Peering eye from a Birch

It’s funny how topics pop up. I was reading about oaks in Loudon’s Trees and Shrubs of Britain (Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum) and ran into a reference to hamadryads, which took me to Wikipedia, where I unearthed Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet – To Science”.

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art! 
   Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. 
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, 
   Vulture, whose wings are dull realities? 
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise, 
   Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering 
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies, 
   Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing? 
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car, 
   And driven the Hamadryad from the wood 
To seek a shelter in some happier star? 
   Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood, 
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me 
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree? 

He’s complaining about this new being, “Science”, a modern incarnation that robbed the world of romance and poetry. In one line, we find Science has ousted the Hamadryads – severing human connection from the spirit of ancient trees. Poe’s censure was youthful, the poem having been included in his 1829 Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and minor poems.. (Huntington Rare Books 18569) – his second publication, but the first that bore his name.

The verse reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s similar complaint, issued a few decades later:

Star fruit, or as the “Monster with a Glass” would say, Averrhoa carambola
‘Arcturus’ is his other name’—
I’d rather call him ‘Star.’
It’s very mean of Science
To go and interfere!
I slew a worm the other day’—
A 'Savant’ passing by
Murmured 'Resurgam’—'Centipede’!
‘Oh Lord’—how frail are we’!
I pull a flower from the woods’—
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath’—
And has her in a 'class’!
Whereas I took the Butterfly
Aforetime in my hat’—
He sits erect in 'Cabinets’—
The Clover bells forgot.
What once was 'Heaven’
Is 'Zenith’ now’—
Where I proposed to go
When Time’s brief masquerade was done
Is mapped and charted too.
What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I’m ready for 'the worst’—
Whatever prank betides!
Perhaps the 'Kingdom of Heaven’s’ changed’—
I hope the 'Children’ there Won’t be 'new fashioned’ when I come’—
And laugh at me’—and stare’—
I hope the Father in the skies
Will lift his little girl’—
Old fashioned’—naught’—everything’—
Over the stile of ‘Pearl.’

Both poets were on target. Americans long ago emerged from our many cultural cocoons, and through the metamorphosis of modernization we have stretched, even severed threads of mythical substance. Greek creation stories linger as the roots for daily language, calling out allusions that glow faintly in classic literature. We no longer live the stories that once gave form to now-nearly-hollow words. This loss includes the Hamadryads Poe mourns.

A terra-cotta Hamadryad with Oak and Laurel, hanging out in the Huntington Art Gallery
A protected Cryptomeria at a Japanese temple

What gave the Hamadryads life, and how were those spirits extinguished? To Greeks…, to Aristotle, the natural world was evidently animal, vegetable, and mineral – real substance of supernatural origin. Rocks are as much a component of that world as plants and animals; everything was a gift to be accepted, ordered, and used. The hierarchy that could be deduced held animals as superior to plants because they exhibit motion and sensation as well as nutrition and reproduction. Plants and animals were superior to stones, which are earth’s material base. Plants were about their roots, which clung to the earth, even consuming it. Humans, with reasoning, were superior to the animals, vegetables, and minerals that furnished our world. People were not invited to question or examine the order given – “Theirs not to reason why…”

Presiding above Humans was a complex pantheon of supernatural beings, rife with personality and animating the otherwise soulless world around us. Trees, useful and important plants with perennial and imposing presence were often associated with deities and other magical entities. The Greeks, specifically, imagined a natural world replete with nymphs, practically invisible spirits imparting character, importance, and playfulness to natural objects.

An ancient Mesa Oak (Quercus engelmannii) at The Huntington

Trees were connected with certain nymphs – imparting soul unavailable to more prosaic plants. Particular nymphs, the Hamadryads, were such close arboreal denizens that killing a tree was equivalent to killing the Hamadryad…. Today, industrialization and overpopulation are killing the trees, while Science long ago did in the spirits. We understand life is cellular; we realize life’s instructions are bound up in twisted swirls of DNA. Mystery and beauty remain, but there is little room for the supernatural. When in awe of a remarkable and ancient tree, I have to agree with Poe, Hamadryads notwithstanding, the loss of wonderful trees is dispiriting.

Brachychiton rupestris in the Australian Garden

Botanically, the memory of Hamadryads (children of Hamadryas and her brother Oxylos) lingers, their names repeated in plant nomenclature. Taxonomists would recognize names of the eight children who were killed by the being called Science:

  • Karya (in Walnut, Juglans regia and Hazelnut, Corylus avellana)
  • Balanos (in Oak, Quercus, most commonly Q. ilex)
  • Kraneia (in Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas)
  • Morea (in Mulberry, Morus nigra)
  • Aigeiros (in Black Poplar, Populus nigra)
  • Ptelea (in Elm, Ulmus glabra)
  • Ampelos (in various vines, especially Vitis silvestris)
  • Syke (in Fig, Ficus carica)
Fig leaf, Ficus carica
A fig, tiny fruit tucked in a stem that botanists call a syngonium

The associations have become part of our cultural attic, useful for plundering by writers who pastiche contemporary mythologies. Balanos, for example is the The Great Oak, Druid Caretaker of the Neverwinter Balanos, a land in Faerûn, one of the continents of the Forgotten Realm planet Toril.

Phytolacca dioica in the Jungle Garden
Tabebuia heptaphylla. The tree was relocated more than a decade ago, at a cost of $10,000. Each year it pays the mortgage in flowers. I guess its hamadryad would be Samuel P. Chase.
A veteran oak at Tejon Ranch

References to explore…

Aristotle’s Concept of Life, Posted on  by dacalu under Uncategorized


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