Thoreau’s Love for the Living Spirit of the Pine Tree 

Harvesting (the pine timber on the 50-acre lot next to Balsamea) is one thing.  It’s another thing to kill thousands — maybe millions — of other trees and myriad other things living above and below ground to get that harvest, and leave the forest ugly, sick, and disgraced.  When it’s a forest you knew well, and which truly is now no more, an alien thing left in its place, it’s the kind of thing that can almost make you wish your eyesight was now no more, too.

Forest immersion can do that to you, as it must have done to Thoreau:


Found in Chesuncook, by Henry David Thoreau – The Atlantic

[From pp. 74-75 of Katahdin and Chesuncook (PDF complete imaged copy of the 1909 book; or get the text-only copy)]

Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light,—to see its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success. But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant ” ? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use. Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine,—who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane,—who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it,—who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand. I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.

[I can make a case for the pine being closer to immortality than I am, since I know I’m not immortal, but I’m not sure about the tree.]

10 thoughts on “Thoreau’s Love for the Living Spirit of the Pine Tree 

    • If they leave it the way they seem inclined to, maybe development will be its most likely next use. I’m wondering if I can get a deed restriction that prevents anyone from ever harvesting Balsamea trees, in perpetuity.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Or, I could leave the property to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, if I have the mortgage paid off or sufficient equity before I depart the living. That would make it protected as “forever wild” (the actual legal term) under the State Constitution.

      Balsamea is at least second-growth forest. It was cleared in the 19th C. in connection with the iron ore mining village that was here until 1890-ish. You could say Balsamea’s trees are direct and recent descendants of the ones that made America great. (Again?) So when they say, “forever wild,” it sorta means, “wild again” or “re-wilded.”

      Thoreau said we need more wildness — “the salvation of the world,” he said. Not wilderness. Wildness. Balsamea may not be a wilderness, but it is my place for wildness.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. “The tree remembers; the axe forgets.” Native American Proverb

    Is the felling of those trees finished? It must be extremely hard to witness, and seeing the void areas is like seeing an amputation, only 50 acres of destruction would be a slam to the solar plexus.
    You are doing an amazing job in finding these Thoreau writings! This is from his heart, and it’s easy to tell that the trees were his friends. It hurts to witness a friend’s death.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, and not only does the tree remember, but everything living in it and around it and under it remembers, because they are forever changed. But you know that.

      The trees next door are still going away on trucks, at least I expect they will after what looks like a hiatus. Maybe this is their traditional vacation time. Two-man family business. I suppose it’s one of the local outfits I hear called, “Slash & Run” loggers.

      I had an encounter with them about a physical impact over the highly conspicuously marked and cleared property line onto one of my trails. It was meaningless to them. Their profit on the act causing the damage is the only meaning for them. Not meaningless to them anymore, since they now know it has meaning to me. That will be part of my story about it here in the Spring. Too complicated for a “comment” and it extends into the matter of my relationship with the new owner of that lot, one not to invite to lunch.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am so sorry that this has happened. There are people who treasure our planet, and people who ‘speculate’ and alter it greatly. Finding noble ways to address the problem, keeping honor intact, is a big challenge. I hope that your results are better than mine have been here…

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. It seems that work has stopped for a while, even before this latest deep cold snap, but it’s not over. When it’s over, I’ll write a post about the whole thing, in the Spring after the snow is gone so I can show the visible and permanent effects on their lot and, indirectly, on mine, forever, with notes on legal, ethical, aesthetic, and environmental aspects.

      Liked by 2 people

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