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. But I was going to say when Truth broke in 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.
There were three in the meadow by the brook
Gathering up windrows, piling cocks of hay,
With an eye always lifted toward the west
Where an irregular sun-bordered cloud
Darkly advanced with a perpetual dagger
Flickering across its bosom. Suddenly
One helper, thrusting pitchfork in the ground,
Marched himself off the field and home. One stayed.
The town-bred farmer failed to understand.
“What is there wrong?”
“Something you just now said.”
“What did I say?”
“About our taking pains.”
“To cock the hay?—because it’s going to shower?
I said that more than half an hour ago.
I said it to myself as much as you.”
“You didn’t know. But James is one big fool.
He thought you meant to find fault with his work.
That’s what the average farmer would have meant.
James would take time, of course, to chew it over
Before he acted: he’s just got round to act.”
“He is a fool if that’s the way he takes me.”
“Don’t let it bother you. You’ve found out something.
The hand that knows his business won’t be told
To do work better or faster—those two things.
I’m as particular as anyone:
Most likely I’d have served you just the same.
But I know you don’t understand our ways.
You were just talking what was in your mind,
What was in all our minds, and you weren’t hinting.
Tell you a story of what happened once:
I was up here in Salem at a man’s
Named Sanders with a gang of four or five
Doing the haying. No one liked the boss.
He was one of the kind sports call a spider,
All wiry arms and legs that spread out wavy
From a humped body nigh as big’s a biscuit.
But work! that man could work, especially
If by so doing he could get more work
Out of his hired help. I’m not denying
He was hard on himself. I couldn’t find
That he kept any hours—not for himself.
Daylight and lantern-light were one to him:
I’ve heard him pounding in the barn all night.
But what he liked was someone to encourage.
Them that he couldn’t lead he’d get behind
And drive, the way you can, you know, in mowing—
Keep at their heels and threaten to mow their legs off.
I’d seen about enough of his bulling tricks
(We call that bulling). I’d been watching him.
So when he paired off with me in the hayfield
To load the load, thinks I, Look out for trouble.
I built the load and topped it off; old Sanders
Combed it down with a rake and says, ‘O. K.’
Everything went well till we reached the barn
With a big catch to empty in a bay.
You understand that meant the easy job
For the man up on top of throwing down
The hay and rolling it off wholesale,
Where on a mow it would have been slow lifting.
You wouldn’t think a fellow’d need much urging
Under these circumstances, would you now?
But the old fool seizes his fork in both hands,
And looking up bewhiskered out of the pit,
Shouts like an army captain, ‘Let her come!’
Thinks I, D’ye mean it? ‘What was that you said?’
I asked out loud, so’s there’d be no mistake,
‘Did you say, Let her come?’ ‘Yes, let her come.’
He said it over, but he said it softer.
Never you say a thing like that to a man,
Not if he values what he is. God, I’d as soon
Murdered him as left out his middle name.
I’d built the load and knew right where to find it.
Two or three forkfuls I picked lightly round for
Like meditating, and then I just dug in
And dumped the rackful on him in ten lots.
I looked over the side once in the dust
And caught sight of him treading-water-like,
Keeping his head above. ‘Damn ye,’ I says,
‘That gets ye!’ He squeaked like a squeezed rat.
That was the last I saw or heard of him.
I cleaned the rack and drove out to cool off.
As I sat mopping hayseed from my neck,
And sort of waiting to be asked about it,
One of the boys sings out, ‘Where’s the old man?’
‘I left him in the barn under the hay.
If ye want him, ye can go and dig him out.’
They realized from the way I swobbed my neck
More than was needed something must be up.
They headed for the barn; I stayed where I was.
They told me afterward. First they forked hay,
A lot of it, out into the barn floor.
Nothing! They listened for him. Not a rustle.
I guess they thought I’d spiked him in the temple
Before I buried him, or I couldn’t have managed.
They excavated more. ‘Go keep his wife
Out of the barn.’ Someone looked in a window,
And curse me if he wasn’t in the kitchen
Slumped way down in a chair, with both his feet
Stuck in the oven, the hottest day that summer.
He looked so clean disgusted from behind
There was no one that dared to stir him up,
Or let him know that he was being looked at.
Apparently I hadn’t buried him
(I may have knocked him down); but my just trying
To bury him had hurt his dignity.
He had gone to the house so’s not to meet me.
He kept away from us all afternoon.
We tended to his hay. We saw him out
After a while picking peas in his garden:
He couldn’t keep away from doing something.”
“Weren’t you relieved to find he wasn’t dead?”
“No! and yet I don’t know—it’s hard to say.
I went about to kill him fair enough.”
“You took an awkward way. Did he discharge you?”
“Discharge me? No! He knew I did just right.”