We got a dusting of snow last night, not surprising in January. Snow interested Robert Frost, sometimes directly:
Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
In one sentence, he reveals his location (outside near trees), the season (winter), and his temperament. Many people would be annoyed if snow fell on them from a tree. But not Frost. His confluence with a crow and hemlock and snow gave him a lift, perhaps because it was silly, or absurd, or not his fault. Suddenly, his day was better, or at least, not any worse.
Hemlocks retain their needles in winter and often catch a lot of snow, bending their flexible branches low, and shedding the load when the wind or warmth breaks the grip. Under hemlocks, there is less snow than elsewhere because so much is caught on their branches. Do animals find shelter there? I suspect that they do, sometimes.
I doubt that crows seek shelter under hemlocks. Maybe in them, on their branches while roosting at night. But during the day, it’s time for crows to explore and forage, and a hemlock tree is a good perch, if a bit bouncy. The tree offers no food, but it does offer a view, and when something is spotted, whether it is an opportunity or a threat, it is time to take off. The branches recoil, and if there is snow on them, some is shed. The crow’s departure cleans the branch, the needles might be better able to photosynthesize, and the poet has a change of heart. It is one more vignette of life in the forest.
How do we prepare for autumn, Halloween, and the change of seasons? Let us concoct the Fall Elixir, as described by Robert Frost in “Clear and Colder.” The poem is not yet in the public domain, so I will provide a link rather than copy the text:
First, we let the “summer simmer,” as a pond sitting in the sizzling sun, brewing under a shining moon. It warms, and cooks, producing a rich stock.
Next, reach forward into winter, with the wind and white snow, to quench and temper the broth. If we are to survive the cold to come, the Elixir must be deeply rich and thoroughly mixed. Summer and winter combined will do the trick.
But never forget the wind, stirring the Elixir blow by blow, perhaps with the aid of witches by the kettle, perhaps with the further aid of … dragons from the sky?
“Wait and watch the liquor settle,” the stirring complete, the harvest stored away, the dwellings buffered against the blizzard. Drink, drink it in, and steel yourself in this season of change. It is the Elixir fit for mortals, and for deities, and for anything that lives where four seasons rotate over the land and water. Indulge!
Farming and Its Aftermath
Robert Frost first published “The Birthplace” in 1923. It is a story of change, and much has changed since.
Here further up the mountain slope
Than there was every any hope,
My father built, enclosed a spring,
Strung chains of wall round everything,
Subdued the growth of earth to grass,
And brought our various lives to pass.
A dozen girls and boys we were.
The mountain seemed to like the stir,
And made of us a little while–
With always something in her smile.
Today she wouldn’t know our name.
(No girl’s, of course, has stayed the same.)
The mountain pushed us off her knees.
And now her lap is full of trees.
“Subdued the growth of earth to grass”
In two centuries of conquest, starting in 1620, people of European ancestry cleared up to 90% of the forest in New England, most of it for farming. In mountain towns, perhaps only 50% of the trees fell, but half is still a lot, and still more went for fuel, or timber, or potash, or bark for tanning. Today, there is hardly any old growth to be found.
The “grass” of farms was for pastures, or for meadows to be mown for hay. Of course, a farm needed a source of water for people and livestock, and in this case, the narrator’s father had “enclosed a spring.” And a farm needed to get rid of many rocks that would break a plow or a scythe blade. All those rocks – tons of rocks – ended up in walls, accumulated over time, “chains of wall round everything.”
“A dozen girls and boys”
Farming was a lot of work, and children would eventually grow into their chores, hours a day to keep things going, preparing for the growing season, harvesting what was grown, and storing essentials for winter. The seasons were relentless, and everyone worked within that cycle to make a living and stay alive.
One hundred years ago, the children would be expected to marry, and in those days, the women would be expected to take the name of their husbands (“No girl’s, of course, had stayed the same”). Frost was a poet of his times, but he often included the word “white” in his poetry, White being his wife’s maiden name. In “Beech,” he signs the poem as “A Moodie Forester;” his mother’s Scottish maiden name was Moodie. Social norms didn’t mean that girls’ names had to be completely forgotten.
