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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

VOL. VI - SEPTEMBER, 1860. - NO. XXXV.







AMONG THE TREES.


In our studies of Trees, we cannot fail to be impressed with their
importance not only to the beauty of landscape, but also in the economy
of life; and we are convinced that in no other part of the vegetable
creation has Nature done so much to provide at once for the comfort, the
sustenance, and the protection of her creatures. They afford the wild
animals their shelter and their abode, and yield them the greater part
of their subsistence. They are, indeed, so evidently indispensable to
the wants of man and brute, that it would be idle to enlarge upon the
subject, except in those details which are apt to be overlooked. In a
state of Nature man makes direct use of their branches for weaving his
tent, and he thatches it with their leaves. In their recesses he hunts
the animals whose flesh and furs supply him with food and clothing, and
from their wood he obtains the implements for capturing and subduing
them. Man's earliest farinaceous food was likewise the product of trees;
for in his nomadic condition he makes his bread from the acorn and the
chestnut: he must become a tiller of the soil, before he can obtain the
products of the cereal herbs. The groves were likewise the earliest
temples for his worship, and their fruits his first offerings upon the
divine altar.

As man advances nearer to civilization, trees afford him the additional
advantage which is derived from their timber. The first houses were
constructed of wood, which enables him by its superior plastic
nature, compared with stone, to progress more rapidly in his ideas of
architecture. Wood facilitates his endeavors to instruct himself in
art, by its adaptedness to a greater variety of purposes than any
other substance. It is, therefore, one of the principal instruments of
civilization which man has derived from the material world. Though the
most remarkable works of the architect are constructed of stone, it
was wood that afforded man that early practice and experience which
initiated him into the laws of mechanics and the principles of art, and
carried him along gradually to perfection.

But as man is nomadic before he is agricultural, and a maker of tents
and wigwams before he builds houses and temples, - in like manner he is
an architect and an idolater before he becomes a student of wisdom; he
is a sacrificer in temples and a priest at their altars, before he is a
teacher of philosophy or an interpreter of Nature. After the attainment
of science, a higher state of mental culture succeeds, causing the mind
to see all Nature invested with beauty and fraught with imaginative
charms, which add new wonders to our views of creation and new dignity
to life. Man now learns to regard trees in other relations beside their
capacity to supply his physical and mechanical wants. He looks upon them
as the principal ornaments of the face of creation, and as forming the
conservatories of Nature, in which she rears those minute wonders of
her skill, the flowers and smaller plants that will flourish only under
their protection, and those insect hosts that charm the student with
their beauty and excite his wonder by their mysterious instincts.
Science, too, has built an altar under the trees, and delivers thence
new oracles of wisdom, teaching man how they are mysteriously wedded
to the clouds, and are thus made the blessed instruments of their
beneficence to the earth.

Not without reason did the ancients place the Naiad and her fountain in
the shady arbor of trees, whose foliage gathers the waters of heaven
into her fount and preserves them from dissipation. From their dripping
shades she distributes the waters, which she has garnered from the
skies, over the plain and the valley: and the husbandman, before he has
learned the marvels of science, worships the beneficent Naiad, who draws
the waters of her fountain from heaven, and from her sanctuary in the
groves showers them upon the arid glebe and adds new verdure to the
plain. After science has explained to us the law by which these supplies
of moisture are furnished by the trees, we still worship the beneficent
Naiad: we would not remove the drapery of foliage that protects her
fountain, nor drive her into exile by the destruction of the trees,
through whose leaves she holds mysterious commerce with the skies and
saves our fields from drought.

It is in these relations, leaving their uses in economy and the arts
untouched, that I would now speak of trees. I would consider them as
they appear to the poet and the painter, as they are connected with
scenery, and with the romance and mythology of Nature, and as serving
the purposes of religion and virtue, of freedom and happiness, of poetry
and science, as well as those of mere taste and economy. I am persuaded
that trees are closely connected with the fate of nations, that they are
the props of industry and civilization, and that in all countries from
which the forests have disappeared the people have sunk into indolence
and servitude.

