Thursday, December 17, 2009



Among Samuel Johnson's nicknames were Dictionary Johnson and Ursa Major. A less well-known appellation is Papadendrion. To show how he acquired it, a bit of background is needed.

In A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Johnson criticized the treeless aspect of Scotland:
From the bank of the Tweed to St. Andrews I had never seen a single tree which I did not believe had grown up far within the present century. Now and then about a gentleman's house stands a small plantation, which in Scotch is called a policy, but of these there are few, and those few all very young. The variety of sun and shade is here utterly unknown. There is no tree for either shelter or timber. The oak and the thorn is equally a stranger, and the whole country is extended in uniform nakedness, except that in the road between Kirkcaldy and Cowpar I passed for a few yards between two hedges. A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice. At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him it was rough and low, or looked as if I thought so. This, said he, is nothing to another a few miles off. I was still less delighted to hear that another tree was not to be seen nearer. Nay, said a gentleman that stood by, I know but of this and that tree in the county.

The Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of woods with other countries. Forests are everywhere gradually diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by the increase of people and the introduction of arts. But I believe few regions have been denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed in waste without the least thought of future supply. Davies observes in his account of Ireland, that no Irishman had ever planted an orchard. From that negligence some excuse might be drawn from an unsettled state of life, and the instability of property; but in Scotland possession has long been secure, and inheritance regular, yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree.

Of this improvidence no other account can be given than that it probably began in times of tumult, and continued because it had begun. Established custom is not easily broken, till some great event shakes the whole system of things, and life seems to recommence upon new principles. That before the Union the Scots had little trade and little money is no valid apology; for plantation is the least expensive of all methods of improvement. To drop a seed into the ground can cost nothing, and the trouble is not great of protecting the young plant till it is out of danger; though it must be allowed to have some difficulty in places like these, where they have neither wood for palisades, nor thorns for hedges.
Similarly, in a letter to Hester Thrale (September 6, 1773), he wrote:
Next morning, August 25, we continued our journey through a country not uncultivated, but so denuded of its woods that in all this journey I had not travelled a hundred yards between hedges, or seen five trees fit for the carpenter. A few small plantations may be found, but I believe scarcely any thirty years old; at least, as I do not forget to tell, they are all posteriour to the union.
Johnson may have been exaggerating, but there is other evidence to somewhat the same effect, much of it collected in Henry Grey Graham, The Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, Volume 1 (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1899), pp. 195-200, e.g. (at 195):
The ancient woods had disappeared; wasted by raids, burnt as fuel, destroyed as encumbrances of the ground, or sold by impecunious owners. We become almost sceptical of their ever having existed at all when we read the accounts of travellers, like the caustic Sir Anthony Weldon, who in 1617 attended his Majesty, James VI., to his northern dominions, and protested that "Judas had scarce got a tree to hang himself," if he had betrayed his Lord in Scotland.
At any rate, Johnson's strictures on the deforestation of Scotland seems to have spurred some tree planting among the region's inhabitants. Sir Alexander Dick wrote to him from Prestonfield (February 17, 1777):
Indeed our country of Scotland, in spite of the union of the crowns, is still in most places so devoid of clothing, or cover from hedges and plantations, that it was well you gave your readers a sound Monitoire with respect to that circumstance. The truths you have told, and the purity of the language in which they are expressed, as your 'Journey' is universally read, may, and already appear to have a very good effect. For a man of my acquaintance, who has the largest nursery for trees and hedges in this country, tells me, that of late the demand upon him for these articles is doubled, and sometimes tripled. I have, therefore, listed Dr. Samuel Johnson in some of my memorandums of the principal planters and favourers of the enclosures, under a name which I took the liberty to invent from the Greek, Papadendrion. Lord Auchinleck and some few more are of the list. I am told that one gentleman in the shire of Aberdeen, viz. Sir Archibald Grant, has planted above fifty millions of trees on a piece of very wild ground at Monimusk: I must enquire if he has fenced them well, before he enters my list; for, that is the soul of enclosing. I began myself to plant a little, our ground being too valuable for much, and that is now fifty years ago; and the trees, now in my seventy-fourth year, I look up to with reverence, and shew them to my eldest son, now in his fifteenth year, and they are full the height of my country-house here, where I had the pleasure of receiving you, and hope again to have that satisfaction with our mutual friend, Mr. Boswell.
Papadendrion presumably comes from the Greek nouns πάππας (pappas), also spelled πάπας (papas), meaning papa, and δένδρον (dendron), also spelled δένδρεον (dendreon) meaning tree (diminutive δενδρίον = dendrion). The compound thus means "father of trees" or "tree father".

In his Latin poem Rivum a Mola Stoana Lichfieldiae Diffluentem (On the Stream Flowing from Stowe Mill at Lichfield), Johnson lamented that the shade along the stream had disappeared because the trees had been felled by duris ... securibus ("cruel axes"), and in a letter to Hester Thrale (August 14, 1769) he grumbled about the "audacious aldermen" who had cut down trees in George Lane in Litchfield. Henry Hitchings, Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 60, relates an interesting anecdote about Johnson as tree-hugger, but cites no source, and I have been unable to discover one:
Besides, there were more immediately analgesic rewards to be had from visiting the Strahans' home. In the courtyard stood a lime tree which Johnson, in moments of abstraction, liked to hug.
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