Everything’s Dead but the Tree

[A lecture to freshmen on the last day of a year-long class in “Literature and the Arts in Western Culture” at Stanford University–June 3, l986]

Sisyphus’ setting, with its flaking rock and its hot barren landscape is the last of a long series of images of hostile wastelands we have been contemplating. Barren deserts, steamy jungles, blasted battlefields, rocky islands, polar ice floes, gothic swamps, wind-swept marshes, blackened cities make up the backdrop of much modern European literature–a setting appropriate to the period that brought us World War I and II and which may yet bring us nuclear winter. Most of these demonic landscapes are symbolic, representing as we have learned, the burnt-out quality of the modern: its loss of spiritual faith, loss of intellectual and moral clarity, loss of aesthetic pleasure, loss of belief in society, the family, the self.

But this symbolic imagery of physical desolation has a literal meaning as well, one that we have not encountered much in the works we discussed. Western culture, and probably world culture as well, has been involved since the beginning of the modern period not only in its own self- destruction, but in the destruction of the earth, the environment which has bred and nursed it. In “From a Plane,” a short poem included in your miscellany of poetry, Denise Levertov recognizes from the air “the great body…torn apart/ raked and raked by our claws” –treated by us like Lear and Gloucester by their ungrateful children.

Of all the downers we confront, this literal transformation of the loving body, the garden of earth into a desert brings me down the most. And it brings me to the poem I’ve asked you to look at for today, “Solstice.” Before I read it, let me draw your attention to its date: l97l– a down year–the sixties were over. During that year many of the young people who had tried to find ways out of some of the dead ends of Western Culture discovered how difficult such escape could be. The speaker of this poem is one of them, who sought a new beginning homesteading in the pristine wilderness of British Columbia and who ended up working in a huge local pulp and paper mill. December 21 is, of course, the winter solstice, the darkest and shortest day of the year.


(December 21, l97l)

Sap down.
Morning dark.
Rooster sleeps, infant coughs, wife groans.
Stove cold, pipes froze, truck stuck.
Uncoffied and late to work.

Screen Tender empties sewer samples:
“Groundwood down for cleanup
Pollution controls suspended
Today we flush the system out.”

Thousands of gallons of woodpulp and bleach
Zinc hydrosulfite, sodium sulphate
Slosh through the flume into the saltchuck
Pablum for fish, heavily spiced.

In the Town Crier photo the Forestry Superintendant
Stands proud on the butt of a thousand-year-old fir.
They’ve finished logging the old growth grove at Goat Lake
It was one of the last virgin stands on the coast of B. C.

Cruised, felled, limbed, bucked
Skidded, yarded, loaded, trucked
Dumped, boomed, sorted, tugged
Towed, spiked, barked, lugged
Ripped, slashed, cross-cut.

Pulped, shredded, screened
Bleached, tested, cleaned
Blended, thickened, died
Rolled, pressed, dried
Wound, rewound, finished.

The Times is all that’s left
For breakfast.

When darkness holds dominion here tonight
We’ll find and cut a sapling hemlock tree
To celebrate renewal of the light
And hope for rebirth of the land and sea.

The sap of all vegetation is gathered in roots; animal life is somnolent; even the mechanical world of heater, of plumbing, of vehicle and of the Satanic mill itself is down. Without breakfast, the mind of the narrator is down too, as he observes what goes on around him: the ocean poisoned and the forests devoured and then excreted as rolls of newsprint paper for the L.A. Times and the New York Times–so that people can be served with war and fashion news along with their morning coffee. The big trees and the small, and the land they shade and moisten are destroyed by puny parasites; he feels himself destroyed; he feels himself their destroyer. He has made the Great Capitulation. How else to pay for fuel and medicine for the child?

At the end of the poem, he remembers the day of the year it is and he thinks of that day’s place in the great cycle that encompasses heavenly bodies, forest, Mill, home and self–the cycle of seasons. Since June, the nights have been getting longer, the light has contracted. But now it will contract no more. The last day of Autumn, the first day of winter, is also the herald of spring; the days will now grow longer–a reversal commemorated by universal Myth–Persephone returning from the land of Pluto, the Hanukah festival of light, the birth of the Christ child– a revival celebrated with a universal symbol: the candlebra tree and the Christmas tree. “Everything’s dead but the tree,” says Didi at the end of Godot.

What is it about trees that gives them such symbolic power in our culture–that puts them for example at the center of the most crucial Biblical stories: the tree of knowledge in paradise, the tree that Jesus climbs at Golgotha, and the tree of life at the end of the Book of Revelation–whose leaves were for the healing of the nations? One can speculate: the fact that our evolutionary ancestors lived in trees, that trees produce most of the earth’s oxygen, that they make habitats and ecosystems, that they provide us with food, fuel and shelter. On a more immediate level, it’s the presence of the tree itself that moves us: its beauty–a deliquescent structure of boughs, branches and twigs reaching for the sky; its creative power–manufacturing its own immense mass out of water, sunlight and air; its engineering–holding erect and pumping tons of water upward in daily defiance of gravity; and finally its spiritual qualities–qualities of self-sufficiency, tenacity, endurance, resilience, silence, stability, egolessness–the sheer quality of being–being rather than doing–and in many cases, of being alive for hundreds of years. Whether they belong to an Egyptian temple, the Parthenon, or Amiens cathedrals, the columns that enclose the presence of gods are imitations of the trunks of ancient trees.

