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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Gilbert: Bent Birches

Birches, one of Robert Frost’s best and best-known poems, describes trees bent down permanently but not killed by ice-storms so that “[y]ears afterwards” you can see them [quote]

...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.

My recent attempts to shake ice and snow off our birches had precisely the effect on the trees and their ice coating that Frost describes:

...They click upon themselves
...and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

In previous winters, I’ve seen birches bounce back to stand up straight again after being bent down. In fact, I’ve been surprised by their resilience, partly because I remember Frost also asserting that unlike boys’ swinging on them, ice storms do “bend [birches] down to stay.” In this case, nature does more damage than human activity.

Which reminds me of another great poem: God’s Grandeur, by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. In it he asserts that the natural world continues to bounce back despite humankind’s abuse - treading on it, searing it with trade, and smearing it with toil so much that the ground is bare, the earth wears our smudge, and even takes on our smell. We are literally and figuratively out of touch with nature: Hopkins writes, “Nor can foot feel, being shod” - as if our putting on shoes – like shod horses – has alienated us from the earth itself.

“And [yet] for all this,” Hopkins writes, “nature is never spent.” Nature is never exhausted, and, he asserts, like Frost’s birches that boys have ridden, bounces back!

I love the language, imagery, and passionate joy of Hopkins' poem. But alas, Hopkins wrote the poem in 1877 – and the assertion that the natural world is more resilient than one might think probably isn’t as true today. Rather than be struck by the resilience of nature, like the resilience of the ice-laden birches, we’re more likely to be struck today by the irreversible damage to the earth done by precisely the kind of human activity that Hopkins describes – trade, toil, and a heavy tread. The dramatic reduction of northern sea ice, essential for polar bears’ survival, and the high water that now more frequently floods beautiful San Marcos Square and the rest of Venice, Italy should make it abundantly clear that climate change is already here. And no one should think even for a second that the earth can easily bounce back from that.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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