Thursday, February 07, 2008


The Trees Are Down

Thanks to David Norton for introducing me to a poem by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) about arboricide. The title of Mew's poem is "The Trees Are Down" and it opens with a quotation from Revelation 7.2-3 ("and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees"). "He" in the quotation is the "angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God." Charlotte Mew wrote the poem in reaction to the felling of plane trees in Euston Square Gardens in the early 1920's:
They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of
         the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of
         the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoa', the loud common talk,
         the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding
         a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a
         god-forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week's work here is as good as done. There is just
         one bough
On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
         Green and high
         And lonely against the sky.
                    (Down now! -)
         And but for that,
         If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never
         have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoas' have carted
         the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the
         hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
         In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
         There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
         They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying -
         But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
          'Hurt not the trees.'
Charlotte Mew also wrote a shorter poem ("Domus Caedet Arborem") on the same theme:
Ever since the great planes were murdered at the end of the gardens,
The city, to me, at night has the look of a spirit brooding crime:
As if the dark houses watching the trees from dark windows
Were simply biding their time.
A decade earlier Charlotte Mew published a two-part essay on "Men and Trees" in the periodical The Englishwoman 17.50 (Feb. 1913) 181-188 and 17.51 (March 1913) 311-319. Here are some excerpts from "Men and Trees":
'You are looking at something', said my blind friend quietly. 'Not here', I told him.

'It was a tree outside the British Museum they were felling last week, with all the instruments of butchery, the axe and the rope and the saw, and the clearing round it like a scaffold; it went on for days and I didn't altogether care for it.'

'No,' he agreed, with sudden animation, 'I really can't bear to see a tree cut down - a big tree: it's a sort of sacrilege. I suppose we belong, of course we do - I anyhow - to the Dark Ages.'


One may read whole libraries about the tree. tree-myth, tree marriage, tree-burial, tree-murder (under 'Forestry'), shelf upon shelf of books, dreams analysed and prayers dissected, millions of words strewn round it like its own dead leaves, and outside there stands the living tree, aloof, splendid; as magical as it was before one of them was written...
Winslow Homer, Woodchopper in the Adirondacks

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