Monday, December 04, 2006


Planting Trees

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland:
But there is a frightful interval between the seed and timber. He that calculates the growth of trees, has the unwelcome remembrance of the shortness of life driven hard upon him. He knows that he is doing what will never benefit himself; and when he rejoices to see the stem rise, is disposed to repine that another shall cut it down.
In the back of Johnson's mind may have been some lines from Horace's Postumus ode (2.14.21-24), which Johnson himself translated on another occasion thus:
Your shady groves, your pleasing wife,
And fruitful fields, my dearest friend,
You'll leave together with your life:
Alone the cypress shall attend.

linquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum quas colis arborum
  te praeter invisas cupressos
    ulla brevem dominum sequetur.
Or, in a more literal translation:
You must leave earth, home, and affectionate wife. None of those trees which you're tending will accompany you (their short-lived master), except for the hated cypresses.
Among the Romans, the cypress tree was associated with funeral pyres, the houses of families in mourning, and tombs.

Cicero, On Old Age 7.24-25, had a different view on planting trees:
They expend effort on things which they know won't benefit them at all: "He plants trees to benefit another age," as our Caecilius Statius says in his Young Comrades. If you ask a farmer, no matter how old he is, for whom he's planting, he doesn't hesitate to say, "For the immortal gods, who not only were willing for me to receive these things from my ancestors, but also for me to hand them on to my descendants."

in eis elaborant, quae sciunt nihil ad se omnino pertinere: "serit arbores, quae altero saeclo prosint," ut ait Statius noster in Synephebis. nec vero dubitat agricola, quamvis sit senex, quaerenti cui serat respondere: "dis immortalibus, qui me non accipere modo haec a maioribus voluerunt, sed etiam posteris prodere."
See also Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 43:
Here, the widespread propagation for the first time in Greek history of permanent crops -- trees and vines -- seems to me every bit as significant as the more heralded intellectual, social, and military renaissance of the Greek eighth and seventh centuries. The spread of grafting and budding, which so helped to tie the new Greek tree and vine farmer to the soil -- was as important as the rediscovery of writing and the rise of philosophical speculation.

Do not arboriculture and viticulture also become diagnostic criteria of a farmer's success over an entire lifetime of work? Trees and vines are to be passed down to children and grandchildren. They force the agriculturalist to invest for the future, rather than for the current year alone. They harness him bodily to his orchard and vineyard, changing his way of thinking from mere production to stewardship of a lifetime's investment.

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