Friday, September 28, 2012
Human Nature Cannot Sink Much Lower
Some people seem to hate trees with a diabolical passion.On the damage to the Endicott pear tree and the attempt to repair it, see "Vandals Slash Historic Tree," Boston Globe (July 28, 1964), p. 3, and George Taloumis, "Endicott Pear Tree Is Being Saved," Boston Globe (August 30, 1964), p. A-63.
In Danvers, Massachusetts, unknown vandals have hacked and sawed to pieces the oldest fruit tree in the United States; tree surgeons are endeavoring, by extraordinary measures, to save the remnant of it.
The Danvers pear tree was planted in 1639 by John Endicott, Governor of Massachusetts Bay, and had borne fruit ever since. This barbarous act was the activity of a whole crew of depredators, working with some system. What manner of man hates historic living things?
In Gironella's novel of the Spanish Civil War, The Cypresses Believe in God, members of the Anarchist Party of Gerona deliberately set fire to the ancient cypresses of the countryside in that dry land—to demonstrate their subversive power, and because they seem to hate trees as a symbol of vitality and continuity. Human nature cannot sink much lower.
In England there is a sporadic campaign against hedgerows, by strange people who would like to see the English countryside treeless, apparently. The small trees of the hedgerows are among the chief charms of the English landscape, and shelter bird life.
This destruction of trees is nothing new, nevertheless. In the last century, boys virtually destroyed the oldest tree in Britain, the yew at Fortingall, Scotland, by burning bonfires in its hollow trunk. (It survives only in a mutilated and diminished state, in a venerable little churchyard.)
State and county highway departments sometimes are among the enemies of trees, ruthlessly chopping down maples and elms and oaks near the right-of-way, perhaps on the theory that one of these might some day fall across the pavement.
A few years ago, the Michigan legislature found it necessary to pass a resolution deploring this grim destruction of beauty.
In the days of my youth, the oldest man in town—still vigorous, though—used to spend his time chopping down trees, whenever anyone offered him the chance. My kinsfolk used to wonder if he resented the possibility of anything living longer than himself.
In the late C.S. Lewis' romance That Hideous Strength, one of the fell designs of the villains (committed, like their other offenses, in the name of Progress) is gradually to destroy all trees in the world, so that the earth will have what they consider a smooth, bald, bare beauty: they hate anything organic. In the end, it turns out that these "reformers" have been the unwitting servants of a supernatural diabolical power.
Around my old house, the tall elms stand dead this year, and I must have them taken down: the dread elm blight destroyed them this spring and summer. But I shall plant maples and oaks and pines and spruces in their stead. To plant a tree is an act of piety, I think—signifying that the order of creation is good, and that man is here to maintain and beautify it, not to deface.
So what manner of men is it that murders trees? I would that he were in a pine box. And I'd like to paddle the boys who—possibly in ignorance—deeply girdle the silver birch trees, so that they wither; and other rascals who wantonly snap off the growing points of saplings.
José María Gironella (1917-2003), Los Cipreses Creen en Dios (Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, ), was translated by Harriet De Onís as The Cypresses Believe in God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955; rpt. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005). See pp. 467 ff. of the Ignatius edition on the burning of the trees.
On the Fortingall yew, see Robert Christison, "The Exact Measurement of Trees," Part 3: "The Yew Tree. The Fortingall Yew," Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society [of Edinburgh] 13 (1879) 410-435, esp. pp. 426-427 (bracketed material in original):
The late Mr Patrick Neill, who saw the tree in 1833, has given a precise account, so far as he goes, of its condition at that time. It seems to have undergone lamentable destruction during the few years which had elapsed after the date of Strutt's drawing. Neill says large arms had been removed and even masses of the trunk carried off, to make drinking-cups and other curiosities. In consequence, "the remains of the trunk present the appearance of a semicircular wall, exclusive of traces of decayed wood which scarcely rises above ground. Great quantities of new spray have issued from the firmer parts of the trunk, and young branches spring up to the height perhaps of twenty feet. The side of the trunk now existing gives a diameter of more than fifteen feet; so that it is easy to conceive that the circumference of the bole, when entire, should have exceeded fifty feet. Happily further depredations have been prevented by means of an iron rail, which now surrounds the sacred object" ["Edin. New Phil. Journal," 1833, xv. 343, Note]."Strutt's drawing" can be found in Jacob George Strutt, Sylva Britannica; or, Portraits of Forest Trees, Distinguished for Their Antiquity, Magnitude, or Beauty (London: Published by the Author, ), section Sylva Scotica, between pp. 148-149.
The Reverend Robert Macdonald, the last minister of the parish of Fortingall, in the "Second Statistical Account of Scotland," confirms in 1838 the notice of Neill, and adds some historical information bearing directly upon the question of the antiquity of the tree. I had expected important information in the elaborate "First Statistical Account," collected under the auspices of Sir John Sinclair. But all there stated, after the mention of the yew is—"and a very remarkable tree it is" [ii. 456, 1792], Mr Macdonald, however, has been more communicative. He observes—"What remains of the celebrated yew-tree of Fortingall churchyard appears as two distinct trees, some yards distant from one another. At the commencement of my incumbency, thirty-two years ago (1806), there lived in the village of Kirktown a man of the name of Donald Robertson, then aged upwards of eighty years, who declared that, when a boy going to school, he could hardly enter between the two parts. Now a coach and four might pass between them; and the dilapidation was partly occasioned by the boys of the village kindling their fire of Baeltainn at its root. It is from 52 to 56 feet in circumference," ["Statist. Account of Scotland," x. 545, July 1838].
Relevant excerpts from C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, are in an earlier post: One Day We Shave the Planet.
Hat tip for Kirk's article: Daniel Orazio (via Karl Maurer).