snow on a branch

Ice, Isolation, and Solitude


On Friday, the snow started falling and falling, but it was soft and dry, unusual for the Portland area. The ice came quickly after in some areas, which is not so unusual. The snow in my back yard remained about a foot deep. The city is famously ill-equipped for dealing with snow, but no one was driving anywhere anyway. Not only was it a weekend, it was the middle of a massive nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases in the winter of 2021. We had our groceries delivered in advance of the storm and our teakettle ready on the stove.

That weekend I started seeing tweets about people in Portland being without power, and not just for the afternoon for hours. For some reason a tweet from the keeper for the Portland Thorns about being without power for thirty-six hours on Sunday with no end in sight was the thing that stuck with me. If this can happen to a professional soccer player, it can happen to anyone. But my neighborhood still had power, and it seemed like we might make it through the storm without having the lights go dark on a February night.

Sunday night I awoke at two a.m. This is not a normal hour for insomniacs like myself. There’s the inability to fall asleep at eleven p.m., and the inability to return to sleep at five a.m. There’s the dark night of the soul, which invariably occurs at three a.m. But this was two a.m. This was being awake because I was hearing something strange. It was more sinister than a tinkling, something like a crystal chandelier swaying in an earthquake. Then came a soft yet loud shuuuussssh in the night, as if someone had let that chandelier down using its thick braided cable so that it could be cleaned on the floor of the grand foyer.

I got out of bed and put on my robe to look out the windows in the hallway. The shrubs in the backyard—three ceanothus of a variety that has grown to about twelve feet, tall for a wild lilac, and an Australian mint bush about five feet tall—had bent low under the weight of the ice. Each tiny leaf was encapsulated in its own glass lobe, each stem in its own ice sheath. The weight had slowly, gently dragged the shrubs down until they could rest the weight of the ice on the snowy ground.

I returned to the bedroom and checked the clock: 2:15. I moved one of the roman shades aside to look at the trees in the backyard: three cherries, two old and tall, one new and short and spindly, plus one very tall maple-like tree in the neighbors’ yard. That was the one, should it decide to succumb to the weight of the ice as the shrubs had, that could fall on our house, on our bedroom. I worried for the humans in the house and, maybe more, for my very old dog in his bed on the floor near ours. I did not worry so much for our cats, as should anything unfortunate happen, they would be out of the room faster than any tree could fall anywhere.

I paced. I checked every tree from every window. I paid special attention to the neighbors’ tree. I saw bright flashes like heat lightning but knew they were transformers blowing and power lines snapping across our neighborhood.

The tree that worried me dropped an ice-encased branch in a third neighbors’ yard.

I decided there was nothing I could do and crawled back into bed. And that’s when the clock blinked off and the electricity was gone.

I put my robe back on and checked the rest of the street. Dark and silent, as expected in the middle of an icy February night during a pandemic after the electricity has gone out.

When the electricity was restored thirty-six hours later, I happened to read Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” on the Better Living through Beowulf blog. The writer of the post had sent out this missive, a repost from years earlier, while he still had internet. Though he lived thousands of miles east, ice storms were crawling across the country, and he was anticipating that his own power would fail. The post was posted before his electricity went out, and I read it when my electricity came back on.


“Birches” opens with these slender trees bending to left and right: “I like to think some boy’s been swinging on them/But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay/As ice-storms do.”

“They click upon themselves,” the narrator says of the iced-leaf sounds that woke me at an ungodly hour. They are “shattering and avalanching” as the ice cracks and slides to the ground. These bendy trees are

…dragged to the withered bracken by the load

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for so long, they never right themselves.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground.

The next section of the poem is about the freedom and solo adventures of a boy swinging on birches, bending them to his will and learning how to swing and land. But that’s summer. Reading this during an ice storm in a pandemic winter makes the freedom of summer seem so far away.

We are birches under ice, frozen, encapsulated, bent low under the weight, waiting for a thaw, waiting to be given the chance to spring up, waiting to see if we’re even able or if we’ll be trailing our leaves on the ground years afterward.