Starting in the mid 1800s, people began to leave the farm, some to go west for better land, some to go into cities for steady employment, some to die, worn out by an obdurate land. The children left, perhaps their parents did also. The agrarian diaspora hollowed out the population of rural New England so much that it didn’t reach the same density until the 1980s.
“And now her lap is full of trees”
The mountain was there long before people. It endured the clearing, the enclosure of the spring, and the cycle of farming. But farming took a toll on the soil, and people took a toll on the land, making it more attractive each year for people to leave and live elsewhere. When the people had gone, the mountain remained.
Without people to maintain the grass, the forest moved back in, growing slowly, as trees do, but growing inexorably, as trees do. Within a few decades, ecological succession had returned the farm to forest, a second-growth forest with small trees growing larger, year by year. As the twentieth century began, the forest was becoming well established in New England, and on this mountain, “her lap is full of trees.”
All that remained were perhaps some stone foundations from the farm buildings, and definitely the stone walls. They were no longer “round everything” but were themselves surrounded by trees. Nobody builds miles of stone walls in the middle of the woods. Today, the walls show us where the trees had been cleared and farm families had made their livings. It was their birthplace, and we can still see where they began, if we know how to read the land and see the evidence as well as Robert Frost.
If you want to read more about Robert Frost and the changing landscape of New England, see https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
In A Boy’s Will, Robert Frost’s first collection of poems, he included “In a Vale.”
The vale is “By a misty fen,” with every kind of flower, with birds perched for the night. Fairies come and go, blossoms thrive and grow, and the narrator comes to know “Why the flower has odor, the bird has song.” Shrouded in darkness and fog, each summer night is primordial, a place “Where the bird was before it flew,/ Where the flower was before it grew,/ Where bird and flower were one and the same.”
Frost understood the productivity of wetlands, whether bogs for orchids, springs for pastures, swamps for alders, or fens for birds and flowers. So much diversity, so much of it hidden, and so much to be imagined. Mystery swells as the sun sets, spirits dwell in the drifting vapors, and morning mist blurs our sight. But much emerges from the vale, day to day, summer to summer, compelling the poet to tell us a tale of how it comes to be.
And when naturalists – Frost and many others – explore the mists and see what they can find In a Vale, the mystery becomes more, not less, profound. With each observation and discovery, it is endlessly amazing how so much can thrive in a valley of water, woods, and mist.
For more on Frost and nature, see https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
Robert Frost wrote about many things, but not everything. This is where readers can have some fun. We get to fill in the gaps, and add our own things to those graced by the poet. We get to take ownership.
In the first part of “Birches,” Frost expounds on birches being bent by ice. It is some of his most wonderful poetry:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think that 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 down 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 their hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
Yes, ice does that, I’ve seen it. And I’ve seen the bent birches in the woods, some still alive.
But just this year, a wet, heavy snow took the place of ice, showing us another way to bend the birches down. The sloppy snow froze on the birch bark, so it became ice as an ice storm does, but the outside stayed snow, not crystalline, but white.
All the weight of snow frozen to ice frozen to birch was too much for the slender trees, and they bent down to the ground. Bent without breaking, as Frost says, but not glazed, as Frost says.
So we now know another way for birches to be bent down. We know another way to understand the trees and the woods and the winter.
Ice. Snow. Swingers. Now we are part of Frost’s story.
Frost and Fantasy
Hello, I’m Robert Frost. You probably know about the road I didn’t take, the stone wall I mended with my neighbor, and the snow I watched fall on a deep, dark, lovely night. My poems are full of farms and farm families, flowers and trees, wildlife and weather, all of which surrounded me while I lived in rural New England. I wrote about the reality of the countryside and the people who lived there.
But there is also a good deal of fantasy in my poetry, things I discovered a century ago. I included ghosts and witches and spirits in my poems because those are all part of the spirit of New England.
