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RED CEDAR LORE
The rough November winds which roar through the bare branches of the tall trees ride over spaces of sun-steeped calm in the sheltered pastures. Here often summer slips back and dances for a day, arrayed in all the jewels of the year. The older birches toss amber-brown beads upon her as she sways by, but the little ones dance with her, their temples bound with gold bangles which autumn gave them. The lady birches are in fashion this year most surely. Now that they have doffed summer draperies it is easy to note their scant, close-hobbled skirts and the gleam of white ankles through the most diaphanous of hose. Perhaps the birches, have never worn things any other way but I do not seem to remember them so in past years. I always suspect them of being devoted to the mode of the moment and likely to appear next year in crinoline, or whatever else Paris dictates. But that is true only of the grown-ups. The birch children are the same always, slender sweet little folk, than whom summer could have no more lovely companions for her farewell romps in the pasture.
But the most virile of all the pasture's personalities is that of the red cedar. When the keen autumn winds blow and toss the plumes of these Indian chieftains they wrap their olive green blankets but the closer about them and seem to stalk the mossy levels in dignity or gather in erect, silent groups to discuss weighty affairs of the tribe. Thus for the larger ones, tall warriors that in their time have travelled far, have met many warriors and learned wisdom from the meeting. There is no solemnity about these, but there is dignity and a vivid personality which it is hard to match in any other tree. It is hard to think of these as of the vegetable world. I suspect them of standing immobile only at their will and of being capable of trooping up hill and over into some other pasture should they see fit, as readily as the woodchucks would, or any other four-footed denizens of the place.
The greater trees of the pasture do not seem to carry such personality. Many of them are like structures rather than people. The pine that spires high is like a church. From it as the winds pass I hear the sound of organ tones and the singing of hymns in a language that is older than man, a music whose legend is that of a world before man was. Perhaps the first pines caught the music of the morning stars when first they sang hymns together and have made it a part of the ritual of their worship ever since. No notation that man has devised can express this music nor can any instrument which man has yet made reproduce it. Its hymnal is mesozoic. On the soft brown carpet of nave and transept of this cathedral tree one's foot falls in hushed silence and he who passes without his head bowed in reverence for the solemnity of the place goes with soul dulled to the higher spiritual influences of the woods.
On the other hand the white oaks always seem dwelling houses for the pasture folk. Beneath their wide-spreading horizontal branches I see the little folks of the neighborhood at play. Tiny pines sprout there, playing sedately as if already touched with the thought of their coming solemnity. Little brown cedars, just a few inches high, gambol on the green turf, and the barberry bushes that are still too young to wear the gold pendants that will come to them in future springs and the rubies of coming autumns, open their leaves there like the wide starry eyes of wondering baby girls. The kindergarten of the pasture is taught under the big white oaks and all the babies of the pasture folk attend.
The cedars make up much of the picturesque beauty of the pastures and it is pleasant to know that these beautiful trees whose personality is so marked as they group in the golden sunshine, their bronze garments beaded with the blue of their fruit, are of excellent family, they and their relatives greatly esteemed for their value and beauty the world over. The first explorers of the country spoke enthusiastically of our red cedar as one of the finest woods of the New World, praising its quality and especially its durability. Indeed the heart wood of red cedar seems to hold an oil which makes it proof against vermin and fungi. Every housewife knows the value of red cedar chips or red cedar chests in keeping garments safe from moths. Every old-time farmer knows the value of red cedar as fence-posts. The heart wood seems practically indestructible by rot. Posts set in the ground for a hundred years, in which the sap-wood has entirely disappeared beneath the surface, still retain the red heart-wood intact, I dare say good fur another hundred, or maybe many more.
