Monday, October 22, 2007


Strokes of Havoc

Gerard Manley Hopkins hated to see trees wantonly cut down. In his journal he wrote on April 8, 1873:
The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound of a tree being felled and looking out and seeing it maimed, there came at that moment a great pang, and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.
On March 13, 1879, Hopkins wrote in a letter to his friend Richard Watson Dixon:
I have been up to Godstow this afternoon. I am sorry to say that the aspens that lined the river are everyone felled.
Godstow is north of Binsey, which is north of Oxford, and the river is the Thames. Hopkins wrote a poem about the felling of the trees that lined the river, with the title Binsey Poplars:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
History repeated itself in 2002, when more poplars along this stretch of the Thames were again cut down. Richard Alleyne, Poet's lament echoes as trees face axe again, Telegraph (Nov. 12, 2002), identified the trees as Populus x canadensis, a hybrid of Populus nigra x Populus deltoides:
The latest poplars, and those Hopkins saw felled, were not the pencil thin variety but populus canadensis, a hybrid of Canadian and native European poplars, that are far grander.
Here is an illustration by Pierre Joseph Redouté from Michaux's North American Sylva showing the leaf of Populus x canadensis:

The following photograph shows a row of poplars such as Hopkins might have seen:

William Cowper, in The Poplar Field, also lamented the felling of poplars:
The poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade  
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade;
The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

Twelve years have elapsed since I first took a view
Of my favourite field, and the bank where they grew:
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat;
And the scene where his melody charm'd me before
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.

My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must ere long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

'Tis a sight to engage me, if anything can,
To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
Short-lived as we are, our enjoyments, I see,
Have a still shorter date; and die sooner than we.
William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information (London, 1832), p. 1491 (Dec. 23), claimed to have identified the location of the poplars described by Cowper:
I visited the field where stood the poplars whose fall he so feelingly laments in some exquisite verses commencing,

"The poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade."

There are now standing, of what was once a fine row, two only of these trees; the field in which they are situated is between Olney and Lavendon mill, and belongs to Mr. Perry of the mill; it is called the "Lynch close."

An old woman at Olney told me she remembered Cowper perfectly well, "He was a sorrowful-looking man," she said, "and very particular in avoiding persons in his walks—he would turn down any path that presented itself to avoid being seen."
Cowper himself translated The Poplar Field into elegant Latin hexameters:
Populeae cecidit gratissima copia silvae, 
Conticuere susurri, omnisque evanuit umbra,
Nullae jam levibus se miscent frondibus aurae,
Et nulla in fluvio ramorum ludit imago.

Hei mihi! bis senos dum luctu torqueor annos,
His cogor silvis suetoque carere recessu,
Cum sero rediens, stratasque in gramine cernens,
Insedi arboribus, sub queis errare solebam.

Ah ubi nunc merulae cantus? Felicior illum
Silva tegit, durae nondum permissa bipenni;
Scilicet exustos colles camposque patentes
Odit, et indignans et non rediturus abivit.

Sed qui succisas doleo succidar et ipse,
Et prius huic parilis quam creverit altera silva
Flebor, et, exequiis parvis donatus, habebo
Defixum lapidem tumulique cubantis acervum.

Tam subito periisse videns tam digna manere,
Agnosco humanas sortes et tristia fata—
Sit licet ipse brevis, volucrique simillimus umbrae,
Est nomini brevior citiusque obitura voluptas.

Eric Thomson draws my attention to Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007), pp. 356-357:
Hazel is the most amenable to cutting and plashing, as though it has evolved into the habit. Hawthorn and ash are also pliable enough. The laid pleachers must always slope upwards. The river of sap will only flow uphill. Already, in February, the maple was so full of early-rising sap it wept copious tears when I cut it, the sap trickling down the pleated bark or splashing on to my boot. I tasted it optimistically, but, although a little sweet, it was also brackish, like human tears, and it was impossible not to think of all the sad times when my own tears, or those of loved ones have run down my cheeks and I've licked them away. Impossible too not to imagine that the tree itself was mourning its own wound: this mutilation, subjugation to a human will.
Plash = To cut partly, or to bend and intertwine the branches of; as, to plash a hedge.

Pleacher = A stem in a hedge half cut through and bent.

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph (June 30, 1972):
With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying 'gloom', especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the dominion of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture, and murder of trees perpetuated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Related posts:

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?