There used to be so many farms in New England that most of the land was cleared of trees by 1850. But then those people left and went to cities, or the Midwest, or local cemeteries. Their farms were left fallow, and that’s what I saw when I was eleven years old and arrived from California: cellar holes and stone walls being overtaken by weeds and shrubs and trees. I wrote about abandoned farms and graveyards, and imagined the lives of the people who had come and gone. Sometimes, I wanted the spirits of those people to speak for themselves. Who better to tell you about farming after farming has ceased? In “Ghost House,” I let a ghost narrate the entire poem. The stone foundation and trees and graves were real enough, and the ghost tells you all about them, then and now. In “Directive,” I gave you a guide to the town and farm and cellar hole where lilacs grew. First, the guide was “he” and then he turned into “I.” But in a place where there is no town remaining and no place for a living person, who was that guide? A ghost, of course.
When winter has gone, as in “Hyla Brook,” I spoke of snow as a ghost of the past, one that you know will return. Some ghosts keep coming back, especially in New England, where there are probably more haunted houses per square mile than anywhere else in the country. Are we surprised that these ghosts – and the stories about them – appear again and again?
Other ghosts appear only once, like the stray dog that insisted on staying in my house one night, only to run away urgently the next morning (“One More Brevity”). Will this ghost-dog haunt someone else this evening (in its friendly way, of course)?
I also wrote of witches, people that some New Englanders believe to be real enough. In “Two Witches,” I gave one witch a skeleton to keep in a closet, and another a reputation that made people wonder. I called the sun “a wizard” and the moon “a witch” (“A Hillside Thaw”), with which you can agree, or not, as you choose. And I wrote the “Witches’ Weather Primer” with its recipe for a “Fall Elixir” brewed in a “heady kettle.” If you drink “whole dayfuls of it,” you can make the weather “Clear and Colder” and bring on autumn. Cotton Mather can say whatever he wants about witches. I say they can rule the seasons.
If the weather isn’t a witch, I can still give it a persona. Look for winds that have feelings and goals, and even fight with one another. Once, I said that trees have the power to make the wind. They don’t, of course, but isn’t it fun to imagine that they do?
In some poems, animals think and scheme, plants get excited, streams have personalities, and even celestial bodies show human traits. It’s called “personification,” if you want a big word for it. Do you find things more engaging when they seem a bit like you? (I know they aren’t really like you, but it’s my job to pull you in, so I made the world more human. Poets do that.)
Is it really elves that make the stones tumble free from the wall (“Mending Wall”)? Do fairies really live “In a Vale”? Do classical gods inhabit the woods and fields of old New England (“Pan with Us”)? Does it spice up our lives, at least a little, if we say they do?
I named a girl “Maple” after a tree; I gave Paul a wife who actually was a tree; I allowed a wife to escape her marriage by hiding under ferns; and I made ferns drip water and disturb the vision of a boy looking into a well. Some of my birds sang so strongly that they raised up the flowers of spring. And the mere presence of a woman changed the songs of birds. I found fantasy in the everyday lives of people, plants and animals.
New England remade me as I grew from boy to poet, and I wrote about the reality of my transformative landscape, flavored with the lore and legend of the people and the land. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke eloquently and graciously at my memorial service at Amherst College. He predicted that my poems would continue to speak to readers, which would be wonderful. My poems are my story, and I hope they intersect with your story today, so long after I wrote them. I would like to think that there is still a place for a lot of realism and a little fantasy. I hope that my spirit – and my spirits – live on.
The players in Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design” are introduced in the first two lines:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Despite what some people have written, I am absolutely sure that Frost observed all of these things. Why? I’ve seen two of them myself, and the third is well documented. This poem is one the best examples of his skill as a naturalist.
Most of the crab spiders on flowers are dimpled and fat. Many are white, if they are on white flowers. Those on yellow flowers are yellow. They can change color, slowly, to match the color of the flowers, and they do so as the season, and their wanderings, dictate.
They are fat as a result of their ancestry – the females of this type of crab spider have large abdomens, as do most female spiders who will eventually lay large sacs of eggs.
They are dimpled because they have muscles in their abdomens that need someplace to attach, and the external manifestation of those attachment points is a dimple, two of them on each spider.
