Preparing to Climb

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter, darker trees
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice storms do. Often you must have seen them...


No, I don't have the whole thing memorized. But having taught Frost over the years, and having included portions of the poem on the exam I gave my students only yesterday, I can't deny that "Birches" is very much on my mind these days. I'm still looking at two dozen English exams that need grading, and then I've got to calculate my students' grades for the winter trimester, and then I've got to write a report-card comment for each one of them, but that's it for the 2010-2011 school year. I'm all but done.

You may imagine--rightly--that there's a certain relief in that. It has not been a particularly cheerful time for me, these last couple of years. There have been health concerns, family illnesses, significant piles of work-related stress, two separate college searches for the boys, a variety of creative frustrations, and more than a little gnashing of teeth on my part as a result. I've become a good deal more withdrawn in many ways, marshaling my inner resources in order to cope with what's been going on around me, and not infrequently neglecting people and things that deserve my care and my attention. I have been fortunate enough to have a rock-solid base of support at home, plus family members and friends in other places who have been enormously supportive, even when I've been flaking out and backing out,  changing my plans at the last minute and sometimes forcing other people to do so. 

So yes, it's safe to say that in some ways, life recently has been rather too much like a pathless wood where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs broken across it, and one eye is weeping from a twig's having lashed across it open.

Luckily, Woodberry Forest has a sabbatical program. After seven years of service, a faculty member may obtain a trimester of time off. I started in the fall of 1995 and took my first such sabbatical in the spring of 2003, just as The Verb 'To Bird' was coming out, and was able to use the time both to visit Italy with Kelly and to travel around the US in support of the book. That sabbatical was a chance to celebrate myself and sing myself (to bring in yet another poet) even as I spent it getting deeply involved in the world outside.

This one's going to be a little different. I'm older this time, perhaps a bit wiser in some areas, and more worn down by repetitive motion. It's not just that I've been teaching for two decades, it's what I've been teaching. The trimester-long Intro to Speech class is one I've taught for sixteen straight years now--two sections per trimester, three trimesters per year. And when you've taught the same course nearly one hundred times, you can definitely feel some of the gears and joints starting to slip and grind.

As a result, this sabbatical is going to be less about celebrating and more about recovering myself. I'm going to be taking some time to turn away from my usual responsibilities to others and concentrate on my responsibilities to myself. In some ways I'll be going on retreat; in others I'll be going on holiday; in others I'll be going on a scouting mission. Starting on March 15th, I begin a two-month internship at Living Bird Magazine, assisting editor Tim Gallagher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

These two months, I am confident, are going to knock me thoroughly out of my comfort zone. I'll be away from home and family for by far the longest stretch ever; in 1999, I spent five weeks in England, where I directed the Woodberry in Oxford summer program, but Kelly and the boys joined me in England after three of those weeks. For this, Kelly probably won't be able to visit me for over a month after my departure. I'll be working in a field where my expertise is limited, at best; my publication work consists of four years of putting out a bimonthly school newspaper, plus working on my high school yearbook when I was a junior, and my birding experience, while sincere and long-standing, is decidedly amateurish. By contrast, my boss at the CLO has decades of journalistic and ornithological experience, ranging from his decades as a falconer (as told in his most recent book, Falcon Fever) to his having been one of only a handful of people to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker since the 1940s (as told in his 2005 classic The Grail Bird), and the CLO is filled with people (some of whom I've been lucky enough to meet already) whose knowledge of birds and birding is going to put mine to shame.

Oh, and I'll be living in a small city in New York, without wife, children, or dog. I'm bringing my computer, my Ovation acoustic guitar, a bunch of birding books, and all my optics, but I have no real idea what I'm going to do with myself outside of work, other than walk up and down the sidewalks of the Ithaca Commons repeatedly, marveling at living in a place with bookstores, coffee shops, and more than five traffic lights. I'll certainly be writing and walking; with any luck, I may lose a little weight. But I suspect you'll also find me updating this journal a bit more often than I have in the last year or two.

But when I look at the whole business of this sabbatical, I can't help but think I'm going to take a few months to climb a birch. I don't want to stay up there any more than Frost did; I just want to get away from where I've been and what I've been for a while:

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.


And when I'm done in Ithaca, and I come back to watch my younger son graduate from high school and begin his own trip through the forest of adulthood, I'm hoping I remember what it was like up at the top of the birch, and can better appreciate all the good things down here at ground level.

One could indeed do much worse than be a swinger of birches.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 3, 2011 11:25 AM.

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