Serendipitous Arboreal Knowledge

You never know when good luck will find you. This week it appeared when I was standing aimlessly in the charity shop while my wife was looking at curtains. There seemed to be an enormous amount of inspection required to check these window hanging and my spirits were beginning to flag. I thought I had checked all the possible wares on display that might interest me. But I was wrong. Hiding in amongst all the paperbacks, concealed between the Lee Childs and the Judy Picoult’s, was a little gem : “Trees: Shown to Children” by C.E. Smith.

This little book, probably published around 1910 as far as I can determine, was one of the “Shown to children series”; a series of short educational works for children. Other works concerned ‘Beasts’, ‘The Seashore’ and ‘The Farm’. It is a simple book; each chapter is the description of a tree and these are accompanied by 32 colour pictures (by Janet Harvey Kelman) of the tree, its leaves, flowers and nuts.

The descriptions are wonderfully vivid and really make it very easy to identify tree types. The descriptions are followed by detailed information about the tree’s life cycle, its place in the local ecology and the uses of its produce and timber. Consider a little of description of the aspen below :-

But you will always know an Aspen tree by its leaves. These are never still unless when a storm is brooding and the air is perfectly calm; at all other times they shake and quiver incessantly, and you can hear the gentle rustle they make as each leaf rubs against its neighbour. In the Scottish Highlands the country people tell you that the Aspen trembles because at the Crucifixion the cross of Christ was made of Aspen, and the tree must always shudder at the cruel purpose it served.

In addition to evocative portrayals of the trees there are also passages which promote an interest and sympathy with nature. Any child (even one in his 60’s like me) will find pleasure from reading this.

And do you remember what secrets the trees told us as we lay under their shady branches on the hot midsummer days, while the leaves danced and flickered against the blue, blue sky? Can you tell what was the charm that held us like a dream in the falling dusk as we watched their heavy masses grow dark and gloomy against the silvery twilight sky ?

He had learned that the mystery of tree life is one with the mystery that underlies our own; that we share ths mystery with the sea, and the sun, and the stars,and that by this mystery of life the whole world is “bound with gold chains” of love “about the feet of God”

I hope I am wrong but I fear that books like this, heavy with information and lacking in action and adventure, will be found to be less interesting to young readers today. I have, instead, to hope that google and the internet will kindle their interest in the natural world and start them on their journey outside to look at the beauty of the world around them.

In any event, the child in me really enjoyed being shown these trees and this has certainly been the best 50p I have spent in a long time. I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for the other books in the series. And, as a further stroke of good fortune, my wife didn’t buy the curtains in the long run)

The Wizard Trump

It is sometimes odd how we stumble into knowledge of matters. I was listening to a podcast which was discussing President Trumps’ potential legacy when the contributors began to make reference to “The Wizard of Oz”. They argued that many of the aspect of populist politics in today’s America echoed those of a hundred years ago and the satire about the Wizard of Oz could equally be applied to Donald Trump. I had not been aware of the political analysis of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and it was fascinating to hear these.

When the book was written American politics and economy were in turmoil. There had been major changes in monetary standards and the Fourth Coinage Act had devalued silver. There were major financial difficulties and one of the movements aiming to address these was a move for bimetallism – money backed by both gold and silver. This was taken up in 1896 by the William Jennings Bryan , leader of the Democratic Party, as well as some populist groups and Republicans from silver mining areas (“Silver Republicans“). Bryan won the leadership by his ‘Cross of Gold convention speech where he stated “The gold standard has slain tens of thousands.” and urged the convention “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was felt that gold helped the rich get richer while ‘free silver’ would create cheaper money with a wider base and provide help for the poorer sectors of society.

It was against this backdrop that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written.  It may be no coincidence that gold and silver are measured in ounces which are abbreviated to “Oz.” Similarly a “yellow brick road” to the “emerald city” might well signify the power of the gold standard (yellow) to lead wealth to the wealthy (green signifying fraudulent greenback money). In the book, but not the film, the way to sort problems, and get out of trouble and back home, is by the “silver slippers” – the film used the more photogenic ruby red instead. It is quite easy to imagine Dorothy as the common man assisted by a ‘cowardly lion’ (William Jennings Bryan) on their way to find solutions for the Scarecrow (farmers and agricultural workers) and the Tin-man (Steel and other industry workers). Certainly when Baum wrote a stage version of the book in 1902 he made many political references, mainly as jokes against the current luminaries.

At the end of their trek they meet the wizard who is revealed to be a pompous humbug who uses all sorts of tricks to hide his nature from the people. He actually has no ideas and no power and admits to Dorothy that “I am a very bad wizard. And, thinking of Trump, this seems to be where we came in.

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