As the tree is sturdy in its defiance of moth and mould, so it is bold in its endurance of all weathers and adaptable to all soils. It grows from Nova Scotia to northern Florida and westward to the Rocky Mountains, being replaced farther west by another species so much like it that only the expert can tell the difference. In Florida, along the Gulf coast and the Bahamas again, experts say, it is replaced by another species, but there too only the experts can tell the difference. In the beautiful province of Ontario, between the three great lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron, is a region where it grows well and is universally prevalent, and it grows alike in the limestone flats of the South and on the bleak sandy prairies and ridges of our great central plain. In the Tennessee mountains and southward into Alabama is, however, the greatest red-cedar region and the place where the trees reach their finest growth. In northern Alabama fallen trees have been found 100 feet in height, three feet and more in thickness at a height of four and a half feet from the ground, and without limbs for two-thirds their height. These were, of course, trees of the virgin forests, long since removed that we and all the world might have lead-pencils. The world has tried many things for pencils, and some of them have had a fugitive popularity, but still the millions of pencils daily used are made from the diminishing supply of red cedar.
To us in New England to whom a cedar tree thirty feet high is no common sight the stories of these hundred-foot high trees seem strange indeed, and I know of but one red cedar whose diameter is as much as twelve inches. This tree is much less than thirty feet in height, however. It grows by itself on rocky ground in a pasture where it has no close neighbors of any variety. Its trunk divides at eight feet from the ground into many branches which make a round head whose ancient, twigs are hoary with lichens and seem to be in the last stages of senile debility. Yet every year the old tree puts forth a crop of new leaves and defies the decay of centuries. How many years old this tree is I cannot say, but I think it very many. We readily tell the age of many trees by counting the rings of growth after they are cut. Cedars have been known to show an annual increase of half to three-quarters of an inch thus measured. Others have grown so slowly that only with a microscope can the annual rings be counted. I fancy my patriarch as belonging to their lodge, nor would I be surprised to learn that when its first plume appeared above the ledges Indian tepees were the only human habitations of the region.
The red cedar seems to have a power to fix itself on a rough ledge and grow there year after year and indeed century after century, that is far greater than that of any other tree. You will find them on the rocks looking seaward along much of our New England coast, some of them the same trees known in the same spots since the days of the earliest settlers, gnarled, stunted and storm-beaten, but evergreen, and glowing with a little of the gold of spring each year just the same, typical, it always seems to me, of all that is hardy and defiant in the New England character. I know such cedars on the ledges which jut southerly from the edge of the tiny plateau which is the top of Blue Hill and you may find them on many other ledges of the range. I believe these same trees were there when Captain John Smith first sighted the "Cheviot Hills" from the ship which brought him into Massachusetts Bay.
Far different from these are the trees which grow in the sheltered pastures where the soil is good. None of these get the round head of my ancient friend of the ledgy hill. Instead they grow a single, straight shaft, ten, twenty, or even thirty feet tall, with many small limbs curving upward and close pressed toward the trunk, making a round, tapering column of living green trees of singular dignity and beauty that look as if carefully smoothed up with the gardener's shears. All the year the pasture cedars are beautiful, and it is hard to say whether they are at their best in the spring glow of staminate delight or now when their bronze robes bear the round, exquisitely blue berries which are really cones. I have an idea the birds like them best now. The robins, the cedar-birds, and a host of others eat these berries gladly, and fly far with them, planting the seeds as they go. They find shelter in the close drawn blanket of evergreen foliage which the trees seem to wrap about them to keep out the cold and they fill the pasture with flitting wings all the month. If the season is mild and the blue fruit of the cedars very plentiful the birds are likely to stay by all winter, not minding the cold so there be plenty of food. It is worthy of note that the robin and the red cedar have the same range.
I do not blame the red men for holding the cedar sacred and ascribing to it certain mystic powers. They burned cedar twigs as incense in some of their sacred ceremonies, and surely they could have found no finer aroma. Some of tribes always set a cedar pole for the centre of their ghost dance, and they gave the tree an untranslatable name which referred to power, mystery and immortality. The Dakotas burned cedar to drive away ghosts, and in the lodge at night when anyone lay sick there was always a fire of cedar wood to protect from evil spirits. Of ten a cedar bough lay across the door of the lodge. It is thus that we ourselves hang up horseshoes.
