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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 7 : Metamorphoses

As space creates all things out of its own substance only to devour them again at last, so time which itself cannot move or change allots to everything its span of life. Our hours and days are within us, and it is the revolution of the globe, and not time, which makes the seasons. Yet beings and things succeed one another, and their courses give us an illusion that the age grows old. It is a convenient figure, for it is good to say that the days slip past and the seasons wheel round, each in turn.

Once more spring made green the mighty tree. The sun and the winds fretted its newly-budded branches. The giant began to transform itself. Like last year, and the thousands of years before, the sap made buds which pushed out into leaves, into flowers, and at last into fruits from which the future seeds would be born. Each spring inaugurated an ascending change, to be followed, this year as in the dead years, by a descending change.

So the sap in its evolution took the common way of all life's forces. It rose towards its highest forms, in turn becoming leaf and flower and fruit: and then it fell away in hard, dry, woodenish particles. Through this history of changing shape passes all we know, ideas as well as things. Even our feelings are not exempt. Everything within and without us alters and re-forms itself: so that there is no changeless situation, nothing which is for ever exactly the same. In the indestructible and turbulent race of matter one universal essence is working in a fixed direction: and if the tree-sap changed into wood, after having triumphally been green leaf and shining flower, so does implacable fate lead our component cells through exquisite childhood into splendid youth, only to change us at last into tottering and wasted creatures of old age.

The elements alter their shape through time and space. In the same light, in the same conditions and circumstances, flowers bloom and fade, our hair turns from its first dark or fair colour into silver, our eyes lose their early fire, our firm red flesh goes dry and shrivelled. These changes happen to the same drop of sap in the plant world, and to the same tissue in the animal world. In the unexplored world of instinct our senses follow a similar evolution. Our enthusiasm for something or other springs to life, lasts awhile, and then chills into complete detachment. "Love is akin to hate," says a proverb: but really the two states run together. Our indifference or our dislike is often born of an exhausted regard: otherwise would we so often come to hate what we once enjoyed? No, these rising and falling changes are not confined to plants, but are a general part of evolution, in material as in immaterial things.

Springtime, however, with its thrill towards active life prevailed once again upon the earth. The sap was boiling up in the inmost pores of the giant tree. It was shaken in mysterious travail, sharing, in its tree-fashion, the corresponding sensations of living beings: but expressing them of course very differently. Its passionate re-birth was shown in the perfumes which it released, in the trembling of its branches, in its needles flashing silver in the moonlight, or golden in the full light of the sun. Yet these enigmatical eddies were those of the new year, the same which make our blood hot and our desires keen.

The universal mysterious analogy of all life again forces itself on our reeling minds. These millions of shoots and needles in the pine were produced with such profusion only to grow old and die, like lives passing away, while the great tree stood steady in the midst of them, rooted and intact. Our nerve cells and tissues in a like fashion renew themselves day and night, without our giving them a thought, so absorbed are we in "living our lives" to our full bent. The pine-tree lived on the subsidiary lives of each of its utricles, and exhausted something of its reserve force with each generation of them passed by: and so do we grow old with each of their deaths as the tiny cells in us die without our heeding.

Life seems to whirl like a top, getting apparently the momentum for a new spin from each spin past, but actually failing steadily towards its final rest. Each slipping moment leaves us inevitably nearer to our end, however it may seem to give us spring and key for fuller existence. Especially in spring-time does a new life seem to be working in us. A mute exhilaration flows through all our nerves, making them tingle like the needles of the giant pine. Beings and things open in one great vibration, whose repercussion is felt even in the dark places underground. Subtle aspirations emanate from here and there, and cross one another confusedly: yet in their varied and varying shapes whirling aloft in the air, inspiring living creatures or burgeoning in plants, they are only multiple aspects of one central influence. These very diverse expressions are all products of one faculty, vivified by the same ichor.

A puff of wind stirred the twigs of the forest giant. The sun was setting in a western sky heaped with purple and violet and rosy clouds. There was a confused movement of many forms of life in the darkling wood, whose smallness beside it made the sequoia tree seem a disproportionate sentinel. Twilight slid into darkness, dissipated early by a silver moon. A cloud of insects rose up the reddish trunk of the pine. They glittered or suggested red and blue and emerald green, blended or particoloured. Their tiny feet swarmed up the rude bark silently. On the ground other tiny insects gleamed greenly through the grass, or darkened its sandy surface with queer black shadows. They paired, in obedience to the instinct which had made the dainty butterflies all the afternoon flutter together intimately. The echo of croaking frogs came keenly from the distance, through the myriad smells of evening.

Everything seemed possessed, reeling with excitement, and with a grave disturbance of spirit, before the might of this hetero-sexual instinct, which drives male upon female, revives the splendour of birds' plumage, sharpens the note of frogs, distils the scents of flowers, causes the shallow stream to laugh aloud, makes the meadow-grasses to dance, and the tigers to roar with excess of life: which is able also to twine serpents in a slimy embrace, and to whirl the deadly scorpions in a loathsome ecstasy. It seems so universal, this omnipotent force, able to run down the moonbeams, to flutter in the wind, to wave with the grasses, to thrill through all the atmosphere. It makes human beings cling together in quivering couples, jerking to the pull of its nameless demand: and truly seems one spirit in these many shapes, an imperious will which in all these varied pairings is shadowing out the frame of the master-law of reproduction. Even the elements appear subject to its sway: for this passion which binds one to another of a kind that every sort may see something of universality in its single mood, may it not be this which puts the little more of glory in the sunlight, that extra softness in the air of night, that repose in open space, that richer music in the waves, that purer purity in heaven, and on earth that sustained thrill?

From head to foot the giant tree responded to the new warmth of sentiment in nature. While the sun shone the birds had mated in its boughs. Now, in the moonshine, the insects had their turn, and clung together silently in the vague shimmering mist of their brilliant colours. Deep in the soil the tap-roots of plants swelled up in pleasure: in the air floated a sea of all imaginable scents, impalpable unseen messengers through space of the universal fluid which betrays itself to our sense of smell on the one side, and on another side in the strange lights of lovers' eyes. If we remember how the loved one would tell us her feelings and her inmost thoughts by a mere glance, then it will not seem to us far-fetched that plants hold converse in the perfumes which they scatter in the air. These invisible and intangible but powerful scents, which spread abroad to invite insects and to stupefy us with nebulous desires, seem to play much the same rôle as the magnetism of our looks, that other strange power which is able by shuffling the blues and blacks and greens of our eyes to express love or indifference or hate; and without any change of shape or colour can reassure with gentleness or paralyse with terror, conveying the most subtle shades of desire and passion and command.

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