Liberty Hyde Bailey: The background spaces.—The forest

[It is an exciting, but humbling, experience to discover a man as talented and productive as Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954).  A recent exhibit on his life was not exaggerating when it described him as “Botanist, horticulturalist, plant breeder, traveler and plant explorer, outstanding teacher, astute and successful administrator, lobbyist, rural sociologist, prolific writer and superb editor, environmentalist, philosopher, photographer, poet, and visionary.”  Sadly, very few people today have heard of him.  The text below is one of the chapters from his book The Holy Earth, which was first published in 1915.]

“This is the forest primeval.”  These are the significant words of the poet in Evangeline.  Perhaps more than any single utterance they have set the American youth against the background of the forest.

The backgrounds are important.  The life of every one of us is relative.  We miss our destiny when we miss or forget our backgrounds.  We lose ourselves.  Men go off in vague heresies when they forget the conditions against which they live.  Judgments become too refined and men tend to become merely disputatious and subtle.

The backgrounds are the great unoccupied spaces.  They are the large environments in which we live but which we do not make.  The backgrounds are the sky with its limitless reaches; the silences of the sea; the tundra in pallid arctic nights; the deserts with their prismatic colors; the shores that gird the planet; the vast mountains that are beyond reach; the winds, which are the universal voice in nature; the sacredness of the night; the elemental simplicity of the open fields; and the solitude of the forest.  These are the facts and situations that stand at our backs, to which we adjust our civilization, and by which we
measure ourselves.

The great conquest of mankind is the conquest of his natural conditions.  We admire the man who overcomes: the sailor or navigator in hostile and unknown seas; the engineer who projects himself hard against the obstacles; the miner and the explorer; the builder; the farmer who ameliorates the earth to man’s use.

But even though we conquer or modify the physical conditions against which we are set, nevertheless the backgrounds will remain.  I hope that we may always say “The forest primeval.”  I hope that some reaches of the sea may never be sailed, that some swamps may never be drained, that some mountain peaks may never be scaled, that some forests may never be harvested.  I hope that some knowledge may never be revealed.

Look at your map of the globe.  Note how few are the areas of great congestion of population and of much human activity as compared with the vast and apparently empty spaces.  How small are the spots that represent the cities and what a little part of the earth are the political divisions that are most in the minds of men!  We are likely to think that
all these outlying and thinly peopled places are the wastes.  I suspect that they contribute more to the race than we think.  I am glad that there are still some places of mystery, some reaches of hope, some things far beyond us, some spaces to conjure up dreams.  I am glad that the earth is not all Iowa or Belgium or the Channel Islands.  I am glad that some of it is the hard hills of New England, some the heathered heights of Scotland, some the cold distances of Quebec, some of it the islands far off in little-traversed seas, and some of it also the unexplored domains that lie within eyesight of our own homes.  It is well to know that these spaces exist, that there are places of escape.  They add much to the ambition of the race; they make for strength, for courage, and for renewal.

In the cities I am always interested in the variety of the contents of the store windows.  Variously fabricated and disguised, these materials come from the ends of the earth.  They come from the shores of the seas, from the mines, from the land, from the forests, from the arctic, and from the tropic.  They are from the backgrounds.  The cities are great, but how much greater are the forests and the sea!

No people should be forbidden the influence of the forest.  No child should grow up without a knowledge of the forest; and I mean a real forest and not a grove or village trees or a park.  There are no forests in cities, however many trees there may be.  As a city is much more than a collection of houses, so is a forest much more than a collection of trees.  The forest has its own round of life, its characteristic attributes, its climate, and its inhabitants.  When you enter a real forest you enter the solitudes, you are in the unexpressed distances.  You walk on the mould of years and perhaps of ages.  There is no other wind like the wind of the forest; there is no odor like the odor of the forest; there is no solitude more complete; there is no song of a brook like the song of a forest brook; there is no call of a bird like that of a forest bird; there are no mysteries so deep and which seem yet to be
within one’s realization.

While a forest is more than trees, yet the trees are the essential part of the forest; and no one ever really knows or understands a forest until he first understands a tree.  There is no thing in nature finer and stronger than the bark of a tree; it is a thing in place, adapted to its ends, perfect in its conformation, beautiful in its color and its form and the sweep of its contour; and every bark is peculiar to its species.  I think that one never really likes a tree until he is impelled to embrace it with his arms and to run his fingers through the grooves of its bark.

Man listens in the forest.  He pauses in the forest.  He finds himself.  He loses himself in the town and even perhaps in the university.  He may lose himself in business and in great affairs; but in the forest he is one with a tree, he stands by himself and yet has consolation, and he comes back to his own place in the scheme of things.  We have almost forgotten to listen; so great and ceaseless is the racket that the little voices pass over our ears and we hear them not.  I have asked person after person if he knew the song of the chipping-sparrow, and most of them are unaware that it has any song.  We do not hear it in the
blare of the city street, in railway travel, or when we are in a thunderous crowd.  We hear it in the still places and when our ears are ready to catch the smaller sounds.  There is no music like the music of the forest, and the better part of it is faint and far away or high in
the tops of trees.

The forest may be an asylum.  “The groves were God’s first temples.”  We need all our altars and more, but we need also the sanctuary of the forest.  It is a poor people that has no forests.  I prize the farms because they have forests.  It is a poor political philosophy that has no forests.  It is a poor nation that has no forests and no workers in wood.

In many places there are the forests.  I think that we do not get the most out of them.  Certainly they have two uses: one for the products, and one for the human relief and the inspiration.  I should like to see a movement looking toward the better utilization of the forests humanly, as we use school buildings and church buildings and public halls.  I wish
that we might take our friends to the forests as we also take them to see the works of the masters.  For this purpose, we should not go in large companies.  We need sympathetic guidance.  Parties of two and four may go separately to the forests to walk and to sit and to be silent.  I would not forget the forest in the night, in the silence and the simplicity of the darkness.  Strangely few are the people who know a real forest at dark.  Few are those who know the forest when the rain is falling or when the snow covers the earth.  Yet the forest is as real in all these moments as when the sun is at full and the weather is fair.

I wish that we might know the forest intimately and sensitively as a part of our background.  I think it would do much to keep us close to the verities and the essentials.

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One Response to Liberty Hyde Bailey: The background spaces.—The forest

  1. Pingback: “Look To The Wide Open Spaces” | Extravagant Creation

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