If you go out into old fields at night and shine your light on the flowers, sooner or later you will find a crab spider up there, and if they have been lucky, they will have caught one of the nocturnal visitors to flowers, an unlucky moth. The moths are seeking nectar, and most will feed safely on flowers all night. But I have seen the occasional moth in the clutches of a crab spider at night, and if a spider caught a moth near dawn, it might still be feeding on it come morning. Spiders eat slowly because they have to digest their food before they ingest it. That takes time.
Heal-all is a common weed and its flowers are usually purple (Frost calls them blue because it’s close enough to the real color, and it fits the meter better than purple). But some have partially white petals, and a few have entirely white petals. I have never seen any that are entirely white, but others have, and Gray’s Manual of Botany includes it in the description of the species.
Frost wondered how all of these things happened at once: a white spider with a white moth on a white flower. The spiders and moths are easily to explain – they seek out flowers. The flower, though, is the rarity. And I’m sure Frost knew that. So how did this spider and this moth end up on this highly uncommon form of heal-all?
The confluence is unlikely, but not impossible. Rare things happen. And when they do, they give us a chance to think about the role of chance in life, ours and theirs.
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
Could there be some guiding force, something we can call design, that makes these unusual things happen? Or are the small things around us too small to catch the notice of design?
One last thing: Frost saw his spider in New England. My photo is of a dimpled spider, fat and white, on a flower in Seattle, Washington. These things might be small, but they might also be universal.
See more about “Design” and Robert Frost in Stopping by Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalist” by Owen Sholes https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
What Thing a Bird Would Love
As I was faring home
The slow, hill-climbing way
A lonely bird sang once
And seemed to bid me stay.
I paused to rest and turned,
And if I had not turned,
I had not seen the west
Behind me, how it burned!
So when he sang again
As I resumed the slope,
My heart regarded him –
I turned again in hope.
The sunset!—and beneath
The valley ebon dark
And featureless, wherein
A lamp was but a spark.
But then he would not cease,
But still would call and call
When I must go was proof
The sunset was not all.
I left him to the waste
And gathering stars above,
In doubt if I could know
What thing a bird would love.
The bird sings as the sun turns the sky ablaze at the end of the day. If we stop and turn toward the bird, we can share the fire. (What colors do you prefer: bright white, flaming yellow, burning orange, fiery red, shocking pink?)
As the sun gives way to stars, the bird has not stopped singing, not yet,
So let us bathe in the brilliance of the sunset, and then go on with our lives. The stars will shine in the descending darkness, the bird will eventually stop singing, we will sleep, and then there will be another day.
Some background: This is an “uncollected” poem, not included in any of Robert Frost’s nine collections of poetry. He finished writing it in 1905, but it has elements of his earlier style when he imitated the Romantic and Victorian poets, especially Wordsworth and Tennyson. Yet it ends with a “doubt,” something Frost used his whole life – what if there is more, or something else? The poet makes us wonder.
The milkweeds are starting to bloom, common milkweed, with subdued colors. But the butterflies are not subdued. They spend a long time on the flowers, getting their reward of nectar, showing off their colorful wings. This is just one of the contradictions of milkweed.
In “Pod of the Milkweed,” Robert Frost describes the fervor of the butterflies:
But whatsoever else it may secrete,
Its flowers’ distilled honey is so sweet
It makes the butterflies intemperate.
There is no slumber in its juice for them.
One knocks another off from where he clings.
They knock the dyestuff off each other’s wings—
The white admiral butterfly in the picture bears its damaged wing as it drinks from the milkweed flowers. The reward comes with a cost from this dull, rich flower.
And then, after all the flowers, all the busy wings, what is the result?
But waste was of the essence of the scheme.
And all the good they did for man or god
To all those flowers they passionately trod
Was leave as their posterity one pod
Seriously? From those dozens of flowers and all those pollinators, there is but one pod of seeds (or maybe two)? So much show and so little production? That is waste, indeed.
