Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Arboricide on the Wayne Ranch

In John Steinbeck's novel To a God Unknown, rancher Joseph Wayne becomes convinced that the spirit of his dead father has entered an oak tree. (Ch. 4.) When he kills chicken hawks, he hangs them in the tree, and when he notches the ears of his cattle, he nails the ear notchings to the tree. (Ch. 6.) He talks to the tree, as if to his father, e.g. when his brother Benjamin is killed. (Ch. 11.) He slaughters a pig and wipes its blood on the bark of the tree. (Ch. 15.) He pours wine on the tree's bark and places a piece of barbecued meat in the crotch of the tree. (Ch. 16.) His brother Burton chides him:
"I've seen you make offerings to the tree. I've seen the pagan growth in you, and I come to warn you." .... "Joseph," he begged, "come to the barn and pray with me. Let us cut down the tree."

But Joseph swung away from him and shook off the hand that was put out to restrain him. "Save yourself, Burton," he laughed shortly. "Now go to bed. Don't interfere with my games. Keep to your own."
(Ch. 16.) Joseph's wife Elizabeth gives birth to a boy, and Joseph wants to let the baby sit in the crotch of the tree. Burton begs him not to:
Elizabeth had been staring from one to the other of them. She stood up and held the baby against her breast. "What are you two arguing about?" she demanded. "There's something in this I don't know about."

"I’ll tell her," Burton threatened.

"Tell her what? What is there to tell?"

Burton sighed deeply. "Elizabeth, my brother is denying Christ. He is worshipping as the old pagans did. He is losing his soul and letting in the evil."

"I'm denying no Christ," Joseph said sharply. "I’m doing a simple thing that pleases me."

"Then the hanging of sacrifices, the pouring of blood, the offering of every good thing to this tree is a simple thing? I've seen you sneak out of the house at night, and I’ve heard you talk to this tree. Is that a simple thing?"

"Yes, a simple thing," Joseph said. "There's no hurt in it."

"And the offering of your own first-born child to the tree — is that a simple thing, too?"

"Yes, a little game."
(Ch. 19.) Burton is so upset that he leaves the ranch for good. After Burton's departure, Joseph worries that the oak tree is dying:
When the dawn came he slipped out of bed and went outside. The oak leaves were a little shriveled and some of their glossiness was gone.

Thomas, on his way to the stable, saw Joseph and walked over. "By George, there is something wrong with that tree," he said. Joseph watched anxiously while he inspected the bark and the limbs. He picked up a hoe and dug into the soft earth at the base of the trunk. Only two strokes he made, and then stepped back. "There it is, Joseph."

Joseph knelt down beside the hole and saw a chopped path on the trunk. "What did it?" he demanded angrily.

Thomas laughed brutally. "Why, Burton girdled your tree! He's keeping the devil out."
(Ch. 20.)

Hat tip: My son, who gave me To a God Unknown as a Christmas present.

Related posts: The Woods of Bachycraigh; Papadendrion; Papadendrion Again; A Bewilderment of Birds; Ancient Protests Against Deforestation; Illustrations of Erysichthon; Prayer and Sacrifice to Accompany Tree Cutting; A Spirit Protects the Trees; St. Martin and the Pine Tree; The Geismar Oak; Bregalad's Lament; Petition of a Poplar; Cactus Ed and Arboricide; Views from the Center of Highgate Wood; Artaxerxes and Arboricide; When the Last Tree Falls; The Hamadryads of George Lane; Sorbs and Medlars; So Foul a Deed; Like Another Erysichthon; The Fate of Old Trees; Scandalous Misuse of the Globe; The Groves Are Down; Massacre; Executioners; Anagyrasian Spirit; Butchers of Our Poor Trees; Cruel Axes; Odi et Amo; Kentucky Chainsaw Massacre; Hornbeams; Protection of Sacred Groves; Lex Luci Spoletina; Turullius and the Grove of Asclepius; Caesarian Section; Death of a Noble Pine; Two Yew Trees in Chilthorne, Somerset; The Fate of the Shrubbery at Weston; The Trees Are Down; Hornbeams; Sad Ravages in the Woods; Strokes of Havoc; Maltreatment of Trees; Arboricide; An Impious Lumberjack; Erysichthon in Ovid; Erysichthon in Callimachus; Vandalism.

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