Book Excerpts

The Lesson of a Tree – Walt Whitman

After Walt Whitman suffered a stroke at the age of 54, he spent his time immersed in nature as he slowly recovered his health. This passage from the collection of his notes and sketches called Specimen Days is a beautiful meditation on trees and their eloquence, endurance and imperturbability. ‘It is, yet says nothing,’ he writes admiringly of the 90-foot high poplar he encounters, elevating the tree to a heroic status relative to ‘this gusty-temper’d little whiffet, man.’ He goes on to touch on the deep state of ‘inherency’ embodied by trees; an existence unto itself, lived without regard for the superficial preferences of others. His musings reflect Herman Hesse’s ode to trees, as well as the more recent passage about uselessness as survival from Jenny Odell. For an ancient Chinese poem about the holiness of pines, read Ch’i-chi’s 9th century verse here.

 

Sept. 1. — I should not take either the biggest or the most picturesque tree to illustrate it. Here is one of my favorites now before me, a fine yellow poplar, quite straight, perhaps 90 feet high, and four thick at the butt. How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing. How it rebukes by its tough and equable serenity all weathers, this gusty-temper’d little whiffet, man, that runs indoors at a mite of rain or snow. Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don’t, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons — or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get. (“Cut this out,” as the quack mediciners say, and keep by you.) Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of those voiceless companions, and read the foregoing, and think.

One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker-on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

Aug. 4, 6 P.M. — Lights and shades and rare effects on tree-foliage and grass — transparent greens, grays, &c., all in sunset pomp and dazzle. The clear beams are now thrown in many new places, on the quilted, seam’d, bronze-drab, lower tree-trunks, shadow’d except at this hour — now flooding their young and old columnar ruggedness with strong light, unfolding to my sense new amazing features of silent, shaggy charm, the solid bark, the expression of harmless impassiveness, with many a bulge and gnarl unreck’d before. In the revealings of such light, such exceptional hour, such mood, one does not wonder at the old story fables, (indeed, why fables?) of people falling into love-sickness with trees, seiz’d extatic with the mystic realism of the resistless silent strength in them — strength, which after all is perhaps the last, completest, highest beauty.

 

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
From: Specimen Days

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