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Great Thoughts: Robert Frost captures Vermont

11/22/02 12:00AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange often thinks Great Thoughts about Vermont himself, but realizes when he does, that somebody else has already put them on paper.

(Lange) Just the other morning I was driving through the woods on a snowy back road. Just ahead of me, a couple of birches, loaded with ice on a sunny winter morning, bent down over the road, shining like diamonds. As I passed, they scratched lightly against the cab of the truck with their long fingers, almost human, as if they wanted to be let in to get warm. I hoped the sun would soon release them from their load, but doubted it would help. Ice storms bend them down to stay. The road crew, when they came across them, would cut them down.

There were no tracks ahead of mine in the road that morning, but somebody had already been there. And you know who that was - Robert Frost. I've already used two lines from his poem, "Birches." And the twigs scratching at my truck were the tree tapping at a window latch in another poem, "The Hill Wife." It breaks my heart sometimes that almost every Vermont scene, or rural activity that a man does alone, or emotion that he might feel while doing it, has already been visited by that California transplant who in old age became the unofficial state poet. Reminds me of an old song with the lines, "Oh, that kiss you gave me sure was a winner, but you're no beginner; somebody's been here before."

You can't walk past a stone wall without thinking of him; or split wood during mud season, or come to a fork in a logging road, or look through a thin piece of ice, without thinking of him. It's hard to imagine what he might have missed. And it's not just lonely scenes that caught his imagination. There's the hired man come back to die with a family he's quit; the professor forced to share a room with a garrulous drunk in a Woodsville hotel; the farm hand who tries to bury his boss in a pile of hay; and the farm wife watching out the window as her husband digs a grave for their infant son.

Nobody from away ever had a sharper ear for the New England vernacular. Almost single-handed he preserved, as if in waterglass, a rural Vermont now disappearing under shopping centers and minimarts; gave it a personality its citizens can take with them wherever they go.

He even slides down my icy driveway with me before dawn by flashlight to get the paper. Here's how he describes it in "Brown's Descent:" "He never let the lantern drop. And some exclaimed who saw afar the figures he described with it, 'I wonder what those signals are....'"

Yep, every place you go, Frost's been there already. But even though we're denied the excitement of discovery, at least we can have the thrill of recognition when we get there.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. VPR's commentary series, "Great Thoughts of Vermont," examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts in this series.

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