Though we may not be close observers of Nature, we cannot fail to have
remarked that there is an infinite variety in the forms of trees, as
well as in their habits. By those who have observed them as landscape
ornaments, trees have been classified according to their shape and
manner of growth. They are round-headed or hemispherical, like the Oak
and the Plane; pyramidal, like the Pine and the Fir; obeliscal, like the
Arbor-Vitæ and Lombardy Poplar; drooping, like the White Elm and the
Weeping Willow; and umbrella-shaped, like the Palm. These are the
natural or normal varieties in the forms of trees. There are others
which may be considered accidental: such are the tall and irregularly
shaped trees which have been cramped by growing in a dense forest that
does not permit the extension of their lateral branches; such also are
the pollards which have been repeatedly cut down or dwarfed by the axe
of the woodman.

Of the round-headed trees, that extend their branches more or less at
wide angles from their trunk, the Oak is the most conspicuous and the
most celebrated. To the mind of an American, however, the Oak is far
less familiar than the Elm, as a way-side tree; but in England, where
many

"a cottage-chimney smokes
From betwixt two aged Oaks,"

this tree, which formerly received divine honors in that country, is now
hardly less sacred in the eyes of the inhabitants, on account of their
familiarity with its shelter and its shade, and their ideas of its
usefulness to the human family. The history of the British Isles is
closely interwoven with circumstances connected with the Oak, and the
poetry of Great Britain has derived from it many a theme of inspiration.

The Oak is remarkable for the wide spread of its lower branches and its
broad extent of shade, - for its suggestiveness of power, and consequent
expression of grandeur. It is allied with the romance of early history;
it is celebrated by its connection with the religion and religious rites
of the Druids, - with the customs of the Romans, who formed of its
green leaves the civic crown for their heroes, and who planted it to
overshadow the temple of Jupiter; and many ancient superstitions give
its name a peculiar significance to the poet and the antiquary. From its
timber marine architecture has derived the most important aid, and it
has thereby become associated with the grandeur of commerce and the
exploits of a gallant navy, and is regarded as the emblem of naval
prowess. The Oak, therefore, to the majority of the human race, is,
beyond all other trees, fraught with romantic interest, and invested
with classic and historical dignity.

The American continent contains a great many species of Oak in its
indigenous forest. Of these the White Oak bears the most resemblance to
the classical tree, in its general appearance, in the contorted growth
of its branches, and in the edible quality of its fruit. But the Red
Oak, the most northerly species, exceeds all others in size. No other
attains so great a height, or spreads its branches so widely, or
surpasses it in regularity of form. As we advance south, the White Oak
is conspicuous until we arrive at North Carolina, where the forests and
way-sides exhibit the beautiful Evergreen Oak, which, with its slender
undivided leaves, the minute subdivisions of its branches, and its
general comeliness of form, would be mistaken by a stranger for a
Willow. A close inspection, however, would soon convince him that it has
none of the fragility of the Willow. On the contrary, it is the most
noted of all the genus for its hardness and durability, being the
identical Live Oak which has supplied our navy with the most valuable
of timber. At the South the Evergreen Oak is a common way-side tree,
mingling its hues with the lighter green of the Cypress and the sombre
verdure of the Magnolia.

The Oak exceeds all other trees, not only in actual strength, but also
in that outward appearance by which this quality is manifested. This
expression is due to the general horizontal spread of its principal
boughs, the peculiar angularity of the unions of its small branches, the
want of flexibility in its spray, and its great size when compared with
its height, all manifesting its power to resist the wind and the storm.
Hence it is regarded as the monarch of trees, surpassing all in those
qualities that indicate nobleness and capacity. It is the emblem of
strength, dignity, and grandeur: the severest hurricane cannot overthrow
it, and, by destroying some of its branches, leaves it only with
more wonderful proofs of its resistance. Like the rock that rises in
mid-ocean, it becomes in its old age a just symbol of fortitude, parting
with its limbs one by one, as they are broken by the gale or withered by
decay; but still retaining its many-centuried existence, when, like an
old patriarch, it has seen all its early companions removed.

