Robert Frost's Lost Trees

May 6, 2017

 

 There were two trees at the Robert Frost Stone House that the poet planted himself in the 1920s or 30s. One was a Snow apple planted right behind the stone house. The name obviously attracted Frost. The Snow apple came to America from France in the 1600s through Quebec. The French called it "Fameuse." It is a parent of the McIntosh, an early apple that is not a good keeper. It was meant to be eaten fresh.

The Frost Snow apple was propagated in 2008 and 2010 and offered as a fund raiser to the public. There are little Snow Apples all over Bennington and the surrounding area. The museum planted four out in the south field as the cornerstone of a display orchard featuring apple trees propagated from cuttings taken at Frost properties: two from the Stone House and two from the Gulley.

 

 

 Frost also planted an alley of birches along two old stone walls behind the big gray barn, as reported by his daughter-in-law Lilliam LaBatt Frost to Anne Gatling, who had purchased the Stone House in 1979. Responding to snapshots Anne sent to Lillian, she wrote back in December 1986, "my father-in-law planted the white birches in the barn picture." The picture showed five standing birches and a good number of birch logs on the ground from trees that had died and were being split into firewood. The birch is not a long-lived tree.

 

Friday, May 5, 2017 was very stormy and windy. Museum director, Carole Thompson, worried that the apple may not survive the night. On Saturday morning, a bright, sunny, but windy day, the apple was still standing covered with blossoms. At 1 o'clock three ladies visiting from India entered the museum saying that some trees had come down. Thompson rushed out to find both the Snow apple and the last lone birch on the ground. She said, "So within one hour both these old trees fell." The visitor said, "NO, no, within 5 minutes!" The story was published in the Bennington Banner and the Associated Press picked up the article. The news spread throughout American newpapers and traveled as far as London. Goggle "Frost trees felled by wind."

Frost's birch, betula populifolia, known in New England as the gray birch to be specific, was his favorite tree. He said, ". . .birches double day and cut in half the dark." More than a few poems are devoted to it including, "Birches," "To a Young Birch," and he mentions them in "The Onset," and "Wild Grapes." He said, "I like them because they bend to left and right."

Frost had apple trees at all his farms. On moving to Shaftsbury in 1920, he wrote, "I mean to plant a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety." He said, "“One of my apple trees, standing stock still and rooted, earns more money in a year than I can earn with all my locomotion and artistic detachment.” He loved them for their literary history, their geography, botany and of course the fruit. Frost planted his last orchard at his cabin in Ripton in 1958. He died in 1963, probably before ever tasting them, but he still had the optimism to plant an orchard at the age of 84.

The museum plans to use the fallen wood for several projects. The apple branches can be made into walking sticks. The upper branches of the birch can be carved into something small and interesting. The wood is pure white. Thompson has been experimenting with hand-dyed knitting yarn. She ordered yarn from England in early May planning to gather wild plants from the property to dye yarn. On Sunday, she gathered apple twigs that were covered with blossoms and made dye in a crock pot. The yarn made of the Snow apple is a soft apricot.

Many more branches were gathered the following week and boiled into dye. In spite of the severely broken limbs, the Snow apple tree remained green and blooming for almost two weeks. It even began to set fruit!

 

Next, birch bark was collected that had the added value of lichens. Lichens are a known natural dye having mordant qualities, a chemical that makes dye adhere to fiber. She says, "My house smelled very woodsy when I brewed the birch bark in a crock pot." The yarn is a soft shade of gold.

Skeins of the yarn are being made for sale in the museum shop. Thompson says, "There is a beautiful knitting stitch called "Frost Flowers." A scarf could be made with the apricot colored yarn from the Snow apple. Free patterns are available on line.

This yarn is a heavy lace-weight wool spun in England from the fleece of Blue-Faced Leicester, a premium wool valued for its softness, almost as soft and warm as cashmere.

The skeins are 440 yards/100 grams. It will be sold for $20/skein plus postage. Quantities are limited and dye lots are limited to two skeins. This yarn is not a good beginner yarn as it is finer that basic fingering, which usually runs 350 yards to 100 grams.

A small shawl or scarf will take 1 skein; a larger shawl will take 2 skeins. It would make a very, very special project. Find out more about the yarn.

Carole Thompson, Director
Robert Frost Stone House Museum