Friday, December 30, 2011

`To Lay His Axe at the Root'

To make room for a $11.3-million, three-story parking garage, the public library has cut down two dozen sycamores and tulip trees planted by its landscapers little more than a decade ago. Tulips are among the loveliest trees, particularly when their leaves turn buttery yellow in autumn. Their trunks are models of rectitude and in the spring the blossoms have a citrus-like fragrance. They please every sense except, perhaps, taste.

On this day one-hundred sixty years ago, Thoreau watched the dismantling of a 100-foot pine at the bottom of Fair Haven Hill. Though disapproving of arborcide, even Thoreau is caught up in the drama and suspense of waiting for the giant to fall:

“There now comes up a deafening crash to these rocks, advertising you that even trees do not die without a groan. It rushed to embrace the earth, and mingle its elements with the dust. And now all is still once more and forever, both to eye and ear.”

My wife began reading Walden this week and after the first chapter said, “He’s a little self-centered, isn’t he? It’s all about him.” True enough. More than most writers, Thoreau requires us to learn how to read him properly, an education in which he both assists and hinders. He can be tiresome, especially if read as a philosopher, social commentator or literal autobiographer. He often writes like a Yankee prig. He’s best as a comedian and close observer of the natural world. Had they met him, most of his admirers would quickly have found him insufferable. At his best he’s a pure writer, an almost peerless arranger of words. It’s the self-righteous snottiness that’s most difficult to swallow. Both qualities mingle in the pine passage from his journal:

“A plant which has taken two centuries to perfect, rising by slow stages into the heavens, has this afternoon ceased to exist. Its sapling top had expanded to this January thaw as the forerunner of summers to come. Why does not the village bell sound a knell? I hear no knell tolled. I see no procession of mourners in the streets, or the woodland aisles. The squirrel has leaped to another tree; the hawk has circled further off, and has now settled upon a new eyrie, but the woodman is preparing to lay his axe at the root of that also.”

By noting the absence of mourners, Thoreau is really saying: “Only I, among all the citizens of Concord, am sensitive enough to mourn the passing of a tree.” Adolescent posturing is embarrassing in a man of thirty-four, even in the privacy of his journal.


William A. Sigler said...

I too thought Thoreau a tad self-righteous and self-absorbed, but close reading of the texts you've presented on AE from letters and journals has really opened me up to one of the master prose stylists of the English language. The passage here you describe as "adolescent posturing" I find to be (along with the rest of the entry) poignant without sentimentality, and dramatic without losing its integrity as a careful account of an actual event. It's the coldness of the writerly eye, in fact, that makes the contrast between the silent tree death and the loud commemorations around human death so striking. The consequences of "the perfect wreck on the hillside" on the creatures and woodlands are more powerful noted as facts, not eulogized. Even the portrayal of the human reapers, save the comic manikins fleeing from their crime, is done so matter-of-factly it makes us feel rather than merely know their utter obliviousness to the consequences of their actions.

Once again, the passage of time has altered our sense of Throeau's writing. We are content to see him as an environmental Cassandra because we actually care now somewhat about the ecology of trees, and pull out of his singular voice our own long-supressed plaintive tone. He would probably reject that intrusion, replying that's just the way things are, along with Chekov and Crane and Jeffers, the work of capturing it all well hidden within the sentences.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your wife.


Helen Pinkerton said...

Referring back to my earlier mention of Bridges' poem "The Hill Pines Were Sighing" (11-29-10) one might note, in contrast to Thoreau, that the Englishman Bridges is more sympathetic to the sadness of the fall of his stricken hundred-years-old English oak than the American is of his 200-year-old New England pine tree. Relying on the outdated pathetic fallacy Bridges has the pines sighing for the oak. His focus is on the trees not on criticizing his fellow townsmen for not noticing.

The hill pines were sighing,
O'ercast and chill was the day:
A mist in the valley lying
Blotted the pleasant May.

But deep in the glen's bosom
Summer slept in the fire
Of the odorous gorse-blossom
And the hot scent of the brier.

A ribald cuckoo clamoured,
And out of the copse the stroke
Of the iron axe that hammered
The iron heart of the oak.

Anon a sound appalling,
As a hundred years of pride
Crashed, in the silence falling;
And the shadowy pine-trees sighed.