As the paltry pods develop, the plant plods its way to autumn, with nothing to entice butterflies – unless that butterfly is a Monarch, a female in search of sustenance for her young. She is drawn to a flavor that deters cows (have you ever seen isolated milkweed plants in a pasture, with everything else eaten but these noxious plants?). She lays her eggs on the milkweed, where the hatchlings will feast on the milky tissue and advertise their presence with contrasting stripes. Here I am, and only a fool would eat me, for I am full of poison!
Even the aphids are brightly colored, sucking the sap from the plant, retaining the toxins that will teach the naïve to stay away after they taste just a few members of the colony. Only a handful of enemies can tolerate their sequestered sap.
All the herbivores must leave the plant as it senesces and turns brown, and as the weather turns cold. The caterpillars will pupate and the butterflies will head south. The aphids are all female, some with wings, some without, and somehow, they will survive the winter, probably in a form of dormancy called diapause.
But what of the milkweed? Its flowers have mostly failed, and as autumn comes, the stems will die back to the ground. What has it accomplished?
He seems to say the reason why so much
Should come to nothing must be fairly faced.*
*And shall be in due course.
How will this apparent failure be faced? Is their flowering more than an exercise in futility?
In his notebooks, Frost wrote lines that were not part of the published poem, lines about pods “bursting full of fertile seed,” each seed with a “silken parachute.” The floral waste was “fairly faced” by dozens of seeds set free into the wind by each surviving pod.
But Frost decided to omit any mention of seeds. Better to let the readers solve the puzzle of “why so much should come to nothing.” If they find milkweeds in autumn, they will discover the success of the milkweeds of summer. So much waste, so many contradictions, yet so many seeds, so many butterflies, so many milkweed plants every year. There are so many reasons to contemplate the pod of the milkweed.
See more about milkweeds and Robert Frost in Stopping by Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalist” by Owen Sholes https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
The title is simple and clear. There are pools of water all over the New England landscape every spring, some permanent, some temporary. Flowers emerge in the woods every spring, some long-lasting, some that will wither before summer. Frost is telling us about the temporary things of spring, the vernal pools and the spring ephemerals, both shivering in the wind of the changeable season.
Pools and flowers start out before there are leaves on the trees. Frost shares the tale of such pools: “These pools that, though in forests, still reflect/ The total sky almost without defect.” The only “defect” in the blue reflection on the pond is the image of bare branches. Sunlight pours on to the pond and the earth around it, fueling the rapid growth of these delicate flowers. The scene is full of light, the sky on the water, and bright petals surrounding it.
But dark will soon descend as the tall trees send out their leaves, absorbing the light as their roots absorb the water. The pools and the flowers will disappear in the darkness, no matter how much we might plead with the trees to hold back.
These pictures were taken ten minutes apart on the same pool, but facing different directions. One view is full of blue, but the other is mostly black, foretelling the coming darkness. One’s point of view makes all the difference. Do you like the flowers? Come out early. Do you like the shade? Wait a while, it will be here, it always comes.
For more on Robert Frost and seasonal change, see Stopping by Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalisthttps://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/ (also available in e-book format from major vendors).
Winter, Snow, and Storms
A flurry of snow is soft, a visual and tongue-tickling treat.
A storm can be something to fear. If the drifts are deep. If there are only horses or oxen to clear a path. If those livestock are in the barn, blocked by snow. If there is only firewood to heat a home. If the wood supply is low, or gone. If the neighbors are miles away, through the snow. What will you do?
Storm Fear, by Robert Frost
When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower-chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
‘Come out! Come out!’—
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length —
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ’tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.
First published 1913
For more on Robert Frost and winter, see Stopping by Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalist https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
The green is gone. So are the yellow and orange. All the leaves are brown.
But they haven’t fallen. Most of the other trees are bare, but not this one here, or another one over there.
Oaks hang on to their leaves well into autumn, but most of the trees let them loose at some point. Some trees seem to drop their leaves all on the same day, or nearly so. Then it is time to rake them up.
But some trees cling to their brown leaves, publicly announcing the failure of abscission.
