Wednesday, October 03, 2007



To impress on his listeners the need for repentance, John the Baptist proclaimed (Matthew 3.10, cf. Luke 3.9):
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
It would be no miracle to hew a tree with an axe and cast it into a fire, but it was a miracle when Jesus by means of a curse caused a fig tree to wither and die (Mark 11.12-14, 20-21; cf. Matthew 21.19-21):
[12] And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: [13] And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. [14] And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it....[20] And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. [21] And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.
Luke's Gospel doesn't record the miracle of the cursing of the fig tree, but it does record the following parable told by Jesus (13.6-9):
[6] A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. [7] Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? [8] And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: [9] And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
Simone Weil is supposed to have said, "I never read the story of the barren fig-tree without trembling. I think it is about me."

The fig tree in the New Testament did not bear the fruit proper to it, that is to say, figs. But a tree that at first glance appears worthless may on closer inspection be valuable, as one of Aesop's fables (85 Chambry, tr. Laura Gibbs) shows:
A farmer had a tree on his land that did not yield any sort of fruit whatsoever. Instead, it was a home to the sparrows and the cicadas who chirped and sang. The farmer, however, thought that the tree was useless and decided he would cut it down. He grabbed an axe and prepared to start chopping, but the cicadas and the sparrows all began to wail, shouting these words at the man, 'Listen to us, O master of the tree: we implore you to be more generous. Please do not cut down this reverend dwelling! If indeed you are resolved to do such a thing, what benefit can you possibly hope for?' The man felt no pity for the creatures and showed them no mercy as he struck the tree three times with the axe's blade. But no sooner had the man made a crack in the tree when he found there a hive of bees and honey. He took a taste and immediately dropped his axe, vowing to cherish this tree even more than his fruit-bearing trees.

The New Republic magazine (May 19, 1997, p. 12) claimed that August Heckscher "coined the word 'arboricide' for the crime of killing trees." But the first citation (dated 1899) in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is H.G. Graham, Social Life of Scotl. 18th Cent. I. v. 199: "This crime of arboricide was distressingly frequent." The OED defines arboricide as "the wanton destruction of trees." To judge from Google, arboricide today more often means a chemical substance used to kill a tree (cf. herbicide, pesticide).

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