Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Iconoclast Axes

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), The Growth of the Legend, lines 40-47:
Yes, the pine is the mother of legends; what food
For their grim roots is left when the thousand-yeared wood,
The dim-aisled cathedral, whose tall arches spring
Light, sinewy, graceful, firm-set as the wing
From Michael's white shoulder, is hewn and defaced
By iconoclast axes in desperate waste,
And its wrecks seek the ocean it prophesied long,
Cassandra-like, crooning its mystical song?
On the notion of a forest as a cathedral in 19th century American literature, see American Gothic Forests.

Philip Freneau, Lines Occasioned by a Law passed by the Corporation of New-York, early in 1790, for cutting down the trees in the streets of that City, previous to June 10, following.
The Citizen's Soliloquy

A man that owned some trees in town,
(And much averse to cut them down)
Finding the Law was full and plain,
No trees should in the streets remain,
One evening seated at his door,    5
Thus gravely talked the matter o'er:

"The fatal Day, dear trees, draws nigh,
When you must, like your betters, die,
Must die!—and every leaf will fade
That many a season lent its shade,    10
To drive from hence the summer's heat,
And make my porch a favourite seat.

"Thrice happy age, when all was new,
And trees untouched, unenvied grew,
When yet regardless of the axe,    15
They feared no law, and paid no tax!
The shepherd then at ease was laid,
Or walked beneath their cooling shade;
From slender twigs a garland wove,
Or traced his god within the grove;    20
Alas! those times are now forgot,
An iron age is all our lot:
Men are not now what once they were,
To hoard up gold is all their care:
The busy tribe old Plutus calls    25
To pebbled streets and painted walls;
Trees now to grow, is held a crime,
And These must perish in their prime!

"The trees that once our fathers reared,
And even the plundering Briton spared,    30
When shivering here full oft he stood,
Or kept his bed for want of wood —
These trees, whose gently bending boughs
Have witnessed many a lover's vows,
When half afraid, and half in jest,    35
With Nature busy in his breast,
With many a sigh, he did not feign,
Beneath these boughs he told his pain,
Or coaxing here his nymph by night,
Forsook the parlour and the light,    40
In talking love, his greatest bliss
To squeeze her hand or steal a kiss —
These trees that thus have lent their shade,
And many a happy couple made,
These old companions, thus endeared,    45
Who never tattled what they heard,
Must these, indeed, be killed so soon —
Be murdered by the tenth of June!

"But if my harmless trees must fall,
A fortune that awaits us all,    50
(All, all must yield to Nature's stroke,
And now a man, and now an oak)
Are those that round the churches grow
In this decree included too?
Must these, like common trees, be bled?    55
Is it a crime to shade the dead?
Review the law, I pray, at least,
And have some mercy on the priest
Who every Sunday sweats in black
To make us steer the skyward track:    60
The church has lost enough, God knows,
Plundered alike by friends and foes —
I hate such mean attempts as these —
Come — let the parson keep his trees!

"Yet things, perhaps, are not so bad —    65
Perhaps, a respite may be had:
The vilest rogues that cut our throats,
Or knaves that counterfeit our notes,
When, by the judge their sentence passed,
The gallows proves their doom at last,    70
Swindlers and pests of every kind,
For weeks and months a respite find;
And shall such nuisances as they,
Who make all honest men their prey —
Shall they for months avoid their doom,    75
And you, my trees, in all your bloom,
Who never injured small or great,
Be murdered at so short a date!

"Ye men of law, the occasion seize,
And name a counsel for the trees —    80
Arrest of judgment, sirs, I pray;
Excuse them till some future day:
These trees that such a nuisance are,
Next New-Year we can better spare,
To warm our shins, or boil the pot —    85
The Law, by then, will be forgot."
Text in Fred Lewis Pattee, ed., The Poems of Philip Freneau, Poet of the American Revolution, vol. 3 (Princeton: The University Library, 1907), pp. 53-56, with the following note on p. 53:
This was published in the National Gazette of March 8, 1792, with this introduction: "Legislatures and city corporations have ever been inimical to trees in cities. — About nine years ago the attempt was made in Philadelphia to cut down all the trees — The public, however, demurred to the decree, which, together with Mr. Hopkinson's Columnal Orator, saved the lives of these useful and amusing companions.

"In a neighboring city, a similar attempt was made about a year ago by its corporation. A universal extirpation was ordered, without respect to age or quality, by the 10th of June, 1791.—The public interfered in this, as in the other case, and the trees were saved, ‡except a few, which having been injudiciously placed, above a century ago, had nearly grown into the inhabitants' houses ; and consequently suffered the sentence of the law....‡A copy of verses, on this occasion, were as follow: THE LANDLORD'S SOLILOQUY, etc."

"Mr. Hopkinson's Columnal Orator" should be "Mr. Hopkinson's Columnar Orator." Mr. Hopkinson is Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. For Hopkinson's article, signed Silvester and first published in the Pennsylvania Gazette (August 1782), see The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings of Francis Hopkinson, Esq., vol. 1 (Philadelphia: T. Dobson, 1792), pp. 252-273, with the following introductory note:
An act of assembly passed in April 1782, directing all the trees in the streets of Philadelphia to be cut down and removed; the following publication appeared in opposition.

The law was never executed, and soon after repealed.
Most of Hopkinson's article takes the form of a speech, supposedly made by one of the wooden columns in the assembly house, in opposition to the proposed act to cut down the trees. Here is an excerpt (pp. 269-270):
Having shewn, and I hope to the satisfaction of my hearers, the rank my fellow-trees hold in the scale of beings: their capacities of pleasure and pain, having also obviated the charges brought against them, and touched upon their sufferings in the great political revolution in this country, I come now to the last argument intended for their defence, I mean the great use and importance they are of to mankind. And here I shall be very concise, avoiding to mention those numerous circumstances in which trees obviously contribute to the pleasure, convenience, and profit of men, confining myself to one serious consideration, viz. How far the healths and lives of the citizens of Philadelphia may be concerned in the business you have now in hand. A few hours will be sufficient to execute this fatal law; but it will take many years to repair the damage when you shall have discovered your error. Consider, therefore, oh! rash and capricious mortals, what you are about to do; whilst consideration may be of any use, caution is never too late, repentance may be. Know that these trees, whom you are about to extirpate, are your best, your safest physicians; the health of your citizens depends upon their preservation and growth; and you are now to decide, not only upon the existence of a few trees, but possibly on the lives of hundreds of your fellow-creatures. I say, these trees are your best, your safest physicians. They have published no books, therefore they have no systems to defend. Their practice is ever uniform, dictated by nature, and established by success, and, therefore, they make no whimsical experiments, uncertain in every thing but misery and death. In a word, they have no occasion to kill one hundred in order to learn how to cure one.

Not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but neverthless interesting exhibits in the annals of arboricide.

Charles Thévenin (1764-1838),
Figures Felling a Tree Outside a Building in Paris


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