There is something of this treelike character in the person of Elzeard Bouffier, the hero of the second piece I asked you to read for today. In Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees,” I find a parable of the redemption of the Waste Land, an alternate ending to Samuel Becket’s for our tale of Western Culture, full of sound and fury, and signifying something instead of nothing. This story of a modern Johnny Appleseed who restores rather than ravages the earth is not canonized as a classic, but it does have a kind of underground fame that one hopes wont extend too far.

Although it is clear and simple rather than obscure and complex, Giono’s work includes many of the symbols, feelings and issues that concern Becket and his fellow modernists. The old ruined village before Elzeard transforms it into Vergons reminds us of the setting of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” or of Godot:

High in the sky the wind blew with unendurable ferocity. It growled over the carcasses of the houses like a lion disturbed at its meal…(9)[Its inhabitants] had been savage creatures, hating one another,…all about them nettles were feeding upon the remains of abandoned houses. Their condition had been beyond hope. For them, nothing but to await death–a situation which rarely predisposes to virtue.(34)

The two world wars are also present, traumatizing the narrator and threatening the work of the planter; but his very obliviousness to what those wars represent–perhaps unrealistic, perhaps not–provides balm for psychic wounds and puts into relief the value of what he does. The other threats to the utopian vision–private property, government meddling, poachers and charcoal burners–are acknowledged and conquered– through the power of detachment. He has no ulterior motives, no other pressing business, the property he cultivates is worthless to anyone else:

If he would have been detected he would have had opposition.He was indetectable. Who in the villages or in the administration would have dreamed of such perseverance in such a magnificent generosity?

Like so many of the characters we have encountered–say Dr. Frankenstein or Marlowe–he is alienated from family and society, but his isolation is neither self destructive nor lonely, it is a freedom of contented solitude. Like other moderns, he distrusts the deceptions of language, but instead of blathering deliberate gibberish, he simply remains taciturn.

Like his creator, Giono, Elzeard seems to have a relation with space and time that contrasts clearly with those of his contemporaries. Instead of being an exile, leaving the home of his birth, wandering rootless over the earth, Elzeard bonds with a territory for life, a permanent marriage with one part of the earth. Instead of experiencing time as a succession of unrelated, fractured moments (like Becket), a futile oscillation of a two- bit business cycle (like Brecht) or a clawing dead hand and a merciless terminator (like Woolf), Elzeard experiences time as a patient, generous and inexhaustibly bountiful provider–one that leaves him ample room for temporary failures while inexorably adding to his ability and accomplishment like the accretion of tree rings, year by year. Such a relationship with time determines the way he experiences old age. Instead of being the condition of incongruence and self pity as it is to so many moderns–Eliot: “I grow old, I grow old/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”; Yeats: “That is no country for old men, etc.”–old age for Elzeard is the positive outcome of growth, a state of wisdom and holiness which he already approaches at the beginning of the story and which he fully attains as it proceeds. In fact, this tale, like the conclusive discourse of the happy old man in Candide, like Wyatt’s translation from Seneca’s Thyestes, like the poems of Robert Frost and Vergil’s Eclogues– which Giono describes as his own primary inspiration–belong to a literary genre which I call the pastoral of old age. The conventional protagonist of this genre is an old shepherd or farmer whose experience has taught him to see through the illusions perpetrated by civilization and who finds real truth and happiness in a direct rapport with nature.

For Camus, for Becket, for Woolf, for Conrad, it is the indigestible and terrifying fact of death that renders life futile and of questionable worth, that makes suicide the liveliest of options. For Elzeard, the old unlearned peasant, death doesn’t remove meaning and purpose from life, but rather crowns it. Not because it’s the avenue to pie in the sky, but rather because it makes possible the feeling of completing the job; of fully using his allotment of being; of being ready to rest. Likewise, there’s something about the last line of the story that’s necessary to give it conviction and coherence throughout. “Elzeard Bouffier died peacefully in l947 at the hospice in Banon.” It must come to an end; and the end is best. As Wallace Stevens puts in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

I dont know which to prefer
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

To me, “The Man Who Planted Trees” treads a fine line between innocence and sentimentality, but it stays on the right side; some of you may find it crosses over. Certainly a steady diet of this kind of granola would send most of us in search of black coffee or straight scotch. But at any rate I would like to point out that “cigarette intensive” existential abstract expressionism isn’t necessarily the last word in Western Culture. In closing I’d like to draw your attention to some other heros and gods produced in this century by the same tradition:

1) If Charlie Marlowe had come to the Heart of Darkness a few years later, and rather than going up the Congo, had ascended the nearby Ogouue River, instead of Mister Kurtz, he would have found Dr. Schweitzer, a real emissary of light–a man who had built a hospital where he was treating native lepers, who had produced a scholarly analysis of the New Testament that is still widely read today and who, at the time, was writing a definitive multi-volume study of the music of Bach, relating its technical accomplishments to the composer’s mystical experience.

2) If Bert Brecht had chosen to, instead of Mother Courage, he might have written a play about Anne Frank, or about Pastor Niemoller or Raoul Wallenberg, two people among others who remained true to their religious beliefs, saved thousands of Jews from death in the gas chambers and resisted the Nazis until they themselves were killed.

3) If Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay had been so inclined, she might have pursued her religious intimations instead of accepting her husband’s atheism. She could, for instance, have found herself very attracted to the theology of Martin Buber–who also refused to make any capitulation with the Nazis– and who despite his rejection of traditional limiting concepts of Deity, worked out a theology of direct approach, an “I-Thou” relationship with God as the being of the universe whom we do not understand, but nevertheless address and feel, much like we can feel and address, yet not know or master, the being of a tree.

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