Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage
–By Robin McCarthy
Robert Frost owned two homes in Ripton, Vermont, and both locations are now owned by Middlebury College. The more elaborate of the two summer homes, Homer Noble Farm, is nestled on the outskirts of the college’s Bread Loaf campus and privy to the action of the summer conference that has drawn writers to Ripton, Vermont every summer for nearly ninety years. The second Frost home is a remote cabin tucked away into the woods a mile and a half down the road. While guests often stayed at the farm, Frost himself preferred to spend his visits to Ripton in the rustic cabin removed from the campus.
When I visited Bread Loaf a number of years ago, I was struck by how impossible it is to separate Frost’s relationship with Bread Loaf from the identity of the summer writers’ conference. The poet was influential in establishing the Bread Loaf school and remained a frequent visitor and lecturer for most of his life. There are many writers celebrated at Bread Loaf, both past a present, but none so storied or active in their own mythology as Frost.
Thus, the itinerary for the ten day conference invariably includes a walk to the writing cabin, where a barbecue picnic is eaten in the shade of trees Frost likely pondered. Afterward, the cabin is opened up for tours. The year I was there, Frost scholar and naturalist John Elder, himself a part of Bread Loaf’s story, gathered attendees together on the grass and began to speak.
First, Elder explained, Frost must be imagined as a naturalist as much as a poet. We have to put him in context, remember that this was a man who emulated Thoreau, who began each day with a long observant sit outdoors, an exercise from which he drew much of the inspiration for his art.Elder points out that Frost’s poems draw on the Vermont landscape with specificity; they prove acumen for field identification, a gift for understanding ecosystems that many poems about the natural world lack:
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
I sat among the conference attendees and let my mind wander. Among the faculty at Bread Loaf that year was Scott Russell Sanders, and I had run into him the previous day, balancing on slate rocks in a creek bed behind the conference campus. I was not there to work with Sanders, but his gentle approach to essay writing had kidnapped my mind. He invited readers to consider Walden as Thoreau’s thought experiment, to embrace the essay as evidence of the writer’s own intellectual journey. I was living my own sort of minimalist experiment at the time, calling a twenty-four foot sailboat my home, and Sander’s deep understanding of Thoreau allowed me to access the writer in a way hadn’t previously.
“Have you ever seen this flower before?” Sanders asked me from his spot in the stream. I could barely see the flower he was asking about, hanging daintily over the creek on the other side. It may have been large and white. I apologized, ashamed to have let Sanders down.
“That one, there,” he rose from his crouch in the creek bed, pointed to the mass of tiny orange flowers growing above him, “that one’s a poison ivy antidote.” He explained how jewelweed grows alongside poison ivy, how after exposure to the harmful oils, rubbing the orange flower into the skin will combat the rash. Days later, after leaving the conference, I put this information to use when I wander off a bit of the Long Trail and into a patch of poison ivy in search of a place to pee.
When Sanders told me about jewelweed, I could hear Thoreau and hear Frost. I could sense the poetry in writers who notice the natural world, and could hear the language thrumming up through the bedrock of this very old New England land.
Back at Frost’s writing cabin, John Elder pointed at a tree and recited, “Tree at my window, window tree,” as the group of us stopped our fidgeting in the grass. It felt holy, the poetry of Frost read aloud in the place it was composed. Indeed, the tree we were looking at was likely the tree about which Frost wrote, Elder explained. But Frost himself, who might be flattered by our reverence, would certainly resist my comparison to holiness, would not be eager to equate the awesomeness of the natural world to a religious presence.
There was much made at Bread Loaf about the nastier side of Frost, the part of the poet that was narcissistic and demanding. Stories were told about small fires set in theaters, affairs, biting criticisms. Indeed, his shortcomings, the ease with which he could be vindictive and dismissive, are sometimes more a part of Frost’s legacy at Bread Loaf than his work.
But as we took turns filtering through the cabin, the extent to which Frost was human, and thus flawed, became forgivable. The cabin was not designed for more than one or two inhabitants, and we visitors bumped into each other, blocking sightlines and stepping on toes as we moved from room to room. The space was sparse, the bookshelves filled with display copies of Frost’s books instead of those he might have kept there. There were blankets neatly folded across the bed. Every chair seemed set in the perfect space for reflective gazing out a window. The cabin smelled seasonal, unused. It was uninsulated and dark, the kitchen and bathroom utilitarian, clean. It was not difficult to imagine the deep unhappiness of the inhabitant of such a home, which is different from saying the space was unpleasant. In fact, part of me ached for it, to live in a space so perfectly designed for loneliness, so suggestive of the complexity of character and its refuge in the concrete language of nature. It was impossible not to think that I could live here too; that removed from everything and everyone, I could enjoy this literary hermitage.
But it was the inability to separate the writer from the place that spoke to me most relentlessly in Frost’s cabin. I liked thinking of Frost drawing energy from the writers who flocked to Bread Loaf each summer to learn from him. I imagined the work he created here, how the Vermont earth and sky, mountains and rivers contributed the tremendous work of one of America’s favorite poets.
I liked imagining Thoreau, two hundred miles away and a hundred years earlier, drawing from the world around him, turning labor and observation into analysis, creating work that would trickle through time to influence Frost, and later Sanders, and then me, and writers like me, moved by proximity to science and beauty.
I like to remember of Scott Russell Sanders thigh-deep in the jewelweed, teaching me about language and ecosystems, encouraging my own writing to spread into the world around me. There is a currency between the art world and the natural world, and its exchange drives me read Sanders and Frost and Thoreau outdoors, and then to set their words aside and simply watch, to practice noticing.
Robin McCarthy is a writer, teacher and student in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She studies fiction in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University and is an editor for the literary magazine Passages North. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Green Mountains Review, and NPR.
photo credit, Martin LaBar https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinlabar/