Abreast of the schoolhouse the road forked, and we dipped down a lane to the left, between hemlock boughs bent inward to their trunks by the weight of the snow. I had often walked that way on Sunday, and knew that the solitary roof showing through bare branches near the bottom of the hill was that of Frome’s saw-mill. It looked exanimate enough, with its idle wheel looming above the black stream dashed with yellow-white spume, and its cluster of sheds sagging under their white load. Frome did not even turn his head as we drove by, and still in silence we began to mount the next slope. About a mile farther, on a road I had never travelled, we came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe. Beyond the orchard lay a field or two, their boundaries lost under drifts; and above the fields, huddled against the white immensities of land and sky, one of these lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.
At one point the narrator expresses wonder that Ethan Frome remains in such as stark environment. But, after Frome begins transporting the narrator back and forth, the narrator comes to understand the affect that this environment has upon long-time resident Frome. Is not the word exanimate interesting? (as opposed to inanimate). Frome no longer has life.
Don't forget that this setting is in Starkfield, and not without reason. Stark, of course, means bare and minimal and barren. That;s exactly the tone of this description, which accurately depicts the starkness of life inside the farmhouse, as well.
The passage describes the Frome farm in winter as seen by the narrator as he rides home with Ethan. It is a scene of sterility, the absence of life. In analyzing it, look for the many references to isolation, cold, and loneliness. The tone of the passage is somber and depressing. The branches of the hemlock trees sag as the great weight of the snow bends them to the ground. The water wheel at the sawmill is not moving. All is silent. The apple trees are starving. The land is buried under snow and more snow. The farm house huddles in the cold (great personification here). The purpose of the passage is to establish the spiritually deadening effect of the setting where Ethan endures his own misery each day.