Armistice Day


LAST night I inquired for my uniform. It could n’t be found on such short notice. Things seldom used have a way of disappearing in busy households. That was just as well for, when the sun rose crimson, this was obviously the day to prune the pear orchard.

Noon came before I could begin — a warm, windless, Indian-Summer noon; so much haze that you could look the sun in the eye without blinking. There is a coziness in the scene not often caught in our high clear country. No longer lured to far horizons, the eye examines contentedly things near at hand. This field, yielding hay as well as pears, runs too much to that ingratiating pest — wild carrot. Pleasantly the white houses of the village march up the hill toward the white church.

All quiet here. Quiet, too, the throng in Arlington through which the President will soon pass to lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In many a cemetery bugles are sounding Taps over the heads of hushed throngs. Before the sun sets hardly a township in America but shall have heard again those falling notes: ‘Go to rest, go to rest, go to rest.’ — Sleep well, friends! I know you would approve my staying at home and pruning pear trees, task conducive to reflections which, if roused often enough in enough of us, might go some way toward ending war, famine, and miseries too numerous to mention.

As luck would have it, I marched down — and also up — Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington that first Armistice Day in 1918. What an outburst of primitive joy that was, formless, unorganized, exuberant. Since then we have evolved ceremonies, always dutifully attended by me until now. The proceedings seldom vary. A lawyer talks patriotism and sacrifice before a flower-decked shrine. Around him stand ranks of men in khaki and blue a trifle tight for their maturing figures, keen Boy Scouts, sad-faced Gold Star mothers, Red Cross nurses, officials, and civic leaders in their Sunday clothes. The public frames the picture, the great soft-hearted general public. With each volley from the firing squad a shiver runs through the public; but it pulls itself together in the first verse of the Star-Spangled Banner and lets down again in the second.

I sit awhile in a sunny fence-corner plying the whetstone. The dogs that kept me random company up and down the files of trees quit burrowing and bickering to court my favor. They interfere. The young Airedale insists upon being tousled, while the dignified collie believes one arm belongs of right around his neck. He wins; dignified senescence, in man or beast, ought to have its day. The whetstone is finally pocketed and the Airedale grows content with having his ears scratched.

We three gaze upon our worlds. My world may be larger than theirs; yet — is n’t this pear orchard the world in little?

These hands — the left has little smears of blood drying on the skin, the right is blistered inside the thumb. Queer how one never notices slivers or blisters till he stops working. Blood and pain! No matter. Neither justifies excitement. Both are with us always. No child arrives without them. Whoever sets out, as I am doing in this old, misused orchard, to repair the neglects of the past, will escape neither.

Two categories of opponents confront me. Suckers on bole and limb. Viciousness is not in them; they are merely in the way and wasting sap needed for fruitful purposes. In these respects they resemble many persons and institutions, with whom one must deal firmly but gently. I have a sportsman’s axe — a tiny thing of goodly steel that takes almost a razor edge. A quick blow from beneath with this sends many a light stick to the ground. Where there is no room for that decisive stroke, or when the offending wood is too robust, the saw ‘s the thing! And for the upper limbs there is the pruning hook — symbol of peace, into which Micah and Isaiah agree the spear shall be beaten at last.

Not so deftly does one deal with the suckers springing from the base. Light tools are useless against those tough stringy shoots. With patience the saw will serve; but that kills time. Besides, the stubbornness of the things rouses the fighting spirit. I fall to with a broad-blade hatchet, built more for weight than edge. The sweat drips from the forehead; this is real work, close to the ground. After a trial of it, few would disagree with Charles Dudley Warner that the crying need of agriculture is a cast-iron backbone with a hinge in it. Mere twists of the wrists no longer serve; put your back and shoulder in it or you might as well quit.

For this is no scientific surgery among the tame, but a battle royal against the wild. These thorny thickets are no lush degenerate shoots of domesticity but tough volunteers from the wild root through which, all these years, the tree has been drawing nutriment and without whose virile contribution it would have perishe. Valuable quality, wildness—in its place, below ground, fighting for life against clod and stone and worm. But a cruel, expensive quality out here in the open. It is as if some elder Adam should rise from the grave and run amuck in the sunlight, never again to be put decently out of sight save by slaughter. Hack, hack, hack — and mind you grasp warily the fallen foe; even in defeat the wild has power to punish.

Once upon a time a primitive progressive ate a small, bitter pear, and had visions of better, fatter, sweeter pears, of plucking noble pears from thornless trees. No doubt his neighbors laughed at him and his family thought him queer. Nevertheless he started the pear civilization. But his descendants overdid it, as they discovered when their thornless pear trees began to degenerate. Whereupon another unsung genius grafted the tame pear shoot on the wild root, thereby providing strength where needed and quality where wanted. Tend well this hybrid, and it bears good fruit easy to gather; but relax your guard against this virile, indispensable thing at its root, and presently you must march against chaos in your orchard.

Is n’t that life? The dual nature of these trees has its counterpart in the dual nature of individuals and societies. At bottom there is the will to live, to possess, to dominate; at top the power to die, to give, to serve — tame, orderly, fruitful processes depending upon the victory of primitive forces below stairs. Eliminate the wild root; throttle too closely the instincts which drive men, families, and states to compete — civilization falls through decay. Neglect to keep the primitive in its place and a thorny tangle takes the place of orderly fruitfulness. A dilemma here: must intelligent beings, orchardists and statesmen alike, hang themselves on either horn? Not so; let the statesmen follow the husbandman’s example.

The time came when men thought the blessings of civilization would be ever with us. Safe to let lusts for wealth and empire flourish; safe to give Old Adam, unseen for long, an opportunity to get loose if he could. Gazing at our wealth, conveniences, glories, few noted the wild growths springing above ground. At length the latter had to be attended to, gorily. This holy day is one result.

The struggle between life and civilization, instinct and order, individual appetites and social needs, proceeds without end. The day never comes when an orchardist can look upon his trees and truly say, ‘There is nothing more to be done here.’ And the time shall never come when those who heed the common weal can say the social adjustment is perfect.

Here and now it is the industrial orchard that bears the golden apples. Its roots are tremendously strong; that is well. But be on your guard, husbandmen, that this power shall minister only to improving fruitage aloft. Easy for such roots to send up their murderous thorns. There is an orchard worth the watching in all truth.

The sun has dipped beyond the Helderberg as I turn away toward the house. Time for chores. Nevertheless I pause a moment by the gate to watch the changing tints on cloud and hill, and to note the order brought this day to one tiny corner of this great country for which so many of my generation died.