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THE SINGING PINES
Last night I heard the pines sing again. A winter midnight was on the woods, while a northeaster smote the coast, a dozen miles away, with the million sledges of the surf. So mighty was the story of this smiting that for long I thought the pines sang of nothing else. In places and at times they told it with astonishing fidelity. A forty-mile gale muttered and grumbled to itself high in air above. Its voice was that of the gale anywhere when unobstructed. You may hear it at sea or ashore, a hubbub of tones indistinguishable as gust shoulders against gust and grumbles about it. In the quiet at the bottom of the wood I could hear this, too, especially at times when the wind lifted above the pine tops, leaving them in hushed expectancy of the story to come, a telling oratorical pause. For a little the voice of the gale itself would come burbling down into the momentary stillness, then with a gasp at the awesomeness of the tale the pines would take up the story again. In it there was none of the dainty romance the boughs will weave for the listener who cares to know their language of a sunny summer afternoon, little stories of tropic seas, of nodding sails and of flying fish that spring from the foam beneath the forefoot and skim the purple waves. This song was an epic of the age-long battle between the sea and the shore, a song without words, but told so well in tone that it was easy, seeing nothing there in the black shadow of the wood, yet to see it all; the jagged horizon against the sullen sky, the streaks of mottled foam sliding landward along the weltering backs of black waves, spinning into sea drift at every wind-sheared crest, and blowing, soft as wool, in rolling masses far inland. It was easy to see the greatest crests rear and draw back, showing the roots of the ledges among boulders brown with weed and sea wrack, then swing forward with seemingly irresistible might, to be shattered as if their crystal was that of glass and to fly skyward a hundred feet, scintillant white star drift of comminuted sea. The crash of such waves on such rocks, the hollow diapason of their like on sands, and the shrill roar of a pebbly beach torn and tossed by the waves, all sprang from nothingness into vibrant being there in the black woods as the gale shouldered by the pine tops.
There is a point where the pines group on the pond shore and look expectantly east, wistful of the sea. Here they caught the full force of the gale and sang mightily, a wild, deep-toned, marching symphony of crashing forces. Now and then a lull came, as comes in the fiercest gales, and in the vast silence which ensued I heard the pines across the pond singing antiphonally. Black as it was under the trees, there was a moon behind the night. No suggestion of it showed through the clouds, yet from the pond surface itself came a weird twilight, filtered no doubt through a mile of flying scud a mile above, reflected from the wind-swept surface and showing these distant pines lifting heads of murk against the murky sky. But their antiphonal shout was no pine-voiced song of the sea, it was the sea itself. Again and again I listened in successive lulls. I could not believe it the pines. I heard so surely the rush of waves, the deep boom of beating surges, all the mingled clangor of the on-shore gale, that I thought through some atmospheric trick I was listening to the thing itself; the uproar swept over the hills a dozen miles inland. Only by marching up the pond shore until the pines across were south instead of east of me did I prove to myself that it was they and not the sea in very truth that I heard.
Back again in the Stygian darkness of the grove it was easy to note how the pines protect their own. On the beach the smothering onrush of the gale beat me down, drove me before it. Yet I had but to walk inland a dozen yards to find a calm. The outermost trees shunted the gale and half the time it did not touch even the tops of those a hundred feet in. Walking out into the midnight storm, I had wondered how it fared with the small folk of the forest. So fierce was the onslaught of the wind that it seemed as if the birds might be blown from their roosts, the squirrels shaken from their nests. Under the shelter of the trees themselves I knew they were as safe as I from any harm from the wind. There was not enough of it below the tree-tops to ruffle a feather.
To lay one's ear closely and firmly against the trunk of one of these pines was to curiously get an inkling of what was going on far up among the branches. It is quite like listening at a telephone receiver, the wood like the wire bringing to the ear sound of many things going on within touch of it. Thus placed, I was conscious that the seemingly immobile tree swayed rhythmically, just the very slightest swaying in the world, and this I seemed to hear. It was as if the slight readjustment of the woody fibre gave me a faint thrumming sound, a tiny music of motion that was a delight to the ear after the beat and bellow of the gale beyond.
