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.