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IN PRAISE OF THE WEYMOUTH PINE.
I COULD never think it surprising that the ancients worshiped trees; that groves were believed to be the dwelling places of the gods; that Xerxes delighted in the great plane-tree of Lydia; that he decked it with golden ornaments and appointed for it a sentry, one of “the immortal ten thousand.” Feelings of this kind are natural; among natural men they seem to have been well-nigh universal. The wonder is that any should be without them. For myself, I cannot recollect the day when I did not regard the Weymouth pine (the white pine I was taught to call it, but now, for reasons of my own, I prefer the English name) with something like reverence. Especially was this true of one, — a tree of stupendous girth and height, under which I played, and up which I climbed till my cap seemed almost to rub against the sky. That pine ought to be standing yet; I would go far to lie in its shadow. But alas! no village Xerxes concerned himself for its safety, and long, long ago it was brought to earth, it and all its fair lesser companions. There is no wisdom in the grave, and it is nothing to them now that I remember them so kindly. Some of them went to the making of boxes, I suppose, some to the kindling of kitchen fires. In like noble spirit did the illustrious Bobo, for the love of roast pig, burn down his father’s house.
No such pines are to be seen now. I have said it for these twenty years, and mean no offense, surely, to the one under which, in thankful mood, I happen at this moment to be reclining. Yet a murmur runs through its branches as I pencil the words. Perhaps it is saying to itself that giants are, and always have been, things of the past, — things gazed at over the beholder’s shoulder and through the mists of years; and that this venerable monarch of my boyhood, this relic of times remote, has probably grown faster since it was cut down than ever it did while standing. I care not to argue the point. Rather, let me be glad that a tree is a tree, whether large or small. What a wonder of wonders it would seem to unaccustomed eyes! As some lover of imaginative delights wished that he could forget Shakespeare and read him new, so I would cheerfully lose all memory of my king of Weymouth pines, if by that means I might for once look upon a tree as upon something I had never seen or dreamed of.
For that purpose, were it given me to choose, I would have one that had grown by itself; full of branches on all sides, but with no suggestion of primness; in short, a perfect tree, a miracle hardly to be found in any forest, since the forest would be no better than a park if the separate members of it were allowed room to develop each after its own law. Nature is too cunning an artist to spoil the total effect of her picture by too fond a regard for the beauty of particular details.
I once passed a lazy, dreamy afternoon in a small clearing on a Canadian mountainside, where the lumbermen had left standing a few scattered butternuts. I can see them now, — misshapen giants, patriarchal monstrosities, their huge trunks leaning awkwardly this way and that, and each bearing at the top a ludicrously small, one-sided bunch of leafy boughs. All about me was the ancient wood. For a week I had been wandering through it with delight. Such beeches and maples, birches and butternuts! I had not thought of any imperfection. I had been in sympathy with the artist, and had enjoyed his work in the same spirit in which it had been wrought. Now, however, with these unhappy butternuts in my eye, I began to look, not at the forest, but at the trees, and I found that the spared butternuts were in no sense exceptional. All the trees were deformed. They had grown as they could, not as their innate proclivities would have led them. A tree is no better than a man; it cannot be itself if it stands too much in a crowd.
I set it down, unwillingly, to the discredit of the Weymouth pine, — a symptom of some ancestral taint, perhaps, — that it suffers less than most trees from being thus encroached upon. Yet it does not entirely escape. True, it leans neither to left nor right, its trunk is seldom contorted; if it grow at all it must grow straight toward the zenith; but it is sadly maimed, nevertheless, — hardly more than a tall stick with a broom at the top. If you would see a typical white pine you must go elsewhere to look for it. I remember one such, standing by itself in a broad Concord River meadow; not remarkable for its size, but of a symmetry and beauty that make the traveler turn again and again, till he is a mile away, to gaze upon it. No pine-tree ever grew like that in a wood.
I go sometimes through a certain hamlet, which has sprung suddenly into being on a hill-top where formerly stood a pine grove. The builders of the houses have preserved (doubtless they use that word) a goodly number of the trees. But though I have been wont to esteem the poorest tree as better than none, I am almost ready to forswear my opinion at sight of these slender trunks, so ungainly and unsupported. The first breeze, one would say, must bring them down upon the roofs they were never meant to shade. Poor naked things! I fancy they look abashed at being dragged thus unexpectedly and inappropriately into broad daylight. If I were to see the householder lifting his axe against one of them I think I should not say, “Woodman, spare that tree!” Let it go to the fire, the sooner the better, and be out of its misery.
Not that I blame the tree, or the power that made it what it is. The forest, like every other community, prospers — we may rather say exists — at the expense of individual perfection. But the expense is true economy, for, however it may be in ethics, in æsthetics the end justifies the means. The solitary pine, unhindered, symmetrical, green to its lowermost twig, as it rises out of the meadow or stands a-tiptoe on the rocky ledge, is a thing of beauty, a pleasure to every eye. A pity and a shame that it should not be more common! But the pine forest, dark, spacious, slumberous, musical! Here is something better than beauty, dearer than pleasure. When we enter this cathedral, unless we enter it unworthily, we speak not of such things. Every tree may be imperfect, with half its branches dead for want of room or want of sun, but until the devotee turns critic — an easy step, alas, for half-hearted worshipers — we are conscious of no lack. Magnificence can do without prettiness, and a touch of solemnity is better than any amusement.