Twigs rapped one upon another, making little crisp sounds. Most surprising of all, however, was a tinkling tattoo of musical notes as if a dryad within were tapping out woodland melodies on a xylophone. I listened long to this. It was not exactly a comfortable position. To hear I must press, and the tree bark was hard and the rain ran down the trunk and into my ear. Yet the music was exquisite, a little runic rhyme, repeated over and over again with quaint variations but with neither beginning nor end. It was wonderfully wild and fairylike. Who would stop for water in his ear or a pain in the lobe of it? Midnight, the middle of the gale, the middle of the woods; perhaps here was that very opening into the realm of the unseen woodland folk that we all in our inmost hearts hope for and expect some day to find.
It may have been the dryad, playing the xylophone for a dance unseen by my gross mortal eyes, but if my water-logged ear did not deceive me -- and I hope it did -- it was only the beat of the big drops of rain on the twigs above, clarified and made resonant by its passage through the vibrant wood to my ear. At any rate, it was a most delightful musical entertainment of which I fancy myself the discoverer, and I hope it was the dryad. He who reads may believe as he will.
Beyond the pines I found the wind in the woods. Among the bare limbs of the deciduous growth the storm wailed and clattered its way on about my head as I felt out the path with my feet for a half mile to a pine-crowned hilltop. Again I was in sanctuary. The hilltop carried us up -- the pines and me -- into the full sweep of the gale, yet under their spreading, beneficent arms I felt no breath of wind. Overhead I noted its own wild voice as, very near and right with it in chorus, the pines sang, swaying in time to their music as I have seen a rapt singer do. Strangely enough, in their tones up here I could hear no cry of the sea. They sang instead the tumult of the sky, the vast loneliness of distant spaces, something of the deep-toned threnody of the ancient universe, mourning for worlds now dark.
Something of this the gale drew from the pines as it crowded by, but never once did its fiercest gusts disturb the serenity of the sanctuary beneath. A foot or two down from their topmost boughs was shelter for the crows, snugged down on a lee limb, close to the trunk, their feathers set to shed such rain as might strike them, their long black beaks thrust beneath their wings, rocked in the cradle of the deep woods, sung to sleep by their lullaby of the primal universe. There was little need to waste sympathy on them or on any other little folk of the forest who had for their shelter the brooding arms of these beneficent trees stretched above them.
Pines are the great, deep-breasted mothers of the woods, giving food and shelter from sun and storm to all who will come to them. Prolific mothers they are, too, and if man with his axe and his fire would but spare them they would in a generation or two reclothe our Massachusetts waste lands with their kind once more. Recklessly as the generations have destroyed them, sweeping often great tracts bare of every noble trunk, leaving the slash piled high for the fire to complete the destruction of the axe, they still persist, pushing the greenwood with its fluffy plumes right to our dooryards. Let the ploughed field lie fallow for a decade and see them come, loyal little folk preparing the way for them, as the trolls of ancient tales worked for those they loved. Into the brown furrows troop the goldenrod and asters, the wild grasses and brambles making a first shelter for the seeds of gray birch and wild cherry that magically come and plant themselves. A thousand other forms of life, beast and bird and insect, make the place their home; all preparing it for the nursing of the young pines to came. However rough has been the work of the wood cutters, however persistent the forest fires, somewhere is a seed pine standing, ready to spear the turf a mile away with brawn javelins out of whose wounds shall spring trees, just as out of the Cadmus-sown dragon's teeth of old sprang armed men. The tree may be a century-old gnarled trunk, too crooked and knotty to be worthy the woodman's axe, or a verdant sprout of a score of years' standing, green and lusty -- the result will be the same. When the seeding year comes the brown cones will open and the winds will bear the germs of the new growth forth, spinning down the gale, whichever way they list to blow. The tiny pines that result may live for three or four years amongst the brambles unnoticed, then suddenly they take heart and grow and we find a lusty forest coming along. At three years they will not -be over ten inches high, but they will make ten inches in height the next year, and after the fifth they stride forward like lusty youths, glorifying in their increase. It is not uncommon for them to stretch up three feet a year, more than doubling their height in that sixth year in which they strike their stride. They do not cease this upward striving as long as they live.
