As for the other conceit that a Peacock is ashamed when he lookes on his legges, as is commonly held… let them believe that hold specificall deformities – Sir T. Browne

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationA keen observer who finds his way to the rolling hills of the central plains and who, after following the mighty Kansas happens upon the Blue River will make note in his traveling log – as any discoverer would have – that the Big Blue is anything but blue. A murky brown dominates its complexion, and one imagines that it moves so causally not due to lack of an incline but to an excessive amount of mud caked along its banks and bed. The Blue – that is, the part I have observed – is further surrounded by brown and green, which in the sweltering summery days grows more and more brown until the only blue on the landscape is that of the sky. And such a contrast makes the Big Blue even less blue until the one musing on this sad fact turns blue himself and realizes that no river is so aptly named as that melancholy river that makes everything around it quite blue.

Two young men were out that way recently – one asking the other what river their eyes were gazing at – the other answering that he believed it to be the Blue. After skipping a few stones across the way, the younger of the two men – a skinny, elfish looking figure with a small, pointed nose, two bulging eyes and a large, dropping bottom lip decided it was high time they identified a tree. Producing a small, brown book, that elfish creature walked up to a tree, poked it with a stick, and tore off a leaf. The elder, holding the leaf in eyesight of the younger, listened as he flipped through hundred of colorful pictures, hoping to fix his eyes on one which resembled it.

It must be a toothed, simple leaf. Willow? No. Cherry? No. Aye, an Elm! Rock Elm? No. Winged Elm. Wrong bark! Chinese Elm? Maybe? Ah but the leaf looks different. American Elm? Bingo!

That skinny man then turned to another page in his book, spotted the American Elm description, and lifting up his book to the tree, began bellowing descriptions as the elder, fixing his eyes upwards on the mighty tree, either nodded in confirmation or scratched his head in confusion.

“Large!” yelled the Elf. (Yep! the reply and nod.)

“Handsome!” (Yep)

“Graceful!” (I suppose…)

“Often with enlarged buttresses at base, usually forked into many spreading branches!” (Kind of…)

“Forming a very broad, rounded, flat-topped or vase-like crown!” (Not really…)

“Often wider than high! Height! 100 Feet!” (The Reply: Huh? The Elf in response to the reply: Well, I say, that doesn’t describe it at all.)

Scrolling down further with his eyes:

“Here we go. Bark! Light gray!” (Yep!)

“Deeply furrowed into broad, forking, scaly ridges!” (Yep! Yep! Yep!)

“Habitat: moist soils, especially valleys and flood plains; in mixed hardwood forests! (Well, that’s about right.)

And with that the two young men declared the tree an American Elm and the Elf, holding the book toward the tree as the Elder gazed on, read the following description: “This well-known, once abundant species, familiar on lawns and city streets, has been ravaged by the Dutch Elm disease, caused by a fungus introduced accidentally about 1930 and spread by European and native Elm bark beetles.” (Insert a “Huh!” from the Elder here.) “The wood is used for containers, furniture, and paneling.” And after finishing, the Elf left off with a “And we thank you kindly.” It was not until later in the week that the probability of the tree actually being an American Elm proved very unlikely as they are rare in the rolling hills of the plains.

*****

Among the inhabitants of the modern age rests an unhealthy love of nature; among the inhabitants of the modern age rests an unhealthy indifference to nature. Man, so awed by the aesthetic nature of landscapes and bodies of water, is at fault when he laments the creativity of man because it is deemed “unnatural.” But, as the great Sir Thomas Brown has aptly put it: “All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God.” It is perhaps the most natural thing for man to create. Indeed, the soul, the engine that makes man go, derives itself from that eternal and creative soul above, and it is, perhaps, the most natural of things that man creates, that he build and construct and that he do so not simply as a means to an end but as a process in which the construction is an artistic endeavor and the end result aesthetically pleasing.

The American Elm, that mighty tree, may be chopped up in pieces so man can have something as simple as a cabinet or paneling. But what many seem to think in our day is that because a cabinet has little utility, and because an Elm tree is used, that the act is of chopping down the tree puts man at odds with the Elm. But the problem today is not that man chops down Elm trees; the problem is that he makes very ugly cabinets.

The hastiness of man produced by a fierce materialism that is choking our culture has in effect produced an impatient mindset. We would rather take a few months to construct cheaper buildings and begin making profit than to methodically build structures that will last for ages. The modern building will look nice for a few years, but after a while, time begins to win out and what once was a “cute strip mall” (granting such a thing exists) is an abandoned parking lot full of cement.

*****

The difference between a man-made building and creation is variety. A pessimist may look at a forest and yell, “Monotony, monotony, all is monotony!” A pessimist may have some truth behind his analysis. But if the wood had nothing but Poplars or Persimmons, it still remain that there are Poplars and Persimmons. While it is true that modern buildings and homes all look alike, it is equally true that all modern buildings and homes were created. In the grand scheme of things there may be little difference between a frosted Hawthorn and a Rock Elm, but the fact remains that there is a difference and that nature is fundamentally amusing not because of difference but because of existence.

The Sugar Maple, one of my favorite, is interesting not because its leaves are so easily distinguishable but because it even has leaves at all. It could have been made of an iron trunk with periwinkle leaves, or of a trunk of cotton with leaves of hay. But even if it had, from the dawn of time, been made of blowflies and blue jays, modern man would probably be upset that the Sugar Maple was not a “large tree with a rounded, dense crown and striking, multicolored foliage in autumn.” If the bark consisted of edible cheese, modern man would lament it was not “light gray; becoming rough and deeply furrowed into narrow scaly ridges.”

*****

So as the Elf and the Elder made their way out of the wooded area, they followed a path along full-grown corn stalks, towering at least eight-feet high. They followed the blue to a local fishing hole, an enclosed area quarantined by trees and full of bright green patches of land. Fishermen played by the man-made waterfall as the Elf and the Elder crossed a tiny, though treacherous, rapid which led to a pond-like area. Out on a sequestered plot of land, they walked until the laws of nature stopped their trek. The entire area was incredibly peaceful, so peaceful that when one recollects how even a melancholy river like the Blue can produce such serenity, he recognizes that nature is not an end in itself but points us in the direction of that greater Good.

Sam Snow
Skipper of The Ole Midshipman
19 July 2014

Painting: “Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree”
By John Constable
Oil on paper, c. 1821

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