Men and Trees

SCIENCE brings along many novelties for the contemplation of poet and philosopher. None more piquant to the imagination than the hint she drops as to the composite character of a tree. This waving green canopy is, then, an aggregation of many plants of the same kind and habits, growing from one supporting stock, a scion of which may be removed and made to grow from some other stock of the same or kindred nature. This pleasing, cool obscurity, through which my glance goes bird-like, is no longer a mere isolated individual, a tree, but is become a whole forest of minim airy trees, — a leafy communism. So soon have I got into the woods and perplexity ! I grant that a tree is a multiplicate miracle, a mazy wilderness to me as to the least indwelling bird or insect. Something I may have learned regarding the tree’s habits. — how this vast corporation is fed, what elements taken up from the soil are distributed to wood-fibre or leaf-tissue; its seasonal changes are known, its rate of growth may be calculated ; but that wherein lies the individuality of a tree forever eludes. Aspen must shiver, and buttonwood cannot change its spots. The immortal sequence of race and generation is an enduring marvel. Never a changeling or chanceling; and if there could be, as a young elm slipping from an acorn casket, would not the hitherto constant and serious working of nature eclipse the wonder of the momentary “sport”? The hidden life of these old neighbor trees of mine, with its mystery, still detains me. I shall not soon get away to consider prodigies in the backwoods of the botanical prospect, — a grove-like banyan, or a “traveler’s tree” in Madagascar, whose riven trunk pours forth potable water, or a tree whose prehensile branches seize upon all they touch, or, possibly, a flesh-devouring tree diabolically fitted to embrace a man to his death!

The distribution of trees is an attractive subject. I fancy their mighty processional march over the globe, and the parallels at which each individual finds an impalpable barrier in climate or other natural conditions. Some may ascend to the mountain’s summit, others must halt at the foot. Some may wade into rivers and even into salt floods, others approach undiscouraged the dry surf of deserts. Each conformation, each region of earth, has its characteristic trees. An unimaginative Western miner was showing a beautiful specimen of moss agate, picked up near his claim, and bearing upon it the perfect figure of a tree with its plat of ground beneath it. “That,” said the miner, with the air of one who states undisputed fact, “is a piñon. The piñon is the commonest tree in those parts.” Who shall say that the native tree may not have stood for its portrait to the skillful genius of the native stone, thereby a bond of obligation being established between the organic and inorganic of the place ?

What varied scenes are summoned up by the simple phrase, “ under a tree”! Mention the palm, and we see the halted caravan at noon ; the pine, and the Norwegian hut, snow-drifted to the eaves; the long-lived, wide-branching baobab, and strange villages of black men ; the oak, the elm, or the maple, and tilled fields and the familiar farmhouse rise in perspective. Human generations are sometimes reckoned by a “ tree ; ” but, accepting the conclusions of evolution, it would appear that man quite literally descended (that is, got down) from the tree. Perhaps he has not yet fairly reached the ground, since the Papuans and certain African tribes, if accounts are to be credited, have their houses placed aloft among the leaves. Pleasant argument of a lurking instinct for arboreal life might be found in the fact that we like to give the name of rooftree to our domicile, although the rooftree be stone or brick.

Since the trees around men’s dwellings come to be ideally associated with the fortunes of the inmates, I wonder that we do not more often plant trees to commemorate events of domestic and individual interest. Thus, beginning in youth, one would by middle age find himself with an illustrious record kept in a noble series of bark-bound, million-leaved books. Every family might have its Arbor Days. In a certain country neighborhood stand the “ sister willows.” They were planted each at the birth of a daughter to the house. Years passing, they have arisen on each side, until now they mingle their benedictive branches above the dwelling. The sisters are wide apart, but their embracing trees keep their amities. Usually fruit-trees, and of these apple-trees, stand nearest in home association. If branches and leaves could speak man’s language, what the apple-tree could not express of loving-kindness and of faithful serving would not be, perhaps, worth hearing. It has pledges with us, even during the winter, — both fruit and drink, to testify of its loyalty. It would never aspire to great stature, as accusing the low roof it loved to touch with its outspread arms.

The carving of a name or of initials upon the trunk of a tree, whether our own name or some other’s, does wonderfully signalize that tree to our imagination. It is now a namesake tree, its subsequent career of somewhat more significance than that of its unchristened fellows. “ The tree grows, our loves grow.” By some occult binding virtue in the hieroglyph it bears, may the tree draw us to itself again. The youth, returning, goes through the well-known woods, and is softly touched on the side of memory, seeing how many a rugged bole still honors the work of his restless boyish hand.

“ The teeming tree
Had swoll’n and green’d the pious charactery,
But not ta’en out.”

