Farewell O Earth
Clearing the Ground for a Brave New World Indeed
Last Saturday was Earth Day in the United States, which is why I picked this poem last year for April. Little did I know that January would see the end to the Paris Climate Agreement. Even though it may be too late to impact any political discussion, I hope that my musings on Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Redwood-Tree” will inform individual decisions.
Have you ever seen a sequoia? I have only seen pathetically small examples in a Viennese park called “Pötzleinsdorfer Schlosspark”. Instead of fitting a car under them, the largest in this park boasts of being wider than a family taking a selfie. How these trees native to California ended up half way across the world is beyond me! Rumors exist that the United States gifted them to Austria in order to congratulate them for standing against communism after World War II. Others say that the scientific community exchanged them for research purposes. But regardless of the conspiracy-esque or rational suggestions for their immigration to Vienna, and despite their smaller size from their American siblings, these sequoias are still impressively huge and beautiful. Though I long to see Sequoia National Park and the ancient giants that reside there, the few I have seen, captivate me. I imagined that a song about the relation to such a majestic tree would surely sing its praise, however, I received a shock when Whitman’s dryads of the mighty redwood sang, “Farewell O earth and sky… my time has ended.” So with that first observation, I shall list all my others and follow them with how they inform what Whitman’s song is about. But with such a controversial topic in today’s political clime, I find it apropos to also discuss the role of the poem today. Knowing what something says should not be our end goal; we must take what is said and weigh it for its worth.
But first, let us give Whitman a chance to speak.
A prophecy and indirection… Farewell, my brethren, Farewell, O earth and sky — farewell, ye neighboring waters; My time has ended, my term has come…
Whitman describes his poem as a prophecy, which struck me as odd because the words of the redwood’s song sounds like a sad resignation to fate. What kind of fate could also be a prophecy of what is to come? Or does the prophecy begin after the fading away of the redwood? Whitman readily admits that the song lacks straightforwardness and direction. Since fate is fixed, then it does not directly follow that the song of the redwood will hold true, and yet the prophetic aspect remains. Some strange and twisted path will lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy to come, whatever is being prophesied. The redwood acknowledges that the end of his time and the closing of his term will be at least a part of the prophecy. He will have to leave in order for the vision to be fulfilled.
…I heard the mighty tree its death-chant chanting… chain and jack-screw men, heard not, As the wood-spirits came from their haunts of a thousand years, to join the refrain…
Here Whitman admits that the trees sing their own funeral dirge. He shows their longevity as homes for the spirits of the wood. I see Sequoia National Park awakening with the animals and insects that live there to rise as the trees sing and add their instrumental touch to their song. But I can also see lumberjacks tramping through and the wildlife fleeing as the men stomp through. The spirit of the wood flees with the creatures. The men begin their grinding and sawing without even realizing that they disturb the area. They do not hear anything above the sound of their cutting.
Here, I hoped Whitman would mourn and lament the sound of saws, but he does not. I grew up near a logging sight, I remember the late autumn days when the loggers would come and break the peaceful quiet our neighborhood of four houses consistently enjoyed. I also remember being irritated as their tree-felling severely limited the scope of my fantastical kingdom of warriors, pirates, elves, and kings from the wide open wood to the confines of our less than half an acre of property.
…That chant of the seasons and time — chant, not of the past only, but the future… You untold life of me…
The dirge the trees sing ebbs and flows with time. To Whitman, we should not mourn this cycle. The fall of trees happened in the past and will happen in the future. And while I accept with no malice this fact, the next lines from the redwood’s song cause me to pause: “You untold life of me.”
Trees are mysterious; they live some of the longest lives on earth. They witnessed numerous events in human history that we would give our souls to experience and other events we wish we could erase from the history books (and some have tried). We cannot comprehend the life of a tree: silently watching, silently being, silently receiving from and yet never impacting the events around them — unlike humankind, which lives so short a life and yet constantly leaves an imprint and never stays long enough to receive the full measure of the changes they made. How radically different we would live if we could, but for a day, sit back and observe human history as a tree does! And yet we see passivity as equal to uselessness. But if trees could talk, what stories they would tell!
…O the great patient, rugged joys! my soul’s strong joys, unreck’d by man… Joys of the life befitting me and brothers mine, Our time, our term has come…
Here, Whitman connects patience with joy. Beings that are essentially immortal and yet not causational must practice patience since all action is acted upon them by others. Of course, trees have no feelings or consciousness but they appear as an embodiment of waiting as they turn with the seasons and obey the constraints of time and weather. This is their joy: the wind, the rain, the snow. As I consider this, I think about the times when I feel the most joy and happiness, and like the redwood, my peace and contentment connects to walking in the falling snow when no other being has yet touched its pure veil or sitting inside wrapped up in a blanket with tea and a good book while the rain patters on the roof and window panes. Though the weatherman terms these conditions as “inclement weather”, I look forward to these days and the comfort they employ. But society demands that even on these days, my time must come to society’s end. Every weekday, regardless of weather and clime, I must dress in something a bit less comfortable than sweats and brave the storm or sun that calls me to relax and turn my time into money. Frustrated, some days, I acquiesce, though I still daydream of sitting in the sun or playing in the snow. But the redwood, even with the actions of chain-bearing mankind, which determined their time, remain patient.
…For a superber Race —… For them we abdicate — in them ourselves, ye forest kings!…
What is more superb than these near-immortal, patient, joyous beings? It is at this line that I lost my patience with Whitman. But I promised to hear him out, so let us continue to listen. The redwood has graciously abdicated their rule of the wood to a better race.
