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For the week of Oct. 13, 1999 through Oct. 19, 1999

Robert Frost’s 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 can’t 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 1600’s.

I admired the lack of fences between most properties and marveled at old cemeteries tumbling right up to people’s 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 I’m 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 one’s destination—in 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 I’ve 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.

I’ve 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 conference’s early boosters. Everywhere one walks, there is a sense of Frost—the 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. I’ve never been able to complete such a daunting task. I can’t 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." It’s a paean to his countryside in winter, to rural life, to a young boy’s fanciful grappling with solitary play. In short, it’s about the guts to survive loneliness and winter and life in general, and that’s 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 their hair…Before them over their heads to dry in the sun."

It’s 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 doesn’t want to have his wish half-granted and not return, because, "Earth’s the right place for love…I don’t know where it’s likely to go better." In the face of adversity he prefers the acceptance of life in all its lights and darks. That’s my kind of guy. I heartily recommend the reading of "Birches."


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