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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 3 : The Kindly Darkness


Buried between two layers of soil the little pine-kernel woke from its inactivity. Underground was warm and moist; and therefore the seed swelled up with comfort, and relaxed itself with pleasure. The damp crept through it, right through it, with a gentle persistence in marked contrast with the brutal attack of the flood which had swept it away but had not broken down its stubborn defence. The heat of the subsoil made the seed ferment, and summoned it to live; but the mysterious centre of life in it found a fellow-feeling in the equally mysterious darkness which wrapped it about, full of the unaccountable impalpable emanations of all life upon earth.

For this dark we have an unreasonable fear, and it is curious to inquire into the causes of the horror of blackness which fixes itself in our hearts at the moment of their first pulsations. The black is soothing, whence therefore our agony at thought of it? Why do our heads swim when we look at a graveyard and reckon the darkness of the tomb; and the nothingness, in its grip, of things which have been but will be no more? Half-stifled we read a name inscribed on the marble slab, and imagine the unknown dead man as he lived - what he did, whom he loved, how he suffered - and we conjure up in our minds the poor blank wraith, now for ever departed from the light of day.

We can go further, and from the one build up the army of those who have lived, of those alive, of those who will live after us: and these unknown shadows press about our familiar faces, flutter and crowd in and out of the stage-properties of our own existence - like dead leaves in the autumn winds. Particular shapes haunt us with disquieting persistency. We find ourselves in streets, or at shows, or in public parks in the midst of a mob of people whom we do not know, but who live beside us; and we hear them speaking, and can picture to ourselves what they care about. They are of all ages, old and young, men, women, children, black-eyed, blue-eyed, grey-eyed, with fair or dark hair or hair withered white, full-lipped, or with lips shrivelled by passing time; but all of them are living, are there, glad or sorry, before our eyes. An idea takes possession of us and strengthens in us till we tremble with it. We think - "All these individuals about us, whom we could touch as they move, and whom we know to have feelings and hopes and preoccupations, all these beings are destined to disappear one day, whatever they do, wherever they may be, no matter how strong, how well-founded, how firm. In a hundred years they will just have existed, will be nowhere discoverable. What will have become of them?" And again we see the cold, forbidding cemeteries, with the ranked and serried silent tombs all shut fast among their flowers. We shiver at the thought that there, under the cover-stones, beneath the turf, below thick layers of soil, are only blanched bones scattered through that dark which makes us tremble with the notion that it is in some strange fashion our enemy.

Such is the common mistake of reason when imagination has taken charge of a mind; and in combating it we must first distinguish between its cause and its effects. These shadows which we fear only have power upon us after we have irrevocably ceased to exist. It is not the darkness which destroys us; on the contrary, it is profoundly creative, doing its work, with that odd prudishness of creation, by choice out of sight.

It was in such a blank darkness underground that the sequoia seed germinated and burst open under the life-impulse. The cotyledons, rich in vivifying substances, gave a beginning of nourishment to the seedling until it was able itself to select the elements which would assist its growth. The darkness cradled the budding plant, and would continue to prove its definite base after it had grown up to strength. In all these functions there was no destructiveness, nothing to excuse our fear of it. The shades stand attentive about the seeds of plants, as they surround the young of birds in the hatching egg, as they contain the foetus in its mother's womb. In the dark is the beginning of nearly all creative processes: even the diamond forms itself so, in the very bowels of the earth, remote from us - there, in a solid blackness, it takes to itself that faceted shape which later will reflect the light from its every point. These unfortunate shadows for which we harbour so unjust a fear! - and so illogical a fear, for when our cells are worn out by the strain and stridency of life and day it is to darkness that we turn for the renewal of our vital force; and when our hearts and spirits demand either calm in which to rest after the blows of misfortune, or mending after the shock of disillusion, again it is to the shadows that we have recourse, and among them that we find hope - which is either the salve of fresh illusions or the satisfaction of reviewing our obtained petitions.

In this shadow-land our pine-microcosm accumulated the strength which enabled it to make an essay at living. First it absorbed the starchy liquid which the cotyledons had prepared for it; then it began itself to hunt in plant fashion for its own necessary sustenance. Through all its pores the tiny rootlet sucked up the particular juices and essences it needed. It grew, and divided itself into branches that it might tap more sub-soil with these many extensions. It is warm down there underground, and the soil was wet, for it was spring-time outside. The earth was pulsating mightily with the sense of new movement, was transmitting its excitement to the air. The light of day and the darkness of the pit communicate with one another by exchanging invisible and indescribable rays. The decaying bodies of men, animals, and vegetable growths affect and influence their corresponding numbers at the moment of conception and during growth - reaching them as freely through the pellucid air as through the solid layers of the soil. Life and death everywhere run into one another: every beginning is an end, and everything ends only to begin again. Innumerable unknown forces come down from heaven to earth, and as many shoot up from earth into the blue sky, all crossing one another, tangled together. Some are destructive, some productive. We cannot classify or estimate these millions of indiscoverable elements. Most of them never enter our orbit; for we must remind ourselves that there are an infinity of creations, of every sort and kind and lot and fate in our universe, ranging from suns to microscopic cells, each subject to tens of thousands of varying conditions, and tending towards an incalculable number of predestined ends - and it is vain for our curious but purblind spirits to try to estimate separately or to distinguish these appalling problems, for our limitations in kind forbid us ever to know the infinity of evolutions in earth and heaven, in the depths of the seas, in the depths of the earth. It is impossible that we should ever learn what are the hidden powers which sway our courses, what are the unknown and unsearchable emanations which breathe around us, or over us, and give us in hardly perceptible fashion a sense of confused joy, a vague sadness, or some heedless inexplicable fear.

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