Of Trees

Part I

In a certain big city there was a botanical garden, and in the garden was a huge palm-house made of iron and glass. It was very handsome: the whole building was held up by fine wreathed columns supporting light, decorated arches which were intertwined with a veritable spider's web of iron framework to carry the glass panes. The palm-house was especially beautiful in the evening when lit by the red glow of the setting sun. Then it was all on fire, the red reflected light played and bounced back as in a huge finely polished gemstone.

Through the thick transparent glass the captive plants could be seen. Despite the palm-house's size they were very cramped. Their roots intertwined and took away each other's food and moisture. Branches mingled with enormous palm leaves, bent and broke them, only to bend and break themselves when they came up against the iron framework. The gardeners were constantly pruning branches, wiring back leaves to stop them growing as they wanted, but it was little use. The plants wanted wide open spaces, their homelands and freedom. They were natives of hot countries, they were tender, luxuriant beings, they could remember their homelands and yearned for them. For all its transparency, a glass roof was not the open sky. Sometimes, in winter, the panes froze over; then it became completely dark in the palm-house. The wind howled, beat at the panes and made them all shiver. The roof became covered with wind-blown snow. The plants stood there and listened to the wind blowing and remembered a different wind, warm and moist, that gave them life and health. And they wanted to feel it waft over them again, wanted it to sway their branches and play with their leaves. But the palm-house air was still; only occasionally might a winter storm smash a pane and a cutting cold current, full of frost, enter the vault; wherever the current struck, leaves went pale, shriveled and withered.

But the broken panes were quickly replaced. The botanical garden had an excellent, very learned director who insisted on immaculate order, even though he spent most of his time at his microscope in a special glass booth within the main palm-house.

Among the plants was one palm taller and more handsome than any of the others. The director, sitting in his booth, called it by its Latin name, Attalea. But this was not its native name: botanists had invented it. The botanists did not know its native name and it was not written in charcoal on the white board nailed to the palm's trunk. Once a man who came from the hot country where the palm had grown visited the garden; when he saw it he smiled, because it reminded him of his homeland.

"Ah," he said, "I know this tree." And he called it by its native name.

"I'm sorry," the director shouted from his booth as he carefully sliced a stalk into sections with a razor, "you're wrong. The tree you mentioned doesn't exist. This is Attalea princeps, a native of Brazil."

"Oh yes," said the Brazilian, "I quite believe you when you say that its Botanical name is Attalea, but it also has a native, real name."

"Its real name is the one given to it by science," said the director dryly, and bolted the door of his booth so as not to be bothered by people who didn't understand that if a man of science has spoken, they must be quiet and not argue.

The Brazilian stood for a long time looking at the tree and he grew sadder and sadder. He recalled his homeland, its sun and sky, its luxuriant forests with marvellous animals and birds, its wilderness, its wonderful southern nights. He also recalled that he had never been happy anywhere except in his homeland, and he had travelled the whole world. His hand touched the palm in what seemed a gesture of farewell, and he left the garden; the next day he was on his way home by boat.

But the palm had to stay where she was. Now she felt even worse, although she had felt bad enough before. She was completely alone. She towered thirty feet above the tops of all the other trees and they disliked her and envied her, thinking she was too proud. Attalea's height gave her nothing but trouble; apart from the fact that all the others were together and she was alone, she remembered her native skies better than they remembered theirs, and felt more yearning for them, because she was the nearest to what they had for a sky: that vile glass roof. Sometimes they could see something blue through it: it was the sky, albeit alien and pale, but still the real blue sky. While the other plants chatted to one another, Attalea kept silent, yearning and thinking only how good it would be to stand outside even under this pallid sky.

"Can someone please tell me if we're going to be watered soon?" asked the sago palm, which was very fond of moisture. "I really think I'm going to be quite parched today!

"I'm amazed to hear you say that, my dear," said a pot-bellied cactus. "Isn't the vast amount of water they pour on you every day enough for you? Look at me: I get very little moisture and yet I am fresh and succulent."

"We're not used to counting every drop," the sago palm replied. "We can't grow in this poor dry soil like you cactuses. We're not used to living just anyhow. And I must tell you that nobody asked for your comments anyway."

This said, the sago palm fell into a sulky silence.

"Personally," the cinnamon tree intervened, "I'm pretty satisfied with my situation. I admit it is rather tedious here, but at least I can be sure nobody is going to strip my bark off."

"But we haven't all been stripped," said the tree fern. "Of course, many may consider even this prison a paradise after the wretched existence they led when they were free."

At this the cinnamon tree, which had forgotten that it had been stripped, took offense and became argumentative. Some plants took its side, some the tree-fern's, and a heated exchange of abuse began. If they had been able to move they would certainly have come to blows.

"Why are you quarrelling?" said Attalea. "What good will that do you? Your irritation and spite are only increasing your unhappiness. You should stop your arguments and think about doing something. Listen to me: grow higher and wider, fling out your branches, press against the frames and the glass; our palm-house will collapse into little bits and we shall be free. If only one branch pushes against the glass, of course it will be cut off, but what can they do with a hundred strong, bold trunks? All we have to do is work in harmony and victory will be ours."

At first nobody answered the palm; they all said nothing, not knowing what to say. Finally the sago palm plucked up courage. "That's all nonsense," it declared.

"Nonsense, nonsense," all the trees joined in and at once set out to prove to Attalea that what she was putting forward was utterly absurd. "An impractical dream," they shouted. "Absurd! Ridiculous! The framework is solid and we'll never break it, and even if we did, what then? Men will come along with knives and axes, and they'll cut off our branches, mend the frames, and everything will go back to how it was before. All we will have to show for it will be whole bits of ourselves cut off..."

"Have it your own way," replied Attalea. "Now I know what I have to do. I'll leave you in peace: live as you like, grumble at each other, argue over your water ration, and stay under your glass hood forever. I can find my way alone. I want to see the sky and the sun, and not through these grids and panes. And I shall!"

And the palm's green top looked proudly down on the forest of her comrades sprawling beneath her. None of them dared say anything to her; only the sago palm said quietly to a neighboring cyclad: "Well, we'll see, we'll watch you getting your big block chopped off, you'll be cut down to size, you stuck-up thing!"

--- From 'The Reminiscences of Private Ivanov
and other stories"
by V. Garshin


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