I once knew an English teacher who would plan whole vacations around visiting the homes of authors. My first thought when I learned this, was that she must have incredible power over her family to get them to go along with this. My second thought was, I'm an English teacher; why don't I want to go to authors' homes?
Over the years I have passed up opportunities to visit the homes of Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sarah Orne Jewett and John Greenleaf Whittier, that I know of. I say this not as a point of pride, but to show that ever since visiting Orchard House in the fifth grade as a member of The Little Women club, I've been certain you can learn more about an author on the page, than from a home she hasn't inhabited for 50 years or more.
I remember being very excited to visit Orchard House in Concord, MA. I couldn't wait to see the inspiration for the home where Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy played Pilgrim's Progress and got into all sorts of scrapes. What I remember from the actual visit was a docent who was very concerned that our nerdy handful of fifth grade girls might sit on a chair or break a knickknack. The only moment when I felt any connection to the book or its author, was when we were shown a page of text written in Louisa May Alcott's own hand. It was on a table covered by a rectangular Plexiglas box, which made that sheet of paper, once held by Alcott herself, both tangible and as distant as a photo in a book. In short, the experience was a bit of a disappointment.
So I surprised myself, when having some free time in the White Mountains last month, I saw The Frost Place on a tourist map and decided to go. So much of Robert Frost's poetry is tied to location, I thought even if the house were a disappointment, I could at least see some of the places that inspired him. Would there be a big stand of birches that his children might have swung from, or a field where the scythe missed a tall tuft of flowers by a brook?
The farm in Franconia NH, looks like where you'd expect Robert Frost to have lived. It's a no nonsense New England farmhouse. White walls, wood floors worn pale from use and low ceilings to make winter a little more bearable. It has no ornamentation, in its preserved state, except for the incredible views of the surrounding mountains. Looking through the windows, the verdant summer landscape appears even brighter, in contrast to the austere white walls.
Variations of the view, shown in the photo above, are visible from the upstairs bedroom (where the photo was taken), the room where Frost wrote, and the long, open porch that hugs the front of the house.
At night that sky must just be littered with stars. If I had that as a bedroom, I'd never get any sleep.
Much of the house is not available to the public, because it is reserved for the poet in residence. What is that person's experience like? During the day you'd hear people walking in your house, with just a wall to separate you from them. Once the visitors had gone home, would it be inspiring or daunting to be in the same house where some of America's most beloved poems were created? Does the poet ever sit in Frost's work room? I know I wouldn't be able to resist.
The very first room you see as you enter the house, is the room where Frost wrote. In his day, a giant metal heater took up one corner of the room, reaching from floor to ceiling. A smaller version that someone donated stands there now. Two large windows look out over the porch, across the garden to the mountains beyond. There he sat, in a padded leather chair with a wooden lap desk of his own devising.
The desk the house has today is a reproduction based on photos taken of the author at work. It's wonderfully simple and efficient. The chair, however is his actual chair. Look at how the arms are worn from having the desk set down and moved countless times. I wonder if he had a side table where he could keep his papers and maybe a drink close at hand.
I am always curious about where authors do their writing. What do they physically write on/at? What do they see every day that works its way into their text? The book The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz and John Updike is perfect if you share this curiosity. It has photos of modern writers at their desks, with comments from the writers themselves.
In addition to the house, The Frost Place has a poetry trail. It's a half mile loop that brings you into the wooded portion of the property. Scattered along the trail are wooden plaques with Frost's poems on them. I wish I had asked the docent how the poems were chosen. I'd like to think they were all written at this farm.
Some of the poems are well known, like "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" and some I'd never read before (sorry about the flash reflection in the photo).
Inside the house, I'd read that Frost moved his family to the mountains to escape his hay fever. That struck me as funny, as I walked through tunnels of Goldenrod, so thick with pollen that the faintest breeze would have given the air a golden haze. For Frost's sake, I hope the plant life in the region has changed a lot in the last hundred years.
As I walked the trail, I kept looking for anything that reminded me of images in his poems. There were numerous rock walls in such disrepair that they barely resembled walls anymore. Each time I saw one, the line "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" popped into my head.
I munched on a few raspberries (almost eating a ladybug in the process) and wondered how much of the wooded land I was walking through had once been cleared as farmland. The trees looked relatively young, which fits what I'd read in a Bill Bryson book that New England was practically clear cut not so long ago. This farm is full of erratics, giant stones dropped by the glaciers as they receded. It reminded me of jokes I've heard about New Hampshire growing more rocks than crops. In addition, the ground is far from flat. I pitied Frost's son, who by all accounts did most of the actual farming.
One of the last poem plaques of the loop is a rant against the influx of telephone wires. It felt a bit out of character, until I looked up and got this view of the property.
More than anything else I'd seen, that made Robert Frost come to life for me. Frost turned the mundane realities of his life into art.