Standard Oaks are comparatively rare in the New England States, and not
many adorn our way-sides and inclosures, which are mostly shaded by
Elms, Limes, Maples, and Ash-trees. The scarcity of Oaks in these places
is attributable in some degree to the peculiar structure of their roots,
which extend downwards to a great depth in the soil, causing them to be
difficult of transplantation. It is owing in still greater measure to
the value of Oak-wood for ship-timber, - especially as those full-grown
trees which have sprung up by the road-sides, and the noble pasture
Oaks, contain the greatest number of those joints which are in special
demand for ship-building. Year after year, therefore, has witnessed the
gradual disappearance of these venerable trees, which the public should
have protected from the profane hands of the "timberer," by forcing him
to procure his materials from the forest. The community needs to be
taught that a standard tree of good size and well-developed proportions
is of more value for its shade, and as an object in the landscape, than
a whole acre of trees in the middle of a wood.

One of the most majestic trees in the American forest is the Chestnut,
remarkable, like the Oak, for its broad extent of shade. In some parts
of the country it is one of the most common standards in the field and
pasture, having been left unmolested on account of the value of its
fruit and the comparative inferiority of its timber. The foliage of this
tree is dense and flowing, and peculiar in its arrangement. The leaves
are clustered in stars of from five to seven, on short branches that
grow from one of greater length. Hence, at a little distance, the whole
mass of foliage seems to consist of tufts, each containing a tassel of
long pointed leaves, drooping divergently from a common centre. The
flowers come out from the centre of these leaves in the same manner,
and by their silvery green lustre give a pleasing variety to the darker
verdure of the whole mass. "This is the tree," says Gilpin, "which
graces the landscapes of Salvator Rosa. In the mountains of Calabria,
where Salvator painted, the Chestnut flourished. There he studied it
in all its forms, breaking and disposing of it in a thousand beautiful
shapes, as the exigencies of his composition required."

The Beech is one of the same class of trees, but does not equal the
Chestnut in magnitude. It is distinguished by the beauty of its clean,
smooth shaft, which is commonly ribbed or fluted in a perceptible
degree; and in a wood, where there is an assemblage of these columns,
rising without a branch to the height of thirty feet or more, they are
singularly beautiful. A peculiarity often observed in the Beech is a
sort of double head of foliage. This is produced by the habit of the
tree of throwing out a whorl of imperfect branches just below the union
of the main branches with the trunk. The latter, taking more of an
upward direction, cause an observable space a little below the middle
of the height of the tree. This double tier of branches and foliage has
been noticed by painters in the European Beech. I have observed it in
several instances in the American tree.

Standard Beech-trees are not numerous in this part of the country;
indeed, they are seldom seen except in a wood, or in clumps which have
originated from the root of some tree that has perished. I think they
appear to better advantage in groups and small assemblages than when
single, as there is nothing greatly attractive in the form of a standard
Beech; but there is a peculiar sweep of the lateral branches, when they
are standing in a group, which the student of trees cannot fail to
admire. They send out their branches more in right lines than most other
trees, and, as their leaves and the extremities of their spray all have
an upright tendency, they give a beautiful airy appearance to the edge
of a wood. The foliage of other deciduous trees, even when the branches
tend upward, is mostly of a drooping character. The Beech forms a
pleasing exception to this habit, having leaves that point upward and
outwardly, instead of hanging loosely. In most other trees the foliage
is so heavy and flowing, that the courses of their branches are
concealed under their drapery of leaves; but in the Beech all the
lines produced by the branches and foliage are harmonious, and may be
distinctly traced.