…But come from Nature’s long and harmless throes — peacefully builded thence, These virgin lands — … To the new Culminating Man — to you, the Empire New, You, promis’d long, we pledge, we dedicate…
The redwood has given over their realm to the “Culminating Man” and the new empire they will build. Here, we return back to prophecy: the land was promised to man long ago. There is something inherent in man that they should take the land and rule it. But there are many ways to rule something, so what kind of law is Whitman envisioning for the once-realm of the redwood? The unpredictable rule of Nature is referred to as the framework which set up the land that man inherits. Whitman calls the natural kingdom peaceful and harmless. There are two ways Whitman might be suggesting the new masters govern: first, they continue in the way in which nature reigned before them, or second, in whatever they do, they should secure peace and harmlessly mange their new domain. I think that the redwoods expect the second. There is a change in management; that was decided long ago. The nature of their new masters’ rule can only be gambled on.
….You average Spiritual Manhood, purpose of all, pois’d on yourself — giving, not taking law, You unseen Moral Essence of all the vast materials of America, (age upon age, working in Death the same as Life,) You that, sometimes known, oftener unknown, really shape and mould the New World, adjusting it to Time and Space…
Here Whitman contrasts the immortal non-movers with the fleeting actors. Though he described the redwoods as one would speak of spirits of ancient lore with mystical powers, these new creatures that replenish themselves after each age sound god-like. They are spiritual law givers, “Moral Essence[s]”, and shapers the fabric of Time and Space. It sounds as if Whitman is describing the immortal Time Lord, Doctor Who.
…At last the New arriving, assuming, taking possession, A swarming and busy race settling and organizing every where…
The new comes in a replaces the old: time come and time gone. Now we see what Walt Whitman is really about: newness. All things come to an end and there must be a death to something in order to bring about new birth. I once heard a story about the redwood in connection to this concept. Apparently, some time after national parks were instituted to protect these rare and majestic trees, fire fighters were regularly called upon to beat back forest fires that would consume the ancient beauties. As the years progressed, despite control of the fires, the redwood population began to shrink. Then scientists discovered that the reason lay in the protection of the trees from the fires. Extreme heat releases the seeds from the redwood cones. With the lack of forest fires, the trees could not reproduce. The older trees were saved from dying, but the seeds were banned from growing. Newness is needed, otherwise we stagnate and do not grow.
…The New Society at last, proportionate to Nature, In Man of you, more than your mountain peaks, or stalwart trees imperial, In Woman more, far more, than all your gold, or vines, or even vital air…
But notice Whitman’s “new society” is sill proportionate to nature. One of my favorite snide quotes from Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, is “O what are man compared to rocks and mountains?” Of course, when Ms. Austen writes it, her heroine is picking on poor Mr. Darcy because of his wealth and all those of the male gender for their stupidity in matters of the heart. But the quote sticks with me because of the truth in comparing humans to nature. Whitman takes a grander opinion of man than I do. Man is more than mountains and trees!
Recently, I had the opportunity to hike in the Austrian Alps and stand among the smallest of its peaks, I could not help but recall Ms. Austen’s quote as I gazed in awe still upward to peaks beyond my line of vision. Somewhere, in between awe and greatness, lies the human race in respect to nature.
…Fresh come, to a New World indeed, yet long prepared, I see the Genius of the Modern, child of the Real and Ideal, Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America, heir of the past so grand, To build a grander future.
“Grander futures” seems to be the tagline of many politicians these days. And while I agree that there are many areas in our world that may need a touch of grandness — aiding the growing number of hungry people suffering from famine in East Africa, for instance — we need to be careful of the kind of grandeur we attempt. While famine in Somalia, the lack of women’s rights in Iran, and religious persecution in Syria rightly demand our attention, so should air pollution in China and the migrating Sugar Maples from the American Northeast. Looking to the preservation of nature does not negate the importance of other issues; it could very well inform solutions for other issues. (It seems plausible to me that creating a plan for cutting back on negative human impact on climate change may aid in preventing famines.) But we need to look to the past, of which Whitman calls us heirs, to inform our pathway to greatness, as well as calling on the future.
I realize the bias of me being a history teacher and saying this, but the past can be an excellent teacher. Often when we talk about the past guiding us in our current decisions, we refer to negative examples of “never agains”. But I find that we also have glorious victories in our past that we should emulated as well. Take the National Parks Service Organic Act in 1916, which finally gave several of the national parks that were created since 1900 federal oversight so that they could be protected for our enjoyment 100 years later. Humans are not the enemy of the Paris Climate Agreement nor are we the only factor that creates natural disasters (remember the forest fires and redwoods). But we can also fall victim to the ideology that we must “clear the way for humanity!” and forget that we hover in this space between awe of the natural world and grandness of being cognizant, deliberating beings, unlike the trees who patiently wait around us.
There is one more tree I must quote before I end. In J.R.R. Tolkiens’ The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, two of hobbits encounter a race of beings called Ents. Ents are moving and talking “tree shepherds” embodied, of course, as trees. The particular Ent who befriends the two half-lings is named Treebeard. After wandering in the woods, one of the Hobbits, Merodic, notices that the forests are being ripped down to make way for artifices of war. He runs to Treebeard to let him know. Much to the surprise of the reader, and irritation of the Hobbit, Treebeard responds, “Now don’t be hasty, Master Merodic!” and proceeds to call a meeting. By the time the tree guardians decide to help, the hasty work of the war machines devastated the forest. Before we make any grand and hasty decisions to destroy the world around us, let us sit in the majestic mountains or among the patient trees and consider what kind of future we wish to bring. It does not need to be devoid of the things Whitman mentions, but let us not ignore rumors of destruction and find out, too late, that the armies of industrialism has torn down the forests we were meant to protect.