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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 4 : Contrasts which are not Contrasts


On the earth it was spring: and the excitement of it drove underground. Our sprouting seed was caught up in this frenzy of living, expanded itself, and pushed downwards and upwards in a double movement, under cover of that odd buckler, the pileorhiza. The light attracted it; but at the same time it plunged deeper into the night, for there it found hidden sympathies, and encouragements which made it fierce and greedy. It grew enormously, draining to itself the scattered nourishment about it. If other existences were starved thereby, so much the worse for them.

Not long ago our plant was a humble seed, ready to beg its tiny life from each powerful menacing blade of grass. To-day it was a successful bully, drinking up all the ichor of its patch of soil: and such conduct is the general rule, even with us men. When we are weak and know it, we are timid crawling things, hating all powers since they seem directed against us: but let us gain a little strength, and we grow proportionately rude, beating down the weaker. So true is it that evolution in nature is only a re-direction of energy. The Eye which controls the universe really seems to have foreseen and planned everything; and things which appear unjust or horrible to us may appear so only because we do not know the full logic of their existence.

It is pleasant to imagine what happens deep down in that secret mansion of the lower earth. The press of life can be no less there than on the face of the ground. Yet we call it a mystery, and rank it with all that is beyond our sense, with that class of event which even our imaginations fail to visualise precisely. If only we could see the sequoia root with our eyes, or had some yet unexpressed means with which to analyse or share its likes and dislikes, watch its battles, follow its sorrows, its joys! Why were we not endowed with some special sense able to feel the satisfied tremor of the growing root when it made contact with kindly elements in the blank night?

From some distance, somewhere deep under the ground, a trickle of water sent it refreshing vibrations, like a call. How did our plant discover the presence of this distant and friendly liquid? Did it experience that familiar feeling of cool freshness which we men have near water, which we would have felt in its place? Yet the plant had no skin like ours, nor nerves, nor sense of smell. It is a mystery how it should have known things, and how it guessed where lay the foodstuffs it needed, and by what resources beyond our knowledge it perceived their existence. It never missed its aim, though it had to reach out, twist, even ramify, to get at these food-elements, and absorb them. In nature there are hundreds of such instincts, and senses, and faculties, besides the feelings, or nerves, or other appurtenances of the flesh of which we are made. In life there are thousands of unknown energies, of secret perceptions, of indescribable vibrations, which we never feel, and shall never know while we are what we are….

Yes, outside it was spring-time. Its light and heat bathed all the surface of the ground, instilling into the under-soil a whole range of influences to affect some of the thousands of embryos which there come to life, by stages which we cannot follow, and of most of which we never become aware. Creation is so leisurely and so retiring that it makes little impression on us. It is destruction which is the striking thing, because it is quick and clear and violent. An instant destroys a thing which we have long seen living and developing. A tree many hundreds of years old is crashed down in a minute by lightning; in a few days a forest fire will destroy a forest which has existed for thousands of years; and this wanton annihilation instils in us a great terror, together with an unintelligent belief in the goddess of destruction, that savage and formidable power which seems to rule the world, and fills us with devout awe: she seems so mighty and so bold and ruthless that we think her the sole goddess of life.

Such an idea comes to us because of the limited range of our knowledge and perceptions, our only criteria of judgement. In such conditions naturally it is the visible and tangible world which makes most effect on us. Yet we should remind ourselves that if a being under our eyes passes in a second from life to death, yet in that same instant millions of similar beings are being created by the mysterious courses of organic nature: just as while lightning is striking and consuming a giant of the forest in one burning moment, simultaneously millions of such trees are germinating in the fruitful heat of mother-earth, beyond our sphere of control. We should note that in all ways and at all times creation has the numerical superiority over destruction, whether it concerns men or animals or plants. In truth we have no reason to complain that our senses have been reduced to such bare limits. How palpitant life would be for us if new faculties superadded to our old gave us to see the invisible, to understand the occult, to apprehend like plants, to feel in vibrations like light, to flow abroad like seas and contemplate the bounds of space.

Let it be enough if we record, without seeking to explain it by finding a parallel in our equipment, how singularly efficient our plant was in insinuating its roots where it would. With the aid of its pileorhiza it passed not merely through crumbling soil, but through stony strata, plaster, and wood. Another mystery, this, how so soft a substance could penetrate hard bodies, which we burst through only by means of a great effort of strength, using tools yet harder. The sequoia root, dipping downward in one direction, thrusting upward in another, without external aid split obstacles against which we have to employ iron and stone: and at last one fine morning its first shoot pierced the top layer of soil to salute the sun.

At this second the plant was, to our eyes, at last born. We commonly pass over its hardest battles, those conditioned by the circumstances of its origin. In reality it was while yet beneath the ground that the little sequoia tree experienced the mother-care of those kindly shades without which it could not have come to life: but few of us take note of that. We so commonly put the effect before the cause and the success before the effort. Yet our little plant went down as much as it went up, with roots very like its crests, though the one struck upward towards the sun, and the other struck downward through the night.

I would say that this inexplicable symmetry is one of the laws which govern the seen, and probably also the unseen, world. Ideas, beings, things, phenomena of all kinds exhibit to us much the same beginnings, similar developments, and parallel endings. This fact we can grasp only piecemeal, not in its whole; but it is clear that always there is an analogy between extremes. We know that plant-roots are like their heads. Dawn and twilight (opposed limits of a natural event) are like one another: the same pallid colours, the same freshness, the same effect of unambitious calm. Sunrise and sunset, respectively the appearance and the disappearance of our day-star, glare at us with a like extravagance of noisy red. Old age and childhood, the two poles of human life, resemble one another in their feebleness and weak vitality. Our great joys are silent as our great sorrows; and the ecstasy of love is not far from the frenzy of hate. Nature is re-born in spring-tide, and falls sadly asleep when autumn closes: and yet these two seasons are very like - showers of rain and gusty winds, shot across with the same weak rays of yellow light.

We find this odd likeness of contrasts not merely in visible nature and in life, but also in the most subtle abstractions of the spiritual world. We expect a great happiness as anxiously as a great misfortune, and when we do things our first conception, and the memory which follows it, trace in our minds the same sort of hazy contour in fleeting neutral tint. The nescience of our birth is like our death's.

Oh! we know very well how some of these resemblances are caused - thanks to the action of the simple laws of physical nature - but our spirit fails when we ask why these analogies should appear with so strange and universal a regularity.

Chapter 5 >>



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