The Birches of Silicon Valley

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.”

Image credits: feature by Peng Chen on Unsplash. This post is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Hahn Starbeck.

For more, go to Robert BrancatelliThe Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

7 comments

  1. Such an uplifting poem for these unsettled times! Thanks, Rob, for setting a positive tone for today.

  2. Words Words..Words.Kenndys Friend..Ougatz ..Ignatz..Pro.. ..File..Otay Margie Pecirillo..No much credit..I get got to have Physical! Taste …Smell..Physics..I don know why in Suma these telegraph taps. That subject keeps on arizing particular.
    Just Appleseed..Punda? Senza ghuls de water water wata cause plum TU miss the tow..I hope you understand swallow the note and seal it with a can of Jellyz celery..You know there always bitchi n and moaning about comp..Well you can have it an the clean up to.Whuts s guy like Jay Duskin to do with you not to mentionre.Whatdbtyey want credit? Yea pick up a norse maple leaf. I give u freeway not for ,24 for 5 and damages how much? George Trancyino.
    Otay Out!

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    1. The Frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder’s in the shock. Not mine but his words words words. I’ve got trees. Have a look, you’ll see. Whaddya blind? I think not. Trees trees trees by the threes. It’s all there. We wuz robbed, you know. More to the pernt, berned…

  3. Thank you, Robert, for such a gift of poem, picture, and thought to refresh one of those weary of the world. What a delight to find that one of my earliest favorite trees, the birch, is in Northern California! Your post brought back such a lovely memory. As a child, my family would be in the car, late at night, in the final leg of our journey between Chicago and my grandparents’ farm in Craryville, New York. I would know we were close, when our car veered onto a country road, and the car’s headlights lit up the forests of birch along the road. The birch trees were transformed into luminous, silver trees in the midst of a dark, dark night, a night without other cars or light… The dearest of all the trees I love:). Such longing to go home, these days…

    1. That’s a beautiful memory, Susan. Thank you for sending it. “Home” is an interesting thing. We haven’t seemed to develop past the ancient Greek poets for whom the search for home was everything. And, as much as we like to say that it’s wherever the heart is, there is definitely a physical/geographic aspect to it. The smells, the sights, the feel, all of it make up “home.” But, as you suggest, home also may be a point in time rather than designated coordinates in space. Home may exist only in memory, because only looking back can we truly be present to what happened and the relationships that counted.

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