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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 10 : The Mirror of Changeless Time


The giant tree seemed almost to slumber in the still hazy light of that autumnal afternoon. The sap appeared dispirited, weighed down from tree-top to root by weariness. For some hundreds of years it had not been working at full pitch. The time-worn trunk bristled with dried lifeless branches in whose veins sap had ceased to flow with life-giving effect: and in the covering of needles outside the pine could be seen definite signs of age, even to the extent of sorry bare patches. Its life had now gone dull and very distant, indeed had become little more than a reflection of the old boisterous self. April and August no longer budded into splendid vigour in its utricles. For plants as for creatures perceptions become faint with time, sensations get blurred, lights grow dim, till of the life of yesterday nothing but a colourless print remains, a veiled inconsequent activity. So dull stood the giant on this set November day, as if half-asleep.

Perhaps it was recalling some wordless memory of its six thousand springs? Did its tissues tingle with stored-up impressions? Perhaps a confused sense of important events was moving in those physical parts which had most directly received their impact. Up one side of the time-worn trunk stretched an enormous scar, the relic of a gaping wound where once lightning had struck and gashed the tree so that sap ran out to waste. It took the giant more than a hundred years to close that wound, a period which, for the tree, compared well with the month in which our human flesh heals up: since time has no beginning nor ending, is neither long nor short, has no halting-places and never changes: its duration is relative to the life of the things which are its vehicle, and expresses itself only in them.

Accordingly the giant's decay, in terms, was like our own. It might last for centuries, during which the weakness and partial inertia of the tree would persist: whereas the decay of man is completed in fifteen or twenty years. Yet declines, like lives, in perspective will be seen to have differed only in degree. When man and tree have ceased to exist their respective courses will be summed up in epochs, short for the one and long for the other, but of the same category and as easily tabulated - for past events all fall into order since they exist only as memories, without the qualities of action which distinguished them in fact. In retrospect fifty years are like six centuries, a year of the past scarcely longer than a charged dragging minute of the present.

Let us imagine that the sequoia, on this misty autumn afternoon was recalling its memories. It could a little titillate its cells by remembering those uncounted days, sunny or overcast, those storm-stricken or magical nights, those sharp or restful dawns. Its six thousand years of memory would be to the tree what his sixty years are to an aged man, for in memory and dream we have two means which smooth away the unlike things in time, and give to it, for one looking backward, an equality which active nature hardly possesses. A dream-second or a second in memory may be a century as easily as a year: just as actions which have taken thousands of years to complete may finally have the same contour as little events of an hour. Our eyes can enclose in their fixed impartial frame a huge landscape or a tiny plot of space. What is passed has no existence except in memory: while as for time - we carry it within ourselves, and pay it out slowly or fast (or unconsciously) according to whether we are busy or interested or indifferent. Hours are elastic periods, which expand or contract according to the attention we pay them, and it is our ideas and our passions which mark them off round the face of our days.

Time may be imaged as a mirror, a confused mirror across whose impassive face tens of thousands of scenes chase each other in a mazy dance: for in it are reflected the innumerable and never-closing consequences of all action, with all the lights, all the shadows, all the extent and motions of the universe. The mirror itself is changeless, and the semblance of movement lies in the reflection, in that endless rout of fleeting images whose transience is to their glass as our little moment to eternity. Our utmost capacity is to project a thought-ray from our place and instant of existence back into the night which hides our coming, or forward to the night which waits our going - rays whose imagined courses towards the poles of the infinite we cannot follow even in thought. Yet they are our only links with past and future, those two names which together spell eternity: the future a past not yet achieved, and the past a future left behind.

Such would have been the thoughts of the sequoia (had it been able to think like us) on this chill November day, as it stood there by the grove of its sons and grandsons, the derived pine-trees which had sprung up about it, yet had not, even the greatest of them, reached to half its height: and something of the same train of thought might have been started by the sight of the neighbouring forest, now in its twentieth generation. These other trees had passed from youth to maturity, and then grown old and died, changing their promise into performance, and at last becoming a mere memory; and each stage of their lives, each tree at every age was to be seen reflected in the impassive glass of time, which kept of them no record nor trace, but preserved itself intact against them, as against all phases of the universe that had been, that was, that ever would be.

Years, hours, minutes and moments are not children of Time, but circumstance made visible in some one or something. Only dreams seem able to assert themselves beyond the face of time's unchanging mirror. They shine and register, wheel and flit in the darkling mist of eternity, with something of its power to embrace aeons and seconds alike. Like eternity too they harmonise and arrange the great things of the universe with the least, with things so small that they leave no mark even in the cloud-confines of the immaterial: and again like eternity they have no beginning and no end, and so convey something of the incommunicable character of chaos.

Thus in that lifeless November the giant seemed lost in a white trance. If we are vivid in springtime, in autumn we wish for sleep and dreams. A vagueness is the nature of the falling year. Up above, in space, great deep clouds expanded gradually. They dragged themselves along in languor, while their slow shadows darkened the moist earth and climbed the stripped branches of the giant pine. In this misty autumnal afternoon against its sad background all movement seemed slack. A formless but dreamy instinct seemed implicit in animals and plants and things. The minutes ticked off lazily in the unearthly gleaming half-light, in this soft and yet magical atmosphere above which the giant seemed to hang its head in reverie. Its relaxed needles, weeping boughs and lined rugged trunk made up a mournful-seeming disappointed whole. There was not a breath nor a whisper in the air. Every shape, every colour, every scent, each withering blade of grass supine on the earth, each pebble on the plain, each ripple of light or trembling shadow seemed to give off a similar emanation, a dull slow tonelessness which permeated the toneless air, above, below, about. In one huge fissure of the bole slept a bear, made torpid by the close thick weather. On the ground near the foot of the tree in a tuft of dried grass a dog was sleeping, the dim gaze of its half-open eyes veiled and turned inward. Beside it on a raised turf sat a great insect, the hardly visible vibration of whose wings seemed pensive too. Farther away, but within sight from the tree-top, stood a hut whose people lay silently watching the great clouds pass. They also were dreaming or thinking, allowing the whims of the spirit born of this declining season to play over what had been or what yet might be.

It would seem as though rare influences of all that is incomprehensible and infinite in space, of the chaotic and inconceivable in time, were sometimes allowed to echo down upon things alive and things lifeless, and to swing them in a general and harmonious way. Nature moves on for ever, sleeplessly and untiringly, but from time to time the past seems to bode forward in brief uncertain fashion, casting lights and shadows across the loom of the present. The adamant Now may keep no trace of the dead Then, but the ripples of the past none the less persist in ever-failing widening rings, which pass out into the abyss as ghost-memories: and these, falling sometimes upon the bark of a tree, or upon the nature of a man, or the mind of a dog, or into a sea or a perfume or the half-light of a dewy evening, evoke dreams and clothe the formless with apparent form that it may have relation with material men and things.

Chapter 11 >>



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