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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 9 : When the Corselet Snaps

More pine kernels had sprouted near by, and the great tree was now kept company by other russet trunks, tens of centuries younger, but undergoing the same development. They grew and changed against the same background as the older tree, extracting the nourishment which formed their shape and colour, sap and scent, from the same area. Again the law of perpetuity asserted itself in creation.

Near the giant a young tree was fainting and failing. It had not the strong straight shape of the other conifers, nor their sharp, shining needles. Its current of life was crossed, confused. Its sap did not fill its roots and branches, its wood was unhealthy: while on its gnarled trunk grew and increased year by year a huge boss of dead matter, whose weight seemed to crush the whole organism. The stomata laboured feebly in their task of collecting food from the environs, and so reduced the tree's vitality that it felt no thrill from the bounty of spring or summer, while hardly was there any flavour in the weak sap which crept drop by drop through the sick veins of its branches. It seemed tired and faint-hearted in its travail, this sap, like an aged workman: and the tree's whole attitude and effect was that of old age, of a failing constitution such as marks the last stages of life in trees long past their prime.

For this young sequoia was sick. Its soggy utricles made no response to the new winds of spring-tide, and were as insensible to sunlight and to the rays of a cloudless sky. The fine weather which made the giant so brave and fresh in foliage had no effect on this. Its slow, sad invalid existence made it more and more like a tree whose cadence was closing with its pale, fagged flagging tissue.

To an external observer its sickness was as though the coat of mail which linked in and protected its life had parted, and let all its fibres grow odd and wrong. The course of development had been broken, and the shattered rhythm had thrown out even the smallest cells. Their disordered whole was sad and sick with incurable disease, a premature old age with its petulant inconsequence: and if this sickness might be called premature age, age might be called a slow sickness.

Plants and creatures have their illnesses, things their malformations, planets no doubt their disasters: and since the fates of puissant things are those of futile things may we presume that there are mishaps also for the ordered whole? The analogies between stars and the microscopic dust of chemical particles impress themselves more and more upon our notice. Interstellar space seems proportionately no richer in movement or in matter than atomic space, and fancy, running beyond our physical powers of apprehension from one to other, falls ever into the same nescience. We can guess at a common rhythm behind the march of events and the linked procession of acts: so that our superstitions may be only distorted glimpses of design half-understood, scattered observations which our unequal spirits cannot join together.

Our superstitions take precise shape more especially when we are in bodily pain and perturbed in spirit. Our imagination then sublimates the shadows of our fate, flickering over them like a marsh-light in the darkness of our half-knowledge; and achieves only to make their obscurity more obscure.

The young sequoia tree because of its sickness could do no more than just carry on its stunted life. The breath entered faintly into its labouring lungs: its whole life was limited by its deficient sap, and by the futile ineffective busyness of its stomata. Yet it accepted the ill-health as a normal state. The idea of a more fortunate life could not come to it, as it might to men. It had never known any other condition than this painful breathing-in of the life-currents, this poverty of exhalation, and so could not desire a better: whereas human beings in pain feel it all the more since their spirits can disengage themselves from the trammels of the flesh and conjure up visions of a happier fate

In such a way we make worse our torments each time we long to be delivered from them.

A scented breath of evening floated beneath the starry sky. Plants and creatures came to life at its whisper, which combined with the far-away murmur of the river and the resonance of space to give a new vividness to the grove of young pines. The tall and magnificent giant with the full flush of its grown strength made this sweetness of nature its own. Only the sick tree remained without benefit from the life-giving evening airs. Its sluggish viscid sap stagnated in the clogged stomata. Slowly its faint exhalations were breathed out through its pores: it seemed as though nothing could revive this imperfect organism: and as a matter of fact the first effect of illness is to disorganise the senses, to shatter the harmony of the unit attacked, so that it receives insufficiently and returns to the universal flow an insufficient rhythm.

We have all had experience for a shorter or a longer time of this heart-breaking state of sickness, when a livid mist seems to settle itself thickly over our faculties, and the objective world weighs upon us with the whole weight of our material blemishes. At such a time our sensitiveness to influences outside ourselves is bad, whether it is that our disease-crippled organs are no longer powerful enough to communicate freely with the hidden forces through whose paths we move, or whether it is that these very forces in a manner avoid an unhealthy assemblage. Anyhow, it is only when suffering has disordered our state that we become fully aware of the gulf which lies between the external world and that other world within us.

But what we learn more particularly at such moments is how our senses limit external influences. Our inner world is seething with a form of life which feels special to itself, since all contact with the vital currents of our environment has been cut off. Also, apart from a slight play given to the organs our physical sensibility detaches itself entirely from external adventures and elements. When our being has once reached this absolute it fixes itself there, and no piling up of circumstance, in however extravagant a degree, could move it an inch farther. Thus a loss of consciousness through illness involves as vivid a sense of dizzy falling into space as a literal plunge into some darkling abyss, and the perturbation of an inward malady may strike us as suddenly and sharply as the flash of a real lightning-stroke jazzing across our eyes.

In all the world there is no force able to extend or prolong our sensibility beyond its fixed term; which may be a reflection upon the poverty of our means of apprehension. We would not hear the crash of two colliding planets as loudly as the piercing of our ear-drums by a pin-point, and to be burned alive in some conflagration is for the individual as though the universe went up in flame, since for those few seconds of his agony the intensity of the heat of his burning house is as great upon him as the fires of an incandescent world. A heart struck by a fragment of bursting shell would feel no more if it was caught up and crushed between clashing faces of rock.

So by means of our senses we can measure against our being the greatest physical catastrophes: we can know the supreme degree of our faculty for feeling pain without calling for a clash of worlds to prove it. The limitations of our senses are such that beyond a quite-near point they can register no advance at all. It is all the same sensation whether we fall three hundred or thirty thousand feet.

Its illness made the young sequoia dull to its circumstances, while the forest giant all the while responded to each vibration of its environment. On some days its sap seemed in easy relation with the air and scents and light raining upon it, as if a mysterious fluid somewhere in these many elements was making eager its stomata and dissolving the material resistance of the fibres which cut off the tree's vital fluid from the outer air. At other times, for no clear reason this sympathy between sap and outer world would grow difficult.

When ill-health overtakes us, it closes off from exterior contact the private world in which we exist: but not completely: we are not driven to subsist only on our internal vitality. From there does come the impulse or continuity which leads us up to action: but this energy is reinforced by means existing independently of us, and yet influencing us to our inmost soul.

Our passions come to birth within us, truly: but their growth and final efflorescence may be due to a variety of vibrations sent from without. Our loves and braveries and hates are coloured by powers beyond our will's control. A single sentiment may express itself in divers shapes according to the circumstances in which we move. A passionate outburst may be one in a closed room, another in a street, quite different in open country. The giant tree felt its feelings change according to the state of the landscape over which it towered: just as men are peculiarly liable to be strong or weak, safe or fearful, forthcoming or callous according to their attitude, their stage-setting, the occult influences which hem them in. Otherwise our likes and dislikes, our joys and sorrows would not move us to different expressions of temper in different places and conditions.

The radiant discharges of the sky, the perfumes of space, and humane shades of earth abounded: but the sick tree, in the balmy evening, laboured painfully to breathe them in. A link of its armour of defence had slipped, and about it all the fibres of its being had become displaced.

Chapter 10 >>

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