Where shall we hear better preaching, more searching comment upon life and death, than in this same cathedral? Verily, the pine is a priest of the true religion. It speaks never of itself, never its own words. Silent it stands till the Spirit breathes upon it. Then all its innumerable leaves awake and speak as they are moved. Then “he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Wonderful is human speech, — the work of generations upon generations, each striving to express itself, its feelings, its thoughts, its needs, its sufferings, its joys, its inexpressible desires. Wonderful is human speech, for its complexity, its delicacy, its power. But the pine-tree, under the visitations of the heavenly influence, utters things incommunicable; it whispers to us of things we have never said and never can say, — things that lie deeper than words, deeper than thought. Blessed are our ears if we hear, for the message is not to be understood by every corner, nor, indeed, by any, except at happy moments. In this temple all hearing is given by inspiration, for which reason the pine-tree’s language is inarticulate, as Jesus spake in parables.
The pine wood loves a clean floor, and is intolerant of undergrowth. Grasses and sedges, with all bushes, it frowns upon, as a model housekeeper frowns upon dirt. A plain brown carpet suits it best, with a modest figure of green — preferably of evergreen — woven into it; a tracery of partridge-berry vine, or, it may be, of club moss, with here and there a tuft of pipsissewa and pyrola. Its mood is sombre, its taste severe. Yet I please myself with noticing that the pine wood, like the rest of us, is not without its freak, its amiable inconsistency, its one “tender spot,” as we say of each other. It makes a pet of one of our oddest, brightest, and showiest flowers, the pink lady’s-slipper, and by some means or other has enticed it away from the peat bog, where it surely should be growing, along with the calopogon, the pogonia, and the arethusa, and here it is, like some rare exotic, thriving in a bed of sand and on a mat of brown needles. Who will undertake to explain the occult “elective affinity” by which this rosy orchid is made so much at home under the heavy shadow of the Weymouth pine?
According to the common saying, there is no accounting for tastes. If by this is meant simply that we cannot account for them, the statement is true enough. But if we are to speak exactly, there are no likes nor dislikes except for cause. Every freak of taste, like every vagary of opinion, has its origin and history, and, with sufficient knowledge on our part, could be explained and justified. The pine-tree and the orchid are not friends by accident, however the case may look to us who cannot see behind the present nor beneath the surface. There are no mysteries per se, but only to the ignorant. Yet ignorance itself, disparagingly as we talk of it, has its favorable side, — as it is pleasant sometimes to withdraw from the sun and wander for a season in the half-light of the forest. Perhaps we need be in no haste to reach a world where there is never any darkness. In some moods, at least, I go with the partridge-berry vine and the lady’s-slipper. It is good, I think, to live awhile longer in the shadow; to see as through a glass darkly; and to hear overhead, not plain words, but inarticulate murmurs.
I am not to be understood as praising the pine at the expense of other trees. All things considered, no evergreen can be equal to a summer-green, on which we see the leaves budding, unfolding, ripening, and falling, — a “worlde whiche neweth everie daie.” What would winter be worth without the naked branches of maples and elms, beeches and oaks? We speak of them sadly:
“Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
the sadness is of a pleasing sort, that could ill be spared by any
who know the pleasures of sentiment and sober reflection. But though
one tree differeth from another-tree in glory, we may surely rejoice
in them all. One ministers to our mood to-day, another to-morrow.
So says Ternissa, in Landor’s dialogue. I know what she means. But I do not “hate” an impassive, unchangeable temper, whether in a tree or in a man. I have so little of such a spirit myself that I am glad to see some tokens of it — not too frequent, indeed, nor too self-assertive — in the world about me. And so I say, let me never be, for any long time together, where there are no Weymouth pines at which I may gaze from afar, or under which I may lie and listen. They boast not (rare stoics!), but they set us a brave example. No “blasts that blow the poplar white” can cause the pine-tree to blanch. No frost has power to strip it of a single leaf. Its wood is soft, but how dauntless its spirit! — a truly encouraging paradox, lending itself, at our private need, to endless consolatory moralizings. The great majority of my brothers must be comforted, I think, by any fresh reminder that the battle is not to the strong.
myself, then, like the lowly partridge-berry vine, I would be always
the pine-tree’s neighbor. Who knows but by lifelong fellowship with
it I may absorb something of its virtue? Summer and winter, its
fragrant breath rises to heaven; and of it we may say, with more
truth than Landor said of the over-sweet fragrance of the linden,
“Happy the man whose aspirations are pure enough to mingle with
1 The Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club for January, 1888, page 13.