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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 2 : The Genus trembles into Consciousness


One day the stream of water by which the seed was carried along sank suddenly - whirling down a funnel in the ground. Slowly the grey light of day grew less as the seed dived deeper and deeper, till in absolute darkness it was rushing madly down the water-spout. Hoarse bellowings resounded about its long subterranean voyage, asserting themselves above the stifled noises of the passage of the buried river through the bowels of the earth. For weeks and months the pine-kernel revolved in these invisible currents, at times slipping slowly along the twisting flow, at other times hurled forward at a dizzy speed in the dwelling coolness of the under-ground.

Suddenly the booming of the flood deepened. A hesitating cautious light came trembling down the waves, and with a huge guggling the seed found itself thrown out into a greenish mass of translucent water, the volume of a river which now took charge of its further course, and in whose stream it long drifted, while the sun gilded the changing surface or the moon turned it all to silver. The tiny seed seemed lost in time, swallowed up in space, as it floated on top of the water or sank into its depth. The contrasts were overwhelming, when the insignificant grain was set beside the river which carried it along, beside the wide champaigns of the two banks, beside the unplumbed void above, in whose pale-blue transparency some far grey and white clouds were fading or floating. How small it looked so set in infinite space! and yet the pine-kernel had its own part to play, and of the thousands of interacting forces in earth and heaven some were specially appointed to fulfil its destiny.

Where did it go in this great smooth-running river? How was it that the immensities among which it wandered did not blot out its faint existence? Had the all-seeing Eye really appointed each one of the many incidents which marked its start in life? Can we, in view of this case, believe that everything has been fore-ordained since the beginning of time (which has never been), and is ordained to the end of time (which also will never be)? No doubt there are the same laws for beings and for things, for constellations of dazzling size as for atoms too small to see, laws which operate in a like spirit and entail like inevitable consequences of related sense. Worlds and beings, objective things and abstractions of thought and instinct all run a similar course of birth, climax, and decline. They begin in nameless processes, develop in phases according to their kinds, and end one day to make room for other transformations equally indescribable.

Accordingly the pine-seed was carried by the river in devious courses, thrown up on the bank, snatched away by the wind, rolled over the plains, cast up the mountain-side, tossed back into the fields, led here and there for an incalculable time, the sport of inapprehensible caprice. A hundred times it nearly fell into a spot favourable for taking root, and as often it was driven away from its goal by forces apparently hostile. If the little seed had been gifted with an observing sense it would probably have seen the lot and end of every event in its ow n destiny. Once it hung for years a few inches from a suitable hole in some fat land, and was left there unmoved by the fresh winds of spring-time, by the ardent summers, by the icy falls of snow. Nothing helped it; till finally a pebble slipped - for some unrecorded reason - picked it up on one of its muddy faces and held it there for weeks, to set it free again on a path of turf.

Such incidents often happened, to make the seed entertain the common hope of its species, the chance of taking root; but always some unknown force dashed the near fulfilment from it. However, one morning, at the edge of a forest and on rain-softened ground, the sequoia seed at last got leave to germinate. The leave was given suddenly and precisely. A gust of wind, blowing across a dead calm, lifted it some hundreds of yards at a bound, and put it down on the slope of a mound of soil by an open hole. None the less the seed might have lain short of its place for years, for it was fixed firmly enough to nullify the impulse of the winds, and the many and various undulations of the ground surface; but now at length its natural purpose was nearly achieved. A few minutes later a dung-beetle arrived, took it up between its claws, easily avoided the several obstacles of the mound, and dropped it, as though intelligently, on the very edge of the pit. The insect then, as in obedience to some non-apparent but exact will, began heedlessly to fill in the hole with rich earth.

So from a little seed and a little soil there will be born here a sequoia gigantea, the hugest plant of earth. It seems a miracle that the future bulk of the tree, its grain, its pith, the shape and colour of its needles, the special nature of its sap, the many tens of hundreds of years of its life should be found in a pin-head of vegetable fibre; and another miracle that the microscopic seed should already contain not merely its plant's organic nature, but also its tastes and distastes, its pleasures and its pains, all the range of yet unformed impressions which would colour its existence in the world.

In such changeless fashion does the vital spark of species run through a myriad centuries. It was for the sequoia, as it is for the innumerable forms of life upon earth, for the solar planets, and for those unknown planets circulating in space, fragments perhaps of suns beyond our ken. From this aspect the law of perpetuity seems to be an eternal re-beginning of the same careers, to be pursued through similar stages to a like end.

How often we find in ourselves hopes, desires, griefs, apparently unrelated to our own experiences and circumstances! They come to us from very far, these feelings, and in answering to them we follow a mysterious and indiscoverable chain of forerunners. Their fate is to some extent our own. Like memory (activity's retreating shadow), their sensations mix and mirror themselves brokenly in us, quickening in us hesitant, half-felt surmises about their final cause, or as to why these reflections of a long-lost age are sent to us.

The play of external events upon our destiny seems to us as inexplicable as the inherited influences which direct us from within. The tiny seed, for example, in circumstances apparently hostile and unfavourable to its development, yet by a few exact but unexpected actions of others, found itself free to work out its fate; and to work it out just after a moment when it had seemed indefinitely delayed.

We men living under the sun can usefully apply the lessons of our own existence to this case. We are very far from grasping the whole scheme of the forces which dispose our lives; indeed, we get only faint occasional sidelights upon them. They strike our attention often because of the mysterious symmetry with which certain things seem to happen. We call them good and bad periods when an order of events occurs to help or hinder our fortunes; and it is significant that there should be a family likeness in such series of affairs. The vision of the lean and fat cows in the Bible is only one instance of this age-old observation; and we have also noted that cases apparently hopeless sometimes contain, beyond our sight, their own happy issue which bursts into view through a union of unexpected and apparently unrelated circumstances. This law sways not merely our human affairs but universal fate. Does the all-creating Eye really see and set in motion His whole universe rhythmically, in tune with one principle which is concealed from our sight by the terrifying complexity of detail in daily life in the visible and invisible worlds?

If so, the universe takes shape as a harmonious whole. What we know and what we do not know of the millions of existences everywhere at any time all are driving towards a common end. From the littlenesses here and the greatnesses there would emerge, perhaps, for those who could see it, a whole immeasurably, inconceivably huge. The atoms seem a mass to us, sometimes, though doubtless they differ among themselves. Men, despite their individual characters, appear, when seen in bulk and from a distance, as a group-whole, comparable with bees or ants. From far enough our earth, despite its diversifying hills and plains and valleys, would seem a smooth body; and if some being could comprehend the entire universe at once, by means and from a view-point beyond our understanding, what would it look like all-together?

That no man will ever tell us.

Chapter 3 >>



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