By taking note of these peculiarities in their arborescent growth, one
greatly magnifies his capacity for enjoying the beauties of trees.
Without this observation, their general appearance forms the chief
object of his attention: he observes them only as a person of taste who
cannot distinguish tunes would listen to music. He feels the agreeable
sensation which their forms and aspects produce; but, like one who
thinks without adequate language for his thoughts, his ideas are vague
and indefinite. The Beech is particularly worthy of study, as in many
points it differs characteristically from most other trees. I am
acquainted with no tree in the forest that equals it, when disrobed of
its foliage, in the gracefulness of its spray. There is an airiness
about its whole appearance, at all seasons, that gives an expression of
cheerfulness to the scene it graces, whether it skirt the banks of a
stream or spread out its courteous arms over a sunny knoll or little
sequestered nook.

There are some trees which are peculiarly American, being confined to
the Western continent, and unknown in other parts of the world. Among
these is the Hickory, a well-known and very common tree, celebrated
rather for its usefulness than its beauty. The different trees of this
family make an important feature in our landscape: they are not abundant
in the forest, but they are conspicuous objects in the open plain, hill,
and pasture. Great numbers of them have become standards; we see them
following the lines of old stone walls that skirt the bounds and avenues
of the farm, in company with the Ash and the Maple. In these situations,
where they would not "cumber the ground," they have been allowed to
grow, without exciting the jealousy of the proprietor of the land.
Accident, under these circumstances, has reared many a beautiful tree,
which would in any other place have been cut down as a trespasser. Thus
Nature is always striving to clothe with beauty those scenes which man
has despoiled; and while the farmer is hoeing and grubbing, and thinking
only of his physical wants, unseen hands are draping all his fences with
luxuriant vinery, and bordering his fields with trees that shall gladden
the eyes of those who can understand their beauties.

The Hickory is not a round-headed tree; it approaches a cylindrical
form, somewhat flattened at the top, but seldom attaining any strict
regularity of shape. It does not expand into a full and flowing head,
but is often divided into distinct masses of foliage, separated by
vacant spaces of considerable size, and presenting an appearance as if
a portion of the tree had been artificially removed. These gaps do not
extend all round the tree; they are irregularly disposed, some trees
having several of them, others none or only one; and they seem to have
been caused, when the tree was young, by the dwindling of some principal
branch. The Hickory throws out its branches at first very obliquely from
the shaft; afterwards the lower ones bend down as the tree increases in
size, and acquire an irregular and contorted shape; for, notwithstanding
their toughness, they bend easily to the weight of their fruit and
foliage.

This tree is celebrated in the United States for the toughness of its
wood; and the term Hickory is used as emblematical of a sturdy and
vigorous character. It possesses some of the ruggedness, without the
breadth and majesty of the Oak, though it exceeds even this tree
in braving the force of a tempest. It is one of our most common
pasture-trees, and its deep-green foliage makes amends for the general
want of comeliness in its outline.

As we are journeying through the older settlements of New England,
the melancholy forms of the ill-fated Plane-trees tower above the
surrounding objects, and attract our attention not only by their
magnitude, but also by the marks of decay which are stamped upon all.
This appearance is chiefly remarkable in the early part of summer: for
the trees are not dead; but their vitality is so far gone that they are
tardy in putting out their leaves, and seldom before July are they fully
clad in verdure. When they are not in leaf, we may observe an unnatural
growth of slender twigs in tufts at the ends of their branches. This
is caused by the failure of the tree in perfecting its wood before the
growth of the branches is arrested by the autumnal frosts; and this
accident has been repeated annually ever since the trees began to
be affected with their malady. The Plane was formerly a very common
way-side tree in New England, until the fatality occurred which has
caused the greater number of them to perish. It is a fact worthy of
notice, that all the trees of this species below the latitude of Long
Island have escaped the malady.

The Chenar-tree, or Oriental Plane, is celebrated in history, having had
a place in all the public and private grounds of the Greeks and Romans,
as well as of the Eastern nations. The American, or Western Plane,
called in New England the Buttonwood, is not less remarkable for its
size and grandeur. It is one of the loftiest trees, and its lateral
branches, being of great length, give it extraordinary breadth. It also
runs up to an unusual height, compared with other trees, before it forms
a head, so that its lower branches are sometimes elevated above the
roofs of the houses of common height Hence it would be a valuable tree
for road-sides, if it were healthy, as it would allow the largest
vehicles to pass freely under its boughs.

