Tit for TatBut trees know more than Morley gives them credit for, and there is a rich history in myth of trees endowed, in one way or another, with the capacity of knowing and the ability to respond. The tree Erisychthon was about to cut down presumably did know his name when it spoke to him, and the dryads who witnessed his crime, and reported him to the relevant authorities, certainly did. The almond tree into which Phyllis was transformed, Boccaccio tells us, recognized her former lover Demophoon when he returned, and sprouted leaves—leaves that also bear the traces of knowing a name, for the Greek word φυλλον, says Servius, remembers Phyllis.
I often pass a gracious tree
Whose name I can't identify,
But still I bow, in courtesy
It waves a bough, in kind reply.
I do not know your name, O tree
(Are you a hemlock or a pine?)
But why should that embarrass me?
Quite probably you don't know mine.
Baucis and Philemon, as they were being transformed into trees, still retained enough of a voice to call out to each other: ‘vale, o coniunx’. Ovid’s account of the metamorphosis of Baucis and Philemon into trees may be related to the widespread cult of vegetation worship in Asia Minor. I mention this because I find the concept of ‘vegetation worship’ to be inexplicably hilarious. In fact tree-worship was common in many ancient cultures—naturally enough, I suppose, although I do find this remark of Frazer’s somewhat alarming: ‘Sacred groves were common among the ancient Germans, and tree-worship is hardly extinct amongst their descendants at the present day.’ I pencilled a discreet (!) in the margin of my edition when I read that.
Trees can be made to give a response when there is none forthcoming, as Frazer relates:
The durian-tree of the East Indies, whose smooth stem often shoots up to a height of eighty or ninety feet without sending out a branch, bears a fruit of the most delicious flavour and the most disgusting stench. The Malays cultivate the tree for the sake of its fruit, and have been known to resort to a peculiar ceremony for the purpose of stimulating its fertility. Near Jugra in Selangor there is a small grove of durian-trees, and on a specially chosen day the villagers used to assemble in it. Thereupon one of the local sorcerers would take a hatchet and deliver several shrewd blows on the trunk of the most barren of the trees, saying, “Will you now bear fruit or not? If you do not, I shall fell you.” To this the tree replied through the mouth of another man who had climbed a mangostin-tree hard by (the durian-tree being unclimbable), “Yes, I will now bear fruit; I beg of you not to fell me.”The vestige of a belief in tree-spirits is what animates the tree in first stanza of that silly poem (a bough answering a bow), and it is also what underwrites the long tradition of the arboreal pathetic fallacy: trees waving their arms, shedding leaves, or falling down in response to some human emotion; or else just swaying to the music—trees are big music fans, apparently.
In a passage that parodies those epic sequences following the routes of gods as they gather to attend a council, Ovid describes the gathering of the trees to hear Orpheus sing. In Macbeth, when the adunaton figure of Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane is weirdly realized, the sight of trees moving en masse is a terrifying presage of doom. In Ovid, it is delightfully silly: Orpheus sings in a pleasant rustic setting, but there is no shade for his audience; his audience arrives, and as luck would have it, they’ve brought the shade (they are the shade):
Collis erat collemque super planissima campiGolding’s version:
area, quam viridem faciebant graminis herbae:
umbra loco deerat; qua postquam parte resedit
dis genitus vates et fila sonantia movit,
umbra loco venit: non Chaonis afuit arbor,
non nemus Heliadum, non frondibus aesculus altis,
nec tiliae molles, nec fagus et innuba laurus,
et coryli fragiles et fraxinus utilis hastis
enodisque abies curvataque glandibus ilex
et platanus genialis acerque coloribus inpar
amnicolaeque simul salices et aquatica lotos
perpetuoque virens buxum tenuesque myricae
et bicolor myrtus et bacis caerula tinus.
vos quoque, flexipedes hederae, venistis et una
pampineae vites et amictae vitibus ulmi
ornique et piceae pomoque onerata rubenti
arbutus et lentae, victoris praemia, palmae
et succincta comas hirsutaque vertice pinus,
grata deum matri, siquidem Cybeleius Attis
exuit hac hominem truncoque induruit illo.
There was a hyll, and on the hyll a verie levell plot,Golding elaborates and embroiders Ovid’s catalogue: he chooses to up the mythological ante in rendering the antonomasia for the poplars as ‘the trees to which Fresh Phaetons susters turned were’, rather than simply ‘the grove of the daughters of the Sun’; the order of trees has been shuffled: the beech jumps the queue to appear before the holm-oak—which itself replaces Ovid’s Italian oak, ‘aesculus’—and certain peculiar English-sounding trees surreptitiously tag along. A ‘wich’ is, according to the OED, a mountain ash—not in Ovid’s catalogue at this point, but it may correspond to the ‘ornus’ bringing up the rear—and the ‘asp’ (some sort of poplar) replaces the ‘tilia’ or linden tree. Oddly, Golding eye has skipped over the oak bending under the weight of its acorns (curvataque glandibus ilex)—perhaps precisely because it is so familiar? The laurel is, bizarrely, ‘wyvelesse’—bizarrely because the laurel is quite obviously gendered feminine (not just grammatically—as are all trees in Latin—but in person too), described here by Ovid as ‘innuba’, virginal, in reference to the story told in book one of Daphne’s resistance to Apollo’s advances. The OED catches this sense of ‘wifeless’: ‘Catachrestically used of a woman: That is not a wife; unmarried’, but they are missing the Golding quotation, locating as they do the earliest usage in the nineteenth century. Golding’s ‘lofty Chestnutttree’ has no counterpart in Ovid’s version—surely it’s not only there for the metre/rhyme? Golding’s often needs to cut a bit of fresh lumber to ballast his lumbering fourteeners.
Fayre greene with grasse. But as for shade or covert was there not.
As soone as that this Poet borne of Goddes, in that same place
Sate downe and toucht his tuned strings, a shadow came apace.
There wanted neyther Chaons tree, nor yit the trees to which
Fresh Phaetons susters turned were, not Beeche, nor Holme, nor Wich,
Not gentle Asp, nor wyvelesse Bay, nor lofty Chestnutttree.
Nor Hazle spalt, nor Ash wherof the Shafts of speares made bee. ...
Nor knotlesse Firre, nor cheerfull Plane, nor Maple flecked grayne.
Nor Lote, nor Sallow which delights by waters to remayne.
Nor slender twigged Tamarisk, nor Box ay greene of hew.
Nor Figtrees loden with theyr frute of colours browne and blew.
Nor double colourd Myrtletrees. Moreover thither came
The wrything Ivye, and the Vyne that runnes uppon a frame,
Elmes clad with Vynes, and Ashes wyld and Pitchtrees blacke as cole,
And full of trees with goodly frute red stryped, Ortyards whole.
And Palmetrees lythe which in reward of conquest men doo beare,
And Pynapple with tufted top and harsh and prickling heare, ...
The tree to Cybele, mother of the Goddes, most deere. For why?
Her minion Atys putting off the shape of man, did dye,
And hardened into this same tree.
Again I have very little idea what these trees actually look like, but perhaps it’s enough for the moment to appreciate the chewiness of ‘fraxinus utilis hastis’, the treacly gloopiness of ‘amnicolae salices’ alongside ‘aquatica lotos’ and the intertwining of ‘Ashes wyld, the wrything Ivye, and the Vyne’…
Edit: One-hundredth post!