Withering but not falling off (says the Oxford English Dictionary) means the leaves are marcescent. A mellifluous word for something so dead.
Robert Frost wrote in “Reluctance”:
The leaves are all dead on the ground
Save those that the oak is keeping
But why hang on to them?
Who knows? I don’t.
The leaves don’t stay forever. During the winter, the retentive trees will “let them go scraping and creeping/ Over the crusted snow/ While others are sleeping” (“Reluctance”).
By springtime, each tree will be ready for a new crop of leaves. And it will hang on to them just as long and hard at the end of the season.
Some of us have trouble letting things go. We are the oaks among the maples. Withered and brown, our thoughts linger. At some point, they will have to go. Even the oaks let go. Eventually.
White Birch and Wild Grapes
White birch trees thrive in sun and die in shade. They live fast, and die young. When storms knock down trees, birches can thrive in the gaps. When people abandon farms, birch trees can fill the void.
Grape vines grow up trees and reach the light. The vines do best on trees that are themselves in full sun.
White birches love the sun. Grapes love the sun. They appear together in Robert Frost’s poem “Wild Grapes”:
The grape may not be gathered from the birch?
It’s all you know the grape, or know the birch.
Find one, you find the other.
(Footnote: The first line in “Wild Grapes” is “What tree may not the fig be gathered from?” Here’s another question: What tree is featured in the poem “Sycamore”: “Zaccheus he/ Did climb the tree/ Our Lord to see.” The New Testament tells us that Zaccheus climbed a fig (Ficus) to see Jesus, not a sycamore (Platanus). But one of the ancient cultivated species of figs is Ficus sycomorus, the sycamore fig. So what tree did he climb? Something with the name sycamore. “What tree may not the fig be gathered from?” The name might not help you. Look for the figs. Or the grapes. Or the sycamore. Or the fig. Or the birch.)
For more on grapes, birch and figs, see Stopping by Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalisthttps://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
Down to the Foundation
New England is not dominated by agriculture today, but it used to be. Farms once covered over half of the land – in many towns, as much as 90%. There are still farms and farm families making a living on the land, but not nearly as many as in 1840.
What happened? Better land became available to the west (stolen from Native Americans, of course). Mills and factories offered predictable wages. The poor soil of New England was further depleted.
For one or more of these reasons, people left the land. With so many people moving elsewhere, almost none of them could find buyers for their farms. The farms were abandoned, the buildings left to decay or burn, leaving nothing but the stone foundations.
Robert Frost arrived in New England in time to encounter the old stone works being swallowed by a resurgent Nature. An abandoned cellar is inhabited by the spirits of past lives in “Ghost House”:
I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.
Raspberries are one of several shrubs that appear on the scene early in ecological succession (Frost mentions them again in “The Generations of Men,” originally titled “The Cellar Hole”). With plenty of light, and nobody to mow them down or plow them under, these shrubs just keep spreading.
In another poem (“Directive”), Frost imagines the children that used to play near a house:
Weep for what little things could make them glad,
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
The people’s past is being lost, the shrubs are growing anew, and the transition from farm to forest is underway. Nearly all of the land once cleared for agriculture is reverting to trees.
The poetry of Robert Frost is a form of literary LIDAR, revealing the past history underneath the lushness of vegetation. For more about Frost and environmental history, see Stopping by Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalist https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
Frost, Farms, Turning to Other Things, and Thoreau
There is so much for a farm family to do. Each day and each year brings fresh tasks. And as people attend to these tasks, what else might be happening? A conversation from “In the Home Stretch” imagines that the forest is just waiting for people to become distracted:
To northward from your window at the sink,
Waiting to steal a step on us whenever
We drop our eyes or turn to other things,
As in the game ‘ten-step’ the children play
Farms do not remain permanent features of the landscape all by themselves. People have to till their fields, mow their meadows and set out their livestock to graze on pastures, else the flowers and shrubs and trees surrounding the farm will “steal a step” and take over the land. Farming keeps ecological succession at bay, but only through persistence. Of course we have to turn to other things to keep the farm going, but farming is a cycle that includes turning back to the same things repeatedly, daily and annually.