The broad-girthed maple or oak that stands on some academic green, and is covered with the legends and devices of many school generations, — is it not rather adorned than defaced ? Give me the key to read all there is in those rude characters, and I care not who deciphers cuneiform inscriptions. In memory’s chart of the little world of childhood, does not some best beloved tree mark the centre thereof, and is not the tree’s morning or evening shadow the radius of the golden day’s round ? As I remember this little world, a poplar had precedence and preëminence. Not classic column nor cathedral spire would now be half so impressive as once, to my eyes, was this lofty-thoughted, yet unvaunting, solitary tree. The dark and light of its leaves, as they turned in the breeze, seemed like the changes of rippling sunny water. Other trees standing near plainly were abashed by the poplar’s presence (’t was not the poplar’s fault) ; and I observed that they were often hushed, as though to hear what their superior might be saying in the ear of heaven. Now, whenever I read II Penseroso, the particular servant of Fancy that illuminates the page while the reading goes on always sets the figure of a poplar-tree in the margin against the verse, “ Looks commercing with the skies.” Also, I could never read, without being disproportionately moved, this couplet from Keats : —

“If I do fall, at least I will be laid
Beneath the silence of a poplar shade. ”

The tree teaches rectitude and aspiration. The twig may be bent, yet the tree is not inclined to grow crooked, but as much as possible strives to overcome the early disadvantage, and to align its growth by its tree ideal. Behold in the tree an exemplar of self-reliance and of acquiescence with its lot. Where its cradle was rocked, there it remains, and nobly distinguishes the place of its birth. Were a tree but some prodigious annual plant, the wonder of a summer, or could it pluck itself up by the roots and remove to some other situation, or become a peripatetic philosopher, then its use as a counselor were past; a type of patient abidingness and of steady bending toward sublime ends were lost. Here are illustrated the three graces: dead winter, but the tree has faith; spring, and it declares its hope in tender leafy language ; summer, and its charity spreads a shield against the glare of the sun. The shadow of a tree! It is cave-like, raggedly outlined upon the grass. Here and there its edges are crumbled into sunshine, as the breeze stirs the overhanging branches. How different is the air breathing through shade ! — always delicately sweet with §cent of leaves, and of bark, and of the moister ground beneath the tree. What a fine vista we have, looking through this cool passageway to the glowing prospect beyond !

Were we searching for sermons in trees, there is one we could not well overlook. Admiring the leagued strength and the majesty of forest trees, we forget the gentler reciprocities which they exercise, the coöperation by which moisture is retained and the soil kept fertile. The woodman tells us that if one tree be left and its forest compeers be taken, the tree so left rarely thrives in its lonely supremacy. It is now less able to cope with strong winds, and, having grown no lateral branches, its trunk suffers through exposure to unaccustomed sun-heat. No more securely may a human being sustain severance from its kind. Still another sermon which might be “ given away ” to man is read from those China curiosities, potted trees, a half century old, but less than a foot in height, — a condition said to be produced by repeatedly cutting back the roots, beginning with the tap-root of the seedling. Souls are dwarfed through injuries done to the absorbent faculties.

Ask a tree’s age! You commit no common incivility. You do literally rive its heart, if you push your inquiry. Besides, the tree may even then meet you with equivocation, since some careful observers are of opinion that trees growing in humid and tropical climates may produce more than one ring in the course of a year. But granting the so-called “ annual ring ” tells no falsehoods, what mighty, living antiquities have been reserved for the fleeting gaze of our present ! A baobab-tree five thousand years old, a taxodium of four thousand years, an oak of fifteen hundred, while various palms have completed the trifling span of six or seven hundred years. With no such record as the preceding, many of our own forest trees are yet sufficiently venerable to look down with compassion upon our brief generations. Occasionally, imbedded in timber, are found flints, knife-blades, bullets, or other mementoes of early or more recent human presence. This suggests a way of perpetuating our memories. Might we not thrust within such stout, durable envelope a letter on leaf of some unrusting metal, or an inclosure in a small vial, addressing the missive “ To the Future ” ? We could not send a voluminous report of ourselves (as, when the corner-stone of a church is laid, the newspapers and calendars of the day are submitted), but our dispatch would lose nothing by beingbrief and to the point.

