The Law of the Wood
What a word to be heard in a wood on an early summer morning, before the sun had quite struggled through the mists, and before the dew had left the flowers; and while all Nature was passing through the changes that separate night from day, adapting herself gently to the necessities of the hour.
What a word to come from a young creature, which knew very little more of what had gone before, than of what was coming after, and who could not, therefore, be qualified to pronounce a very positive judgment upon anything.
But, somehow or other, it is always the young and inexperienced, who are most apt to be positive and self-willed in their opinions; and so, the young Spruce-fir, thinking neither of the lessons which Nature was teaching, nor of his own limited means of judging, stuck out his branches all round him in everybody's face, right and left, and said—
It so startled a squirrel, who was sitting in a neighbouring tree, pleasantly picking out the seeds of a fir cone, that he dropped his treasured dainty to the ground; and springing from branch to branch, got up as high as he could, and then, looking down, remarked timidly to himself, "What can be the matter with the Spruce-firs?"
Nothing was the matter with the Spruce-firs, exactly; but the history of their excitement was as follows:—They, and a number of other trees, were growing together in a pretty wood. There were oaks, and elms, and beeches, and larches, and firs of many sorts; and here and there, there was a silver-barked Birch. And there was one silver-barked Birch in particular, who had been observing the spruce-firs all that spring; noticing how fast they were growing, and what a stupid habit (as he thought) they had, of always getting into everybody's way, and never bending to accommodate the convenience of others.
He might have seen the same thing for some years before, if he had looked; but he was not naturally of an inquisitive disposition, and did not trouble himself with other people's affairs: so that it was only when the Spruce-fir next him had come so close that its branches fridged off little pieces of his delicate paper-like bark, when the wind was high, that his attention was attracted to the subject.
People usually become observant when their own comfort is interfered with, and this was the case here. However little the Birch might have cared for the Spruce-fir's behaviour generally, there was no doubt that it was very disagreeable to be scratched in the face; and this he sensibly felt, and came to his own conclusions accordingly.
At first, indeed, he tried to sidle and get out of the Fir's way, being himself of a yielding, good-natured character, but the attempt was a quite hopeless one. He could not move on one side a hundredth part as fast as the fir branches grew; so that, do what he would, they came pushing up against him, and teased him all day.
It was quite natural, therefore, that the poor Birch should begin to look round him, and examine into the justice and propriety of such a proceeding on the part of the Spruce-firs; and the result was, that he considered their conduct objectionable in every way.
"For," said he, (noticing that there was a little grove of them growing close together just there,) "if they all go on, shooting out their branches in that manner, how hot and stuffy they will get! Not a breath of air will be able to blow through them soon, and that will be very bad for their health; besides which, they are absolute pests to society, with their unaccommodating ways. I must really, for their own sakes, as well as my own, give them some good advice."
And accordingly, one morning,—that very early summer morning before described,—the Birch, having had his silvery bark a little more scratched than usual, opened his mind to his friends.
"If you would but give way a little, and not stick out your branches in such a very stiff manner on all sides, I think you would find it a great deal more comfortable for yourselves, and it would certainly be more agreeable to your neighbours. Do try!"
"You are wonderfully ready in giving unasked advice!" remarked the young Spruce-fir next the Birch, in a very saucy manner. "We are quite comfortable as we are, I fancy; and as to giving way, as you call it, what, or whom are we called upon to give way to, I should like to know?"
"To me, and to all your neighbours," cried the Birch, a little heated by the dispute.
On which the Spruce-fir next the Birch cried "Never!" in the most decided manner possible; and those beyond him cried "Never!" too; till at last, all the Spruce-firs, with one accord, cried, "Never!" "Never!" "Never!" and half frightened the poor squirrel to death. Every hair on his beautiful tail trembled with fright, as he peeped down from the top of the tree, wondering what could be the matter with the Spruce-firs.
And certainly, there was one thing the matter with them, for they were very obstinate; and as nobody can be very obstinate without being very selfish, there was more the matter with them than they themselves suspected, for obstinacy and selfishness are very bad qualities to possess.