A farm untended will “bring back nature in people’s place” (“The Times Table”) as “The woods come back to the mowing fields” (“Ghost House”), “March[ing] into a shadowy claim” (“The Last Mowing”). When a hay meadow is not mowed, “the not mowing brings trees on” (“The Last Mowing”).
We think of trees as being old, even ancient, and firmly rooted in their place. And they are. But they also send out seeds (and sometimes root sprouts) to produce the next generation. If these offspring end up in sunny, open ground of an empty farm, they can grow quickly. True, they don’t grow as quickly as weeds, but they have more staying power with their woody stems, soon overtopping and shading out the speedy herbaceous plants. Leave a swath of ummowed field (even if it is just to enjoy a “Tuft of Flowers” in one season) and the wild plants begin to encroach.
Where does Thoreau come in? He coined the term “succession” for the return of trees to open land, and for the changes within a forest as some trees die and are replaced by others. Frost read Thoreau, was familiar with his work, and had seen the same things himself. Nature was unrelenting: “The mountain pushed us off her knees/ And now her lap was full of trees” – “The Birthplace.”
For more on Frost and ecological succession, seehttps://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
Robert Frost, entomologist?
Blue-Butterfly Day (published in 1921)
It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.
But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:
And now from having ridden out desire
They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.
Are the butterflies dead in the “April mire”? Or are they clinging actively to the mud for some reason? The latter is consistent with the observation (first published in the 1930s) that butterflies “puddle” around water in soil, mud or dung. Only in the 1970s did researchers discover that butterflies gained electrolytes and/or amino acids from the water they drank from the ground. These nutrients are essential for reproduction, as it turns out.
Frost didn’t know about the nutrients, but he was a keen observer, and I think the butterflies were actively clinging to the mud, as he described. Not bad for a country poet.
For more, see https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
Observations of a naturalist
Did Robert Frost actually observe the things in his poem “Design”? The answer: almost certainly yes. But first, the poem:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
You can find crab spiders on flowers (including the flower below). All of them are dimpled (muscles are attached to the inner surfaces of the dimples) and many of them are white. At least some of them can change color, but they tend to match the color of their flower. Frost’s spider was on a white flower, so it is no surprise that it was white.
It is also no surprise that a moth would come to a flower “in the night” because most moths are nocturnal, and many seek nectar on flowers.
And it is only a bit of a surprise that the spider, waiting on the flower, was able to capture the moth. Crab spiders frequently miss grabbing their potential prey, or the prey is too big for them to subdue. But they are successful often enough.
All spiders feed slowly because they cannot eat solid food. Instead, they regurgitate digestive enzymes into the victim and gradually ingest the liquefied prey. The spider would remain “holding up a moth” for the entire time it was feeding, which could be hours, plenty of time for someone to see it.
What about the flower? Heal-all is a small mint (Prunella vulgaris) that usually has purple flowers (“blue” fits the meter better than purple and is close enough). So “What had the flower to do with being white” is a logical question for someone, like Frost, familiar with heal-all.
In Gray’s Manual of Botany (named for its original author, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, a contemporary and admirer of Charles Darwin), we learn that Prunella vulgaris “forma albiflora” has white flowers and is “local” (i.e., small clusters occur here and there). These white-flowered heal-alls do exist, but they are spotty enough to be quite unusual.
So everything Frost described in the poem is something that actually exists. But it is extraordinary that Frost observed them all at the same time. And this extraordinary observation was the starting point for one of the most extraordinary sonnets ever written.
For more about Frost and the natural history of New England, see https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
Why would an ecologist write about Robert Frost?
The observation that inspired “Design” was a spider on a flower. Crab spiders can be found on flowers around the world. What’s so special about Frost’s spider? It’s not the moth it had captured, or its being on a flower. It’s the color of the flower. “What had that flower to do with being white,/ The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?” Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is usually purple, not white. Usually, but not always. There is a rare variant of the plant that produces white flowers. That rare plant, with its rare white flowers, stood out among all the other flowers that were purple. Frost knew his plants, and knew that heal-all was purple. But not this time. The white spider on a white flower with a white moth was astonishing, shocking, even appalling. “What but design of darkness to appall?”– “to appall” also means “to make white.”
