Thursday, October 13, 2011

Among the Michigan Pines (1885)

Working as an environmental historian for the past 16 years, I have come to develop a great love and respect for the magnificent, ancient forests of Michigan's past. If Druids of ancient times could have walked among the forest groves of North America, I'm certain they would have discovered great power, beauty, meaning and majesty here, nestled among the Great Lakes. After decades of lumbering in the late 19th century, only scattered remnants of uncut forests now remain, such as those at Hartwick Pines State Park and in the Porcupine Mountains wilderness area. But our woodlands have undergone tremendous regrowth over the past century. Today, you still experience amazing sights and sounds among the trees over millions of wooded acres. 

Recently, I discovered a series of nine articles which were originally published in 1885, in the Chicago weekly magazine The Current. Written by columnist Charles Ellis, of Boston, the publication has been scanned and may now be found on Google Books. In short, much of what Charles wrote simply blew me away. 

In the winter of 1883 or 1884, Charles Ellis decided to head to Michigan in order to view our vast forests before they were gone and to spend time in a lumber camp. Of his decision, he wrote, "...packing my trunk in the early winter, I turned my back upon dear old Boston and was whirled away to the famous land of the wolverines."  After spending a few days in Saginaw, he traveled by train “about 70 miles distant”, ending somewhere in the Saginaw Valley watershed, which flows right through the Nature Center where I work. Below is the fifth installment of his articles. I've cut a few pieces out and added some additional paragraph breaks so you can read it more easily. I know its long, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I have! The full series of articles can be found here


There is a peculiar solitude in a pine forest. Alone upon the shore, the restless break of the waves makes ceaseless voices that wake companion voices in the mind. Alone upon the sea, the incessant change of its surface, the splashing waves as your boat dashes across the wind, or the idle flap of her sails as she rises and falls to their lazy roll under the summer sun, load the flying hours with delightful dreams. But the pine forest is alone. Time was when here the scarce hunters found abundance of game where now I see and hear nothing, save when the wind blows by, and high overhead I hear its breath as it is torn by the needles through which it is driven. This, indeed, is a varied sound, for at times it seems like a gentle prolonged sigh, and again, like Niagara's roar; or breaking waves pounding upon rocky shores are not louder nor more wild. But when the air is still and you stand alone beneath the pines no other solitude can compare with it.

Above, below, all peace!
Silence and solitude, the soul's best friends.
Are with me here, and the tumultuous world
Makes no more noise than the remotest planet.

The tall, dark columns all around you, the darker ceiling of the darker branches intermingling and blinding the sky above you, the utter absence of living things within range of your strained vision, all conspire to excite a sensation so new that you do not understand it for a time. I can almost understand, as it seems to me, how the ancients came to people forests with imaginary life; for as I look around me among the silent trunks, I feel the ancient impulse burning in my veins, and half expect to see elf or dryad beckoning me away. The silence excites imagination in her recesses and the Old becomes New; Ancient is Modern; I am a Pagan, like my ancestors, and at home. I become familiar with the trees. They know me and seem to shake hands. I am welcome among them. They tell me of the past. The inroad that civilization is making upon these grand old trees seems almost like sacrilege and murder; yet saved they cannot be... 

I recall a memorable ride among the pines. One day a foreman invited me to ride with him to a camp some fifteen miles away, and I gladly accepted the opportunity. Nine miles of the ride led through what might strictly be termed "unbroken wilderness," if such a thing can be found. Here and there was a small opening, where the pine had been cut and the brush burned, and there were two or three of these spots where courageous men had set to work to make farms. It seemed to me as if they might as well have gone to work to make a new earth! But what made hard farming made a most sublime picture to one unto whom the pine forest was a new revelation.

For miles we drove in and out along a narrow road with the trees so close that it required the strictest attention of our sylvan Jehu to carry us through without collision. As far as I could see across the snow, that lay smooth and unwrinkled like a spotless counterpane, rose the fair round columns of pine. Throwing back the head, one saw the branches reaching out to one another far overhead, interlacing and crowding to form a dark green canopy through which there fell occasional glimpses of a sky that seemed to rest upon the trees. The prevailing color is like a soft twilight that seems to express itself psychologically as Silence, but the monotony is agreeably lit up here and there by the reddish bark of the beautiful Norway pine.