But, so ignorant were they of their real character, that they thought it quite a fine thing to answer the Birch-tree's mild suggestion in such a saucy manner. Indeed, they actually gave themselves credit for the display of a firm, independent spirit; and so, while they shouted "Never!" they held out their branches as stiffly as possible towards each other, till they crossed, and recrossed, and plaited together. On which they remarked—
"What a beautiful pattern this makes! How neatly we fit in one with the other! How pretty we shall look when we come out green all over! Surely the Wood-pigeons would have been quite glad to have built their nests here if they had known. What a pity they did not, poor things! I hear them cooing in the elm-tree yonder, at a very inconvenient height, and very much exposed."
"Don't trouble yourselves about us," cooed the Wood-pigeons from their nest in the elm. "We are much happier where we are. We want more breeze, and more leafy shade, than you can give us in your close thick-growing branches."
"Every one to his taste," exclaimed the young Spruce-fir, a little nettled by the Wood-pigeons' cool remarks; "if you prefer wind and rain to shelter, you are certainly best where you are. But you must not talk about leafy shade, because every one knows that you can have nothing of it where you are, to what you will find here, when we come out green all over."
"But when will that be?" asked the Wood-pigeons in a gentle voice. "Dear friends, do you not know that the spring is over, and the early summer has begun, and all the buds in the forest are turned to leaves? And you yourselves are green everywhere outside, not only with your evergreen hue, but with the young summer's shoots. I sadly fear, however, that it is not so in your inner bowers."
"Perhaps, because we are evergreens, our sprouting may not go on so regularly as with the other trees," suggested one. But he felt very nervous at his foolish remark. It was welcomed, however, as conclusive by his friends, who were delighted to catch at any explanation of a fact which had begun to puzzle them.
So they cried out, "Of course!" with the utmost assurance, and one of them added, "Our outer branches have been green and growing for some time, and doubtless we shall be green all over soon!"
"Doubtless!" echoed every Spruce-fir in the neighbourhood, for they held fast by each other's opinions, and prided themselves on their family attachment.
"We cannot argue," cooed the Wood-pigeons in return. "The days are too short, even for love; how can there ever be time for quarrelling?"
So things went on in the old way, and many weeks passed over; but still the interlaced branches of the Spruce-firs were no greener than before. But beautiful little cones hung along the outermost ones; and, judging by its outside appearance, the grove of firs looked to be in a most flourishing state.
Alas! however, all within was brown and dry; and the brownness and dryness spread further and further, instead of diminishing, and, no wonder, for the summer was a very sultry one, and the confined air in the Fir-grove became close and unhealthy; and after heavy rains, an ill-conditioned vapour rose up from the earth, and was never dispersed by the fresh breezes of heaven.
Nevertheless, the Spruce-firs remained obstinate as ever. They grew on in their old way, and tried hard to believe that all was right.
"What can it matter," argued they, "whether we are green or not, inside? We are blooming and well everywhere else, and these dry branches don't signify much that I can see. Still, I do wonder what can be the reason of one part being more green than another."
"It is absurd for you to wonder about it," exclaimed the Birch, who became more irritated every day. "There is not a tree in the world that could thrive and prosper, if it persisted in growing as you do. But it is of no use talking! You must feel and know that you are in each other's way every time you move; and in everybody else's way too. In mine, most particularly."
"My dear friend," retorted the Spruce-fir, "your temper makes you most absurdly unjust. Why, we make a point of never interfering with each other, or with anybody else! Our rule is to go our own way, and let everybody else do the same. Thus much we claim as a right."
"Thus much we claim as a right!" echoed the Spruce-fir grove.
"Oh, nonsense about a right," persisted the Birch. "Where is the good of having a right to make both yourself and your neighbours miserable? If we each of us lived in a field by ourselves, it would be all very well. Every one might go his own way then undisturbed. But mutual accommodation is the law of the wood, or we should all be wretched together."
"My friend," rejoined the Spruce-fir, "you are one of the many who mistake weakness for amiability, and make a merit of a failing. We are of a different temper, I confess! We are, in the first place, capable of having ideas, and forming opinions of our own, which everybody is not; and, in the second place, the plans and habits we have laid down to ourselves, and which are not wrong in themselves, we are courageous enough to persist in, even to the death."
