Robert Frosts spirit permeates Vermont
Commentary by JoEllen Collins
Last year I attended the Middlebury (Vermont) Bread Loaf Writers
conference. Since that experience I have noticed how the spirit of Robert Frost hovers
over all of the feelings I have about those two weeks.
As our Wood River Valley leaves begin to turn, I cant get away
from images of New England, especially those of fall colors and the impending winter they
announce. Even at the end of August, a few roadside trees were yellowing there (most
likely, a Vermonter told me, because of the early death smog inflicts).
As a California teenager, I longed to hear the crunch of autumn leaves
under my feet. I pictured myself in college wearing plaid wool and walking through the
commons of ivy-covered buildings with crisp orange, yellow and red leaves swirling around
me. I wound up at UCLA, about as non-Eastern as one can get.
So I was thrilled when I first drove through the woods of Vermont and
New Hampshire one fall foliage season long ago. I reveled in the taste of apples, apple
cider and home-aged cheese. I appreciated the sense of history everywhere. The California
Gold rush of 1848 had always intrigued me, but now I actually saw tombstones from the
I admired the lack of fences between most properties and marveled at
old cemeteries tumbling right up to peoples backyards as though death was just
another neighbor who visited occasionally in the Great Scheme of Things. I noticed the
lack of Forest Lawn-type cemeteries with ersatz angels and sentimental piped-in music. New
Englanders seemed to have a more natural view of mourning than did my peers in California.
Oh, I know Im romanticizing all of this. There are probably crass
and maudlin and un-neighborly people sitting in the clapboard houses dotting that
landscape just as there are in Los Angeles tract houses. But part of the fun of
travel is in the romanticizing of ones destinationin imagining the difference
of lives of other people and places. New England has never disappointed me with its
timeless beauty and the depth of its roots.
Since moving to Idaho I have learned more about the price for the
beauty of the landscape of seasons both here and in Vermont. The riot of color of fall is
the harbinger of frost and short days and winter ice to come. I now know that and realize
that the remote country roads I like to explore in New England become isolating to the
inhabitants who travel them in winter. I never knew that as a Californian.
Lest you think Ive led too cushy a life, let me remind you that
California has its own difficulties: fires, earthquakes and mudslides often make living
there as tenuous as it might be in a blizzard in Maine. I speak from some authority, as
you may know if you have read my other columns. Thus I think I prefer the rigors of
changing seasons and that may be why I have been so attracted to dreams of the East and
living in Idaho.
Ive wandered a bit from my central point
that Frost country
appeals to me and heightens my appreciation of that poet. The conference I attended was
located only a mile from the Robert Frost Cottage, and his signature is featured in the
inn where I stayed: he was one of the Bread Loaf conferences early boosters.
Everywhere one walks, there is a sense of Frostthe fields with edges of rocks recall
"Mending Wall," and on walks down remote paths one can sense the aura of
"The Road not Taken."
People have often asked me to list my favorite 10 books or my favorite
10 poems. Ive never been able to complete such a daunting task. I cant imagine
limiting a list to even 100, as the Modern Library did last year. But I can say that any
list of my favorite 10 poems would invariably include what I think of as the best Frost
poem, "Birches." Its a paean to his countryside in winter, to rural life,
to a young boys fanciful grappling with solitary play. In short, its about the
guts to survive loneliness and winter and life in general, and thats why I connect
to it, I believe. It also has some of the most beautiful and enduring lines in the English
language, with images such as the one describing birches bent so that they are
"trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun."
Its the conclusion that cinches the force of this poem. Frost
says that sometimes, when "life is too much like a pathless wood," he wishes he
could "get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it again and begin
over." He insists, however, that he doesnt want to have his wish half-granted
and not return, because, "Earths the right place for love
know where its likely to go better." In the face of adversity he prefers the
acceptance of life in all its lights and darks. Thats my kind of guy. I heartily
recommend the reading of "Birches."