The Vigilant Watchmen: Beauty and Rebirth in White’s “Trees of Winter”

Image courtesy Crystal Hurd.
Image courtesy Crystal Hurd.

The Vigilant Watchmen:

Beauty and Rebirth in White’s “Trees of Winter”

by Crystal Hurd

Trees of Winter

Oh, they are lovely trees that wait

In the still hall of winter,
    Silent and good where the Good Planter
Fixed the root, wove the branch delicate.

Friendly the birches in the thin light
    By the frost sanctified,
    And here, too, silent by their side
I stand in the woods, listening, upright,

Hearing in the cold of the long pause
    Of the full year
    What trees intend that I should hear:
Interpretations of old laws… 

Hearing the faint, the chickadee cry
    Of root that molders,
    Of branch bent, and leaf that withers
And little brown seed that does not die.

~ by E.B. White

Poor winter. It always gets a bad rap. In literature and poetry, winter is a frosty force which drives away the blossom, steals leaves off the trees, and empties the fields of harvest.  Essentially, it symbolizes death. It is nearly always associated with darkness, depression, and bitterness (“Now is the winter of our discontent”…).

For those of us who experience winter each year (unlike my fellow muse Andrew), I can tell you that my feelings are similar to the examples listed above. I personally don’t prefer it.  It irritates my sinuses.  It makes me continually reach for a jacket and scarf.  My whole body shivers when a stiff breeze sweeps across me. In my area of the country, people anticipate football season and “sweater weather”.  I’m the curmudgeon who grieves the wonderful warmth of summer, who waves a dismissive hand at fans of autumn.  For me, it is the beginning of the end, the slow and agonizing decline which leads to a cold, lonely winter.

These images, bleak ones of nude trees and frost-covered plains, are the ones I carry into my interpretation of White’s “Trees of Winter”.  The first line of White’s poem makes me curious: do the trees in the poem prefer winter?    He states that they “wait/in the still hall”.  Wait for what?  Do they wait to shake winter off after a long slumber?  Or are they waiting for me…hoping to educate me?  Nonetheless, they possess an innate beauty, one that is often hidden by the branches heavy with bloom. The Great Planter has placed them here, with roots firmly entrenched, to endure the long winter with naked branches. The branches are woven “delicate”; and yet, they endure the increased burden of the snow…and make it something lovely.

Here White surprises me.

White shows us that even in the harsh winter, nature shares its beauty. What we may initially deem as an ugly, barren landscape hides mysteries that entice us, that beg us to explore them. The birches are “friendly” and holy.  They long to impart a truth, the “interpretations of old laws”.  Even one who abhors winter (like me) can be instructed by its presence.  For some, the only value in winter is that it ushers in the beloved spring. John Keats taught us that.  In his “Ode to the West Wind”, he writes:

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
  Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow…
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!

Here, Keats illustrates what White boldly claims: a tiny seed sleeps soundly under the snow. When the winter is past, nature will rise again from the frozen grave.  Life and death are mingled together. From such a frigid death, the seed remains. And we understand that death only precedes a new birth.

Just like life.

Recently, my grandmother, who had been plagued with dementia, finally succumbed to her illness.  The day of her funeral, a great flood occurred which prevented us from holding a graveside service. The next day, we had a light snow.  On Friday, we visited her grave in a country churchyard nestled in the quiet woods of Virginia. I looked at the fresh dirt which formed a tidy square next to her husband who had passed many years ago. I dusted the snow off her casket ribbons and readjusted the bouquets that had fallen in the storm.  Surrounded by the hills, she returned back to the Earth, back to the side of her long-gone husband.

I stood overlooking a hill of carved stones and scattered flowers, flowers which created a visual dissonance against the cold, bare Earth. In that moment of great sadness, I fixed my gaze on the surrounding woods. The trees now kept diligent watch over her grave. Although they stand erect and exposed now, the spring will resurrect their color, breath life back into each long, outstretched arm. I caught myself admiring them. Do I, the worshipper of warmth, actually discover beauty in their nakedness (like White)?  They seemed to exhibit a holy quality; indeed the frost seemed to “sanctify” the branches.

Like White, I stand captivated, listening to the pregnant silence of the woods.  Attentive, I wait to receive the old wisdom that every generation hears when they indulge in a reflective pause. What do they tell me?  They urge me to not waste a moment of the time that remains. They tell me that one day, their brethren will watch over my parents, over me and my husband. Until then, I must allow grief its due, and allow thawing to begin. I stood over that small patch of Earth, observed the disturbed soil, and found great comfort that the ground, like our hearts, will heal. The muddy rectangle will one day repair itself.  New grass will grow, flowers will resume their blooming, and the trees overlooking her grave will soon wear a wardrobe of color. I look at the upturned dirt knowing that this is the place where precious seeds are planted, where birth begins. Even in this dark hour, there is a deep, abiding peace in that fact.

So here, in this small cemetery with my lungs aching from the bitter cold, the awareness of existence gains much significance. The people beneath my feet no longer possess what I have – another day to start again.  Another chance to improve my life and perhaps the lives of others. White’s verses are vibrantly clear. The tree bows which now droop with winter’s heaviness will one day boast of emerald leaves and swing freely in the warm breeze. What a profound promise is this. This is the seed of hope I protect and nourish, the seed that does not die.


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