biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, writes: “The theme of ‘Stopping by Woods’—despite Frost’s disclaimer—is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year. The speaker is powerfully drawn to these woods . . . and wants to lie down and let the snow cover and bury him. The third quatrain, with its drowsy, dream-like line: ‘Of easy wind and downy flake,’ opposes the horse’s instinctive urge for home and the man’s subconscious desire for death in the dark, snowy woods. The speaker says, ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,’ but he resists their morbid attraction.” [7]

Moreover, I believe that this aspect of the poem hinges on a single comma—or, rather, on the lack of one. The first line of the final stanza appears in two different ways in several different editions. The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem [Henry Holt and Company, 1969], places a comma after “dark.” [Another version] deletes this comma. Does that tiny speck of punctuation matter? Of course. This comma subtly but profoundly changes the line’s significance. “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” presents the forest’s attributes as loveliness, darkness, and deepness. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” states that the woods are lovely and that their loveliness consists of being dark and deep. The distinction isn’t a question of pedantry but of existential substance. The critic Richard Poirier states the situation bluntly: “In fact, the woods are not . . . merely ‘lovely, dark, and deep.’ Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are ‘lovely, [i.e.] dark and deep’; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” [8]

Why do that comma (or its absence) and its implications matter? They matter for three reasons.

First, because they reveal Frost for what he is—a writer far more interesting and complex than the benign, grandfatherly New England farmer celebrated in popular American culture.  He is a writer whose portraits, both of the land and of people, reveal as much shadow as light.

Second, they matter because this poem, like others among Frost’s finest, delivers an existential jolt. As Poirier states it neatly, “the woods are lovely and . . . their loveliness consists of being dark and deep.” The shadows have their own magnetic pull. One can resist their pull; one ought to; but it’s a mistake to deny the reality of this gravitational tug.

Third, they matter because ultimately this poem shows that the woods—their loveliness, their darkness, their depth—aren’t external. The forest is a psychological, spiritual landscape.

Regarding the nature of these inner woods, as manifested in countless myths, folktales, poems, stories, and dreams . . . well, I have more to say on that topic, but I’ll save it for a future post.

*   *   *

Notes

[1] Mertins, Louis. Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking.  Norman: U. of Ok. Press, 1965.  Pp. 81-82.

[2] Source: Tuten, Nancy Lewis; John Zubizarreta, The Robert Frost Encyclopedia (City:  Greenwood Publishing, 2001), p. 347.

[3] Parini, p. 208.

[4] Parini, pp. 212-213.

[5] Parini, pp. 212-213.

[6] Meyers, p. 327.

[7]  Meyers, p. 180.

[8] Richard Poirier, Robert Frost:  The Work of Knowing.  London:  Oxford University Press, p. 181.

Plop! (Part 1)

The property on Hyland Hill includes a little pond.   Forty or fifty feet in diameter, it’s located in a hollow halfway down the slope right where the meadow meets the woods.  A rivulet keeps it filled; an outlet notched into the opposite rim empties the overflow through a narrow trench and down the steep hillside.   Though man-made, the pond is so well landscaped that it looks completely natural.  The water and the setting are lovely in their own right, and this tiny ecosystem is congenial to wildlife that wouldn’t be present otherwise––minnows, peepers, dragonflies, and frogs.  The pond seems to have been present here forever.   Its presence out of sight from the house makes it feel separate and mysterious, a realm apart from both the meadow and the forest.

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There’s one other aspect of this place that draws me.  When Edith and I took the introductory ramble that first sparked our desire to purchase this property, I immediately perceived the pond as a splendid spot for a meditation shack.  I could go down there daily six months of the year to sit in stillness.  I could meditate in a quintessential Buddhist setting.  Of an evening, I could contemplate the moon.