“I’d like to get away from earth for a while,” Frost writes, “And then come back to it and begin over.” This is what I wish too as I wait for power to return and vaccines to be given and hospital beds to empty and racial justice to be addressed in a meaningful way. I’d like a break so I can come back and start again, fresh and unbowed. Upright and ready to swing.

Patricia Wallace wrote in The Kenyon Review on Frost’s recurring themes of isolation and loneliness in nature. Unlike in Old English poetry, where exile is an ice-filled horror, Frost finds it sweet to be alone in the woods, even in winter. “’Birches’ brings intelligence to this sweetness because Frost listens to himself as he creates this world,” Wallace wrote, “and hears how part of solitude’s sweetness depends upon its limits, the responsibility of return to the world of others.”

“Earth’s the right place for love,” Frost writes near the end of the poem. A year into a global pandemic, most of us have explored the limits of solitude’s sweetness. Some people found that edge early on and tipped from solitude to loneliness while the summer of 2020 was still unfurling. Others explored alone past the boundaries of solitude to find entire lives within, but even this inner resource becomes exhausted. In the winter of 2021, the hope was to come back and begin again.


Being an anthropology major rather than an English major at university, I’ve come late to analyzing poetry for someone who reads so much and so deeply. I learned to do it only through a class on Old English literature that I took recently through Oxford University’s online offerings. All winter, and especially during this storm, I kept thinking about the twining of themes of exile with images of painfully cold and wintry conditions. Ice, sleet, snow, rain, hail, wind—all these things signify being outside the warmth of the community or, for poets of the time who’d converted to Christianity, outside the warmth of God’s love.

An ice storm during a new pandemic puts one in a strange place. People were exiled from each other by at least six feet and at least one mask, if not two. We were not to gather in groups of more than four, or six, or twenty-five, depending on where you lived and how quickly the pandemic was felling members of the immediate community. Many people were completely dependent on electronic communication through email, text, Zoom, Roll20, Skype, and even the occasional phone call. But none of these things happen without electrical power.

The ice arrived and removed the sense of community. We became exiles in our home under piles of blankets and pets, tea heated in a kettle warmed on a gas burner lit with a butane lighter. We put our phones in low power mode and texted quick updates to friends and family: still no power, you have power?, no word on when power’s coming back, I saw a truck with a cherry picker and an IBEW sticker this morning. We maintained the thread of community while maintaining the warmth of our bodies in layers and layers of fabric, from high-tech wicking base layers to old-fashioned down comforters.

It’s difficult to stay awake after the sun goes down without electric light. We used oil lamps that we’d nearly forgotten we had, but we were still in bed and asleep very early, and we slept all night in this exile and isolation. No car doors, no revving engines, no neighbors’ voices, no small green or blue or blinking red indicator lights on appliances, no furnace fan abruptly whirring to life an hour before it’s time to wake up to warm the house before we emerge from under the covers.


The sun comes out, the power comes on, the house warms up, and we are back in virtual community. It’s my turn to host a weekly writing group, but the only other attendee that day is another regular host. We talk about the ice and the power and how long we were each without it. I tell her about the sound of the shrubs bending, and she tells me about how the birches at her house did the same.

My shock of recognition, of serendipity, is visible on the screen. I tell her about “Birches,” which she has never read before either, despite the fact that this is apparently one of Frost’s most famous poems. She takes a note to look it up.

“The birches are so resilient,” she says with an amazed shake of her head at their ability to bend and right themselves as if nothing had ever caused them to bend their crowns to the ground.

“That’s what the poem is about!” I say. I don’t know if it is what the poem is actually about, but in this icy pandemic winter, with a vaccine on the horizon and the promise of a summer spent in community with people, makes me believe it is about resilience, about finding the sweetness of solitude in the chill of exile and the ability to bounce back. We are birches covered piece by piece, finger by finger, eyelash by eyelash, in the ice of exile, and we will shed the icicles and reach again toward the sky and each other, branch tips and finger tips touching gingerly and hopefully.