Henry David Thoreau. Walt Whitman. Wendell Berry. So many of our great writers have been environmentalists, gleaning wisdom from their natural surroundings and translating it onto the written page. Robert Frost certainly belongs in this category as well, and while reading poetry during breakfast recently, I came across this gem that I had never read before.
A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.
May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.
There’s so much in this poem for gardeners and farmers to appreciate, especially now that spring is on our doorstep. This time of year, our focus falls entirely on production: tilling and toiling, seeding and sowing. As the soil awakens so do we, our winter longing for lush gardens and green pastures no longer a dream but reality at last. For the next several months, our harvest will appear right before our eyes.
Yet here is Frost, offering greater insight. He implores us to ‘unharvest’: that as we reap our summer bounty, we remember to leave something behind. The poem encourages us to intentionally break from our ‘stated plan’ and participate in the natural circle of life (symbolized by the ring of red apples). Emphasizing his point, he uses the word ‘unharvested’ only once, but places an exclamation point after it.
As a farmer myself, I couldn’t agree with him more. On our farm, we graze our pastures to maximize the amount of trampled grass and manure that will be left behind. The animals get all the nutrition they need, but in their wake the soil is nourished by the leftover grass and litter. It’s by intentionally ‘unharvesting’ the pasture that we can accelerate fertility, retain greater soil moisture and vastly increase bio-diversity. (For more on this point, Alan Savory recently delivered this amazing TedTalk, and Ruth Stout offers these inspiring gardening lessons). As Frost suggests in the final line, this is the sweet smell of success.
Ironic, isn’t it, that by not taking everything that nature has to offer, we end up creating more? To quote Frost, “May something always go unharvested!”
As winter melts into spring, we have so much to be grateful for. Beyond seeds and sunshine, let’s give thanks—For thoughtful gardeners, the wisdom of poets, and contemplative spring breakfasts with an open book on the kitchen table.