Sunday, July 11, 2010
Chekhov and the Environment
'It's a real shame!' he sighed after a short silence. 'Lord, what a crying shame! Of course, it's all God's will it wasn't us who made the world. All the same, my friend, it's a terrible shame. If a single tree withers away or, let's say, one of your cows dies, you feel sorry. So what will it be like, my friend, if the whole world goes to wrack and ruin? There is so much that's good, Lord Jesus Christ! The sun, the sky, the woods, the rivers, living creatures they've all been created and fashioned so they fit in with each other. Everything has its allotted task and knows its place. And all this must perish!'Panpipes was written in 1887.
A sad smile passed over the shepherd's face and his eyelids trembled.
'You say that the world's heading for ruin,' Meliton said thoughtfully. 'Maybe the world will end soon, but you can hardly take just birds as a sign.'
'It's not only birds,' said the shepherd. 'It's beasts as well cattle, bees and fish...If you don't believe me ask any old man. Every one of them'll tell you that fish ain't anything like what they used to be. Every year there's less and less fish in the sea, lakes and rivers. Here in the Peschanka, as I remember, you could catch two-foot pike and there was burbot and bream all goodly-sized fish. But now you can thank your lucky stars if you catch a small pike or a six-inch perch. There's not even decent ruff. Every year it gets worse and worse and soon there won't be any fish at all! As for the rivers they'll dry up, most likely!'
'You're right that they will!'
'That's it! Every year they get shallower and shallower, there's no longer those nice deep pools there used to be, me friend. See those bushes over there? asked the old man, pointing to one side. 'Behind them there's an old river-bed "the backwater" it's called. In my father's day that's where the Peschanka flowed, but now look where the devil's taken it! It keeps changing course and you see, it'll keep changing course till it dries up altogether. Other side of Kurgasov there used to be marshes and ponds, but where are they now? And what became of all them little streams? In this very wood there used to be a stream with so much water in it the peasants only had to dip their creels in it to catch pike, and wild duck used to winter there. But even at spring flood there's no decent water in it now. Yes, me friend, things are bad everywhere you look. Everywhere!'
There was silence. Lost in thought, Meliton stared before him. He wanted to think of a single part of nature as yet untouched by the all-embracing ruin. Bright patches of light glided over the mist and the slanting sheets of rain as if over frosted glass, only to vanish immediately the rising sun was trying to break through the clouds and glimpse the earth.
'Yes and the forests too,' Meliton muttered.
'And the forests too,' repeated the shepherd. 'they're being cut down, they catch fire or dry up and there's no new growth. What does grow is felled right away. One day it comes up and the next it's chopped down and so it goes till there's nothing left. Ever since we got our freedom, me friend, I've been minding the village herd and before that I was one of squire's shepherds too grazed this very spot and I can't remember one summer's day when I wasn't here. And all the time I keep watching God's works. I've been able to keep a close watch on things in me lifetime and as I sees it now all kinds of plants are dying out, whether it's rye, vegetables, flowers everything's heading one way...'
Anton Chekhov, The Wood-Demon, tr. Ronald Hingley in The Oxford Chekhov, Volume III = Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Wood-Demon (London: Oxford University Press, 1964; rpt. 1976), pp. 199-272 (appendix on pp. 273-299).
