A Swinger of Birches

Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood.

Andy Goldsworthy (b. 1956; English sculptor, Photographer, and environmentalist.)

Call me weird if you want. But I love weather. All kinds of weather. Hot. Cold. Rainy. Dry. Foggy. Sunny. Overcast.

Call me weird again, if you want. But I love all kinds of storms, too. Thunderstorms. Lightning storms. Hailstorms. Windstorms Snowstorms. When a storm is headed my way, I get hyped up and worked up, simply anticipating the maybeness and the mightiness. The storm’s arrival–assuming that it actually arrives–always brings an intense level of energy, inner and outer, that thrills me.

I love surprises, too. Yep. I’m betting that you guessed it. Surprise storms thrill me most, especially surprise snowstorms. Ask my family. Ask my friends. Ask my neighbors. Ask my former colleagues. I’m a snow freak. I get turned on by snow, but not those puny dustings of just a few inches. Take it up to six or seven or eight, and then we’re talking. Take it up to nine or more and my wild side comes alive, especially if it’s a surprise. OMG! Life is grand. Once, while living right here on my mountain, I had the hellacious thrill of being stranded in a surprise 40-inch snowfall in the middle of March. Actually, it was closer to 50 inches. The more that I think about it, though, I am convinced that it was 54 inches.

My West Virginia kin contemplated calling the National Guard to rescue me. (Hmm. That might have been fun.) But a local contractor bulldozed me to freedom first. The snowbanks were so tall that they didn’t melt until June. Now that’s a surprise storm that I will always remember. Perhaps I will write about it one day. But not today.

For today, I’m just wondering how many, if any, surprise snowstorms we will have this winter. I remember more than a few down through the years, but right now I’m thinking about two surprise snowstorms that were real and a third surprise storm–an ice storm–that the power of poetry made come alive for me, so much so that it seems as real now as it did then.

All three are memorable, profoundly so, though for different reasons.

All three took place when I was a kid growing up in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia where snowstorms were plentiful.

The earliest that lingers in my mind was when I was really young. I’m guessing that it was the winter of 1951, when I would have been four. My mother had to get something from the church that she pastored, hardly more than a stone’s throw below our home. She had no sooner walked out the door than she rushed back in, smiling all radiant like:

“Let’s put your coat and hat on so that you can see the snow. It’s in color!”

We hurried out behind the house, taking her usual shortcut path to the church. I could see my mother’s tracks in the snow where she had walked minutes earlier. But everything was white. All white.

“Where’s the colored snow? I don’t see any.”

“Come on. You’ll see. We’re almost there.”

We continued on the path, meandering down and around a knoll. On the gentle downslope, we narrowed our way between two large, weather-worn boulders.

We stopped there. My mother turned toward the boulders, exclaiming in triumphant joy:

“Look! Look at all the colors!”

I looked, and I was amazed. Vast patches of colored snow covered the boulders. Reds. Greens. Blues. Browns. Some of the flakes were colored as they fell from the sky. Other flakes turned color when they touched the boulders.

Years later I learned that the boulders were probably covered with types of algae that caused the white snow to change color. The snow that came falling down in color was caused by pollutants, no doubt from the coal camp where we lived. The science, though, never eroded the beauty of that snowfall. I had never seen colored snow before, and I have never seen colored snow since. It is as if my mother and I shared a magical moment never to be witnessed again.

The second surprise snow came when I was older. I’m guessing that it was 1961 when I was a high-school freshman. It fell in October. Green leaves, still on the trees, had not even thought of turning red or gold.

The wet, heavy snow started during the night. A significant amount had fallen by the time my dad got up for work. Not one to be daunted easily, he set out in the early pre-daylight hours, trudging through the deep snow, determined to catch his ride to the coal mines. I can still see the flicker of his carbide lantern as it swayed beneath the towering oak tree where he always stood, waiting for his ride to work. I can still see him standing there, the carbide lantern swaying. I can still see the snow falling, piling up higher and higher. I can still see what seemed to be forever.

And, then, forever turned into daylight. My dad’s ride didn’t show up because the snow was too deep. My dad slogged his way back home.

The door had hardly closed when we could hear him in the kitchen rattling pots and pans as he started making biscuits, frying country ham, and cracking eggs, whistling and singing in his untrained country way. Looking back, I understand his carefree merriment. He would have been 59 that year and that day was probably his first coal-miner’s snow day ever. If he had others, he never mentioned them. I know for a fact that he never had another work snow day afterwards.

That snowfall was more than 25 inches. Branches fell. Trees crashed. But what lingers most for me is the magical snow-day breakfast that my dad prepared–one that we all shared, never to be spread again.

The next surprise storm–the one that I experienced through the power of poetry–came in 1955, betwixt and between the other two.

I was in the third grade and my teacher, Marie Massie, introduced me–just me, not the entire class–to Robert Frost. She pulled me aside one day and gave me a mimeographed copy of his poem “Birches.”