If there is not, there might appropriately be some such myth as the following, relating how man first came to lift his arm against his friend the tree : Sullen but subtle stone, envying the erect and supple estate of the tree, began plotting the tree’s destruction. Sullen stone got the ear of man, and represented how the latter might overcome and subjugate his tall ally, and thereto did put the means in man’s hand, to wit, a sharp-edged flint. From that day to this, the man with the axe has never ceased to exercise his advantage. The little giant coming from the sunrise quarter shoulders the billowy forest on before him. Always some denser body of trees is known as the West Woods. I think this to be an enchanted bourn, haunted by a wilder flora and fauna, and constantly shifting towards the Occident. Fast Woods there doubtless are, but there is less reference to them; else the name fails to make so great an impression on the fancy. In the annals of forestry, a leaf should be turned down at the page which depicts the stirring campaign of the early Ohio settlers against the primeval woods. From one who was an on-looker I gather an account of the tactics employed in the long fight. As much as was possible, it was made an internecine strife of trees. The woodman, cutting deeply into a number of trunks in the same range, would then manage that some tree of greater size and heaviness should fall upon its slighter comrade, this in turn prostrating the next in order, and so on, until there was formed what the chopper, borrowing from the reaper, termed a “ windrow.” After being sufficiently seasoned, the trees thus felled were set on fire ; and when the portions in contact had been consumed, the scattered tranks were hauled together, and the burning renewed until a " clearing ” was effected.

In one respect the destruction of " God’s first temples ” appears more sacrilegious than the act of pulling down a church; for the latter-day temple was never so long in building as was the live edifice. Yet I remember the Scripture : “ There is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.” As we go through the woods, more than one practical exemplification of the text is observed. Around its edge the flat tablet of this beech stump is decorated with thrifty young shoots, in tufts like those of box in a garden border. A decapitated sycamore has, within a few months after its martyrdom, grown a new bushy head, with leaves a foot in breadth. It is as though the tree, conscious of its dismantled condition, and still proud of race, had sought this way of masking its fallen fortunes. Around many an old chestnut, long ago gathered to his fathers, stands a group of flourishing descendants, — natural fasces symbolizing the strength of filial devotion and brotherly love. Did the bishop’s staff of pious legend put forth leaves and blossoms ? The tenacity of life exhibited in some trees is touching to behold. A maple was cut down, earth thrown over the place it had occupied, and a path beaten out. This was in the autumn. The spring following, there was formed above the roots a pool of sap, which did not dry away until the sugar season was past. Though there were no longer branches and leaf-buds to draw upon the hidden supplies, the poor blind roots, ignorant of the calamity that had occurred above ground, were still hopefully and faithfully performing their allotted task. It was pitiable that a nectar spring should thus end in a slough, and I surmised that it would have taken little conjuring skill to bring the hamadryad’s lamenting ghost to the spot.

As in case of any other benefit, its abundance causes it to be slightly esteemed, so with wood, whether for mechanic use or as mere fuel. In some parts of the continent a house of rosewood or of mahogany might be accounted no great luxury. But to balance contempt due to familiarity, apply the valuation which a far northern savage would set upon a fallen forest branch or a miserable fagot. Dr. Kane found in a deserted Esquimau hut a child’s toy spear, its head of ivory, its shaft of the precious material wood, in six-inch pieces, deftly joined, and bound with skin. The extreme durability of certain timbers is little appreciated. In one of the ecclesiastical edifices at Rome, trusses of fir were sound after nearly a thousand years of service, and a gate of cypress, conducting to St. Peter’s, remained good after the lapse of six hundred years. Some kinds of wood are better preserved under water than in dry situations. A giant cedar, of the old forest hidden under the swamps of New Jersey, was estimated to have lain thus encased in muck for a period exceeding three thousand years. When exhumed its grain was still unimpaired. Such durability can have few parallels, yet in one instance it may be said to have been excelled. The constructors of the Denver and New Orleans Railway met with an obstruction in the shape of a buried forest. Axes of steel might not prevail against it. The trees, having suffered an elemental change, were monuments to themselves, — inviolable timber! Yet while fallen trees have been turned to stone, many living ones secrete no inconsiderable amount of earthy matter, storing their cells with atoms of silica, as the artisan can testify, who finds that certain softer woods, thus freely absorbent of mineral food, are more detrimental to his saws and planes than are many of the harder woods. Less easily explained is the singular fact that some woods when mechanically combined conduce to mutual decay; such ill-fated unions are cypress and cedar, and cypress and walnut. The all - gathering author of the Anatomy of Melancholy would have digested this fact with extreme relish. He maintains that there are vegetable loves and hates, and that there exists ” between the vine and elm a great sympathy, between the vine and the cabbage, between the vine and the olive; ” on the other hand, “ between the vine and the bay a great antipathy ; the vine loves not the bay. . . . The bur and the lentil cannot endure one another.” Probably Burton would have accounted for the mischievous action some woods exert upon others by supposing that the ruling passion remained strong in death. However this may be, I have an impression that our beech and maple, which have trained together in life, love to be burned in each other’s society, their ashes making one drift upon the hearth, and their spirits together ascending to the heaven of trees.

