In a yellow wood

yellow wood“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”: that’s as far as I ever got with Frost’s best known — and most poorly understood — poem. Oh, sure, I finished reading the words, but my imagination never advanced beyond that initial image, which delighted me. To hell with the figurative meaning; the literal one was quite enough for me. I suppose I should be ashamed to admit that I often engage with poetry on such a superficial level, but you have to understand that we have several miles of old woods roads here on the mountain which seem much like the “roads” in “The Road Not Taken,” moss-covered, sometimes grassy, and ankle-deep in yellow (and orange and red) leaves this time of year, which whisper as you walk. And in any case, a yellow wood on a bright October day invites careless wandering. You can push regrets and fears of failure to the back of your mind for a while.

Archery season for white-tailed deer began last Saturday, so we do share the woods with a few hunters, who sit camouflaged in the trees, alert and focused on a single goal while we amble past, heedless as only an unhunted non-predator can be.

chestnut oak leaf

The yearly mulch is underway. I walk admiring the woods with a lazy gardener’s eye, willing myself to ignore multiple ecological wounds and see everything as if couldn’t be better arranged, as if each bush and tree were perfectly shaped and situated, as if every stone and clump of ferns stood in an aesthetically optimal relationship with its surroundings. It’s not a bad habit to get into, I think. The problem with the narrator of “The Road Not Taken” is that he’s too concerned about destinations. “Somewhere ages and ages hence,” he might think back on the choice he made, but what he’ll really miss, I’ll bet, is what he missed that day: the option to stay and revel in all that yellow.

8 Comments


  1. ‘admiring the woods with a lazy gardener’s eye’ – perfect description of that state of admiration, a habit of mine as well! Lovely photos, especially the leaf.

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  2. well you hit this one
    spot on, dave!

    this time of year
    so nourishes me
    in all my senses
    and nonsensically
    as well

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  3. yes I’m a great believer in stopping and enjoying the woods, and in fact have done a lot of that recently. I also think that its good to read poetry on a superficial level, not that a deeper reading is bad but that sometimes we’re all told to dig around for the deeper meanings to the extent that we start to disregard the more superficial level.

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  4. “we amble past, heedless as only an unhunted non-predator can be” … A beautiful piece altogether, but that line especially will stick with me.

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  5. you have given me the courage to admit something about this same poem:

    i have always felt it somewhat condescending and instructive.

    therefore, like you (but for a different reason), i have always stopped paying attention after “yellow wood.”

    don’t get me wrong, i appreciate the sentiment of the road less traveled. i’m not being a robert frost hater. it just has always stirred up something i don’t like poetry to do: tell me how to live. again: not being a hater, i know he’s just remarking on his own choices and that’s OK.

    (maybe you’re going to wish you hadn’t emboldened me to share.)

    anyway, these photos are amazing. the close-up is phenomenal. it’s a writing prompt unto itself.

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  6. marja-leena, suzanne, Nathan – I’m glad this resonated with you.

    CGP – Yes, literalism isn’t always such a bad thing, is it? Orwell said the key to clear writing is to maintain a mental picture of the images one uses while one writes. Most bad writing occurs because people are thinking too abstractly, shuffling categories and received phrases without worrying about whether they produce a harmonious whole.

    carolee – Well, except that he *wasn’t* in fact saying that the road less traveled was the better one. He’s not sure about that at all. That’s why I say the poem is widely misunderstood. Check out the blog post I linked to above.

    The problem with texts that achieve widespread renown is that misreadings may become thoroughly entrenched in the popular imagination, especially if any kind of irony was present in the original. How many people realize, for example, that “Good fences make good neighbors” is not in fact the point of “Mending Wall”?

    Thanks for the kind words about my photos.

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  7. I love your whispering leaves imagery. We have a mini-woodland-park here, which is so dense with oak foliage in summer that I can imagine myself back in the woody hills around Hannibal and not a whispers breath from suburban houses. It is filled with winding paths and steep ravines and in summer one can’t see around the next bend. In the fall, however, all this changes. The paths become visible, carpeted with golden oak leaves, but sadly I now see glimpses of how close we really are to civilization. Unless there is an errant bird, I tend to look down a lot for photo inspirations as apparently do you. I love your leaf photo, showing the shadows of sticks underneath and a trail of something more fungal on the top. I love the narrative, making my mundane experiences beautiful with your poetic perspective. But the nice thing about your ‘real’ woods is you can find or make your own paths and double back and revisit. (Well, maybe if you are good at orienteering.) You can be less Frosty and metaphorical and more like Yogi Berra , who said ‘when you come to the fork in the road, take it’.

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  8. Much as I love winter and am inspired by it, I do love the denseness of summer foliage, being the opposite of claustrophobic. Even without nearby houses, a winter woods feels too open to me — unless it’s a conifer woods. I spent the first five years of my life in central Maine, and I guess I imprinted on that north woods look to some extent.

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