“When I see birches bend to left and right, across the line of straighter and darker trees. I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”
Robert Frost wrote the previous passage, and it never meant so much as it does this spring.
Twelve years ago we moved out to the country. With a new baby on the way, I built a swing set in the back yard. When my wife wanted to plant a tree to shade the swings, I knew what kind of tree I wanted.
In his poem, Frost told of a boy, too far from town to play baseball, climbing to the top of a birch and swinging out on the branches as they gently took him to the ground. I wanted that. I wanted that for my new son, and I wanted that for me.
I spoke of this to my neighbor, and the next day he brought over a four foot tall, tiny little birch tree, growing in a bucket. It was perfect. That birch grew to twenty feet in what seemed like an instant, and immediately took on the responsibility of helping to raise my youngest son, sheltering him from the sun as he swung, kicking at its waving branches and leaves as he hit the high point in his swinging adventure.
As my youngest son grew into adolescence, so did the birch, reaching out every day a little further, covering the sky over the swing set, lending a low branch so my son could climb up in, swinging back down off its branches.
But last year, something terrible happened. I don’t know if it was lightning, or wind, or an ice storm, but the old birch, now thirty feet tall, lost its life. Slowly but surely, all the leaves fell off that tree, and it began to show signs of its imminent death.
I brought my neighbor to the tree, hoping he would have a remedy, hoping he could save my birch. But instead, my neighbor looked to the ground and shook his head slowly.
So, this year I will take the birch down. Its leaves are gone and its branches have become brittle, and I surely will shed tears for this mighty tree as it comes crashing to the ground. For this birch has been a part of our lives. It helped to raise a fine young man, and it helped to keep me grounded, as I was a bit of a wanderer back when we planted the birch, and all I ever had to do is look into the branches of that tree and look into the eyes of my son as he disappeared into those leaves to know I was finally home, finally in a place where I didn’t have to run anymore.
I don’t know what will be planted in the birch’s spot, but it will certainly never again be a birch. The memories will keep me home, the visions of that beautiful tree and its purpose will live inside me forever, and my life will never be the same.
Time has a way of fixing things, and I’m sure I will heal from this disaster, but I am changed forever because of this birch, much for the better. Robert Frost was oh, so right.
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”