The Spruce-fir bristled all over with stiffness, as he refreshed himself by this remark.
"Even," enquired the Birch, in an ironical tone; "even at the sacrifice of your own comfort, and that of all around you?"
"You are suggesting an impossible absurdity," answered the vexed Spruce-fir, evasively. "What is neither wrong nor unreasonable in itself can do no harm to anybody, and I shall never condescend to truckle to other people's whims as to my line of conduct. But there are plenty, who, to get credit for complaisance to their neighbours, would sacrifice their dearest principles without a scruple!"
"Come, come!" persisted the Birch; "let us descend from these heights. There are plenty of other people my friend, who would fain shelter the most stupid obstinacy, and the meanest selfishness, behind the mask of firmness of character or principle,—or what not. Now what principle, I should like to know, is involved in your persisting in your stiff unaccommodating way of growing, except the principle of doing what you please at the expense of the feelings of other people?"
"Insolent!" cried the Spruce-fir; "we grow in the way which Nature dictates; and our right to do so must therefore be unquestionable. We possess, too, a character of our own, and are not like those who can trim their behaviour into an unmeaning tameness, to curry favour with their neighbours."
"I ought to be silent," cried the Birch; "for I perceive my words are useless. And yet, I would like you to listen to me a little longer. Does the Beech-tree sacrifice her character, do you think, when she bends away her graceful branches to allow room for the friend at her side to flourish too? Look, how magnificently she grows, stretching protectingly as it were, among other trees; and yet, who so accommodating and yielding in their habits as she is?"
"It is her nature to be subservient, it is ours to be firm!" cried the Spruce-fir.
"It is her nature to throw out branches all round her, as it is that of every other tree," insisted the friendly Birch; "but she regulates the indulgence of her nature by the comfort and convenience of others."
"I scorn the example you would set me," cried the Spruce-fir; "it is that of the weakest and most supple of forest trees. Nay, I absolutely disapprove of the tameness you prize so highly. Never, I hope, will you see us bending feebly about, and belying our character, even for the sake of flourishing in a wood!"
It was all in vain, evidently; so the Birch resolved to pursue the matter no further, but he muttered to himself—
"Well, you will see the result."
On which the Spruce-fir became curious, and listened for more. The Birch, however, was silent, and at last, the Spruce-fir made a sort of answer in a haughty, indifferent tone—
"I do not know what you mean by the result."
"You will know some day," muttered the Birch, very testily, (for the fir branches were fridging his bark cruelly—the wind having risen—) "and even I shall be released from your annoyance, before long!"
"I will thank you to explain yourself in intelligible language," cried the Spruce-fir, getting uneasy.
"Oh! in plain words, then, if you prefer it," replied the Birch. "You are all of you dying."
"Never!" exclaimed the Spruce-fir; but he shook all over with fright as he uttered it. And when the other Spruce-firs, according to custom, echoed the word, they were as tremulous as himself.
"Very well, we shall see," continued the Birch. "Every one is blind to his own defects, of course; and it is not pleasant to tell home truths to obstinate people. But there is not a bird that hops about the wood, who has not noticed that your branches are all turning into dry sticks; and before many years are over, there will be no more green outside than in. The flies and midges that swarm about in the close air round you, know it as well as we do. Ask the Squirrel what he thinks of your brown crackly branches, which would break under his leaps. And as to the Wood-pigeons, they gave you a hint of your condition long ago. But you are beyond a hint. Indeed, you are, I believe, beyond a cure."
They were, indeed; but a shudder passed through the Fir-grove at these words, and they tried very hard to disbelieve them. Nay, when the winter came, they did disbelieve them altogether; for, when all the trees were covered with snow, no one could tell a dead branch from a live one; and, when the snow fell off, they who had their evergreen outside, had an advantage over many of the trees by which they were surrounded.
It was a time of silence too, and quiet, for the leafless trees were in a half-asleep state, and had no humour to talk. The evergreens were the only ones who, now and then, had spirit enough to keep up a little conversation.