For more, see the Preface of Stopping By Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalist, just published by McFarland: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/stopping-by-woods/
Burning Down a House
Somebody built a house and a barn, dug a well, planted lilacs, ran a fence around the pasture, mowed hay in the meadows, and moved that hay to the barn in horse-drawn carts. It was a farm for many years. But at some point, farming didn’t pay and the people left. Untended, a fire burned the house to the ground.
But the farm is not empty. Phoebes nest in the barn and the lilacs leaf out every spring. The fence is down, allowing deer, bears and other wildlife to wander freely. Nature has come back now that people are gone. The lone chimney is “like a pistil after the petals go.”
In “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” and many other poems, Robert Frost examined the change from farm to forest. He bemoaned the departure of people but celebrated the returning flora and fauna.
For more about Frost’s narrative, see the Prologue of Stopping By Woods: Robert Frost as New England Naturalist, available now from McFarland books.
Robert Frost arrived in New England in 1885, at age eleven, to find a landscape that is was in the midst of multiple transformations. Settlers had cleared most of the land (“Genealogical,” “The Census-Taker”), but now farms were being abandoned as people moved west or into cities (“Ghost House,” “The Black Cottage,” “The Generations of Men”). Old fields, meadows and pastures were being reclaimed by ecological succession (“The Times Table,” “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” “Something for Hope,” “Directive”) as plants and animals made their livings in the resurgent forest (“Rose Pegonias,” “The Last Mowing,” “Maple,” “Come In”). Flora, fauna and farm families lived according to the rhythms of seasonal transformation (“Storm Fear,” “A Winter Eden,” “Putting in the Seed,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “Hyla Brook,” “The Oven Bird,” “October,” “Clear and Colder”) with the ever-present chance of unseasonable weather (“Good-By and Keep Cold,” “Our Singing Strength,” “Peril of Hope”). Farmers depended on springs and streams (“Going for Water,” “The Pasture”) and kept succession at bay by maintaining orchards (“After Apple-Picking”), making hay (“Mowing,” “The Code”) and keeping livestock (“Pan with Us”).
Frost was a skilled naturalist who observed all of these transformations and used them as the basis for many of his poems. If we ignore his observations of the landscape, or if we attribute them to his imagination, we miss the origin of of much of his art.
Frost and flowers
Robert Frost often wrote about wildflowers that he found in meadows or the forest understory. He focused especially on those species that invaded old farm fields, perhaps because he knew that trees would eventually shade them out (see “The Last Mowing”).
What flower was it?
Several critics have concluded (as Frost seems to have done himself) that the flower in “The Quest of the Purple-Fringed” was the fringed gentian. When he first wrote the poem, “orchis” was in the title because he thought it was the purple fringed orchid. But somehow, he came to believe that he had made a mistake. I wonder whether he actually was wrong because he rarely was. But in this case, the time of year fits the blooming of gentians more closely than orchids, and the fact that he had to search for it makes sense because gentians disperse widely and often disappear from one place, only to reappear elsewhere. On the other hand, he describes the flower as a spire, and that fits orchids far better than gentians. So what was it?
Paul Muldoon claims that the white heal-all in “Design” was not Prunella vulgaris but was actually Prunella laciniata because the latter species is typically white instead of violet. In this case, I am quite sure Muldoon is wrong. Gray’s Manual of Botany (1950) does not include P. laciniata. The current USDA website for North American plants includes P. laciniata, but doesn’t show it occurring in New Hampshire. Finally, Gray’s Manual points out that there is an infrequent form of heal-all that has entirely white flowers, which would explain why Frost was so surprised to find it. In this case, as in nearly all cases, we should trust Frost’s observations.
But I will end this post with a plea for help. In “A Boundless Moment,” Frost mistakes a beech leaf for the flower of “Paradise-in-bloom,” a name I have not found anywhere else. What is it?