Above the brim

Do you remember the Frost poem, “Birches”? I was that

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.

I learned to do that in my late teens, not with the white birches Frost had in mind, but with black birch and red maple saplings, neither of which were in short supply on this mountain. But I confess, it was the poem that put the idea in my head. Frost’s language was just accurate enough to provide all the direction I needed.

I used to climb trees a lot back then, but I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me on my own to purposely shimmy up a thirty-foot-tall tree that couldn’t quite support my weight. A few feet from the top it would start to tip. That’s when I’d turn and, facing outward, reach above my head, put the thin trunk in a stranglehold and leap. If the tree was the springy sort and I hadn’t miscalculated, it would bend gracefully and give me a good, swift ride back to earth. But sometimes it would snap and I’d land in a heap with half the tree on my head. I guess it helped that I was thick-skulled and only weighed 150 pounds. Just enough to be a living hell on birches, and not a dead one.

Do you remember the first time you realized, as viscerally as you can know anything, that words are, in the end, unsuited for carrying any burden but their own flowering, their individual crops of fruit or mast? Christmas of 1986 was a strange time. First came a visit from my long-distance girlfriend, then a visit from my brother’s. Both women were beautiful and had unique, vaguely angelic names to match. Break-ups were imminent in both cases, but that didn’t stop these two young women during their one day of overlap from taking each other’s measure in a not-so-subtly competitive way that all of us would later remember as hilarious.

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

I was nearing the end of my 21st year on the planet, and life seemed, by and large, a sweetly tragic affair that required much too much effort to make go. Some Caesar or another was always decreeing that all the world should be taxed. You go for a walk in the woods and you have two basic choices, it seemed to me then: out and back, or a big circuit. I remember the desperate energy with which I scrambled up one poor sapling after another, launched myself into space and returned more rapidly than I might have wished to the brown, unfrozen ground, until one day shortly after Christmas when the snow finally came and covered everything.

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