Here to return to
A PITCH–PINE MEDITATION.
So waved the pine-tree through my thought. — EMERSON.
IN outward, every-day affairs, in what we foolishly call real life, man is a stickler for regularity, a devout believer in the maxim, “Order is heaven's first law.” He sets his house at right angles with the street; lays out his grounds in the straightest of straight lines, or in the most undeviating of curves; selects his shade-trees for their trim, geometrical habit; and, all in all, carries himself as if precision and conformity were the height of virtue. Yet this same man, when he comes to deal with pictorial representations, makes up his judgment according to quite another standard; finding nothing picturesque in tidy gardens and shaven lawns, discarding without hesitation every well-rounded, symmetrical tree, delighting in disorder and disproportion, loving a ruin better than the best appointed palace, and a tumble-down wall better than the costliest and stanchest of new-laid masonry. It is hard to know what to think of an inconsistency like this. Why should taste and principle be thus opposed to each other, as if the same man were half Philistine, half Bohemian? Can this strong æsthetic preference for imperfection be based upon some permanent, universal law, or is it only a passing whim, the fashion of an hour?
Whatever we may say of such a problem, — and where one knows nothing, it is perhaps wisest to say nothing, — we may surely count it an occasion for thankfulness that a thing so common as imperfection should have at least its favorable side. Music would soon become tame, if not intolerable, without here and there a discord; and who knows how stupid life itself might prove without some slight admixture of evil? From my study-windows I can see sundry of the newest and most commodious mansions in town; but I more often look, not at them, but at a certain dilapidated old house, blackening for want of paint, and fast falling into decay, but with one big elm before the door. I have no hankerings to live in it; as a dwelling-place, I should no doubt prefer one of the more modern establishments; but for an object to look at, give me the shanty.
Human nature is nothing if not paradoxical. In its eyes everything is both good and bad; and for my own part, I sometimes wonder whether this may not be the sum of all wisdom, — to find everything good in its place, and everything bad out of its place.
Thoughts like these suggest themselves as I look at the pitch-pine, which, to speak only of such trees as grow within the range of my own observation, is the one irregular member of the family of cone-bearers. The white or Weymouth pine, the hemlock, the cedars, the spruces, the fir, and the larch, these are all, in different ways, of a decidedly symmetrical turn. Each of them has its own definite plan, and builds itself up in fastidious conformity therewith, except as untoward outward conditions may now and then force an individual into some abnormal peculiarity. And all of them, it need not be said, have the defect of this quality. They are not without charm, not even the black spruce, while the Weymouth pine and the hemlock are often of surpassing magnificence and beauty; but a punctilious adherence to rule must of necessity be attended with a corresponding absence of freedom and variety. The pitch-pine, on the other hand, if it works upon any set scheme, as no doubt it does, has the grace to keep it out of sight. Its gift is genius rather than talent. It has an air, as genius always has, of achieving its results without effort or premeditation. Its method is that of spontaneity; its style, that of the picturesque-homely, so dear to the artistic temperament. Its whole make-up is consistent with this germinal or controlling idea. Angular in outline, rough and ragged in its bole, with its needles stiff and its cones hard and sharp, it makes no attempt at gracefulness, yet by virtue of its very waywardness it becomes, as if in spite of itself, more attractive than any of its relatives.
The Puritans of New England are mostly dead; the last of their spiritual descendants, we may fear, will soon be dead likewise; but as long as Pinus rigida covers the sandy knolls of Massachusetts, the sturdy, uncompromising, independent, economical, indefatigable, all-enduring spirit of Puritanism will be worthily represented in this its sometime thriving-place.
For the pitch-pine's noblest qualities are, after all, not artistic, but moral. Such unalterable contentment, such hardiness and persistency, are enough to put the stoutest of us to shame. Once give it root, and no sterility of soil can discourage it. Everything else may succumb, but it — it and the gray birch — will make shift to live. Like the resin that exudes from it, having once taken hold, it has no thought of letting go. It is never “planted by the rivers of water,” but all the same its leaf does not wither. No summer so hot and dry, no winter so cold and wet, but it keeps its perennial green. What cannot be done in one year may, perchance, be accomplished in three or four. It spends several seasons in ripening its fruit. Think of an apple-tree thus patient!
The pitch-pine is beautiful to look at, and “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” but it would be a shame not to add that it is also most excellent to smell of. If I am to judge, scarcely any odor wears better than this of growing turpentine. There is something unmistakably clean and wholesome about it. The very first whiff savors of salubrity. “The belief in the good effects of pine forests in cases of phthisis is quite unanimous” (so I read the other day in a scientific journal), “and the clinical evidence in favor of their beneficial influence is unquestioned.” Who can tell whether our New England climate, with all its consumptive provocations, might not be found absolutely unendurable but for the amelioration furnished by this generously diffused terebinthine prophylactic?
When all is said, however, nothing else about the pitch-pine ever affects me so deeply as its behavior after man has done his worst upon it. It would appear to have some vague sense of immortality, some gropings after a resurrection. The tree was felled in the autumn, and the trunk cut up ignominiously into cord-wood; but in the spring the prostrate logs begin to put forth scattered tufts of bright green leaves,—life still working under the ribs of death, — while the stump, whether “through the scent of water “I cannot say, is perhaps sending up fresh shoots, — a piece of post-mortem hopefulness the like of which no white pine, for all its seemingly greater vitality, was ever known to exhibit. But leaves and shoots alike come to nothing. If a pitch-pine die, it shall not live again. The wood's blind impulses, if not false in themselves, were at least falsely interpreted. Alas! alas! who has not found it so? What seemed like the prophetic stirrings of a new life were only the last flickerings of a lamp that was going out.