After the age of sixty or so the pine may be said to have passed the heyday of its youth, no longer increasing so rapidly in height and girth, yet the increase goes on, if more sedately. The tree rarely reaches a height of more than 160 feet and a diameter of more than forty inches. The largest ever measured by the Forestry Department of the United States was forty-eight inches in diameter at breast high and 170 feet in height, containing 738 cubic feet of wood in its mighty trunk. It will be some time before seedlings in the bramble patch here in Massachusetts reach that size, however, for this tree was 460 years old. It grew among trees of similar age in a pine forest in Michigan.
Yet New England pines have matched it, and more. Writing in 1846, Emerson tells of trees here 250 feet in height and six feet in diameter. One in Lancaster, New Hampshire, measured 264 feet. Fifty years before that trees in Blandford measured when they were felled 223 feet in length. The upper waters of the Penobscot were long the home of mighty pine trees where it was no uncommon thing to hew masts 70 to 90 feet in length. In 1841 one was hewed there 90 feet in length, 36 inches in diameter at the butt and 28 inches at the top. Such trees have passed, now, almost from the memory of living man. Could we have them here in our State they would be worshipped as were the druidical trees of ancient European countries and the place of their standing would be made a park that they might be visited by all, rich or poor. It seems a pity that our ancestors could not have thought of this. It would have been so easy for them to let clumps of these wonderful old pines stand, here and there. It is so impossible for us to bring one of them back, with all our wealth and all our learning.
If we may believe the geologists the pines were the original tree inhabitants of our land, massing it in their dark green from mountain top to sea shore. Suddenly no one knows whence, the oaks and other deciduous trees appeared among them and in part drove them out of the richer soils. "The oak," says Gray, "has driven the pine to the sands." Yet the pines grow equally well among the rough rocks of mountain slopes where the winter gales that wreck the hardwood trees leave them untouched. This is the more strange as pines rarely root deeply. The roots, even of old trees seventy to one hundred feet in height, rarely go into the earth more than two or three feet, taper rapidly and extend not usually over twenty feet on every side. In young trees twenty or twenty-five feet tall the roots do not penetrate more than fifteen or eighteen inches, yet great old trees stand alone in pasture and on hilltop, exposed to all the fury of the fiercest gales, rarely if ever blown down. The structure of yielding limbs that swing so that the gusts glance on their plumes, and the needle-like leaves that let the torrents of air slip through them, is no doubt the reason for this. The outermost pines of the grove shoulder the gale away from the others, yet let it slip by themselves, giving it no grip whereby to tear them up. The resinous roots of the tree not only suffice to hold it upright against the storm, but they last long after the trunk has been cut away. Our forefathers in clear land used to set the uprooted stumps of the pine up in rows for fencing, unsightly barricades that would persist for a century with little sign of decay. On the other hand, wood from the trunk set in the ground soon decays.
Of the great trees centuries old that once clothed our land from Newfoundland to the Dakotas, from northern New Brunswick to southern Pennsylvania, few if any remain. Nor shall anyone see their like here again for centuries. But the pines are coming back again to New England. We know their values now as never before and we are encouraging them to reclothe our solitudes both for their commercial and their sentimental value. This last is great and grows greater, nor need one necessarily go into the storm at midnight to appreciate it. One may get some phases of it there, though, that are not to be found elsewhere. My way home through the storm was rough and wet, but it was not lonely. The songs of the pines went with me, especially the tinkling xylophone dance music of the dryad, deep within the ancient trunk.