Day 103 of A Year of War and Peace
Changes, as the poet reminds us, are just the way it is. Things will never be the same; existence is a fluid, raucous mess. Just a few pages ago, to take an example from our reading (and the historical record), the Russians were at war with the French. Now Alexander and Napoleon are teaming up to do battle against Russia’s former ally, Austria. At the high level of global geopolitics, then, it’s clear that even things seemingly fixed are fluxed. Way down at the individual level, too, affairs are in an equally continuous state of metamorphosis.
Prince Andrei, in a calm commitment to practical tenacity, has affected numerous changes on his estates. He has freed his serfs, for starters. In addition, he has provided them with a trained midwife and a priest to teach reading and writing to the their children. He’s also made countless alterations and improvements to his estates. And, despite presenting an indifferent attitude towards the world, he keeps abreast of news and current events, more so than even the well-connected cityfolk, by means of newspapers and books.
Amid all this change Andrei one day takes a trip to his Ryazan estate. It’s there, among the blooming Spring and under the bluest sky of the expansive Russian countryside, that he finds an oak tree:
Probably ten times the age of the birches that formed the forest, it was ten times as thick and twice as tall as they. It was an enormous tree, its girth twice as great as a man could embrace, and evidently long ago some of its branches had been broken off and its bark scarred. With its huge ungainly limbs sprawling unsymmetrically, and its gnarled hands and fingers, it stood an aged, stern, and scornful monster among the smiling birch-trees. Only the dead-looking evergreen firs dotted about in the forest, and this oak, refused to yield to the charm of spring, or notice either the spring or sunshine.
Prince Andrei can’t ignore the oak and its provocative ugliness. He muses upon its meaning, concluding that he is the oak: a stark reminder that despite the surrounding fraudulent Spring of excitement and vim, the truth is all is helpless and the only constants in life are old age and death.
It’s not just Andrei. Everyone is that oak tree. Each aging moment brings us closer to death and permanent oblivion. Along the way events break our branches and scar our bark. That may sound pretty bad. But there is more than one way to climb a tree. We can also see Andrei’s oak as a durable, indifferent constant among all that is changing around it. His oak makes no judgments about the changes of the seasons, the privations of winter nor the plenty of summer. It accepts the abuses of nature as the natural, unalterable way of things and carries on. It is content, maybe even happy, to simply to be an oak.
All the things you see around you change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes you have already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations