Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 1

The poet Robert Frost taught my roommate Dean and I how to bend birches. We read "Birches" in class, and then one Sunday afternoon in late September went up into the woods behind the school to do it.

"...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..."

Up the side of the mountain we went, bending the white-barked trees as we went, until we reached a pit, sparkling at the bottom, bits of sunlight bouncing off broken bottles. We went down to investigate.

It was an old dump, ancient really. A recent rain had washed the soil from the top of the pile, from which protruded old medicine bottles, some of them cobalt blue, some with the corks still in them. We kicked through the pile. Here was the rusted business end of a pitchfork. Here a spring and a lead pipe. Then I pulled out a boot, much of it gone but the sole intact. It was an old boot for sure. We surmised it could have belonged to one of the Shakers. I brushed the dirt off and examined it: a hole clear through beneath the ball of the foot, the heel worn away on one side.

Even at that age, I was a skeptic, never having believed in ghosts or anything paranormal. But holding that shoe gave me a chill. Although its owner was probably long dead, this thing still spoke for him, still told me about his gait and the way he dragged his heel.

Would I leave these marks of my existence here? I thought about the wooden benches we sat in for the vespers service every night, the depressions, frictionless and smooth as a baby's skin, worn into the wood first by the rumps of Shakers and then by generations of schoolboys in corduroy pants. These material things long outlive us, but our use of them transforms them and lends them our spirit. Then I looked at the young birches, bowing respectfully toward the ground from our play, and wondered if they'd straighten or just grow the way we'd bent them.

Dean threw himself away from the thin trunk and was lowered slowly to the ground, collapsing in laughter and a shower of yellowing leaves. Pieces of poem tumbled from his lips.

"One could do worse than be a swinger of birches," he yelled.

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