Trees



    FLOWERS are so small, so easily cultivated, so personal, so brilliant, that they have gained almost more than their share of human attention. While their elder sisters, the trees, keep their unobtrusive estate, and minister untiringly to our comfort with little praise or recognition. Yet, how necessary they are! I do not mean how useful, I mean spiritually needful.
    Apart from their humble office as givers of shade and preserves of streams, they minister more than we guess to our hourly pleasure. Yet we are so thoughtless of them that we take their benefits without a word of gratitude for the most part. If you have seen a wooded hillside in winter you will remember how [Page 193] lonely and bleak it looked. Only the bare skeletons of the trees spread over the mountain, and all the great primitive strength and ruggedness and sorry age of the earth exposed to sight, – the ribs of the world. These are the same hills, perhaps, that you knew in summer, so green and so luxuriant, bare now and stern, showing all their scars, bitter evidences of their strenuous, enduring history. The calm, unimpassioned whiteness of the snow has folded them in its chilly oblivion. It is impossible to believe that spring can repeat her ancient miracle; surely, here is the veriest desolation, the mere geology of life, inorganic dust, the inert mass of the firmament given over to the stealthy depredation of elemental time; no hope nor assurance anywhere.
    And yet, in contradiction of all the probabilities of sense, that desolation will grow vivid and lovely as the sun comes north. All those gaunt spectres that now seem so ghostly will put on their gala attire, the April orange and May-time green. That soft, purplish mist [Page 194] of the far spring woods means in reality the reds and yellows of the maple blossoms, and the paler yellows and silver of the willow catkins. It is the first flush of reviving life that comes before the green of leaf. And carefully as you may watch, the green banners will seem to be flung abroad suddenly at last. If you single out one tree for your care, and observe it every day, you may think to trace the gradual assumption of its full robes for June. You will be disappointed. There will come a day of rain or a night of warmth, and when you next see your friend you will stand astonished at the change. You have been surprised again by nature. The ancient sorceress had no mind to be spied upon; and must guard well the secret of her power over your wondering admiration. There you are, outwitted, after all; for the tree unfolded every leaf while you slept. So the grass springs, and the dandelions are born, — by magic, in a twinkling, myriads at once, — so that yesterday they were unheard of, and to-day they [Page 195] possess the earth in their gay panoply and simple golden pomp.
    The trees are the great mitigators and temperers of the elements to man. They shelter us from the fury of the rain and snow, yet conserve it for our gradual use. They shade us from the glare of the open sun, yet in time furnish us with heat and light. A treeless country is not the best of countries. Its usefulness is limited and specialized. A normal earth for man has both forest and prairie. But these are only the gross material blessings of the trees. There remains all their beauty.
    How few of us ever heed those goodly, patient friends of man. We go forth and rifle the wilderness of its laurel or its arbutus, but not one in ten among us knows a beech from a maple, nor a pine from a spruce. It is a part of our dense indifference to everything save personal luxury. But a nation which does not know one tree from another is in peril of vanishing from the earth. Puny [Page 196] dwellers in cities, let us get down to earth more often than we do.
    I suppose one’s love of trees changes like one’s love of everything else. At one time of life we adore the oak; at another the elm commands our allegiance. It is a matter of circumstance and environment, since each tree differs from its fellow and each is lovely after its kind. To name the elm is to have a vision of great meadows, and summer barns, and fields of hay, and sweeps of blue river. The elm is a lover of such scenes, and if we have lived through them in youth, its swaying, feathery top will always recall the memories of that perished time, – remembrances of a native country, of intervale lands, with some great river winding slowly down between the hills, blue under the summer sky. There are its broad, deep-soiled islands, shoulder high with hay, where the few gray, wide-chinked barns stand awaiting their harvest. Along the edges of the islands are a few chokecherries and water maples, but no great trees save the [Page 197] stately elms here and there, solitary under the blue.
    Or, again, it may be the marvellous maple of the north that would enlist all your friendship. Its brave scarlet and golden coat makes the autumn world a mediaeval crusade for brilliancy and courage. It is surely impossible to be craven or hopeless in the face of such gorgeous beauty! October in the mountains, when the maples are in all their splendour, is no time for the trifling or the mean. To see those beautiful trees arrayed for the closing days of the year is to partake of the nobleness of nature. While we know it not, something of that wondrous Oriental richness of colour enters into our subtler make-up, and we arise on the morrow with unguessed acquisitions of soul.
    Again, there are the pines. And how different the pine regions of the south from those of the north. There is one thing, however, that marks a pine-tree, one quality in which none of the other children of the forest can [Page 198] rival it – its delicacy of line against the sky. No other tree throws on the pale blue curtain so graceful a tracery of tiny pencillings. Look at the branch of a pine-tree in the twilight seen clear against the open heaven. And so, indeed, you may run through your list of acquaintance among the trees. Note the shaft of the spruce, the trembling leaf of the aspen set on differently from all other leaves, and the sound of the palms like the patter of rain, and the colour of the beech boles. A master could write a volume on any one of these traits. On some mountainside, where the wildest thrushes prefer to dwell, and where beech-trees come to their perfection , note, the next time you pass, the beautiful gray and blue and purple of those smooth-barked boles. The trunk of a full-grown beech is subject enough for any painter. Like Monet’s haystack, it might be painted in a hundred lights, and still stand there unexhausted in suggestion and beauty.
    When Arnold was in America our tulip-trees [Page 199] took his fancy, and he wished to be remembered when they come in flower. So every season has its distinctive tree; the dark-painted fir full of snow in midwinter, and the greenish-white flowered chestnuts showing pale in the forests of July. But at all times of the round year the trees of the wild forest are there, only waiting to be known and loved [Page 200].