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The Drumlin Woodchuck and a Map of Vermont

What seems at first reading a simple, plain poem about a small, burrowing animal in a farmer’s field becomes, on closer inspection, an illuminating metaphor for how we can shape our lives and find security and solace in a world shaken by pandemic.

The poem is Robert Frost’s “A Drumlin Woodchuck,” written while he lived at his farm in South Shaftsbury, Vermont and published in A Further Range, 1936:

One thing has a shelving bank,

Another a rotting plank,

To give it cozier skies

And make up for its lack of size.

My own strategic retreat

Is where two rocks almost meet,

And still more secure and snug,

A two-door burrow I dug.

With those in mind at my back

I can sit forth exposed to attack

As one who shrewdly pretends

That he and the world are friends.

All we who prefer to live

Have a little whistle we give,

And flash, at the least alarm

We dive down under the farm.

We allow some time for guile

And don’t come out for a while

Either to eat or drink.

We take occasion to think.

And if after the hunt goes past

And the double-barreled blast

(Like war and pestilence

And the loss of common sense),

If I can with confidence say

That still for another day,

Or even another year,

I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small

As measured against the All,

I have been so instinctively thorough

About my crevice and burrow.

The speaker in this poem is the woodchuck, who tells us that sometimes a simple retreat from danger and a patient “don’t come out for a while” wait until it passes is the wisest and smartest of actions. We will ultimately be better off when we are guided by the wisdom of a simple retreat and acceptance of the common-sense notion of sheltering in safe and secure places.

“A Drumlin Woodchuck” is not one of the more familiar poems by Frost, but it seems especially appropriate today, 85 years after he wrote it. The metaphorical nature of the poem is powerful and instructive. The woodchuck, “…though small as measured against the All,” is brave and smart, and survives by common sense the horrors of “war and pestilence.”

The message of the poem also opens a window into a way we can enjoy a visit to other places while we stay safely tucked into our little “burrows,” waiting patiently for the virus to be vanquished and the pandemic to pass. Sheltering in place does not mean we cannot travel to our desired destination; we can, in fact, journey in comfort and safety without getting out of our chair, simply by looking closely at a map.

And here is a very fitting example of a map for your kind consideration: Fielding Lucas’ 1822 map of Vermont, a bit like poetry itself, with its measured lines and cadences of contour and color.

The map also resonates with its apt connection to Frost, locating Shaftsbury and Ripton, two of the towns in which he wrote some of his best-loved poems, and Bennington, where he is buried, on the sloping ground behind the First Congregational Church.

This map was drawn by Fielding Lucas, Jr., engraved by Young and Delleker, and published in Philadelphia by Henry Charles Carey and Isaac Lea in A Complete Historical, Chronological, And Geographical American Atlas, Being A Guide To The History Of North And South America, And The West Indies ... To The Year 1822.

It was the first American Atlas that was modeled on Le Sage's plan of having explanatory text surrounding the maps. The images below give a closer look; for more images and an expanded description, please click here.

End notes: A drumlin is a small hill, something like what a woodchuck, also known as a groundhog, might build around its burrow. Below we have a short video of Frost reading “The Drumlin Woodchuck” at his home in Ripton on November 23,1952.

Frost had described the poem as one about “a man’s making his own freedom and his own security” and which reflected the poet’s feeling that we all need to accept responsibility for taking care of ourselves.

And we think that’s a good idea, too.

- Charlie and Cynthia


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