Expectancy without expectation: Considering E.B. White’s “Trees of Winter”


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.

Silence Among “The Trees of Winter”

~ E.B. White

Expectancy without expectation:

Considering E.B. White’s “Trees of Winter”

by Dr. Holly Ordway

E.B. White’s “Trees of Winter” evokes the beauty of silence: these trees are “Silent and good,” and the narrator himself is “silent by their side,” a rich and full silence in “the still hall of winter.”

Silence can be a pause, a necessary in-drawn breath, too often forgotten. White calls winter “the long pause / Of the full year.” For me, in my work as an academic, the winter is rather a busy season full of writing, teaching, speaking, and summer is my “long pause” in the year, when I can catch my breath.

Yet there is something particular that White shows, here, about winter’s pause. Winter is spare, stripped-down: the “thin light,” the bare branches of the trees, the withered leaf stand in contrast to the tumultuous, luxuriant green of summer. This spareness calls for listening, for waiting, in a kind of expectancy without expectations.

Even in the midst of my work, winter calls me to stop, wait, listen, and let go of my words. As much as I would like all my writing to be like the trees, deep-rooted and beautiful and lasting, most of my words are like the leaves that, perhaps, flourish for a brief season and then fall and are forgotten.

But also the silence, the stillness, is a mark of germination. The poet hears, faintly, the cry of what is to come: the “little brown seed that does not die.” Hidden, quiet, the seed waits, the seed that will, in its time, become the tree: become, God willing, one of these friendly birches, sanctified by frost, speaking quietly to those who wait and listen.


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