“I think you’ll like this poem. Let me know.”

I fell in love with the poem and told her so. She gave me more: Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”

Looking back, I cannot help but wonder why. Why did she give me, a third grader, a poem with such profound meanings? Why did she proceed to give me, a third grader, an essay, profounder still?

I’d like to think that it was because she knew that she was dealing with an unusual intelligence. But I know better. She wasn’t.

Of course, “Birches” spoke to every fiber of my being. I, the child, who loved storms. I, the child, who loved surprises. I, the child, who played alone. All that it took was a description of birch trees in winter:

[ … ] 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.

I had never seen a birch tree nor had I ever seen an ice storm. But I had seen colored snow, and in my mind’s eye I could easily imagine what the sky–heaven’s inner dome–would look like if it froze and fell around the forest trees where I played with great abandon.

More, though, I became one with the boy mentioned in the poem:

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice-storms do.

Indeed, I often climbed saplings near our home, learning quickly how far up the tree to shimmy before thrusting my feet outward into the air, letting the tree dip me down to the ground and lift me back up again, heavenward, to repeat by dipping me down to the ground on the other side and lifting me back up again, heavenward. Over and over and over. Earth. Heaven. Earth.

But as the poem teaches us, trees are never bent forever when a boy swings them. They always right themselves. But that’s not the case when the forces of nature–ice storms–bend trees:

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

The key phrase, of course, is “they never right themselves.” The damage brought on by Nature is irreparable

As an eight-year-old, I am confident that I did not pick up on the sobering seriousness of that caution, even after I continued reading and came across the lines:

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 a while

And then come back to it and begin over.

Looking back, I cannot help but wonder whether my third-grade teacher had experienced being weary of considerations, wishing to get away from earth for a while.

Looking back, I cannot help but wonder whether my third-grade teacher was giving me a caution that I, too, would have days when I would be weary of considerations and would wish to get away from earth for a while.

Maybe she was doing both. To live is to grow weary from time to time. To live is to wish to get away from earth for a while. To be human is to suffer.

But, maybe, while she was hoping to impress upon me those life-lessons, she was hoping still more that I would latch on to, hold on to, and believe in the next few lines:

May no 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.

Of course, we all want to get away from earth from time to time, but, at the same time, we all want to come back to earth. We don’t want our getaway to be our final exit.

But there’s something in those lines that makes the occasional skeptic in me laugh. Is earth the right place for love, especially considering all of the cruelties that we inflict on ourselves, on humankind, and on Planet Earth, our home? If we come down on the side that Earth is not always the right place for love, then all of us–collectively and individually–need to look for ways that we might–collectively and individually–make Earth the right place for love, for all, forever.

I suspect that Frost wants to nudge readers toward those more serious reflections.

For today–and today only–I’ll put aside the poet’s nudge.

For today, I’ll put aside my sometimes-skeptical self.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall my mother’s love as she shared with me the magic of colored snow.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall my father’s love when a sudden snowstorm gave him the only snow day of his work life, and he chose to make a magical breakfast.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall the teacher who gifted me with my love of poetry.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall my own childhood days when I, too, was an innocent swinger of birches.

7 thoughts on “A Swinger of Birches

  1. I would love to experience the colored snow! How magical, as you noted. Perhaps you could treat your readers to a poem, in Frost’s style, that captures the moment? Your description here is lovely, but a poem captures other emotions and depth and prose can’t, as you well know and elude to here. What say you?

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  2. Sadly, I fear there will be no winter this year. Each day lately has felt like spring, especially this week – at least so far. Today, I left work at 4 PM with no jacket on and short sleeves. It was beautiful. I’ve heard that it was supposed to be a bad winter, but I am just not seeing it. Perhaps we will get one of those surprise storms, but I am no longer holding my breath.

    Having said that, I would love at least one good snow. I love to walk out as it is snowing. There is such a different level of quiet, of peace, within that snowfall. It’s like everything stands still, no movement, and you can hear the flakes hit the ground. Bliss. I am also a sucker for a good thunderstorm, with lightning that scatters across the sky. I used to watch the storms with my Daddy. They’ve always fascinated me. While storms tend to cause anxiety for so many, they are where I find my zen. I am rarely so chill as when I am walking in that silent snow or watching a vibrant thunderstorm.

    I hope you are enjoying your time!!! You deserve it! You are missed. :)

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    • I, too, expected lots of snow this winter. I think that we might have two impressive snowstorms headed our way. One, early in February; the second, just after the middle of February. ❄️

      How wonderful that storms take you to your special zen place. I can relate!

      I am enjoying my time. Right now, I’m working with publishers on two books that will be coming out in late Spring.

      Thanks for your comments!

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  3. Brent – as a child I was a tree climber. Usually oak or maple. I would climb as high as possible, as close to the crown as the tree allowed. It was magical looking down from a great height and seeing the world as a bird. I never had the pleasure of swinging with a birch. Thanks for bringing it alive for me.

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