Stopping by woods
There are a few places left in the world which are more natural than I am comfortable with. Places where the usual protections of urban humanity do not exist – where the thickness of your clothing, the quality of your preparation – courage, strength and perseverance are all the measures by which humans live, die or avoid frost bite. It is sad to think that we, at least in London though I suspect I could say Britain or Europe, have become so dependent on our own inventions as to lose that self-sufficiency. I cannot remember the last time that I went somewhere without ‘assistance’. Assistance is anything and everything mapped out around us. It is roads for us to follow, footpaths for us to walk on. Nature discovery trails. iPhones. Phone signals on mountain tops. Air ambulances. Search and rescue. The coastguard. The fire brigade. The butcher. The baker. The supermarket. All of these things make life easier and more convenient, certainly. But they make us, and the world we inhabit, so much smaller as well. We have become highly specialised in tasks that are not required for survival. Writing blog posts, law, accountancy, maths for example. Sometimes I feel that the more we travel on this trend of interdependence the more we step towards pleasure loving, ill disciplined, androgynous, ineffectual easy prey.
Yet there are these few places in the world where it is possible to sense the acute proximity of death – fear, excitement, necessity. Places where we are exposed without concrete barriers, without tarmac roads, without the reassuring rush of traffic a short distance away. Here we can enjoy, we can be free, we can be tested as we are not tested in the city, on the Underground, in the gym. Here we can sense the wind in our faces, watch the sea rumble and dash itself on the rocks, hear silence, hear nothing.
I say these things because I have been thinking about one of my favourite poems – Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. Frost has had a hard time critically because his pastoral message is not easily discerned, and in the opinion of some, not worth the effort of discerning it. I cannot disagree strongly enough. The echoing loneliness of this poem, the proximity to death, its temptation, its quizzical, life affirming call: “He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake”; the anticipation of the sweeping scythe smoothed into beauty, peace, comfort: “The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake”; are all masterful poetry, summoning the reader to the woods as witness to the poet’s loneliness. This is a poem about the choice of existence. The tension between the easy temptations of death, it’s call, particularly to the lonely, particularly to those stopped “without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year”. The poem embodies that great human survivalist spirit and the comforting presence (and insight) of animals – press on – a reminder to us as readers that we are in fact alive and perhaps by choice: “For I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” Perhaps in poetry, if not in life, we can more safely approach death and reaffirm our choice to live and the reasons for it. In doing so we strengthen ourselves and in a world where we are barred from nature more and more, I, for one, am grateful for Frost’s company and more than that, his assistance.