The Slow Smokeless Burning of Decay: What Will We Leave On-line?

As a boy I used to explore the miles and miles of woods behind my house. I grew up in rural North Carolina where I could have walked to the nearest town, which was five miles away, had I been allowed, and barely stepped foot on a road. Out the back door, into the woods, through the tobacco fields, over a fence or two, across a dirt road, back into the woods and out through fallow fields on the edge of town and into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot.

I had no Sony Playstation, no VCR, no computer with an Internet connection, and sometimes no TV. My parents would always take a TV from one of their own parents when their parents bought a new one, and when ours would break that would be it until the grandparents bought another. Sometimes we went years without one, it seemed. Books and nature were my truest friends.

I remember many times when I was out exploring the woods and I would come across a sign of man from ages long gone. One of my favorites was an old wagon trail, the ruts grown over with underbrush, but still discernible. I got a tremor in my stomach the first time I found it. A little research much later in life led me believe (probably fancifully) that it was the trail used to settle the area a little less than two hundred years before. The settlers had followed the Neuse River over from New Bern.

Just like that I was in love with history. I still get that tingle in my stomach when I go into a library and research something, or visit an historic sight. I found old wood stoves, wooden barrels, tools and even fence posts from old settlements that the forest had reclaimed.

Americans hardly ever walk anywhere anymore. We are so attached to our cars, mini-vans and SUVs that few of us know what it’s like to go a walking through the woods and stumble over the remains of those who passed before us. Robert Frost knew.

In 1912, just before he made what he would call a “great leap forward,” Frost wrote a poem that was very special to him: “The Wood-Pile.” Just before his death almost fifty years later he would single this poem out to be used in his annual Christmas card.

In it the narrator is “Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day” when he stumbles across on old woodpile:

The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

When in our journeys in life we stumble across the decay of previous generations, it can catch us by surprise, as if we suddenly see ourselves “in a slanting mirror.” Yet, if we pause and reflect upon who they were, what their lives must have been like and upon our own impermanence we can absorb them and be the stronger for the encounter.

I have to wonder what remains my children will find in their Playstations and TVs and pop culture. It doesn’t look good, and yet I hope. With all the trash littering the information superhighway, there are still a few gems to be found. Who knows what information will be left forgotten for dead out here in cyberspace?

Maybe “Somewhere ages and ages hence” my children’s children’s children will come along two roads diverging in the frozen swamp of cyberspace, and just maybe they will take the one less traveled by and find it warmed “With the slow smokeless burning of decay” of some lost “wood-pile” that you and I put on it today.

I hope it might “[make] all the difference.”

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