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An old, but living link to poet's history will fall

'Let there never be curtain drawn between you and me,' Frost wrote

DERRY, N.H. - When the rudderless Harvard dropout first laid eyes on the white clapboard farmhouse, an apple orchard stood to the north. Quince, peach, and pear trees grew near a hayfield. He had come with his wife, his 1-year-old daughter, and 300 Wyandotte chickens.

The year was 1900 and Robert Frost was an unknown poultry farmer, publishing occasional essays in a trade journal, "Eastern Poultryman." But he was not content to limit his subject to geese and hens. At his kitchen table, facing a window with a view of a sugar maple that stands to this day, Frost wrote the poems that would make him the bard of New England.

One in particular seems inspired by the maple. In "Tree At My Window," the poet speaks to a tree and asks that even when his window is closed at night, "let there never be curtain drawn between you and me."

Now, 44 years after Frost's death, the 50-foot sugar maple is rotted in its trunk, missing limbs, and at risk of falling onto the farmhouse.

Today, the tree is to be cut down with a chainsaw and a crane, at a ceremony attended by Frost's descendants and admirers. The loss of the tree has provoked an outpouring of sadness, and is being mourned as the end of a living link to Frost's genius. Every day, visitors come to photograph, touch, and admire the tree.

"Everybody who comes through the door says to me, 'Which tree is it?' " said the manager of the farm, Bill Gleed.

On Thursday, Paul Haber of Lockport, N.Y., photographed the tree with his wife, Sandra, at his side.

"What a shame, what a shame," Paul Haber said. "This tree has seen a lot of history."

After it is felled, the maple will be salvaged for jewelry boxes, bowls, and slices to be sold for $10 as a fund-raiser for the farm.

Michael W. Thomas, a poet and Frost scholar, said Frost would not have protested the decision. He noted that Frost, often misread as a sunny poet of nature's beauty, wrote exceedingly dark poems, such as " 'Out, Out -', " about a boy killed in a buzz saw accident.

"One of Frost's strengths was what I would call his pragmatic compassion," Thomas said. "He was a great lover of nature, but he also accepted that, sad fact though it may be, everything has its duration and season."

One of Frost's most famous admirers, Donald Hall, the former US poet laureate who lives in a farmhouse in Wilmot, N.H., echoed that sense of Yankee pragmatism in his comments about the loss of the tree.

"Everything in its own time," Hall wrote in a letter to the Globe.

Born in San Francisco and raised in Lawrence, Frost spent his most formative years on the farm. He developed his poetic voice as a plainspoken New Englander by listening to local farmers. At the farmhouse, he wrote most of the poems that would become his first books, "A Boy's Will" and "North of Boston."

"It's the cradle of his poetry," said Jay Parini, a Frost scholar at Middlebury College. "It's where he created the poet Robert Frost, which is to say a character he invented in his head."

In 1911, Frost sold the farm and moved to England. By the 1950s, Frost was famous, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and the farm was in shambles, littered with junked cars. Just before he died in 1963, Frost asked that the farm be preserved. The state bought the property from private owners in 1965 and opened it as a museum in the 1970s.

"He often came back in his mind to Derry," said Robert Faggen, a Frost scholar at Claremont McKenna College. "I think the place always held a very strong, very powerful spot in his heart."

These days, the farm is a well-preserved timepiece, stocked with Edwardian china, tools and utensils. But time has taken its toll on the venerable maple. This winter, a limb cracked off, and three arborists who inspected the tree discovered its rotten trunk. This summer, the trustees decided to fell the maple.

Today, Frost descendants and poets will read aloud his poems, "The Sound of The Trees," "In Hardwood Groves," and "Nothing Gold Can Stay," the last of which invokes how youth inevitably turns to old age and death.

"We find it quite sad that the tree has to come down," said Laura Burnham, chairman of the trustees of the farm. "But Frost realized - and those people who read Frost and know Frost realize - that he had the philosophy that life goes on, and that's the way we're looking at this tree, and that's why we want to commemorate it."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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