Act I, Scene VII (pp. 216-217):
VOYNITSKY. Whenever I've been favoured with your speeches on behalf of the forests every word has been stale, frivolous and biased. I'm sorry, but I know what I'm talking about, I know your speeches for the defence almost by heart. For instance. [Raising his voice and making gestures as if in imitation of KHRUSCHOV.] O men and women, you destroy our forests, but they are the glory of our earth, they teach man to appreciate beauty and give him a sense of grandeur. Forests alleviate a harsh climate. In a mild climate less effort is spent on the struggle for existence, so that men and women are gentler and more affectionate. In countries with a mild climate, people are handsome, adaptable and sensitive, their speech is elegant and their movements are graceful. Art and learning flourish among them, their philosophy is cheerful and they treat their womenfolk with great delicacy and chivalry. And so on and so forth. That’s all very charming, but so unconvincing that you must allow me to carry on burning logs in my stoves and building my barms of wood.Act III, Scene XII (pp. 250-251):
KHRUSCHOV. By all means cut timber if you really need it, but it's time we stopped ruining the forests. All the forests of Russia are crashing down before the axe, millions upon millions of trees perish, the homes of birds and beasts are devastated, rivers grow shallow and dry up, wonderful scenery disappears without trace, and all because man’s so lazy and hasn’t the sense to bend down and take his fuel from the ground. Only an unreasoning brute could burn beauty like this [points to the trees] in his stove, destroying what we cannot create. Man has been granted reason and the power to create, so that he can add to what he's been given. But up to now he hasn't been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life's become extinct, the climate's ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day. You look at me ironically and you find everything I say stale and frivolous, but when I walk past our village woodlands which I've saved from the axe or hear the rustle of my own saplings, planted with these hands, I feel that I too have some slight control over the climate and that if man is happy a thousand years from now I'll have done a bit towards it myself. When I plant a young birch and later see it covered with green and swaying in the breeze, my heart fills with pride at the thought that I'm helping God to create a living organism.
THEODORE [interrupting]. Your health, Mr. Wood-Demon.
KHRUSCHOV. Let me go over and see Kuznetsov. Let me tell him you've changed your mind. How about it? You're going to fell a thousand trees. And what are you destroying them for? Just for two or three thousand roubles to buy a few miserable dresses for your wife and indulge yourself in a little luxury! Why destroy them? So that posterity may curse us as a lot of savages? If you, a scholar and a distinguished man, can be so cruel, what about those who haven’t your advantages? This is quite appalling.Act IV, Scene VI (pp. 259-260):
SONYA. What are you drawing?Act IV, Scene VIII (p. 264):
KHRUSCHOV. Oh, nothing of any interest.
SONYA. Is it a plan?
KHRUSCHOV. No, it’s a map of the forests in our district. I made it. [Pause.] The green colouring shows the forests of our grandfathers' time and before. Light green shows where they've been felled during the last twenty-five years — oh, and the blue shows where they're still standing. Yes.
KHRUSCHOV. Listen to me, Serebryakov. For twenty-five years you've been a professor and done academic work while I've planted trees and practised medicine. But what's the point of these things, and who gets anything out of them, if we're not kind to those we're working for? [....] Everything's gone to rack and ruin, it's all going to blazes. You people call me a wood-demon, but I'm not the only one, you know. You've all got a demon inside you, and you're all wandering in a dark wood and feeling your way.In Act IV, Scene IX (pp. 265-267), when a fire starts in the Telibeyev Woods, Khruschov rushes off, but in Act IV, Scene XI (pp. 269-270) he soon returns, ostensibly to get a horse, but really because he can’t bear to be apart from Sonya. So much for his ideals!
The Wood-Demon had its premiere on December 27, 1889. It was a failure. Ten years later (October 16, 1899), Chekhov wrote in a letter to A.I. Urusov, who wanted to publish the play (Hingley, p. 281):
I beg you not to be angry, but I can’t publish The Wood-Demon. I hate the play and I’m trying to forget it. Whether it’s the fault of the play itself or of the circumstances in which it was written and staged, I don’t know. But it would be real blow to me if some unknown force were to drag it out of obscurity and bring it to life. There’s a fine example of perverted parental love for you.
Chekhov did, however, reuse portions of The Wood-Demon in another play, Uncle Vanya, tr. Ronald Hingley in The Oxford Chekhov, Volume III = Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Wood-Demon (London: Oxford University Press, 1964; rpt. 1976), pp. 15-67 (with appendix on pp. 300-304).
Act I (pp. 27-28):
HELEN. I’ve already heard how fond you are of forestry work. You can do a lot of good that way of course, but doesn’t it interfere with your real business in life? You are a doctor after all.Act I (p. 29):
ASTROV. God alone knows what our real business in life is.
HELEN. And is it interesting?
