Under the Trees
WHETHER there is gypsy blood in my veins is a question which I answer sometimes in one way, sometimes in another. Of a sleety night when I hug the fireside, filled with Pecksniffian complacency at the contrast between my comfort and the misery of the homeless wanderer, I incline to the belief that all my ancestors were drowsy, square-toed burghers, nourished on sauerkraut and beer. But once outside, with the sleet slapping me in the face, and the wind pushing against my body, I feel that such an ancestry is inadequate to account for me. At these times I am sure that some everso-great grandfather and grandmother were married over the tongs; for which folly, Grandsir and Grandam, allow me to return you my fervent thanks.
For there is something melancholy in the contemplation of your indoors product, spending his whole time rehearsing for the more permanent immurement in the family sepulchre: in vain does Melibœus’s reed summon him to beechen shades. What he calls his conscience is forever teasing at him to ‘ improve’ his time — all ignorant as he is that there are some times so perfect that to dream of ‘improving’ them is an impertinence. Such are these heaven-sent days when from morning until dark one may lie under the trees that shade some cinquefoil-covered bank, and watch their branches against the sky.
They tell me that all ills have their compensations. I sincerely hope it may be so. To me, at any rate, long days spent underneath the trees have, in some sort, made up for much weariness of mind and body. It is wonderful how different trees, perfectly familiar from porch or window, look when you come to them for rest. It is the difference between a friend’s face as one sees it every day, indifferent, preoccupied, stern, and the same face bending over you when you are ill or sad.
There is a something peculiarly caressing about a pear tree in early autumn when the full-formed fruit is mellowing and taking on a richer coloring. Lounging beneath its downward curving boughs of a sunny afternoon, one receives a gracious suggestion of Pomona, the ruddy-cheeked and strongarmed, stooping so close that the autumnal perfume of her garments stirs the senses headily. Under such a tree, on such an afternoon, might John Keats have felt out his poem, ‘ To Autumn,’ whilst old dreams of peace floated through his drowsy brain.
I claim connoisseurship in these matters, and much experience has made me somewhat precious as to the aërial background for my various trees. For naked beeches, the misty azure of an afternoon in Indian summer; for Lombardy poplars, a leaden sky and a black line of slow-flying crows; but for the wild-cherry, a day of high winds driving tumbled masses of cloud through sapphire heights. There is an inexpressible austerity in those sparse leaves of the wild-cherry, all blown in the same direction: so at midnight, while the multitude of pilgrims slept below, may the Stylite on his pillar have stretched out yearning hands toward God: such intensity of longing breathes in the passionate
Te peto, te colo, te fkgro, te volo, canto, saluto, of the Monk of Cluny. And, gazing upward through the intervals of the scant foliage of this tree, I have seen the bright sky shining through, as Roman Catholic mystics have fancied they saw the Host glow through the sheer linen of the corporal.
But, before all, last of all, beautiful always, the oak! Whether its branches show green against a dark-blue sky, — gold where the sunlight touches them, — whether its leaves show magenta in the light of the setting sun, or black and silver in the moonlight, there is no tree of them all to compare with it. All a summer’s day you may lie stretched beneath it, so strong and so friendly, not to you only, but to all the little lives that swarm about its roots. All kinds of busy creatures, ants, spiders, daddylong-legs, beloved of your childhood, go scurrying over you on this errand and that, as unafraid, almost, as if you were dead. A feeling of kinship comes to you: a knowledge that all this life in oak and grass and insect, and the good dog lying at your feet, is but a little part of the ageless flux and reflux: soothingly as a cool hand on an aching head, there comes to you the realization that soon, fears, hates, and loves forgotten, your tired body shall rest under the trees all the days and all the nights.