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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 12 : When the Wood-Dust floated in the Air

Whilst the August sun was pouring its clear warm rays from the blue heavens upon the world, a fine wood-powder continued to rain down from all the internal cavities of the giant's trunk, in a reddish dust which lay deep upon the roots. The tree's substance had been so falling away for centuries, with every now and then a larger dilapidation when some great cavity formed itself within its thickness: while on the outside the harsh bark as slowly decayed.

Beneath the soil in the still-kindly darkness of the earth's heart the roots, regretting their failed vivacity, were now resigned to grow more dry and twisted and inert day by day, powerless any more to suck life-giving nourishment from their ground. On the surface of the earth the eternal counter-change of life and death proceeded. Thousands of births, both plant and animal, occurred, to compensate for the thousands of deaths, the wheel of life impartially grinding out change or creation or destructiveness.

It was now summer. The still air was elastic and alive, and transmitted a shining lightness to the world. All was green and gay and content, serene as the unflecked sky and the splendid sun. Girt about with this joyous and pellucid atmosphere stood the giant, tall as ever, but contrasting more sharply against its pure keenness. The huge embrace, vivid and blue and green, in which heaven held earth, seemed almost violent in opposition to the spirit of the tree, whose dead branches and scarred trunk and weary roots marked a heavy despondency.

Sorrow in spring and summer is quite unlike sorrow in autumn or winter. When the year dies the current of life is dying too, whereas in spring-time the new sharp vigour of life makes any sadness seem doubly desolate. The warm sun and renewal of activity in animals and plants, the liveliness of those about us intensify our grief, which, when autumn comes, is in keeping with the common tendency of nature, and becomes moderate, soothed by the absence of joy in others. Apposition is the greatest tonic of colours, as analogy clears the vision: accordingly this day of fairest summer, with its luxuriant flowers and plants about which the bees were humming in the sunshine so that nature seemed to sing softly to itself in the jocund air and the universal gladness made the far hills come together for joy, this day made prominent the infinite desolation of the giant's aspect.

The gold of the sunlight was gilding the singing ripples of the water, the birds were flinging their loudest notes upon the velvet air, the wild beasts were supine with excess of well-being, the plants were burgeoning and swelling with sap in the afflatus of their perfumes: but the sequoia, alone, was bitten through and compassed with the bitter smell of old age, and felt life draw back from its insensitive branches, from its ruined trunk, from its hidden roots, now lifeless and impassive among the former fertilising benefits of the juices underground. The trees near-by were preening themselves in the rain of sun-starts, shuddering with the force of the new waves of life pumped into them from the teeming earth. The wind thrilled through their branches and all nature came together in that healthy rush of new life, which had once been common also to the giant tree. Once! for now the inside of its trunk was powdered thick with that rain of fine red wood-dust, falling ever more fast towards the tree's ruin.

Yet the outline of the tree against the clear, thin sky appeared unchanged. At its very head, the topmost twig still bore green and lustrous pine-needles. The remaining life of the sequoia had taken refuge and concentrated itself there, in those few square inches of supple wood and fluid sap. From the first days of spring the tree had seemed to live wholly for this last branch, which was linked directly with a very fine tap root burrowing deep underground. The only pulse of life in the tree was here, in the circulation of these few drops of sap between head and foot. Breath had slowly abandoned the rest of the tree, to hover hazardous and trembling for a weak while between the labouring root and the little green twig lost away up there in the blue.

The tree's entire intention seemed now to lie in this last twig, to the exclusion of any thought of the huge dead mass between. One might say almost that it tried to ignore all the decay, after the fashion of other failing lives. This solitary green branch on the inert bole was like the quivering wing-case of a crushed insect, or the childish and petty busyness of an old man near the grave. Everybody can recall the incomprehensible eagerness of some dying soul to recollect a strayed trifle, as if repose of mind depended on its being put straight: or that other unfortunate on his sick bed who seemed to lose sense of the beating wings of death in listening to the petty ticking of a newly mended watch. Childhood, prime and age have ambitions and goals to suit their strengths, so that the complex and magnificent dreams of youth grow pale and few as life dims in us. Old men have small hopes and mean activity, not because they are weary and sick of life, but because life is abandoning them: and at the final moment, when life leaves us altogether, its last feeblest trace may be a trivial thought which we try to fix, a futile wish we long to satisfy, a foolish interest. This last living branch of the giant tree may prefigure the moment when the last inhabitants of our globe will cling to its last habitable portion while all the rest of it is frozen in an eternal winter, or when the like fate overtakes the last habitable planet of our sky. Life which is made by inches departs by inches: in those sudden cases of apparent and violent destruction it is only that the falling curve dips downward more fast.

This we must consider not as a special act of nature, but as an ultimate effect of life moving towards that new arrangement which is called death. Since everything which exists, small or great, is compounded of various elements (an interaction of multiple energies), so it is logical that life should take hold of its matter piecemeal, and relinquish it, when the time comes, also piecemeal.