ASTROV. It’s interesting work, yes.
VOYNITSKY [ironically]. Oh, very!
SONYA. No, it’s extremely interesting. Dr. Astrov plants new woods every year and he’s already been given a bronze medal and a certificate. He’s doing his best to save the old forests from destruction. If you’ll listen to what he has to say you’ll agree with him completely. He says that forests are the glory of our earth, that they teach man to appreciate beauty and give him a sense of grandeur. Forests alleviate a harsh climate. In countries with a mild climate less effort is spent on the struggle for existence, so that men and women are gentler and more affectionate. In such places people are handsome, adaptable and sensitive, their speech is elegant and their movements are graceful. Art and learning flourish among them, their philosophy is cheerful and they treat their womenfolk with great delicacy and chivalry.
VOYNITSKY. Loud cheers! This is all very charming, but not in the least convincing, so [to ASTROV] allow me, my friend, to carry on burning logs in my stoves and building my barns of wood.
ASTROV. You can burn peat in your stoves and make your barns of stone. All right, I grant your point—cut the timber if you need it. But why ruin the forests? The forests of Russia are crashing down before the axe, millions upon millions of trees perish, the homes of birds and beasts are devastated, rivers grow shallow and dry up, wonderful scenery disappears without trace, and all because man’s so lazy—hasn’t the sense to bend down and take his fuel from the ground. [To HELEN.] Don’t you agree, madam? Only an unreasoning brute could burn beauty like this in his stove, destroying what we cannot create. Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he's been given. But up to now he hasn't been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life's become extinct, the climate's ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day. [To VOYNITSKY.] You look at me ironically, You don’t take any of this seriously, and—and perhaps I really have got a bee in my bonnet. But when I walk past our village woodlands which I've saved from the axe or hear the rustle of my own saplings, planted with my own hands, I feel that I too have some slight control over the climate and that if man is happy a thousand years from now I'll have done a bit towards it myself. When I plant a young birch and later see it covered with green and swaying in the breeze, my heart fills with pride and I—. [Seeing the LABOURER, who has brought a glass of vodka on a tray.] However, [drinks] I must go. Anyway, this is all a bee in my bonnet, I daresay. I bid you good day.
HELEN. It’s just what Astrov was saying a moment ago—you all wantonly destroy the forests, and soon there won’t be anything left on earth. You destroy men and women too every bit as wantonly, and soon, thanks to you, there will be no loyalty, integrity or unselfishness left on earth. Why does it upset you so much to see a woman who doesn’t belong to you? Because—and the doctor’s right—there’s a demon of destruction in every one of you. You don’t spare anything, whether it’s the trees, the birds—or women or one another.Act III (pp. 47-48):
ASTROV. Now look at this. This gives a picture of our district as it was fifty years ago. Dark green and light green stand for woodlands, and half the entire area was wooded. Where I have this red cross-hatching over the green, that was the home of elk and wild goat. I show both flora and fauna. This lake here was the home of swans, geese and wild duck, and they made ‘a powerful lot of birds’, as the old peasants say, no end of them—whole clouds swarming overhead. Besides the villages and larger settlements there were, as you see, isolated hamlets all over the place, odd farmsteads, hermitages and watermills. There were lots of cattle and horses. Those are shown in blue. Do you see this area where there’s such a lot of blue? There were any number of horses there, an average of three per household. [Pause.] Now let’s look lower down and see what things were like twenty-five years ago. Here only a third of the area’s under timber. There are no more wild goats, but there are still some elk. The green and blue colouring is less in evidence. And so it goes on, so it goes on. Now let’s move on to part three, a picture of the district as it is today. There are odd bits of green here and there in patches, but no continuous stretches. The elk, swans and wood-grouse are no more. The old hamlets, farmsteads, hermitages and wood-mills have vanished without trace. The general picture is one of a gradual and unmistakable decline, and it obviously needs only another ten or fifteen years to become complete.If an appreciation for forests was supposed to foster finer relations between men and women, it didn't work in Astrov's casehe makes unwelcome advances to Helen in Act III.