Doomed to Rebirth

You might not know this old tree by its bark,
Which once was striate, smooth, and glossy-dark,
So deep now are the rifts that separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate.

Fancy might less remind you of a birch
Than of mosaic columns in a church
Like Ara Coeli or the Lateran
Or the trenched features of an agèd man.

Still, do not be too much persuaded by
These knotty furrows and these tesserae
To think of patterns made from outside in
Or finished wisdom in a shriveled skin.

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

~Richard Wilbur “A Black Birch in Winter”

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.
~Robert Frost “Birches”

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

The poet understands as we (and trees) age, we are no longer smooth on the surface, developing cracks and furrows, a flaking and peeling skin surrounding a steadfast trunk. Yet we still grow, even if not as recognizable in our old skin – our innards are still working, in particular enhancing a “greater girth.” (!)

Our farm’s twin birch trees have had some rough winters, having been bent double in a previous ice storm. One has not survived the trauma – the other continues to struggle. There are times when these flexible trees can bear no more bending despite their strength and perseverance.

As I am no longer a swinger of birches (and in truth, never was), I hope instead for the “finished wisdom in shriveled skin” of the aging tree. I admire how the birches renew themselves each spring, not giving up hope despite everything they have been through. They keep reaching higher up to the sky, while a slender branch just might touch the hem of heaven oh so gently.

1. See the lovely birch in the meadow,
Curly leaves all dancing when the wind blows.
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows,
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows.

2. Oh, my little tree, I need branches,
For the silver flutes I need branches.
Loo-lee-loo, three branches,
Loo-lee-loo, three branches.

3. From another birch I will make now,
I will make a tingling balalaika.
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika,
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika.

4. When I play my new balalaika,
I will think of you, my lovely birch tree.
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree,
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree.

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The Misty Mountains Cold

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long-forgotten gold.

~J.R.R. Tolkien from “Far over the misty mountains” in The Hobbit

The breeze—the breath of God—is still—
And the mist upon the hill,
Shadowy—shadowy—yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token—
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
~Edgar Allen Poe from Spirits of the Dead

Photo above by Joel De Waard

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.
What is your life?
You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
James 4:14

I pray that the breath of God would blow away the veils of mist and mystery in my life. The reality is – so much is hidden from me, I must proceed on faith alone without always seeing where I am going.

God has made it clear, we perceive Him through a glass darkly, a dim reflection. The mists of mystery are transient and shall be pulled back in the fullness of time. In the meantime, I gaze in wonder at what appears now only in shadow, waiting for that amazing moment when all shall be revealed.

photo above by Joel De Waard

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Good to Melt

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,
my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go
separate and sure

among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you
perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping
–to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.
And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.
~Wendell Berry “The Cold” from New Collected Poems

It is too easy to find comfort in solitude
in yet another waning pandemic winter,
with trust and friendship eroded,
to stay protected one from another
by screens and windows and masks.

Standing apart can no longer be an option
as we long for reconnection;
the time has come for the melt,
for a re-blending of moments
full of meals and singing and hugs.

We’ll find our way out of the cold.
We’ll find our way to trust.
We’ll find our way back to one another.

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When Will Spring Get Here?

All anyone wants to know is when spring will get here. To hell
with dripping icicles, cold blue snow, silly birds too dumb to

go south, and sunlight gleaming off rock-hard snowflakes. I’m
sick of breathing air sharp as razor blades. I’m tired of feet as
hard to move as two buildings. I refuse to be seduced by the

pine tree blocking my path. Even though…just now, look how
it moves, its needles rubbing the sky-blue day. The glow it has
around its entire body. How perfectly it stands in the snow-
drift. The way both our shadows cross the noon hour at once,
like wings.
~Tom Hennen, “Adrift in the Winter” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

photo by Nate Gibson

I can be seduced by the glow induced by the low angle of the winter sun. It transforms all that is fog and gray and mist and drizzle into spun gold and glitter.

Like the birds who are foolish enough to remain up here through nor-easters and floods and snow drifts and ice storms, I too stick it out through winter, even though no one puts out suet cakes and sunflower seeds for me to feast on. I get my sustenance from the days slowly lengthening, giving the light even more opportunity to convince me that winter can be overwhelmingly irresistible … until it isn’t any longer.

Uh, how many more weeks until spring?

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A Stranger to Nothing

Contorted by wind,
mere armatures for ice or snow,
the trees resolve
to endure for now,

they will leaf out in April.
And I must be as patient
as the trees—
a winter resolution

I break all over again,
as the cold presses
its sharp blade
against my throat.

~Linda Pastan “January” from The Months

A year has come to us as though out of hiding
It has arrived from an unknown distance
From beyond the visions of the old
Everyone waited for it by the wrong roads
And it is hard for us now to be sure it is here
A stranger to nothing
In our hiding places
~W. S. Merwin “Early January” from  The Lice 

January can be a rough month for most of us: the beginning-of-winter doldrums can be fierce after the hubbub of holidays. It doesn’t help the new year I hoped for is nothing like the unfamiliar road I find myself following – full of twists and turns and switchbacks, as well as being stalled at times, iced firmly in place, a stranger to myself.

