Sunday, August 11, 2013

Binsey Poplars

Rosthern Poplars
A month ago, my neighbour and I agreed that we would remove some poplars along the adjoining line of our properties. Two were huge—their stumps measuring more than a foot in diameter—and a third was in critical condition, its roots too shallow to keep it from falling in a strong wind.

            Two days ago, a man and machine arrived to complete the obliteration by grinding the stumps down to a foot below the surface. but like chickens struggle for life when the axe approaches, left-over poplar roots begin to send up sucker-trees in the yard, struggling for another breath of sunlight, tiny leaves that gasp at the air, fight to stay alive just a little longer (or in the case of poplars, to fill my yard with a “revenge bush.”)

            In 1879, workmen felled a grove of poplars at Binsey in England. Poet and professor, Gerard Manley Hopkins, penned what might well fit in the “Psalms” portion in an environmentalists' “Bible” in response to the devastation. Some of its memorable lines are: 

. . . O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will [mean] no eye at all,

Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene . . .

Hopkins is not taking sides in the economic argument here, nor in the sustainability debate. There is no hint here of renewable or non-renewable resources, resource stewardship, etc. His lament is about beauty and the eye of the beholder; what have we done when we rob “after-comers” of the ecstasy of walking through a grove of rustling poplars on a summer's day?

                        My workman and his machine left me with holes in the yard and piles of wood chips and dirt. What do I do now to restore the beauty of the spot where the “Rosthern Poplars” stood?  “. . . even where we mean/To mend her, we end her/when we hew or delve.”
                        How true. What a mess!

                        Most of us find ourselves somewhere between the hunter who kills for pleasure and the vegan who can barely bring himself to end the life of a carrot in order to feed himself. Between the entrepreneur who evaluates trees in terms of board feet and the “tree hugger” whose heart bleeds to see a poplar wounded. We need poets to remind us that it's not just about economics or food for the belly, that our happiness depends also on beauty and the tenderness, the gentleness of the natural world,

                        . . . on poplar leaves winking and rustling beside a winding stream on a summer's day in Binsey.

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