Witness tree

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(Host) Trees were important poetic subjects for Vermont’s best-known poet, Robert Frost. Here’s commentator Tom Slayton with some information about a particular tree that Frost immortalized.

(Slayton) In the poetry of Robert Frost, trees imply a human presence and reflect the common experiences of the human heart.

Frost’s trees can be dark and ominous, as in his poem, “Come In,”or a luminous expression of beauty and imagination, as in the familiar poem “Birches.” They may remind the poet of his mortality, or offer a poetic excuse for homely country parables and bits of wisdom.

Sometimes they are friendly counselors, as in “Tree at My Window,” and sometimes their presence is menacing, as in “Spring Pools,” in which Frost wryly admonishes the trees to “think twice” before they put out leaves and drink up the lovely vernal pools, surrounded by tiny wildflowers, destroying all that fragile beauty.

Frost was an inveterate walker in the woods. Reading his tree poems, one has the feeling that the poet often had a particular experience and a specific grove or forest – or even a specific tree – in mind. And in at least one case, we know he did.

In his poem, “Beech,” Frost describes a “witness tree,” a tree used to legally mark a boundary – in this case, the boundary between Frost’s land on one of his Shaftsbury farms, and adjoining land owned by Edward Howard. We know this was the specific tree Frost was referring to because of an interview Jane Beck did in 1984 with Frost’s daughter in law, Lillian Frost and grandson Bill Frost. And there is a drawing of the tree, done in 1940, by the illustrator, JJ Lankes, who was Frost’s friend.

Witness trees were fairly commonly used as boundary markers because they were obvious landmarks that were long-lived enough to outlive the individual property owner and remain a marker for scores, perhaps even hundreds, of years.

A witness tree would be blazed with an ax, and then the boundary marks would be carved into the wood. That was the case with Frost’s tree, and was why he describes it as “deeply wounded.” It was a description with obvious symbolic overtones for the poet, whose wife, Elinor, had recently died.

Boundaries were deeply resonant items for Frost because for him they implied restraint and a deep commitment to clear poetic form, rhyme and meter. And so he finds in the witness tree, evidence that his own life is “not unbounded.”

“Thus truth’s established and borne out,” he writes, “though circumstanced with dark and doubt; though by a world of doubt surrounded.”

Significantly, Frost placed that poem, “Beech,” first in the book of new poetry he published in 1941. And he titled the volume “The Witness Tree,” suggesting that the book – and possibly Robert Frost hiumself – was a marker of significant boundaries, and a firm proclaimer of truth to an equivocal world.

Is that a lot to ask of a single tree or a single book? Perhaps. But Frost, the master poet of northern New England, was well aware of both the power of poetry and power of trees.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our Montpelier studio.

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