When I see birches bend 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.
Ice-storms do that. 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.
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:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, 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.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
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 awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
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.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
A friend of mine and I were walking in The Red, and he said, with a wistful look on his face as he stared up at the tall young poplar trees, “You know, I read a poem by Walt Whitman about these boys who jumped out of trees, and the trees would just lower them down to the ground.”
And I said, “No good comes of Walt Whitman.”
And he said, “Well, maybe it was Robert Frost.”
And I said, “He’s no Walt Whitman.”
And he said, “Is that a good thing?”
And I said, “Absolutely.”
I think this friend of mine may have been trying to impress me with his vast knowledge of poems about young boys who jump out of trees. And then my friend shimmied up a poplar tree. I think he was also trying to impress me with his vast tree-shimmying ability. Then my friend grabbed the tree up above the teeny tiny branch he was standing on, and he jumped out of the tree.
And the tree bent, and bent, and bent, for about ten of the twenty or so feet he was above the ground. And my friend shouted: “Look! It’s just like in that poem by Robert Frost!”
“Or Walt Whitman,” I called. “And no good comes of Walt Whitman!”
And then the tree, which was just a bit too big, and also the wrong sort of tree, snapped in half.
And my friend plummeted to the ground.
And the top of the tree he’d been holding on to plummeted to the ground after him.
And he hit the ground. And his head hit the ground. And the tree hit his head. And he lay there for a while. Probably he was thinking of Walt Whitman. Or Robert Frost.
I went to him, and made sure he was breathing (he was) and that his heart was beating (it was) and that he had no compound fractures (he didn’t) and that he wasn’t moving his head (he wasn’t moving anything). Then I did the knuckles-on-the-sternum thing and I called his name, and he opened his eyes and he said, “Hello.”
I thought that was a perfectly reasonable thing for a man who’s just jumped out of a tree to say. “Hello,” I said. “How are you?”
“Well,” he said, looking up at me, “My head really hurts.”
“You lost consciousness,” I said.
“I did?” he asked.
“You certainly did,” I said. “I was a little worried.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s nice of you.”
We stared at each other for a moment.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
“Not a clue,” he said.
“Do you know who *you* are?” I asked.
“Not so much,” he said.