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The society of trees

It is hard to imagine some immemorial hominid first leaving the trees for the plains. Open spaces, even where they attract us, are not very long tolerable to our species: we must be shut in and canopied over to sleep or live at ease. Whoever left the trees first did not do it easily, or by choice. It is likelier that the forest died and left them, than that they would have left the forest.

It is apparent how the same Roman minds that invented espaliering would be attracted to crucifixion, would assume the conquest of the world as the sad duty fate had burdened them with. And it is apparent how a civilization careful to trap half-wild forests—bois or Wald or park—within the walls of its cities, would value freedom, discovery, and genius. All that benefits, strengthens, refines, broadens, enlarges and progresses society, must be brought out by someone into the light of society from the teeming dark of solitude.

Now some are born masters of solitude; but for most it is an acquired skill, and there are only a few ways to learn it—in the library, by the sea, or in the forest; and the forest is the surest teacher. There is profit in the fraternity of readers and beachcombers, but company in the forest shares less in speech than in silence.

Sometimes the woods are like the sea, with swells and breakers of foam-foliage, as along green-walled Southern roads in summer; and sometimes the woods are like the library, and every tree as much an individual, as deep in itself, as much to be known, as a book. People, too, may be like the sea—as the mob, the crowd, the throng, or under uniforms (soldiers, cashiers, bums, and suits alike). But all people are individuals, though they deny or try to hide it, while only some trees can distinguish themselves. To use a local (New Orleanian) metaphor, City Park is as full of remorseless individuals as is the French Quarter; but there is nothing sympathetic for, or reminiscent of, humanity in an orchard or a tree farm. Still, trees more often distinguish themselves than people, and are easier to get to know. The affectation of philanthropy aside, there are people I love more than any tree, but I have loved more trees than people.