June 22, 2017

Wounded trees and wounded men

Tree Port Hope

This poor little tree needs imagination to make something of it. You have to really think of the gale winds, worst snow and ice storms in a century, heavy rains, the birds and deer scattering for protection, freighters for the steel mills backing off. All that’s left is the lighthouse next to the tree, more than one hundred years of storms in its history. This tree, along with the one hundred year anniversary of the start of World War One, brings to mind the quote “wounded trees and wounded men.” In The Great War and Modern Memory, ¬†Paul Fussell writes of British soldier and front line survivor, David Jones, and his World War One epic poem In Parenthesis. “The awful vulnerability of both man and nature- and their paradoxical privilege of glory- is what Jones learned at the front.’ Wounded trees and wounded men,’ he says, ‘are very much an abiding image in my mind as a hang-over from the war.'” The battered landscape speaks “with a grimly voice.” The warning in its scars: “We are on a hazardous advance toward’s No Man’s Land and the unknown world beyond it.”

The vulnerability of man and nature says it well. The decline of the farm and rural life is shocking out here. The rural “ruin porn” doesn’t get nearly the attention of a Detroit. But Detroit always shocks me more, a concrete battlefield marking the collapse of an era that began with World War One and mass production. Detroit bulldozed many of its trees and poured concrete to become the arsenal of democracy. Its scars are in the concrete and decay of abandoned buildings. Homeless women,sitting on broken concrete, their sunburned faces dusty orange and craggy, hold up signs for help that the motorists ignore. The United Nations criticizes plans to shut off water to thousands of Detroiters who can’t pay the water bill. Lake Huron, Detroit’s indifferent neighbor, might as well be on the other side of the world. Crime has made many areas of Detroit a No Man’s Land, its fate left to nature to heal. The big dreams of urban planners have died many times in the concrete landscape. Even the trees are now fighting off invasive species.

Detroit is still hockey town, and that means there will always be admiration for the Russians, regardless of who occupies the Kremlin. There are other similarities to Russia in the Upper Midwest, beginning with the winters. The Russian writers are my favorites. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate has none of the romance that made World War One a “literary war.” Grossman’s World War Two classic also includes the trees: “Once, when I lived in the Northern forests, I thought that good was to be found neither in man, nor in the predatory world of animals and insects, but in the silent kingdom of the trees. Far from it! I saw the forest’s slow movement, the treacherous way it battled against the grass and bushes for each inch of soil…in time the deciduous trees become decrepit; then the heavyweight spruces burst through the ¬†light beneath their canopy, executing the alders and the beeches. This is the life of the forest- a constant struggle of everything against everything. Only the blind conceive of the kingdom of trees and grass as the world of good..is it that life itself is evil?” Hitler and Stalin will make you ask those kind of questions. The wounded trees and wounded men want to know.

But it’s this constant struggle in the forest that builds resilience. The forest, unlike the concrete, contains life with all its pain and glory. The forest fights back against the invasive species. Kids wander the streets of Detroit, their world almost entombed in the lifeless concrete. The suburbs fare a little better. The water bills are paid. But there is submission to the cement boundaries. Of all the sights witnessed on these roads, two made the biggest impression, and contrast. In the cement jungle of the suburbs, a boy stands meekly with his father while waiting for the school bus. The weather is perfect. The school is less than a quarter mile from where the boy waits with his parent. But he chooses not to walk the short distance alone to school. The bus must take him. While in northern Michigan, a girl comes out of the forest, jogging at a fast clip. The weather is terrible. It’s forty degrees and raining hard. I will never forget the expression on her face. She smiled when she saw me watching her. She looked free, unlike the boy in the suburbs.

Everything gives rise to obedience- both hope and hopelessness, writes Grossman in Life and Fate. Rebellion begins with the trees.

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