When Birches Bend And Other Lessons of Winter

Birch trees still bend, just as Robert Frost said they do, decades ago, before I ever met a birch.

When I met Robert Frost in the pages of an anthology of poets judged safe for schoolchildren, I was living where birches don't grow, and I was of an age when I thought the most important thing about birches was that clever Indians made canoes from their bark.

But then a teacher had me read what Robert Frost thought was special about birches. With apologies for the lines deleted by the pressure of time, here's that lesson:

When I see birches bent to left and right

across the lines of straighter, darker trees,

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

But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay, as ice storms do.

The idea of swinging on a tree that would be kind enough to bend and set me down again after a free ride was enough to fuel the imagination. So I became a fan of birches, thanks to Robert Frost.

This season the birches have bent, under the weight of ice that sparkles so in the sunlight that it's easy to see why the makers of slang decided to call diamonds "ice."

They'll stay bent for a while, and then under the influence of sap and sunlight they will straighten up. But only so far.

Birches are not good soldiers in the regiments of trees in the northern forest. There's too much California in them, too much laid back.

It's almost as if their casual stance, never quite vertical, is deliberate. A pose put on to annoy the spruces, which of course stand at rigid attention. In fact, there's something about the slouchy posture of a clump of white-clad birches that suggests a set of sailors on shore leave in a tropical port. Any stance that's vaguely vertical will do.

Do you suppose that poplars are really birches that have had to turn in their uniforms and leave the family, for the error of standing too straight?

MAYBE Robert Frost had it wrong, after all. Maybe birches bend simply because they're nonconformist, casual, and resistant to instruction by other trees in how they should take care of their own business. When viewed from that angle, what good Vermonters birches make. And how dull the winter woods would be without their slashes of bright white across the somber shades of other trunks.

"One could do worse than be a swinger of birches," Robert Frost concluded.

Worse would be to be so poor of spirit as to miss noticing that birches are for uplift, whether the passenger is a young body or an old mind.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio 'Early Edition,' lives in Milton, Vt.

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