So resolutions have been set aside, travel plans postponed, priorities changed; what I need most is the patience to endure, trusting things do change over time, like the seasons.

Winter will not last forever.
I will, like the bare trees around me, leaf out again.

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What Did I Know?

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
teaching us the importance of being steadfast,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life
and we did.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and care for livestock,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together for meals,
and never miss a Sunday
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold
that can overwhelm and freeze
a family’s heart and soul.

What did I know? What did I know?
Too little then,
so much more now
yet still – never enough.

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Ice Would Suffice

I don’t know why it made me happy
to see the pond ice over in a day,
turning first hazy, then white.
Or why I was glad when the thermometre
read twenty-four below, and I came back to bed – the pillows cold,
as if I had not been there two minutes before.
~Jane Kenyon “The Cold”

Then they also will answer, saying,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?

Matthew 25:44

bluejay photo by Josh Scholten



A jay settled on a branch, making it sway.
The one shriveled fruit that remained
gave way to the deepening drift below.
I happened to see it the moment it fell.
.
Dusk is eager and comes early. A car
creeps over the hill. Still in the dark I try
to tell if I am numbered with the damned,
who cry, outraged, Lord, when did we see You?
~Jane Kenyon “Apple Dropping Into Deep Early Snow”

I have reservoirs of want enough   
to freeze many nights over.
~Conor O’Callaghan from “January Drought”

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~Robert Frost “Fire and Ice”

How sad to think we have a choice of destruction –
between the ashes of a cataclysmic fire
or the frozen immobility of a block of ice
with breath trapped in bubbles
rather than lungs.

There is nothing left from charred remains
nor can life exist in a safe suspension awaiting melt.

How outrageous we forget –
others matter to God,
He who embodies the least of these:
the hungry, the thirsty,
the ill, the poor,
the oppressed, the imprisoned.

We’re called to thaw without scorching,
give ourselves without resentment,
find God present even when we wish to hide from him.

May it be
we breathe deeply when the ice around us melts.

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Promises to Keep

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

~Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost

I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975

When a January night lingers long,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I find myself in my own insistent winter,
wanting to hide away from trouble
deep in a peaceful snowy woods,
knowing I choose to avoid doing
what is needed
when it is needed.

I look inward
when I must focus outside myself.
I muffle my ears
to deafen voices crying in need.
I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

A wintry soul
is a cold and empty place,
not lovely, dark and deep.

I appeal to my Creator
who knows my darkness.
He expects me to keep my promises
because He keeps His promises.
His buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will arise from my bare branches.

He brings me out of the night
to finish what He brought me here to do.

A book from Barnstorming combining the beauty of Lois Edstrom’s words and Barnstorming photography, available for order here:

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Growing Grey

Autumn
Was certainly not winter, scholars say,
When holy habitation broke the chill
Of hearth-felt separation, icy still,
The love of life in man that Christmas day.
Was autumn, rather, if seasons speak true;
When green retreats from sight’s still ling’ring gaze,
And creeping cold numbs sense in sundry ways,
While settling silence speaks of solitude.
Hope happens when conditions are as these; 
Comes finally lock-armed with death and sin,
When deep’ning dark demands its full display.
Then fallen nature driven to her knees
Flames russet, auburn, orange fierce from within,
And brush burns brighter for the growing grey.
~David Baird “Autumn”

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Watch for the Light

The shepherds were sore afraid.   So why aren’t we?

The scholars say Christ was most likely born in the autumn of the year ~ so fitting, as our reds and oranges fade fast to grey as we descend into this wintering world crying out for resuscitation. 

Murderous frosts and falling snow have wilted down all that was flush with life and we become desperate for hope for renewal in the midst of the dying.

And so this babe has come like a refiner’s fire to lay claim to us and we who have gotten too comfortable will feel the heat of His embrace – in the middle of the chill, in the middle of our dying – no matter what time of year.

Hope happens when conditions are as these…

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

1. Father, enthroned on high—―Holy, holy!
Ancient eternal Light—hear our prayer.

REFRAIN
Come, O Redeemer, come;
grant us mercy.
Come, O Redeemer, come;
grant us peace.

2. Lord, save us from the dark of our striving,
faithless, troubled hearts weighed down. REFRAIN

3. Look now upon our need; Lord, be with us.
Heal us and make us free from our sin. REFRAIN

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Gems of Love

Watch the dewdrops in the morning,
   Shake their little diamond heads,
Sparkling, flashing, ever moving,
   From their silent little beds.

 
See the grass! Each blade is brightened,
   Roots are strengthened by their stay;
Like the dewdrops, let us scatter
   Gems of love along the way.
 ~Myra Viola Wilds, author of Thoughts of Idle Hours

The dew of autumn is not a summer dew;
these are sticky, frosty gems,
clinging for dear life
before being swept away by cruel winds.

I too am enveloped by the chill,
yet so illuminated by each drop
that I am overwhelmed by such treasure
given so freely on this dark November day.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here: