(HOST) There’s been much discussion in Vermont about the possible effects of global warming on Vermont’s forests – dulling our brilliant autumn colors and harming or destroying the maple syrup industry. As Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council, commentator Peter Gilbert often finds in literature and history connections that resonate with current concerns. Recently he read in a poem by Robert Frost about another risk of warmer winters.
(GILBERT) Typically, gardeners worry that bitter cold will winter-kill their plants, but a poem by Robert Frost plays with the opposite notion – the counterintuitive fact that for fruit trees in New England, unseasonable warmth can pose as a great a risk as bitter cold. Frost moved from Franconia, New Hampshire to South Shaftsbury, Vermont in 1920 in part, he said, because he wanted a better place to farm – especially to grow apples. He felt that winters in Franconia were too unstable for apple trees. And so, that fall he wrote a friend, "[I ] have moved to a stone cottage on a hill at South Shaftsbury in southern Vermont on the New York side near the historic town of Bennington where if I have any money left after repairing the roof in the spring I mean to plant a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety. "
Frost’s concern for his apple trees in Franconia resulted in his poem, Good-by and Keep Cold – probably written in 1919, the year before he moved. The poem’s narrator says goodbye to his orchard for the winter, expressing his hope that it will stay cold, free from a warm spell that would cause the trees to bud out too early. The poet writes,
I don’t want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
. . . .
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.
Frost sent a copy of the poem to a friend in Amherst to confirm whether the botanical facts were correct. The friend sent the letter on to the Chairman of the Pomology Department at the Massachusetts Agricultural College, who replied that while the fruit facts were accurate, the metrical treatment of some of the lines was faulty, and that he had therefore taken the liberty of improving upon them. Rather than being angry, Frost found the story amusing, and often told the story before saying the poem in public.
Frost’s old house in Shaftsbury is now the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. The museum has taken cuttings from surviving old apple trees on the property, and established a small orchard of the five apple varieties that Frost planted with his son. People nationwide can now order their own apple trees descended from Frost’s originals. That is, if the new orchard survives the increasing temperature fluctuations of our traditionally cold – but now warming – winters.