I am acquainted with a lover of trees, who speaks of them as " those eloquent deaf-mutes,” and who thinks it a pity that, being so sentient, they yet should lack power to express their thoughts. Perhaps, therefore, out of pure compassion were Dodona’s speaking oaks created by the poets, as also may have been the trees of whose timbers were built the intelligent and obedient ships of the Phæacians : —

“ They know men’s thoughts, and whither tends their speed,
And there will set them ; for you cannot name
A city to them, nor fat soil, that Fame
Hath any notice given, but well they know,
And will fly to them, though they ebb and flow
In blackest clouds and nights.”

Perhaps from a fancied wistful intentness and dumb pathos in the mien of a tree came the suggestion that it had once been man, and that it still retained some of the impulses and cogitations of the human. Hence those curious fables relating to metamorphosis, with which the old mythologies abound. Atys, Daphne, Myrrha, Baucis and Philemon, and many another are in this anomalous botanical order. Writes Maurice de Guérin (that Greek spirit chancing upon a French nativity) : " Formerly, the gods, wishing to reward the virtue of certain mortals, caused to spring up about them a vegetable matter, which as it grew absorbed their aged bodies, and substituted for their life, worn out by extreme age, the strong and silent life which holds sway under the bark of an oak. These mortals, having become motionless, rested, except as the wind stirred their branching tops. Is not this the sage and his calm ? ” I own that I should like to see the reverse of the charm, and trees changed to their poetic correspondences among mankind : oaks figuring as strong wrestlers, birches as fleet runners, willows as graceful nymphs leading a brookside dance, pines as wandering minstrels harp-playing at the courts of kings and reciting Iliads and Odysseys. It is possible the trees themselves have similar day-dreams, if credit be given the vague rumors which the wind occasionally brings us. Some time since, on an enchanted summer afternoon, I heard the woods utter the following complaint, in tones half whisper, half musical recitative. (I do not think I could have been asleep.)

We that sway the forest realm,
Oak and chestnut, beech and elm,
Do grow weary, standing here
Year by year, — long year by year !
Will it never more befall us
We shall hear a master call us,
When our troops shall break their trance
And be joined in nimble dance ?
He should lead us up and down,
Drunk with joy from root to crown,
Through the valley, over hill,
Servants unto music’s will ;
Leaf aud nut the earth bestrewing,
Birds their truant nests pursuing, —
Merry madness all around
In the trembling air and ground !
So it chanced (our sages say)
In the bard Amphion’s day ;
But since he was lost to earth,
None could wake our souls to mirth.
Music, music, music bring,
Blow on flute, aud smite the string-!
We for revel fare are ripe, —
We would dance, but who will pipe ?
Now the best of bards alive
In his art so ill doth thrive,
He might try for days together,
And not start one plume of heather!

Truth to say, the only Amphionic music the trees hear nowadays is the ring of the woodman’s axe, their only dance a short, giddy reel.

There are spirits of the sylvan and spirits of the open, natural interpreters of the woods and interpreters of the fields. The true spiritual descendants of the Druids are a small minority. How many of us, while loving trees, are also lovers of the mid-forest and deep shade ? If not lost in the woods, we are much at a loss there. The surrounding is alien. A latent timorousness akin to superstition starts up and walks with us, advising

“ Of forests and enchantments drear,
Where more is meant than meets the ear.”

This under-meaning or over-meaning of the woods still baffles. Their most gracious invitation and salutation at a little distance are never quite made good when I have stepped across their precincts. Foretaste of their indifference has often kept me a traveler “ all around Robin Hood’s barn,” rather than through it. Or is it that, not greatly fond of interiors (of woodland interiors, even), I prefer to stand or sit in the strongpillared portico, and gaze thence far into the mysterious presence-filled sanctuary ? Were I within, the preached word would but puzzle my child-like capacity. Such impression I have of the woods in full leaf, roofed over and curtained round. In winter, in early spring, or in late autumn, when the sky’s good light keeps me in countenance, my wood-wit is less dull. Looking sunward through these long aisles, I see the dead leaves repeatedly lifted on the awakening wind. The ground itself seems to acquire motion from their fluctuations, and appears now rising, now subsiding, as the wind comes or goes. Are the leaves surely dead ? Near by they have a cautionary speech all thenown, a continuous “hist ” and “ ’sh,” — sounds distinct from the sonorous windmarch through the tree-tops. Soul of the forest and of all sylvan summers gone, set free by the blown ripe leaves, — I flush it, and follow it through the shrill woods!

Edith M. Thomas.