Robert Frost’s poem with these three words in its title leads us into sudden contemplation of cold, deep snow, and of a woods with its heavy, silent magic lived so separate from us. Even our word woods, used in the plural to mean a singular, expansive entity, rouses this sense of a being vast, impenetrable, filled with dangers and creatures that lead lives we can’t fully track–wolves, bears.
I’ve been thinking into this poem because two artist friends, Linda Gammell and Holly Newton-Smith, have portrayed in photographs and paintings the wonder and menace of the North Woods, or to use another curious word that rouses a shiver: boreal, from the Latin that refers to the north wind. These forests rise along the northern tier of U.S. states and stretch far north into Canada, then around the globe to meet their cousins across a major portion of Russia. Now I’m thinking of “Doctor Zhivago,” Boris Pasternak’s wonderful novel in which the main characters set forth in a troika to traverse a forest of solitude and deep snow. The movie with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif flashes across my memory: a log house, with roaring fire, Julie and Omar muffled in fur rugs and enjoying a respite from the politics that have hounded them. (Note: it was the Russian winter that did in Napoleon, including his insatiable ego which would not retreat before the cold).
In Minnesota, we learn respect for far northern cold, the forests that blanket the region, and the hardiness it takes to leave the road where Robert Frost has paused to contemplate the “darkest evening of the year.” The speaker’s little horse, who jingles his harness bells, thinks it “queer/To stop without a farmhouse near.” Ah, there it is: the loneliness and fear of being frozen with no retreat.
Yet, the magnetic pull of these woods, so “lovely, dark and deep,” where my two friends with their vision of cold, unrepentant depths, challenge us to put no other promises between ourselves and the forest. To conquer our fear of that sleep which in such woods could mean death for us, so warm-blooded and foolish. Frost’s nervous little horse knows precisely what the woods mean, and the speaker too. He insists that he has promises to keep, “And miles to go before I sleep.” Repeated twice. The woods as winter death couldn’t be more evident. My friends defy this. Their work full of the awful, awkward struggle to penetrate beyond it captures the beauty and fear of playing in depths where our notions of comfort have no place.