Even during our first summer on Hyland Hill, however, we decide that the pond seems sick.  The water has grown turbid; the smell is heavy.  A few feet below the surface, wispy aquatic plants have bloomed in great profusion.  Wild irises mass along the far shore like tourists waiting on the dock for the Nantucket ferry. pond 03 Frogs are clearly thriving in that environment, but I see no signs of the trout and perch that Paul and Doris stocked during their years of ownership.  When autumn arrives, maple and ash leaves stream down from the nearby trees, float on the surface for a week, then sink out of sight.  I gradually begin to grasp what I’m witnessing.  These changes are all part of eutrophication, a natural sequence of changes that will gradually fill in, dry out, and convert the pond into just another part of the meadow.  The pond isn’t really sick at all; it’s just . . . changing.  From Edith’s and my standpoint, however––the standpoint of human beings intent on having an attractive pond on their property––the process amounts to a terminal disease.  It’s advancing rapidly.  By our second summer on Hyland Hill, the water has grown dense with aquatic plants and smells more and more fetid.

The issue quickly moves beyond diagnosis to treatment.  We consider the options.  Chemicals are one possibility.  Algaecides would quickly kill the bloom, but they would also sterilize the water, kill most other plants and many animals present, and potentially endanger people and creatures downstream of the outflow.  The state of Vermont has rightly banned this type of treatment.  What, then, are the alternatives?  I pose this question to Jeff Moran, the local excavation contractor who dug the pond for a previous owner back in the 1970’s.  “Well, you could always muck it out,” he tells me.  What would that involve?  “You’d pump out the pond and get an excavator down there to scrape out the plants.  Then you’d let the rain fill it up again.”  The cost?  “Oh, maybe a couple thousand dollars.”

Other projects immediately take precedence.  Edith and I have at least three dozen tasks on our list that have priority over spending $2,000 to upgrade the pond.

Yet the situation continues to deteriorate.  By late summer, the water has turned a hazy green-brown.   Worse, it looks less like water than like a vastly intricate mass of vegetation, soft and filigreed, with little more than a thin, flat, transparent surface encasing it.  To call this a dying place would be inaccurate.  It’s very much alive.  Mosquitoes, water striders, dragonflies, and other insects clearly thrive here.  Minnows dart about in the shallows.  Frogs reveal their presence by their calls—cut cut cut cut—and by plopping into the pond abruptly when I approach the cattails.  But these critters are clear signs of a transformation that we still hope to forestall and, if possible, to reverse.

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And so the question becomes: what should we do, and by what means, to preserve the pond?

Lovely, Dark and Deep (Part 1)

Our property on Hyland Hill consists of ten acres:  five of open land, five of forest.  The open land covers most of the high end of our plot, an acre of lawn surrounding the house and four acres of meadow rolling downward to the woods.

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A trust owns the large expanse of land to the south.  Our wooded terrain declines further to the east and abuts another neighbor’s forty- or fifty-acre plot.  Paul and Doris, the previous owners, had cleared brush and trees in the forest to create what they called hiking paths; there’s a little stream along the northern edge; and the trees are dense enough that when we walk in among them, we quickly lose a sense of scale and imagine the forest to be large.

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In reality, what we own is a small property by local standards.  But with our neighbors’ land unfenced and undeveloped, and with coyote, fox, deer, and moose footprints crisscrossing the snow all winter, the woods that surround us somehow feels expansive and wild.

Over the years we have ventured deeper and deeper into the woods to explore.  One winter we set off in six-degree weather, the snowpack a crusty ten inches deep at the time.  Edith chose to use snowshoes; I preferred to wear my ordinary knee-high insulated winter boots.  Together we headed due south from our property; we slogged until we hit a spur of the VAST Trail, a network of paths maintained by the statewide snowmobilers’ club; and we then angled east over a hilltop until we hit the main path.  From there the trail wound its way down to the farms that border Hyland Hill Road and Carrier Road below it.  We had the woods to ourselves.  We saw many animals’ tracks in the snow—evidence of wild turkeys, deer, hare, coyotes or dogs, and moose—but rarely any sign of the animals themselves.

