Tuesday, December 07, 2010


Destruction of Glory and Beauty

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), Oldtown Folks, Volume II, Chapter XXXVII (The Minister's Wood-Spell):
Mr. Avery had recently preached a highly popular sermon on agriculture, in which he set forth the dignity of the farmer's life, from the text, "For the king himself is served of the field"; and there had been a rustle of professional enthusiasm in all the mountain farms around, and it was resolved, by a sort of general consent, that the minister's wood-pile this year should be of the best: none of your old make-shifts,—loads made out with crooked sticks and snapping chestnut logs, most noisy, and destructive to good wives' aprons. Good straight shagbark-hickory was voted none too good for the minister. Also the axe was lifted up on many a proud oak and beech and maple. What destruction of glory and beauty there was in those mountain regions! How ruthlessly man destroys in a few hours that which centuries cannot bring again!

What an idea of riches in those glorious woodland regions! We read legends of millionnaires who fed their fires with cinnamon and rolled up thousand-dollar bills into lamp-lighters, in the very wantonness of profusion. But what was that compared to the prodigality which fed our great roaring winter fires on the thousand-leafed oaks, whose conception had been ages ago,—who were children of the light and of the day,—every fragment and fibre of them made of most celestial influences, of sunshine and rain-drops, and night-dews and clouds, slowly working for centuries until they had wrought the wondrous shape into a gigantic miracle of beauty? And then snuffling old Heber Atwood, with his two hard-fisted boys, cut one down in a forenoon and made logs of it for the minister's wood-pile. If this isn't making light of serious things, we don't know what is. But think of your wealth, O ye farmers!—think what beauty and glory every year perish to serve your cooking-stoves and chimneycorners.

To tell the truth, very little of such sentiment was in Mr. Avery's mind or in any of ours. We lived in a woodland region, and we were blasé with the glory of trees. We did admire the splendid elms that hung their cathedral arches over the one central street of Cloudland Village, and on this particular morning they were all aflame like Aladdin's palace, hanging with emeralds and rubies and crystals, flashing and glittering and dancing in the sunlight. And when the first sled came squeaking up the village street, we did not look upon it as the funereal hearse bearing the honored corpse of a hundred summers, but we boys clapped our hands and shouted, "Hurrah for old Heber!" as his load of magnificent oak, well-bearded with gray moss, came scrunching into the yard. Mr. Avery hastened to draw the hot flip-iron from the fire and stir the foaming bowl. Esther began cutting the first loaf of cake, and Mr. Rossiter walked out and cracked a joke on Heber's shoulder, whereat all the cast-iron lineaments of his hard features relaxed. Heber had not the remotest idea at this moment that he was to be branded as a tree-murderer. On the contrary, if there was anything for which he valued himself, and with which his heart was at this moment swelling with victorious pride, it was his power of cutting down trees. Man he regarded in a physical point of view as principally made to cut down trees, and trees as the natural enemies of man. When he stood under a magnificent oak, and heard the airy rustle of its thousand leaves, to his ear it was always a rustle of defiance, as if the old oak had challenged him to single combat; and Heber would feel of his axe and say, "Next winter, old boy, we'll see,—we'll see!"


Here the theological discussion was abruptly cut short by Deacon Zachary Chipman's load, which entered the yard amid the huzzahs of the boys. Heber and his boys were at the door in a minute. " Wal, railly, ef the deacon hain't come down with his shagbark! Wal, wal, the revival has operated on him some, I guess. Last year the deacon sent a load that I'd ha' been ashamed to had in my back yard, an' I took the liberty o' tellin' on him so. Good, straight-grained shagbark. Wal, wal! I'll go out an' help him onload it. Ef that 'ere holds out to the bottom, the deacon's done putty wal, an' I shall think grace has made some progress."

The deacon, a mournful, dry, shivery-looking man, with a little round bald head, looking wistfully out of a great red comforter, all furry and white with the sharp frosts of the morning, and, with his small red eyes weeping tears through the sharpness of the air, looked as if he had come as chief mourner at the hearse of his beloved hickory-trees. He had cut down the very darlings of his soul, and come up with his precious load, impelled by a divine impulse like that which made the lowing kine, in the Old Testament story, come slowly bearing the ark of God, while their brute hearts were turning toward the calves that they had left at home. Certainly, if virtue is in proportion to sacrifice, Deacon Chipman's load of hickory had more of self-sacrifice in it than a dozen loads from old Heber; for Heber was a forest prince in his way of doing things, and, with all his shrewd calculations of money's worth, had an open-handed generosity of nature that made him take a pride in liberal giving.

The little man shrank mournfully into a corner, and sipped his tumbler of flip and ate his cake and cheese as if he had been at a funeral.

Charles Branwhite (1817-1880), A Hard Day's Work, Winter


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