In this fashion the internal decomposition of the pine-tree proceeded. Slowly its substance crumbled away to dust, amidst the close smell of age and decay. Tremors of dissolution began to pass through the giant. Dull creakings ran up and down the trunk. Its sorry boughs quivered with a thin resonance, while deep-buried in the soil its roots contracted in agony. A narrow crack opened in the wood just above ground level, and gradually spread round the trunk, growing deeper as it went: while the red tree-dust trickled out through every hollowed place and floated in the air as a fine cloud, proof of dry rot and presage of coming death.

Still, at the very crest there shone out golden in the sunlight that last living branch, fresh and shining in all its needles. The gracious summer had fortified all life upon earth. From a hill far away there came a waft of air, which loaded itself on its passage with the emanations of plain and field and wood, till it reached the district of the tree. Its warm soft breath kissed the giant gently, just waving the little green twig up aloft, and then passed on, as though towards an endless series of new scenes and adventures. Yet it was early checked. A line of trees, making a wall with their interwoven branches, repulsed it, flung it back with a new impulse. It became a gust, sweeping along the ground-level, raising a cloud of leaves and dust and the dried powder of decomposed wood about the base of the sequoia, into whose fissured trunk it blew strongly. The tree shuddered, spiral tremors running up its length and down again, rather as the invigorating sap had once run up and down. At the foot of the tree, where the circular crack was, these tremors were stayed. They ran together, reinforced each other, swelled into lateral shocks. A deep low warning sounded in the body of the wood, and echoed outside. For a little the huge shape shivered in the liquid air, oscillating to right and left, while the tiny plume of green at its summit described vivid curves against the blueness of the sky. Then simply, powerfully, inevitably, as in all natural decisions, came a loud rending like the last cry of an agonising spirit, and the immense pillar bowed down and fell upon the earth, which shook under the weight, while the sky, suddenly made vacant of such bulk, seemed to leap up as the giant fell. Thick clouds of ruddy dust rose widely into the air, filling it with the damp odour of decay, while the bottom of the trunk feathered out in splinters, as the dried roots, so long hidden from the day, were torn out from both ground and wood.

More than seven thousand years ago a heedless puff of wind had cast a sequoia seed upon the fertile earth: and now another puff had broken down its tree. For more than seventy centuries the forest giant had had its part in this life which we share, and its course (like ours, while they endure) had run curving through time and space till its circle was completed, a perfect round, as all life's movements are, and will be everywhere and evermore. Its very age was inscribed in concentric circles in the thickness of its trunk. The seasons, in their repeated going and coming, had given the impression of a slowly turning wheel, like the terrene revolution or the sun's. The sequoia, a cylinder in core, a cone in shape, had lived amongst fellow-curves. The rounded stars journey in their elliptical orbits, and the electrons likewise in their infinite degree. This unchanging changeless time rounds all things in their span. The hours encompass us, described upon their dial; and even contrasts at the last run together, made to coincide by the slow bending of every line of form. Infinity, if that be the nature of the universe, causes to meet all movement when its arc of direction is completed, and the course of time too seems circular, the rolling of a wheel. Can chaos, the abyss itself, be concentric, after the likeness of everything with which its halls are peopled?

Suppose that an eagle, piercing high beyond our sight in the blue vault of heaven, had seen the giant fall. It would have thought the event and the object petty, across the vast distance. One near-by would have been moved by the greatness of the victim. The greatness and the littleness of things thus seem to depend upon the point of view - a trite, daily, observation, no doubt, but so is life itself to us. Big and little - is it not possible that proportions get their value only subjectively, and that in space they rank less important than to our minds? This concept of relativity, producing itself in everlasting stages across the horizon of our intelligence - may it not be linked with that other law of comparison, the relation of one dimension to another, which ensures something bigger than any object, however big, and something smaller than the almost infinitely small?

Anyhow, measured by human standards, the trunk of the dying giant as it lay there on the ground was huge. The wind was still rustling in its branches, though the air about them was made dense with wood-dust now. It used to be, to our mind, an immense tree... and soon it will be nothing. Soon? Before the sequoia has given back to space the elements of which it was made, its carcass will have to rot for hundreds or thousands of years. It takes so long for all the constituents of such a tree to be resolved, for the oxygen to go back to oxygen, for the carbon to re-become carbon, the liquid to turn again into liquid. Yet this lapse of time, when the last trace of the tree has ceased to be, will have been as a second. To our fallibility it has seemed long, but eternity, which will bring the ultimate and certain destruction of all matter, recks not of a few thousand centuries.

When it was alive the forest giant harboured in its branches thousands of bodies of insects. Some were crushed violently to dust by accidents. Some perished merely by lapse of time, but all in the end came to nothing: for eternity reduces everything to the same value, sooner or later - reduces them all to nothing. Our thousands of lives, magnificent or sordid, long or short, great or small, as they happen to be on earth, leave no mark in space and time. The glory or the shame of what has been bears value and meaning only in our fitful solitary dreams. Should we consider them as having never existed - all these things which have had life and have, under the law, returned to the chaos which called them forth - now only as the dust of forces and of time? The elements remain eternally unchanged, however protean their assumed shapes: perhaps what we term life and death are only their incidental phases

Chapter 13 >>

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