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
As ice-storms do. 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.
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
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.
I love Robert Frost, and this was a favourite poem of mine to teach, back in my days as a high school English teacher. It turns out that Robert Frost's view of birches is not unlike John Matthews' in Green Man Tree Oracle, nor mine, for that matter.
The Birch, according to Matthews, symbolizes new beginnings. It is also associated with youth, being called the Lady of the Woods, and thus reminiscent of the Maiden aspect of Goddess. The birch is ruled by Venus and thus connected with love and beauty.
Because of its silvery bark and lacy, delicate shape, the birch was one of the first trees I learned to recognize when I was a child. I have always liked the delicate, slender shape of birches. Because they are so bendy, slender and fragile looking, they remind me of youth, and yes I suppose new beginnings as well.
I love Robert Frost's references to his own memories of swinging in the pliant birch trees, how the activity reminds him of a more innocent time, when life was less confusing and painful, and how he longs to go back there. But since he can't, he'd like to imagine that instead he could climb up a birch to take a break from the cares of life, and have it gently bend and set him back down on earth, refreshed and renewed. So lovely.
There are many interpretations I would consider if the Birch came up in a reading. One is resiliency. The Birch can withstand so much bending, as referenced in the Frost poem. It bends itself to forces instead of resisting and breaking. (It can even withstand some callow New England farm boy riding it down, thinking he's somehow conquering it. Pish.) It just keeps growing, in a new shape. It looks fragile but it is adaptable. Its white colour suggests a purity or innocence. The lacy pattern of its leaves suggests openness, receptivity, honesty. There could be a touch of nostalgia there as well!