Among the trees

Trees-VP

‘This house looks out on a great rampart of trees; all day they are motionless in the strong sun’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to Llewellyn Powys in the summer of 1933, from Frankfort Manor, Sloley, Norwich. ‘But at dusk they seem to creep silently across the lawn, until looking from my window I seem to see their enormous foreheads pressed to the pane. I have never lived with trees before. They take some mastering; but I think I shall be on good terms with them even before I see them naked.’[1]

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Ents are a race of huge tree-like beings who stride across the country to take part in the battle against Saruman. But the image of trees walking is an old one. In St Mark’s gospel, the blind man, his sight only partially restored when touched once by Christ, ‘looked up, and said, I see men as trees walking.’ His sight will be fully restored when touched for a second time, so that he sees ‘every man clearly’ (Mark 8:24-25). This is explicitly echoed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of a young woman called Emmeline, at a party, looking down the hall. ‘There she saw men as trees walking, her mind already at home in the dusk of her white room outside the lamplight.’[2]

ent_Tolkien

(Tolkien’s Ents: from The Two Towers)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told that he’ll never be defeated until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane to oppose him, says with understandable confidence: ‘That will never be./ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound root?’ But every soldier in the approaching army carries a bough cut from the trees of Birnam Wood, to ‘shadow/ The numbers of our host, and make discovery/ Err in report of us’, as Malcolm says. Very much men as trees walking.

Trees are miracles of growth, sometimes reaching enormous heights from tiny beginnings. They bear fruit, shed leaves, are cut down and die, take on other forms. Unsurprisingly, they’re everywhere in the world’s religions and mythologies: Yggdrasil, the tree of life that connects the nine worlds of Norse cosmology; the Bo tree under which the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment; sacred fig trees in Jainism and Hinduism; the Christian tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the tree of life in the Kabbalah; many more.

They’re everywhere in literature too: oak, willow, laurel, olive, cypress, yew. The elm alone traces a path from Homer and Virgil through Chaucer and Milton to Thomas Gray and Tennyson.

‘I love the fitful gust that shakes/ The casement all the day’, John Clare declared:

And from the mossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane. (‘Autumn’)

Not everyone is, or remains, enamoured. ‘On the way’, William Carlos Williams wrote:

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.[3]

‘I wrapped my tears in an ellum leaf/ And left them under a stone’, Ezra Pound wrote in an early poem.[4] In a what leaf? Is that an Idaho thing – or Philadelphia, or New York? But then here’s Mr Faulkner of Mississippi: ‘The buggy was drawn by a white horse, his feet clopping in the thin dust; spidery wheels chattering thin and dry, moving uphill beneath a rippling shawl of leaves. Elm. No: ellum. Ellum.’[5]

Ah, these Americans. Perhaps one more. ‘“They come down like ellum-branches in still weather. No warnin’ at all.”’ This is in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘An Habitation Enforced’, an early example of his ‘healing’ stories, this one involving a very rosy picture of Edwardian England, where the death of Mr Iggulden prompts Mrs Betts to make that observation to Sophie Chapin (who has found the old man dead in his fireside chair).[6] The Chapins are American—her family there comes from Connecticut—but this is Mrs Betts speaking, a local woman, long resident here. So: Idaho, Mississippi —Sussex.

Swallowdale

At this time of year, walking on a slowly thickening carpet of leaves, with the odd branch fallen in an occasionally fiercer wind, the trees in my local park impress themselves even more closely than usual on my attention. They certainly have a positive effect on people—some people, most people?—and there’s something curiously heartening in the sight of newly-planted saplings. New growth but also a distinctive kind of latent energies, a gathering of strength.

‘“Sleep like young trees and get up like young horses, as my old nanny in Australia used to say”, their mother tells the Walker children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale.[7]

 

References

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 25.

[2] Elizabeth Bowen, To the North ([1932] Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1945), 26. In Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 58, ‘Willow-trees seemed moving men.’

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘The Last Words of My English Grandmother’, in The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 465.

[4] ‘La Fraisne’, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 23.

[5] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 972.

[6] Rudyard Kipling, Actions and Reactions (London: Macmillan and Co., 1909), 20.

[7] Arthur Ransome, Swallowdale (1931; London: Jonathan Cape, 1985), 30.

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