Despite Robert Frost and New England, I have long associated birch trees with the Bay Area in California, especially the area from San Jose north to Palo Alto. When I arrived here for the first time in 1980, Silicon Valley still felt like the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” which comes from the original Ohlone. The native peoples named it for its rich soil and climate. Successive generations of immigrants from Mexico, Europe, and Asia planted prune and apricot orchards.
I would not bring this up now except for sheltering in place, which, ironically, has forced people out and about. This includes me. And, as I walk along, I have noticed a curious but familiar thing (beyond sidewalks): lawns with birch trees planted in a corner. More often than not, a picket fence acts as an ornamental border.
I’m not sure where this design came from, but it has lasted throughout the years so that now, after moving back to the area, I find birches everywhere. I wonder whether some inspired landscape architect included them years ago in the planned communities needed by the tech industry. Or were they simply part of a real estate developer’s idea of what Bay Area suburbia should look like, including ranch style houses with carports and shag carpeting?
It is difficult to tell, although in my mind these trees characterize Silicon Valley as much as entrepreneurship, innovation, and risk. Would iconic companies like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Apple have failed if myrtle trees had been planted instead? Hardly, but birches have come to symbolize the community and family life that were needed to support the risky experiments conducted in the garages of these same suburban homes.
California has served as a refuge for the restless, adventurous, and free thinking since its gold rush days, but the technological revolution that took place in Silicon Valley in the second half of the twentieth century required permanence, not transience, and commitment to a vision beyond wealth on the part of its innovators. By then, gold had transmuted into silicon.
In “Birches” (1916), Robert Frost writes how “swinging” on birches can teach patience, discipline, and commitment. He imagines a farm boy learning to climb his father’s birches, slender ones, and then ride them “down through the air to the ground.”
Rather than offer an idyllic picture of boyhood or the rural life, the poem conveys the kind of toughness and stamina needed to achieve a goal, to conquer, and to attain a vision. These are important lessons, for life is often a “pathless wood/Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs/Broken across it, and one eye is weeping/ From a twig’s having lashed across it open.”
I don’t see the crepe myrtle outside my house in the same way. When in bloom, its pink blossoms are beautiful, but I’d never consider climbing it and riding it to the ground, even if I could. So maybe there is something to the clusters of birches found on so many lawns from San Jose to Palo Alto after all.
I like to think of the birches of Silicon Valley as symbols of that unlikely balance between suburban stability on one hand and entrepreneurial drive on the other. No other area of the world has matched that drive and the success it has produced. Is it outlandish to say that no other tree has achieved this balance? Isn’t this even more important to recognize now as we stroll through these neighborhoods?
Frost captures the essence of entrepreneurial drive–and the human condition–when he admits to being “weary” of the world and its tedious demands and in his profound desire “to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over.”
There is something refreshing in that, in the call to free ourselves from the gravitational pull of mediocrity and soar skyward. Frost acknowledges that he was a “swinger of birches” once and yearns to be one again, riding through the air to the ground only to do it all over again.
“One could do worse,” he says, “than be a swinger of birches.”