At last, one day, the Spruce-firs decided to consult with a distant relation of their own, the Scotch-fir, on the subject. He formed one of a large grove of his own kind, that grew on an eminence in the wood. But they could only get at him through a messenger; and, when the Squirrel who was sent to enquire whether he ever gave way in his growth to accommodate others, came back with the answer that, "Needs must when there is no help!" the Spruce-firs voted their cousin a degraded being even in his own eyes, and scorned to follow an example so base.
Then they talked to each other of the ill-nature of the world, and tried to persuade themselves that the Birch had put the worst interpretation on their condition, merely to vex them; and told themselves, in conclusion, that they had nothing to fear. But their anxiety was great, and when another spring and summer succeeded to the winter, and all the other trees regained their leaves, and a general waking up of life took place, a serious alarm crept over the Spruce-fir grove; for, alas! the brownness and dryness had spread still further, and less and less of green was to be seen on the thickest branches.
Had they but listened to advice, even then, all might have been well. Even the little birds told them how troublesome it was to hop about among them. Even the Squirrel said he felt stifled if he ran under them for a cone.
But they had got into their heads that it was a fine thing to have an independent spirit, and not mind what anybody said; and they had got a notion that it was a right and justifiable thing to go your own way resolutely, provided you allowed other people to do the same. But, with all their philosophy, they forgot that abstract theories are only fit for solitary life, and can seldom be carried out strictly in a wood.
So they grew on, as before, and the Birch-tree ceased to talk, for either his silver peel had all come off, and he was hardened; or else, he had taught himself to submit unmurmuringly to an evil he could not prevent. Certain it is, that no further argument took place, and the condition of the Spruce-firs attracted no further notice; till, one spring morning, several seasons later, the whole wood was startled by the arrival of its owner, a new master, who was come to pay his first visit among its glades.
The occasional sound of an axe-stroke, and a good deal of talking, were heard from time to time, for the owner was attended by his woodman; and at last he reached the Spruce-fir grove.
Alas! and what an exclamation he gave at the sight, as well he might; for nearly every one of the trees had fallen a victim to his selfish mistake, and had gradually died away. Erect they stood, it is true, as before, but dried, withered, perished monuments of an obstinate delusion.
The owner and the woodman talked together for a time, and remarked to each other that half those trees ought to have been taken away years ago: that they were never fit to live in a cluster together; for, from their awkward way of growing, they were half of them sure to die.
But of all the Grove there was but one who had life enough to hear these words; and to him the experience came too late. All his old friends were in due time cut down before his eyes; and he, who by an accident stood slightly apart, and had not perished with the rest, was only reserved in the hope that he might partially recover for the convenience of a Christmas-tree.
It was a sad, solitary summer he passed, though the fresh air blew freely round him now, and he rallied and grew, as well as felt invigorated by its sweet refreshing breath; and though the little birds sung on his branches and chattered of happiness and love: for those who had thought with him and lived with him, were gone, and their places knew them no more.
Ah, certainly there had been a mistake somewhere, but it did not perhaps signify much now, to ascertain where; and no reproaches or ridicule were cast upon him by his neighbours; no, not even by the freed and happy silver-barked Birch; for a gentler spirit than that of rejoicing in other people's misfortunes, prevailed in the pretty wood.
So that it was not till Christmas came, and his doom was for ever sealed, that the Spruce-fir thoroughly understood the moral of his fate.
But then, when the crowds of children were collected in the brightly-lighted hall, where he stood covered with treasures and beauty, and when they all rushed forward, tumbling one over another, in their struggles to reach his branches; each one going his own way, regardless of his neighbours' wishes or comfort; and when the parents held back the quarrelsome rogues, bidding them one give place to another,—"in honour preferring one another," considering public comfort, rather than individual gratification: then, indeed, a light seemed to be thrown on the puzzling subject of the object and rules of social life; and he repeated to himself the words of the silver-barked Birch, exclaiming—
"Mutual accommodation is certainly the law of the wood, or its inhabitants would all be wretched together."
It was his last idea.