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H. W. Longfellow [in Evangeline, Canto I ] wrote: “This is the forest primeval.” But Henry got it wrong:  this is not in any sense the forest primeval.  New England’s wooded landscape may seem ancient, but it’s a johnny-come-lately.  European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries clear-cut huge areas of the Northeast to create their farms; then, during the 19th century, as the frontier moved west and emigration eased population pressures in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, a process of natural reforestation began.  This trend continued during the 20th century and into the 21st.  Deep in our own woods, we have found agricultural machinery—cultivators, threshers, and a bizarre spiked rack that resembles an Iron Maiden—all abandoned many decades ago in what was once open farmland.

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Vermont is now 75.2% forested and is the fourth-most wooded state in the nation.  Our little corner is typical of the area.  But because the process of reforestation is relatively recent, most of the trees on our property are small:  mountain maples thinner than the lodge pole pines of my Colorado youth.  Old-growth maples, oaks, and other big trees are almost nonexistent.

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Even so, the forest can feel ominous.  A neighbor to the east warned us outright in a message:  “Please be aware that a black bear has her den on our land, and there are numerous transient predators, including red fox, wolves, and coyotes.  Exercise a degree of caution, and if you see them, give them their space, and you will be fine.”  All very reassuring.  Even so, getting acquainted with any of these animals is an event we choose to defer.  We see their footprints.  We hear the coyotes’ howls and yips at night.  We keep our distance.

Robert Frost:  “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

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The Empty Nest

Edith and I had heard many accounts over the years describing how difficult many couples find the Empty Nest stage of life.  When the last son or daughter leaves for college (people told us), everything changes.  Hands-on parenting ends; domestic routines no longer focus on children’s needs and routines; the house grows quiet.  A relief, surely—but potentially a shock to the system as well.

We had already observed the consequences among many friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.  Sometimes the effects have been creative:  marriages strengthened, career vistas broadened, physical and intellectual energies renewed.  Sometimes the outcomes have been much less positive, especially in terms of marital side effects:  several couples we know split up within a year or two of their kids’ departures.

Did we feel concerned that we would experience a negative outcome?  No, not at all.  And whether presumptuous or not, we have been fortunate that in actuality, our own Empty Nest has become a locus of much more good than bad.  We knew there would be some downsides.  Yes, we would be wistful about Cory’s absence, just as we miss our daughter, Robin, who had left home for college five years earlier.  We would also surely feel some sadness about the end of parenting; would miss the opportunities to witness the constant and often astonishing mutability of children’s development; would miss the richness, complexity, humor, and “thusness” of day-to-day family life.  But we anticipated benefits as well:  more time for each other, less manic activity, less pressure, more rest, and more opportunities to pursue our own interests.  Among other things, we would surely be able to devote renewed energy to artistic pursuits.

So, when friends would ask, “How do you feel about the empty nest?” our answer was essentially:  “Just fine.”

Best of all, the Empty Nest isn’t always so empty.  Robin and Cory may have flown away as fledglings, but they return from time to time, now all grown up.  Friends and family come up to visit.  The nest may be empty, but life is full.

Act Three

What could be more trite than a writer moving to Vermont?  Triter still, moving into an old farmhouse?  I get it.  I’m aware that the north woods host almost as many writers as white-tailed deer.  What then should I do?  Should I stay clear of this state simply because so many other novelists, poets, and scholars have found Vermont inspiring?  Should I recoil from the risible aspects of a city boy finding this rural state’s landscape remarkable, its history intriguing, its mix of solitude and social engagement congenial?  I don’t think so.  Or, more to the point:  no.  I need this place; I want it; I feel no need to ignore it.  All the better that Edith, too—herself a writer and a musician—finds Hyland Hill at once reassuring, uplifting, and delightful.

Truman Capote:  “Life is a play that tends to have a poorly written third act.”

Well, then:  all the more reason to write a good third act.