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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence


Chapter 6 : The Law of Balance

How lustreless and same the passage of time appears when we review it in our memory! But how uncertain and varied it is when we live it moment by moment, leaning out of each second to encounter the next! Likewise with the life of the great tree. Its sap on the daily round of work may have had fresh pleasures and discomforts at each revolution; but the tree's life seemed to have slipped past in a tame monotony when taken in a period of thirty or forty centuries. Yet it may be that the sequoia felt the seasons change about it, and that the times and scenes (so constant to our eyes) in which it lived affected it variously, just as its great outline may not have been without influence on its own country. One can picture the huge reddish spout leaping up into the air, with a hazy network of hundreds of branches about it. Its head seemed to be lost in the blue. Its bole was twenty-five paces about, but against its enormous height such a thickness seemed slight, and the whole tree had an air of slender grace, quite unlike other great trees, as, for instance, the baobab, whose trunk might be thicker than a sequoia trunk, but whose height would be incomparably less.

Like all conifers, the root-system of the sequoia was not elaborate. Of course it had great roots, and many of them, and luxuriant ones - but not to compare with the tree's size. Here also one may trace the all-seeing Eye, having regard for universal harmony. If trunk and roots were in due proportion, the tree's appetite would be empowered to satisfy its hunger by ravaging an immense area of ground. Its roots would exhaust the vital essences from a wide circle, and reduce it to a desert. So the principle of balance enters, and applies itself to the pine-giant: and we find if we search diligently into nature that its greatest creatures have their weak spots, and the feeblest things of the world have their unexpected means of defence.

Examples of this law are well found in the fantastic prehistoric time. Through its dense jungle rolled a nightmare shape, a reptile (called the Diplodocus) unnaturally huge, perhaps a hundred feet long and proportionally tall. On the end of its prolonged neck was a grotesque little head, in which stared two glassy stupid eyes. The beast would seem to have been doomed to a miserable life, for to nourish its demensurate body would require nearly unlimited food, and it had only a tiny mouth, able to pick up a spoonful at a time. So poor Diplodocus passed his whole life chewing leaves, and had no time off for sleep or holiday. He could do nothing all the while but eat, and so by the law of compensation his greatness was brought low. If his head had been as good as his body, and if instead of being only a grass-eating lizard he had learned to eat meat, then nothing alive could have resisted him, and he would have depopulated his radius of action.

This harmony in life, this astonishing foresight watching over matter makes one think. Every source of energy in the world has irrefragable bounds marked out for it. The curse of Diplodocus seems to have fallen on our modern whale, whose strength would make the sea barren of other life if its gullet had not been made too small to swallow them. What a danger for the rest of the world that other mammal, the elephant, might have been with his union of strength and intelligence, had his nature not been made so peaceable, and the period of gestation so long!

Lions, tigers and panthers are fierce and powerful, but have found a pitiless exterminator in man. The larger felines have ever been the most tempting game for hunters, who pursue them with particular zest: and things are always so, everywhere. Men give infinite reasons or pretexts, on which they think (or say they think) they acted: but behind all these we can trace the constant operation of an immutable law, to which their obedience is implicit.

This terrible law of compensations cuts often across our brief freedom - across those periods when we fancy ourselves all-powerful, masters of the event. We might really be so, if the Eye was not watching and regulating the smallest details of creation: but as it is, this law which checks excessive strength comes into operation against us, using ourselves as its own means. It may be for this reason that we are tormented by drugs or drinks or other plagues; for most non-human beings are comparatively free of them, and they cause any number of weaknesses and harmful complications, fatal to the health of society. As a crowning debilitant we have our man-devouring wars.

For it really seems that they must be half-divine, these terrible events which impose themselves upon us, as though at the dictates of superhuman authority. If fate did not decree them how could these wars yet pour out the life-blood of our peoples, since man has always condemned them with the whole force of his reason?

No one, whether the greatest conqueror or the most commonplace individual, has ever dared to speak of war without exposing its sorry character: unless he curses it: and such is the plainest common sense. There leap to our minds a thousand reasons against war, whenever we need them. Only when the crisis comes and the clash of peoples is prepared, then human beings savagely acclaim it. They burn with the sense of battle, a madness which comes upon them from without and masters them, so that they can speak only with its voice. Just as the roots of plants have the pileorhiza to stay their first feebleness and let them fight out their rivalries with the other beings of the under-world, so when war begins this obscure law injects us with patriotism, a draught which gives us strength and courage to support the miseries of its train.

Daily it is said, "War would be easily prevented. All that is needful is for every man alive to forswear it. If at the same moment we all refused to make a move against our kind, these fires consuming men would be at once put out." Yes, but exactly this apparently easy agreement and common action never happen. When the moment comes for armed slaughter men are unanimous only in fierce support of pretexts for beginning it. When the storm has passed we are astounded and rather horrified to look back on our bloodthirsty record, and like a river sinking back into its bed after a flood, we return gradually to our habitual peace and quietude:- too late, alas! for the will of the gods has been done and humanity has paid its bloody tribute to their law of death. At the next date of bleeding the whole round will begin again, just as before.

So Diplodocus' little head, his point of weakness, may be made a symbol of this malady of man. And the reason why we should be subjected to this inflexible law? No doubt that our too-great strength be brought down... but it remains a question whether the too-great strength is because our numbers are over-many for the earth to bear, or because we are near discovering and exploiting the working of the greater powers of nature. It may also be the law of checks and balances pursuing its course against all excessive strengths, which gives the riches and resources of this world to ordinary people, rather than to those mighty spirits with character enough to overturn their generations. One can imagine what might have happened had the great scholars or thinkers whose writings revolutionised life had in their hands the power of a despot or the wealth of Croesus. "You can't have everything" is the hackneyed phrase in which common sense has tried to express one of the most disturbing truths of the universe. However much it may appear so, nowhere is any excess of power allowed to disturb the balance of things. Absolute equality is of course equally out of the question, for harmony is based always on the union of unlike things.

One pine-tree could observe this law working in its sphere of life, through the thousands of years for which it stood there. Generation after generation of birds and insects followed one another on its stem and branches. Some days were dismal, others glorious, just as some hours were unprofitable and others rich. The light and warmth were not always divided to it in equal part. Underground the moisture did not always refresh its mazy roots in fair degree. Clouds often veiled its blue sky: the seasons made that swelling hill bare and sad as often as they made it smile with waving green. The giant tree saw its needles grow from freshness into pallor, and then fall, thousands of times. Some of its branches for no visible reason grew splendidly, while others, also for no visible reason, remained small and stunted. Yet still its life, as a whole, was lived in tune, as ours are to our content, however discordant the individual moments. A single ray of light is enough to scatter the darkness: and when we think of the surroundings in which the giant lived, the idea comes that perhaps we would fear death less if it were not for that haunting picture of our corpses rotting slowly in the darkness underground. We might live more in love with death if we knew that our dust would remain under the sun, to change and re-model itself in plant-fashion, like those yellow leaves which wither and fall before winter comes. It would assuage our minds if we could think that after our end we would live yet in the shimmering day, absorbed particles of that great life-filled space this side the limitless ether of the stars.

Chapter 7 >>

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