On the continent of Europe, I am told, the juniper, which is a very close relative of our red cedar, is held in great veneration. Tradition has it that it saved the life of the Madonna and the infant Jesus when they fled into Egypt. In order to screen her son from the assassins employed by Herod, Mary is said to have hidden him tinder certain plants and trees which received her blessing in return for the shelter they afforded. Among the plants thus blessed the juniper has been peculiarly invested with the power and privilege of putting to flight the spirits of evil and destroying the charms of the magician. Thus, even to this day, the stables in Italy are preserved from demons and thunderbolts by means of a sprig of juniper.
But the lowly juniper is not the only famous relative of our red cedar at home or abroad. Closely allied to it are the biggest trees in the world, famous as descendants from a far-distant age, yet still living and green. These are the "big trees" of the Pacific Coast, the Sequoia gigantea, which are indeed trees vastly to be marvelled at for their size and to be venerated for their age and virility, but never to be loved so well as our dignified and beautiful friend of the hillside pastures.
Abroad, the cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, which Solomon glorified in his song, is an allied species, and so is the cypress, celebrated in song and story since the beginnings of time. The gopher wood of which Noah is said to have built his ark is believed by many to have been cypress, and, like the red cedar, Cupressus sempervirens is known to live to a very great age. Many instances might be cited of this, one of the most famous being the cypresses planted about the Mt. Sinai Monastery by the monks more than a thousand years ago and still standing there tall and green in the arid region of southwestern Arabia. The shape of these cypresses is singularly like that of many a cedar in our New England pastures, though their height is far greater.
And as the cedar and cypress are closely related in longevity, so they are in the durability of their wood. The former gates of St. Peter's at Rome were made of cypress in the time of Constantine. When they were removed and brass ones substituted by Pope Eugenius IV. they were still sound, though it was 1100 years since they were first placed in position. Brass itself could hardly have lasted better.
While the whole Appalachian Mountain region is dotted with localities where the red cedar grows plentifully, it is only in the southern portion that the best pencil wood is obtained. The demand long ago outstripped the supply and the great old trees that were peculiarly prized for the work have in the main passed. These trees seem to ripen and mellow after passing maturity and the wood from their red texture which makes it highly desirable for pencil wood. Only the higher priced pencils now cut in that smooth, cheesy, delightful fashion when being sharpened. The cheaper ones have the knots and inequalities in the wood which show them to have been taken from younger and immature trees. Half a million cubic feet of the best quality of red cedar was once used annually from these Southern forests in this country, and nearly a hundred thousand feet of it was exported. A generation ago one of the world’s great pencil manufacturers, L. von Faber, established a red cedar forest in Germany to see what could be done to artificially supply the demand for the vanishing wood. In 1875 he set young trees a foot and a half in height over an extensive area. At the end of the century these trees had attained a height of twelve feet and were growing thriftily. But as the trees have to be nearly fifty years old before they will furnish pencil wood, the value of the experiment is still unproven.
But all this is by the way and is not to be compared with the joy the red cedars give to the pasture world just by being there and sending forth the beneficence of their personality upon all who come. They make the finest nesting places for the birds in summer. They feed them in autumn and in the winter's fiercest cold they wrap the warm blanket of their bronze foliage about them. Nor do I blame the Indians for investing them with strange powers. In the sunshine of midday they may seem merely friendly little trees of the pasture. If you will walk among them as dusk deepens you may feel their commonplace characteristics slip from them and the deep mystery of being begin to express itself. Then they seem like tribes of the elder world, a connecting link perhaps between the forest and the red men who but a few centuries ago inhabited it, far more real at such a time than the shadowy memories of these vanished inhabitants.