Last night I was re-reading some of my favourite poetry by Robert Frost, the American 20th century poet who is probably most famous for his poem 'The Road Less Travelled' - the one that ends 'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood | And I, I took the one less travelled by, | And that has made all the difference.'
I did re-read 'The Road Less Travelled' last night, along with some other favourites such as 'Mending Wall', 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening', and 'After Apple-picking'. But the one that particularly struck me last night was 'The Wood-pile'.
Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.'
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year's cutting,
Or even last year's or the year's before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
I've always liked that poem, but like with most of Frost's work, I've usually focused on the image of the person he describes, the one who 'lived in turning to fresh tasks'. However, last night I found myself touched by the opening description of the walk in the woods: the hard snow, the lines of slim trees that all look the same. It took me back to Grace Dieu Priory, a ruined Augustinian priory near Shepshed in the UK. We went there on one very cold, snowy afternoon, walking through the woods in the late afternoon sun (at 2pm!), with all the slim trees everywhere the same, and the snap and squeak of snow underfoot, and you couldn't tell where you were or where you were going. However instead of finding an abandoned woodpile, we found a ruined monastery, sacred ground iced with snow and holding a breath of the holy in the cold.