Clippings: Meditation on a hoop in the woods

THIS BASKETBALL HOOP, standing amid trees in autumn’s peak a few weeks ago, brought two Robert Frost poems to the mind of the columnist.

On his first day on the job at Bard College, my son David met Mackie, the director of admissions. It was love at first sight and it blossomed: after a year, they bought a house near campus and then married last summer.

It’s a great house, with a path through the woods to the school, just a mile away, and views to the west of the Hudson and the Catskills that bring to mind the expansive landscapes of the Hudson River School.

The house has acres of yard and fields and trees that will require a serious effort to bring back from recent neglect and to maintain going forward. I gave them a DR Trimmer-mower as a wedding present.

Standing next to the house, a few yards away, nestled among the trees nearly out of view, is a basketball hoop. The backboard is the old-fashioned half-moon type, its metallic surface, once shiny white, now weathered and smudged with black-gray-green streaks of mold. It is attached to a slender black pole, sturdy and upright like the trees next to it.

In the warm months its presence is obscured by lush vegetation, its blacktop slab leaf-strewn and overgrown. In the winter, it is skeletal like the trees that keep it company, sharp like a memory. This photograph of the hoop was snapped just a few weeks ago in autumn’s peak.

I am moved by this hoop, and its incongruity. I love hoops, actual hoops, baskets, indoors and out, those simple structures, not so far removed from Dr. Naismith’s peach baskets of 100 years ago. They satisfy that primitive impulse to throw a round object into a round container some distance away (such as, say, a crumbled piece of paper into a waste basket — a gesture with which all writers of a certain age are very familiar). I take note of hoops when I am driving here and there, in driveways, perhaps attached to the garage or barn, or standing free in a back yard.

And I love “hoops,” meaning basketball, the game which evolved from this impulse that provided for me so much sweaty pleasure when I was a younger man, and whose contests in warm gyms have long provided a haven on cold winter nights.

This hoop in the woods brings to mind two poems by Robert Frost. In “The Wood Pile,” Frost presents a speaker off for a walk in the woods, “far from home.” He encounters a “pile of wood,” all neatly stacked: “a cord of maple, cut and split/And piled —and measured, four by four by eight. . . older sure than this year’s cutting/Or even last year’s or the year’s before.” He sees none other like it, nor footprints nearby, and he is stirred to consider the “someone” who has cut and stacked this wood and moved on to other “fresh tasks.” The wood pile moves him to reflect on the passage of time.

I think also of Frost’s poem “Birches.” The speaker in that well-loved poem recalls his boyhood when he sees the birches “bending to the left and right”: he says “I like to think some boy has been swinging them” and adds wistfully, “so was I once myself a swinger of birches/And so I dream of going back to be.” When I see this overgrown play ground, I like to think some boy has been shooting hoops at that basket in the undergrowth. It’s just as likely a girl these days, but I see a boy in my imagining, a solitary kid killing time.

My hoops as a boy were not in the woods but in town. I had a hoop between the garages in the driveway we shared with my five cousins next door. The black rim was attached to a sturdy wooden backboard, half-moon, that my cousins Johnny and Billy made in shop class in middle school. I played in the driveways of my friends, Dick and Danny and Jack, who had hoops attached to garages in their driveways. We played obsessively in summers in grade school, but in all kinds of weather too when there was time to kill in those days before screens came to dominate kids’ downtime.

This hoop in David’s and Mackie’s yard, amid the straight dark trees there, is a relic of sorts from years past, representing the passage of time itself and nature’s ongoing and relentless reclamation of the land. In truth, probably not that many years have passed, as it still has a net. Nets fray: neglected hoops have bare rims. What are we to make of that net? Is it an invitation, a sign of life and hope, the basket awaiting the boy’s return, as unlikely as that may be? Or will it disintegrate, as it must, as more seasons come and go, and “way leads on to way,” as Frost tells us in another poem.

It won’t take much beyond a can of paint for the backboard, orange tape to mark the square behind the rim that all baskets have (you can see its faint shadow), and some tidying up generally, to bring this hoop back to vibrant life. That’s a task that even I, as inept a handyman as ever there was, could take on, or take part in.

So was I once myself a shooter of hoops — and so I dream of going back to be.

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