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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 5 : Caught up into the Stream of Life


In the summer when the sky was blue and the air diaphanous, in autumn with its melancholy mist, in winter when the wind blew cold and clean and sharp, our tree lived on and prospered with the passing years. For now it had become a tree, a giant sequoia pine. It stood a little clear of a forest in an open space, and so looked solitary. Its head towered over the surrounding country from its place in the blue and green opalescent gulf of heaven. The forest whose leaves danced tremblingly before its feet was made up of quite other trees: delicate lively things, of middle but swift height, and thin-branched, so that the wind and the sunlight wove patterns easily through their frail screen.

Against this background the seasons passed leisurely, the complete year seeming swifter than its parts: so that if an ever-living spirit could have fixed itself deep within the fibres of the giant trunk while the waves of time broke about it, and counted them as they came, it would have found centuries fly past as lightly as single years. If our faculties and standards of perception had been applicable to the pine, how beautiful we, in its place, would have thought the world! We would have noted the warmth, the sense of space, its limpid clarity: also the colours and shapes and scents of things; but did the tree know how splendid was the scene about it? At times we think that it must have been sensitive to certain things. Yet surely it could not see the distant hill rolling away to the skyline, gay and clean and bright in summer, but pale and solemn in winter. It could not admire the endless plain or the river winding near. It paid no attention to the azure sky in which it bathed itself, nor could it feel - at least not in any human sense - the caressing wind, the rough embraces of the frost, the cool breath of the water. Likewise it could not taste the open air, or know the day flashing round it, or be soothed by the calming shades of night. It was unable to feel, see, hear, or taste movement and light and noise and flavours, as we can; yet it received impressions to which we are blank, and united itself ardently or voluptuously or uneasily with the other elements of its existence. It would require a manufacture of new words (to fit sensations foreign to our nature) before our present understandings could appreciate plant-loves and hatreds, and the things which please them or give them discomfort.

Our tree became part of its whole environment, of the hills, of the plain, of the atmosphere and scents of things, by a constant interchange of matter. Its sap was drawn from the depths of the earth, and rose unchecked through each breathing cell up to the crest of the tree. It flowed rapidly about even the very smallest pores, and thence from the topmost twig fell again as fast (but this time rich with new ingredients) to the lowest root. We can easily gauge the chemical content of these ingredients, but nevertheless the absorption on their passage of the nutritive particles remains a mystery.

They are drawn from all the elements of which the world is made up, even in its most opposed forms: and the various species of active things, whether men or animals or plants, select those actual ones proper for their nourishment, after their kind, and attract them through space and time, through all the multitude of encompassing forces, from solid matter, from vapours or from liquids, whatever their appearance and whatever their composition. The sequoia, for instance, drew to itself what was qualified to make rough its red bark, to harden the fibres of its stem, to make smooth the green composition of its needles; and drew them from the encircling air, from the blue rays of light, from the mist of waters, from every motion and scent about it. From the same vast whole, made up of thousands of dissimilar bodies, the birds draw their plumage, the tortoises their shells, the worms their rings, the flowers their petals, and humankind their complexions, their blood and flesh.

We are fully aware that these substances are all carbon in divers forms; but that raises the fresh question, when we ponder it, whether the whole universe is not of a single sameness - a vision of mind-wracking infinity repeating itself in a perpetual changeless series? and that might lead us to stand in astonished awe before a nature which can make a bone, or pearl-shell, or a wing-case, or a claw, or an eyelash from the same elements whether they are of the air we breathe, of the light shining from our eyes, or of any other transformation of appearance or taste. However, even if the matter be the same, the forces which cause it to take shape are infinite. How many must be the sources of energy which together compose the complete eternal mirror-disk of life, in which from time to time we catch glimpses of vague forms, as it whirls on its mad course, bearing away worlds too big for our failing minds to comprehend, or too small for our blunted senses to distinguish?