The hard-wood growth is chiefly beech which, with its smooth, steel-colored bark, mottled with patches of green moss, gives a quiet variety and tone to the picture. The undergrowth (there is no "under-brush," as in a New England forest,) is also chiefly of young beeches that, as seen from the road, appear to be from six to twenty or thirty feet high. The beech is the most beautiful of our forest trees when stripped of foliage, as they are now, and when only their skeleton graces woo our admiration. As this tree grows here, among these tall, closely-standing pines, with but little sunlight ever falling upon it, and without hope of any, or of a glimpse of the world, unless it can push its head up through the dark roof that imprisons it, the beech seems to have set itself earnestly to the work of growing tall.

Sheltered from all winds it does not need strength, and so appears to be giving its whole attention to the development of delicacy, grace, and beauty of trunk and limb. Its lithe arms taper out from the shoulder long and beautiful, gradually dwindling to a pretty brown bud so finely pointed as to suggest the thought that the beeches might be running opposition to the pines in the production of needles. Every lesser branch, too, of every larger branch has its subordinate branches and twigs, and they all taper down in the same exquisitely graceful way to a beautiful brown bud. This undergrowth, standing everywhere through the forest, reaches out its long, slender branches in every direction until they mingle, touch, cross and interweave in all possible angles, curves and inclinations.

On every branch, twig and spray hang thousands of the dead, rust-colored needles that have fallen from the pine, and there form a seemingly intangible fringe of color. Looked at from a distance of a few rods, or as the picture deepens away from you into the background, it seems like nothing so much as an immense but strangely beautiful veil, the effect of which is to soften and tone down the heavy, dark figures of the pine that seem to stand behind it, while in fact they are in the midst of it everywhere. This vision begins and ends with the dense forest. Shut your eyes and open them upon the same spot again and again, you cannot be certain that you have ever seen the picture before, that while you even winked the scene was not changed. No whirling kaleidoscope ever presented a more varied picture of material always the same than does this silent panorama of the wilderness. As I saw it first it seemed to me that nothing could be added to it, that nothing could be more beautiful, and yet it was wholly void of speck or point of gaudy coloring, and no sign of living thing could be seen save in our own company.

Not even a ray of sunlight glinted through it, for the sky was overcast with clouds that portended a storm. Indeed, while we were in camp it came on. As we returned in the afternoon over the same road I saw that there had been a transformation. The snow had sifted down through the pine boughs, and in the still air had settled upon and covered every branch and twig of my fancied veil and converted it into the loveliest white gossamer that ever hung in midair. I knew that the scene had not been really changed, I knew that I had driven through and looked over all that same ground only a few hours before, but another factor had been added, that was all, and the effect was marvelous indeed!

Nothing could have been finer. I have seen a quite similar effect produced by a heavy frost under which, in the early morning, the forest everywhere looked as if a great gauze veil had fallen upon it; but in that picture the frost crystals, standing so much more loosely, show a darker color and less clearly defined lines than are given by the snow, which falls more compactly. So, of the picture, I repeat that nothing could be finer or more beautiful; and nothing like it will ever be seen save in just such a forest under similar conditions. No canvas can ever be made to show it, for no artist can ever carry its magnitude away with him. The trees are too tall, the vistas too deep, the perspective too far, to be manipulated on canvas. Nature defied Art when she built this magnificent forest of pine. Looked at from the outside and seen from a distance, such a forest seems like a belt of night bound around the waist of day. Looked at from within, it seems almost to be a community of individual, though mute, lives. The Pines are "daughters of the gods,"

Divinely fair,
And most divinely tall!

So sings my soul, and I, nothing loth, have found at their pagan shrine, if not the peace, at least a piece of Heaven.

-Charles Ellis