A far more beautiful tree, gracing equally the forest and the way-side,
is the Ash, charming our sight with the gracefulness of its proportions
in winter, with its flowing drapery of verdure in summer, and its
variety of glowing tints in autumn. The Ash has been styled in Europe
"the painter's tree," - a fact which is worthy of notice, inasmuch as
those writers who have theorized concerning the nature of beauty have
generally regarded trees of broken and irregular shapes, like the
Hickory, as more picturesque than those of prim and symmetrical habit,
like the Ash. The practice of the great masters in painting seems
adverse to this idea, since they have introduced the Ash more frequently
than other trees into their pictures; and it shows the futility of the
attempt to draw a distinction between picturesque and beautiful
trees. All trees, indeed, of every natural shape, may be considered
picturesque, as, in one situation or another, every species may be
introduced to heighten the character of a picture or a landscape.

The Ash never fails to attract attention by the peculiar beauty of its
outlines, the regular subdivision of its branches, its fair proportions
and equal balance without any disagreeable formality. Nothing can exceed
the gracefulness of its pinnate foliage, hanging loosely from its
equally divergent spray, easy of motion, but not fluttering, and always
harmonizing in its tints with the season of the year. Notwithstanding
the different character, in regard to symmetry, of the Ash and the
Hickory, the two trees are often mistaken for each other, and, when the
latter is evenly formed, it is sometimes difficult at first sight to
distinguish it. They differ, however, in all cases, in the opposite
arrangement of the leaves and small branches of the Ash, and their
alternate arrangement in the Hickory. One of these branches invariably
becomes abortive, as the tree increases in size, so that their opposite
character is apparent only in the spray.

In wet places which have never been subjected to the plough, in grounds
partly inundated a great portion of the year, luxuriating in company
with the Northern Cypress, over an undergrowth of Dutch Myrtles and
Button-bushes, we find the singular Tupelo-tree. This tree is the
opposite of the Ash in all its characteristics. There is no regularity
in any part of its growth, and no tree in the forest sports in such a
variety of grotesque and fantastic shapes. Sometimes it spreads out its
branches horizontally, forming a perfectly flat top, as if it had grown
under a platform; again it forms an irregular pyramid, most commonly
leaning from an upright position. It has usually no definable shape,
often sending out one or two branches greatly beyond the rest, some
directed obliquely downwards, others twisted and horizontal. This tree,
if it had no other merit, would be prized for its eccentricities; but it
is not without beauty. It possesses a fine glossy foliage, unrivalled in
its verdure, and every branch is fully clothed with it; and, whatever
may be the age of the tree, it never shows the marks of decrepitude.

The pyramidal trees are included chiefly among the coniferous
evergreens, embracing the Pine, the Fir, the Spruce, and the Cypress.
Though many of the deciduous trees assume more or less of this outline,
it is the normal and characteristic form of the Pines and their kindred
species. It is a peculiarity of the pyramidal trees, with a few
exceptions, to remain always disfigured, after the loss of an important
branch, having no power to fill the vacant space by a new growth. Other
trees readily fill up a vacancy occasioned by the loss of a branch, and
may suffer considerable mutilation without losing their beauty, because
an invariable proportion is not necessary to render them pleasing
objects of sight. On account of the symmetry of their forms, the
pyramidal trees are made ugly by the loss of a limb, as the porch of a
temple would be ruined by the removal of one of its pillars. Hence we
may understand the charm of that irregularity that prevails in the forms
of vegetation. If we remove a branch from an Elm or an Oak, or even from
an Ash, we destroy no positive symmetry; it is like removing a stone
from a loose stone wall; we do but slightly modify its disproportions.

The White Pine may be selected as the American representative of the
pyramidal trees, being the most important as well as the most striking
in its appearance. It is a Northern tree, not extending so far south as
the region of the Cypress and Magnolia, and attaining perfection only on
the northeastern part of the continent. In the New England States, it


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 35, September, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 21)