It snowed in Eugene two weeks ago. In Eugene snow is so rare, it’s an event. No polar vortex here. But the recent snow has given me the opportunity to remember and reflect on some snow-related literature and even find some meaning in the memory of the snowier winters of my life.
Eugene is like Grand Rapids in that the winter months can pass by with only a handful of sunny days: both sit at a comparable latitude and distance east of big water. A January can pass in Eugene with only a few drizzle-free days just as a GR month can pass with only a few days without snow.
But an entire winter can pass in Eugene sans snow.
Snow is rare enough that the city doesn’t prepare for it. A few inches followed by freezing temperatures can shut the entire city down for days. No plows. No salt. No service. No school. No work.
I myself miss Midwest winter weather.
So when it started to snow on a Thursday morning, I was ecstatic. I walked to work just for the sheer pleasure of being snowed on. It snowed for two days straight. My wife and I took a long walk along the river the following day—work was cancelled. It was The Snowy Day; it was The Big Snow; it was The Snowman; it was Owl Moon; it was Snowflake Bentley; it was White Snow, Bright Snow; it was Katy and the Big Snow (only without Katy). Snow, the subject of so many classic picture books.
Snow, the subject of so many poems I love. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a favorite, similar (though more somber) than the recent snow here felt. Or Mary Oliver’s “First Snow,” which captures the spiritual significance of snow for me. Oliver links snow and textuality: snowflakes are letters from the heavens, suggesting questions, never quite answering them but charging the world with meaningfulness. And gorgeous songs: Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal,” Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” The Innocence Mission’s “Snow,” Sufjan Stevens’ “Majesty Snowbird,” etc.
By Saturday morning, the ten or so inches of snow had finished falling, but not before a night of freezing rain had glazed every surface in the city a half-inch thick, bending (or breaking) tree limbs everywhere.
This was a “Birches” magnitude ice storm. And for me, Frost’s “Birches” captured the mood of that weekend as well. When I first read “Birches,” perhaps in high school, I took exception to the poem’s characterization of heaven as a less-than-robust concept, likening it to broken glass and shattered, melting ice. The speaker of the poem wishes to escape the difficulties of earthly life, by leaving for a while, by climbing a tree “Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again.”
“Birches” was published a year or so after the well-known “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, and I used to appreciate that latter poem’s integration of nature, spirituality, and poetry. “Trees” is delightful (and overtly pious), but also facile, and I now favor the particularity and maturity of the same integration in “Birches.”
I no longer read this movement toward heaven and then back to earth as a denial or even a doubt of heaven or religion in favor of a purely worldly existence. All movements toward heaven, all our spiritual strivings—toward whatever future shalom we imagine—must also direct us toward the love of creation. To accept an ultimate split between heaven and earth, as the speaker seems to until the final lines, is to accept the premise of secularism. The swinger of birches knows that “Earth’s the right place for love.” Earth’s the right place for heaven as well. That’s my hope.
Likewise, the speaker’s preference for imagining that a tree-swinging boy bent the trees rather than the “matter-of-fact” truth of the ice storm isn’t a denial of truth, but rather an affirmation of the imagination. We need both. We climb on nature’s back to build a heavenly Babel, but it is nature that sets us back on earth, where we were created, where we belong. The poem’s imaginary boy hasn’t conquered all the birches. I love this poem. I too have been a swinger of trees (literally when I was a boy), climbing toward heaven to be placed back on the earth.
Monday was back to 40s and drizzle. Observing the measly remains of the snow, I couldn’t help but recall Frost’s “A Patch of Old Snow,” as recitable as any other poem in this post and one that also links textuality and snow, and then his “Spring Pools,” an ecological-poetic account of the “snow that melted only yesterday,” which makes the flowers bloom and then the trees put out their canopies.
Yes, spring has begun. Now is mud season. The daffodils and crocuses are up and out, though some are waiting. The Lenten Roses have anticipated Ash Wednesday by a full two weeks. Even the irises are about to reveal their earliest purple blushes.
Four Frost poems in the course of a single weekend! One could do far worse.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”