Above all, this dazzling multiple disk teaches us motion and harmony: that is to say, labour and love. The largest planet like the smallest atom exists by combination and by movement. Look upon the million needles of the sequoia pine, how they everlastingly breathed in and out, drawing gases and water from the air and returning others. The stomata never stopped work for an instant. Within the seeds the sap worked as unceasingly. Nothing ever dwells in absolute inertia for a moment anywhere. The atmosphere vibrates, light pierces, hearts beat, water flows, the molecules of crystals build themselves together, the stars revolve, the air stirs, the darkness is propitious to growth: through everything is spun the cord of love and labour.

Perhaps, when we contemplate the tireless labour of the bees and ants as they run here and there, and reinforce one another in an endless series of the same acts, with apparently their sole purpose in the next generation - perhaps a dismal weariness steals over us at the sight of such everlasting monotony of labour, and at a feeling that their futile efforts much resemble our own; but we may legitimately remind ourselves that our ignorance of the complete scheme of things inhibits or at least vitiates our judgement; also that the chain of succession, from father to son in an endless series stretching away to infinity, is Nature's first law.

Just as nothing isolated happens in nature, so nothing exists which is isolated or peculiar. What we call our individuality is only a congeries of cells: just as what we call an adventure is a complex of events tending towards a single defined end. It would be wrong for us to pick out and treat of any single one of the tribulations of the pine-seed on its described huge journey, except in relation to the result of the history, the mighty tree towering like a red pillar four hundred feet into the air. Likewise with our storied lives. We will find nothing irregular in them if we realise that they existed before they became patent, and that our minds became aware of them only when they developed in some apparently fresh phase to which we were peculiarly sensitive. A good example is the ray of light which left a star centuries ago, but which we notice only as it enters our limited field of vision.

The least important event has a history going back far beyond our mind's reach: we cannot fix the start of any thing, or of any creature, or of any circumstance. This enormous tree, whose shadow falls across my book, and whose history we are tracing . . . what began it? How did the class of giant pine arise? The most evanescent happening carries back through adventure upon adventure to infinity, and if we could trace back everything to its first cause, probably we would be astonished to find small consequences to things which we think magnificent, and would find that our grandest created things took their rise in ordinary and insignificant circumstances.

We may lawfully presume that the past has been universal, and that the future will be the same; for probably everything happened in the eternity which preceded us, and everything will certainly happen in the limitless time which will succeed our paltry moments.

Where do we come from? What was our first shape? Academic questions these, perhaps of no great urgency, but none the less difficult for us to picture. We feel distinctly enough what is good or bad in our experiences of the moment; yet we cannot in the least evade our destinies; and our impotence supplies us with a reason for casting out despair, and accepting with dignity what fate offers.

Seconds build up into minutes, and minutes into hours, and these into the days of our life; and so also far-fetched trifles accumulate into occasions. It depends on our circumstances whether they seek us out or whether we go to them. Every being possessing activity, that is, which has a relation with space and a temporary faculty of volition, moves towards change as change moves towards him. The mobile beings, such as men and beasts and birds, as often as they move, make progress towards some small or large point in their history. Their change of position makes them encounter the unexpected, which is itself perhaps coming towards them. Our pine-tree, however, being of the plant class, was rooted in one place, and had to attend its changes there. For of course its history was full of change. In seed-shape it had wandered across the world, its devious course lying sometimes on the surface of the ground, sometimes in the water, sometimes in the air. Now, being a tree, its wanderings were over; but its normal life yet varied nearly from day to day. The scene (to our eyes changeless) in which it stood no doubt changed without our being able to see the differences. We have no bark or needles or sap, and cannot therefore enter into the feelings of the tree which with them knew how clouds modulated its light, how the passing wind varied its scent and texture according to the distance or direction from which it came, how the rain-drops tasted so one time and so another time, their very elements seeming different according as the seasons varied the sensitiveness of the great lonely tree.

Anyhow, we should remember that with plants it will not be as with us. Lacking our faculties, they may yet be richer than us in other directions, endowed with senses whose deficiency in ourselves we cannot perceive: and perhaps even things have their senses. There may really be "tears in things." It would be an attractive doctrine that the energies which affect inanimate things may affect them in sensible degrees, that the universe (which is a rounded whole) obeys the same laws in forms which change according to circumstance, but remain alike in force and means.

Chapter 6 >>



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