Dec 14, 2012

Robert Frost's "The Wood-Pile": Karma, Monuments, Warmth and Decay

The Wood-Pile by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation



Yesterday on my walk in the woods, I tried to get a glimpse, and maybe a photo, of a noisy woodpecker high up in a birch. She wasn’t shy, yet she kept the tree between herself and me. 

female Downy
Just yesterday I wondered who first told me that birds hide that way. Did I believe him? Even yesterday I wondered how much of it might be an old wives’ tale, though it makes sense that an animal, even a jackhammer like a woodpecker, would have that much strategy for survival—plus plain old, inglorious fear, or at least wariness, of some inelegant, leaf-stomping Other.

With our absence of snow in Michigan this year, and daytime temps in the 40s, I’ve also decided to stop protesting the bareness of stripped winter and to start noticing more the rich variety of wood and the patterns of branches, plus the few colors that do remain, muted but present.
So I go to Poetry Foundation, again, and “google” wood. They offer Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which I haven’t read for several years. In spite of its quiet understatements, one after another, I like it all over again. But when I get to the small bird (around Line 10), “careful/To put a tree between us when he lighted,” I remember the woodpecker, and there’s a whiff of my old suspicions about destiny, or some such thing, though the two atheists among my Sunday breakfast buddies chide me for such musing.


I’m pretty sure the dark-eyed juncos are staying around longer this year—I suppose because it’s warm. So I’ve had more time to appreciate how unexpectedly, humbly gorgeous they are. They’re almost a simple black and white, but their topsides are a kind of slate color, with a trace of blue in certain light, rather than simple chickadee black. And the white on the juncos’ bellies is creamy, not chickadee white. The division of color between their dark backs and off-white bellies is strangely precise, but it's also a soft, forgiving, subtle boundary. Juncoes make me think of some miraculous, downy version of porcelain. 
Except for the tails when they fly!  There are some crazy white feathers in the bottoms of those tails, but they appear only in flight, and the flash of them still surprises me every time.

Then comes Frost’s bird, with “a feather— / The white one in his tail.”  How many events do I have to chalk up to mere synchronicity or banal coincidence before I can start trumpeting Karma, Karma, Karma—and tell my more empirical friends to go sit on a log?

Or make it a wood-pile. Abandoned. A monument, discovered quite by accident, which causes a pretty wise, articulate old New Englander to wonder about it. Then wonder some more.

The wood-pile is peculiar; it seems to be all about decay—or the preposterous proposition of its warming the frozen swamp. With what? No fire is lit; the wood’s been idle for at least two years. 
 Maybe it’s a human warmth—which is implied in the monument’s very existence, plus the human labor that went into building it. Maybe it’s a ridiculous, futile, yet affirming act; maybe warming a frozen swamp is a gesture of defiance. I will die; this wood will die. But I have made something here, whether or not I get back to it, or anybody sees it, or thinks it’s fine. I’m a maker, and that’s better than decaying without creating and thereby protesting mortality. 

And finally, another human, a stranger, has discovered the monument,  stumbled onto it, pure dumb luck.
Or is it destiny? Or Karma, Karma, Karma? Whether or not that’s the right word, the music of it wins the day.   

The Wood-Pile by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation

16 comments:

WAS said...

Feed that junco blue to those atheists, Banjo. Rage, rage against the blinds closing the light! Marvelous post, that makes the poem itself somewhat of an afterthought, but I am struck how both are concerned with finding oneself in the other. You look to birds and empiricists and the seasons for markers so you may know yourself, just as Frost's narrator becomes first that fearful bird, then the impatient ax-man. “I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.” Is that not the central question we all ask when confronted with what we can't internally know? And our answer always is to move forward, to our lessons - our karma, if you will - which requires us to recognize the other as ourselves.

Banjo52 said...

William (that is, you, right?), thanks! And such a thoughtful comment. Yours are always intelligent, perceptive, but this might be your new high water mark here. I think we see the poem pretty similarly, but you ad some very nice touches about forward movement and Otherness, especially your last line.

altadenahiker said...

Frost, oh yes, good weather for him, but really, I'm all about that third photo. Beautiful, Banjo; I've never seen the like of it before.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I know what you mean. It struck me in real life, but even more once I saw the photo. I wonder if it or they are more vine than tree. And by the way, just what's the difference? Any botanists or foresters out there?

Jean Spitzer said...

That photo, vines or trees, is amazing.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Jean.

RuneE said...

For once I thin I understood a poem, and very much thank to your interpretation. And like others here I thoroughly enjoyed the coupling with your excellent photos!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Your a pure pleasure to read Banjo; you certainly have your moments of poetic clarity.

"The division of color between their dark backs and off-white bellies is strangely precise but it's also a soft, forgiving, subtle boundary. Juncoes make me think of some miraculous, downy version of porcelain. "

Banjo52 said...

RuneE and PA, thanks so much.

Ken Mac said...

Thoughtful-ness on oddly warm winter days

Hannah Stephenson said...

Really lovely photos and thoughts, John.

I like that the birds are singing to you about karma....listen up, indeed :).

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I wanted to tell you I had three bird experiences recently. I visited the secret location where they breed the California Condor. I was actually, from my distance, able to see one of the birds silhouettes. About a week ago I saw a flock of 14-16 long white cranes circle over my home several times (didn't have the camera on me). Finally, I was at a conservatory gathering and the awards had a photo of the Least Bell's Vireo. A rare bird whose presence may save Hahamongna from development (frequent subject on AH's blog). I think that bird is flocking to my acacia purpea. Haven't had a good sighting in that they tend to scoot when I show up. Hoping! V V below

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWPi11Mmac0

Stickup Artist said...

I enjoyed reading Banjo more than Frost! Your piece about the juncos was all I needed to fly...

Jeff M said...

Hey Banjo, it's Jeff from long ago. Have you checked out Jim Harrison like you once promised?

Banjo52 said...

Ken, Hannah, Stickup, thank you!

PA, those three sound pretty exciting indeed. I've had zero luck learning and spotting vireos, and those little guys are so often too fidgety for good photos.

Jeff, welcome back. I can't remember if it was before or after you nagged--er, encouraged--me, but I scouted around in Harrison's memoir. Is it called simply English Teacher? I didn't dislike it, but as I've confessed before, I don't have much staying power with books in prose.

Have you tried Maurice Manning's poetry? He and Harrison might have something big in common.

The 7-page Prologue to Richard Russo's memoir, Elsewhere, is very fine indeed on place (small town, upstate NY). We'll see what happens from here on.

Jeff M said...

No, Harrison wrote an autobiography called Off to the Side, I believe. I hope you investigate him further.

And, yeah, I was a bit of a pain in the ass...

Lovers' Lane