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.

Growing Up More than Once

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

Lao Tzu (Ancient Chinese philosopher and writer; founder of Taoism.)

The idea for today’s post exploded magically in my head one Friday morning last spring as I drove to campus for a Creative Writing class. I started thinking about the fact that Fall 2022 would be my last semester as a full-time Professor of English at Laurel Ridge Community College. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve been blessed with the luxury of growing up more than once.

Now I’m writing about that epiphany of many months ago. Candidly, until I started working on this post, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the meanings that the expression “growing up” can have.

The most common, of course, relates to the challenges that we all face as we progress from childhood through puberty into early adulthood.

That meaning goes all the way back to the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“The childe Samuel wente and grewe up, & was accepted of the Lorde & of men” (1 Samuel ii. 26).

Sometimes, however, the expression can be used to criticize someone who is being silly or unreasonable. I’m thinking of that memorable line in J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, Catcher in the Rye:

“For Chrissake, grow up.”

I’m not certain that anyone has ever told me to “grow up.” When I was young, people told me that I was old for my age. Now that I am older, people tell me that I am young for my age.

Be that as it may, I’ve never considered “growing up” as a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage where we make it to adulthood. One day, we arrive. One day, we’ve grown up. Voila!

For me, “growing up” has been an ongoing journey from Point A to Point B, where Point B is never the end. Instead, it becomes the starting point of another journey.

Let me explain.

Many people might assume that since I was born in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia my Point A of “growing up” was related directly to “getting out.” Even today, West Virginia is the fifth poorest state in the nation. Without doubt, I remember vividly and well the hardships of poverty–the challenges of living from paycheck to paycheck.

What I remember far more are the values and hard work ethic that my dad (a coal miner) and my mother (a fundamentalist minister) instilled in me. What I remember far more is that they taught me to appreciate, value, and celebrate diversity. What I remember far more is that they taught me to embrace and accept everyone.

What I remember far more are the educators who knew the subjects that they taught and who taught those subjects with passion. What I remember far more are the educators who loved their students and took personal interest in us. They were living witnesses to everyone in the coal camp: we could transform our lives through education just as education had transformed their lives.

For me, my first “growing up” had nothing to do with “getting out.” It had everything to do with getting educated. It had everything to do with going to college.

By the third grade, I was telling everyone that I was going to be an English Professor. Looking back, I wonder what planted that idea in my head. I had never met a professor. None lived in my coal camp or in the slightly larger town where we moved when I started the third grade. I had no idea whatsoever what an English Professor did. I had no idea what I would have to do to become one. But I minced no words about it. I was going to become an English Professor. Yet, how could that ever happen? I would have to go to college and that would cost big bucks that my parents didn’t have. Where would the money come from? My teachers and my parents had answers for me. “Work hard. Do your best. Get good grades.” After a few years of seeing my commitment to academic success, they expanded their answer: “Keep it up. You’ll get scholarships. You’ll see.”

And that’s exactly what I did. I went forward with faith, and, as a rising high-school senior, I started the college-application process. Acceptance letters came one by one but without any scholarship offers. I felt good–really good–about being accepted. Sure. Feeling good would pay tuition. Sure. Feeling good would pay for textbooks. Sure. Feeling good would pay for room and board. Yep. I felt good.

Doors were opening for me to get educated, but, ironically, I couldn’t pay to cross the threshold.

Then, just a month or two before graduating third in my class, I received a letter from Alderson-Broaddus University that changed my life forever. I had been accepted with a comprehensive financial aid package–scholarships, Work Study, and student loans–that covered all expenses.

Can you imagine. Me. A hard-working, coal-camp kid with a dream, going off to college. Me. The first in my family to go to college. I pinched myself, and off I went to college.

As part of my studies at Alderson-Broaddus, I had two academic internships in Washington, D.C. One was with Senator Robert Byrd, doing administrative tasks in his office and delivering mail to United States Senators. The second was with the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–Division of Two-Year Colleges.

When I graduated cum laude from Alderson-Broaddus in 1969 with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Humanities, I landed a position at the Library of Congress, as an editor in its MARC Project. After a year, I moved up and became an editor in the National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints, hailed as the bibliographic wonder of the world.

Can you imagine? Me. The hard-working, coal-camp kid with a dream and three books in his early childhood home–the King James Bible; Webster’s Dictionary; and Sears Roebuck Catalog–working as an editor in the world’s largest library, the place with all the books.

I pinched myself over and over again. I was living in my own apartment in the shadow of the Nation’s Capitol. I was working in the world’s premier library. I was a federal employee with a handsome salary and first-rate benefits.

I had grown up. Or so I thought.

Three years into my federal career, I got hooked on research. The yearning for more learning descended upon me, and I realized that I needed to grow up again.

Off I went to the University of South Carolina where I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, where I became a Mary E. Wilkins Freeman scholar, and where I experienced, for the first time, the joy of teaching.

I was armed with credentials, but I had only one college professorship offer, with a salary so low that I could not afford to accept the position.

I went back home to the Library of Congress where I remained for a total of twenty-five years. I continued my Freeman research and published my The Infant Sphinx: The Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Scarecrow Press, 1985). I worked with the best professionals in the federal sector. I continued my earlier work as an editor in the NUCPP-Pre-1955 Imprints. I became the Training Coordinator for the United States Copyright Office and then Director of the Library’s Internship Program and after that Special Assistant for Human Resources, giving HR advice to department heads as well as to two Librarians of Congress.

I spent a total of twenty-five years as a federal employee, as a researcher, and as a scholar.

Surely, I had grown up. Or so I thought.

But when I turned fifty, I started feeling antsy about that childhood dream of becoming a Professor of English. I started feeling antsy about that childhood dream of long, long ago. I started fussing with myself every day and throughout the days:

“If not now, when.”

On a leap of faith that I would find a college home, I took advantage of a 1998 early retirement from the Library of Congress. I sold my Capitol Hill home, bought myself a Jeep, and relocated to my weekend home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

In August 1999, Lord Fairfax Community College (now Laurel Ridge Community College), opened its doors to me, first as an Adjunct Professor of English and then as a full-time Professor of English.

Some might say that my childhood dream was deferred for a long, long time.

Others might say that I had to grow up twice before I was ready to grow into the professor that I would become.

I tend to agree with the latter group. My education, my research, my scholarship, and my federal service positioned me to move into academe at the perfect moment. I was prepared for my teaching journey. I was ready for my teaching journey.

Now I have come full circle to where this post began. After twenty-three years, this semester was my last one as a full-time professor at Laurel Ridge Community College. On Friday, December 9, I taught my last class there as a full-time professor.

What an incredible journey it has been! I am so grateful to my Laurel Ridge family who have journeyed with me. And I’m even more grateful to more than 7,000 students, who believe —no, more than 7,000 students who know—that an education will transform their lives just as my life was transformed by education. I am pleased beyond measure that they let me be their learning coach. Every day, they gave me one more chance to do it better. Every day, they gave me one more chance to get it right. Every day, they let me be, me. Every day, they let me be a part of the magic. 

Surely, I am grown up now.

I daresay that you have guessed it already. I’m not. In fact, I just heard someone say:

“The good professor is going to grow up again.”

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, for the fourth time in my life. I just did some quick and dirty math. It seems to me that each time I grow up takes nearly twenty-five years. With a little luck, the next growing up will take about the same number of years and will be filled with lots of scholarly research, writing and publishing; lots of teaching; and lots of service. Who knows. Only time will tell.

But here’s how I see things right now. By the time I reach 100, I might have grown up. And, if I haven’t, I’ll keep right on with the important work of becoming what I might be.