Of pine and man: Reflecting on Henry David Thoreau’s sentiment in “Chesuncook”
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States
|From the book Hungary by Adrian and Marianne Stokes|
It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.1
Henry David Thoreau’s article “Chesuncook” was serialized in the June, July, and August issues of the Atlantic Monthly in 1858.2 This article is an account of his expeditions to the Maine woods including Lake Chesuncook beginning in 1853. Surprised to discover that the editor had omitted the last sentence of the above quote before the article was published, Thoreau wrote a pointed letter to the editor James Russell Lowell:
. . . However, I have just noticed that that sentence was, in a very mean and cowardly manner, omitted. I hardly need to say that this is a liberty which I will not permit to be taken with my MS. The editor has, in this case, no more right to omit a sentiment than to insert one, or put words into my mouth . . . . I should not read many books if I thought that they had been thus expurgated. I feel this treatment to be an insult, though not intended as such, for it is to presume that I can be hired to suppress my opinions.3
To understand Thoreau’s sentiment in the sentence that the editor crossed out, one has to examine Thoreau’s general attitude toward plants, animals, and man. He regarded man as “an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”4 And he said, “Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”1
The sight of a tree or even a patch of grass would evoke in him emotions akin to witnessing the condition of man or the plight of mankind. “Autumnal Tints” is replete with such sentiments; the Chestnut Beard-Grass or the Indian-Grass evokes tender feelings in Thoreau about the fate of the Native American in the face of the onslaught of civilization:
The expression of this grass haunted me for a week, after I first passed and noticed it, like the glance of an eye. It stands like an Indian chief taking a last look at his favorite hunting-grounds.5
Again in “Autumnal Tints,” Thoreau refers to the maples as if they were humans:
A small Red Maple has grown, perchance, far away at the head of some retired valley, a mile from any road, unobserved. . . . Its leaves have been asking it from time to time, in a whisper, “When shall we redden?”
And about the Poke or Garget, he writes:
What a perfect maturity it arrives at! It is the emblem of a successful life concluded by a death not premature, which is an ornament to nature. What if we were to mature as perfectly, root and branch, glowing in the midst of our decay, like the Poke!
In “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau declares his vision of a successful life and perfect maturity for man when he reflects on the martyrdom of Brown and his men: “Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began: . . . These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live.”6
In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau reflects on the pine in a similar vein:
But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting to our relation to pines as well as to men.
. . . Is it the lumberman then who is the friend and lover of the pine-stands nearest to it and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine-who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane; who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it; who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand. I have been into the lumber yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or the hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still. (Emphasis ours)
Fables of humans changing into trees are not rare in mythology, perhaps the most famous being that of Apollo and Daphne in Greek mythology. Whether Thoreau had in mind a specific fable wherein the tree ascended to heaven and still towered above the man is uncertain. But Thoreau’s allegorical references of the evergreen pine to the bay laurel and of himself to the immortal Apollo are hard to overlook! Of significance, these are not the only times Thoreau writes of tree and man as if they were the same. For example, in “Autumnal Tints,” Thoreau celebrates a single red maple:
The whole tree thus ripening in advance of its fellows attains a singular preeminence, and sometimes maintains it for a week or two. I am thrilled at the sight of it, bearing aloft its scarlet standard for the regiment of green-clad foresters around, and I go half a mile out of my way to examine it. A single tree becomes thus the crowning beauty of some meadowy vale, and the expression of the whole surrounding forest is at once more spirited for it.
Likewise, in a “Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau extols Brown hanging from the gallows between heaven and earth:
When a man stands up serenely against the condemnation and vengeance of mankind, rising above them literally by a whole body, – the spectacle is a sublime one, – . . . I foresee the time when the painter will paint that scene, no longer going to Rome for a subject; the poet will sing it; the historian will record it.
As the painter has painted and the poet has sung, as well prophesied by Thoreau, the pine is already as immortal as him. Whether the pine has gone to as high a heaven, heaven only knows!
Fortunately, the Atlantic Monthly’s online version of “Chesuncook” restores that sentiment of Thoreau, which Lowell had crossed out, perhaps because he considered it heresy.
Henry David Thoreau taunted the editors who proclaimed Captain John Brown insane: “They all called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?” Shall we today marvel at Thoreau: they all called him heretic then; who calls him heretic now?
“Unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!”
Or a tree!
- Henry David Thoreau, “Chesuncook” found in Joseph Moldenhauer (Ed.)., The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, The Main Woods (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Second printing, 1973, 84.
- Henry David Thoreau, “Chesuncook,” Atlantic Monthly II (June through August, 1858): 23.
- Walter Harding and Carl Bode (Eds.), The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau (New York: New York University Press, 1958): 515.
- Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” Atlantic Monthly IX (1862): 657.
- Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints,” Atlantic Monthly X (1862): 385.
- Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and “The Last Days of John Brown” found in William Horwath (Ed.), The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Reform Papers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 111 and 145.
JAMES MATHEW wrote the script for, directed, and produced a dramatic reading performance, “Life and Legacy of Henry David Thoreau” in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee affiliate of the National Public Radio aired a feature about it. He is a cardiologist.
ROBERT PAVLIK, co-author, is director of the Project for Community Transformation at the Marquette University, Milwaukee.
Spring 2016 | Sections | Literary Essays