03. 30. 2006. 08:12

The Victor

Béla Hamvas

"It wanted to be regular and proportionate, like all trees, ideal trees; like all beings, ideal beings. But it was no dreamer. A dreamer would have been crushed by the crags. Nor was it eccentric. An eccentric would have lost patience and fled long ago."

This lime tree grows in one of the valleys of the Bakony, where the gorge narrows and on its southern side ten and twelve ton crags rise sheer from the mountainside. Its seed had fallen between two cliffs. Until it reached the thickness that the rocks permitted, it was able to grow virtually unimpeded. But it did not take long before it began to flex itself against the rocks and prised them apart. Then a boulder the size of a house fell on it from above, covering it completely. The lime squeezed itself out from under it and, gripping the lower stones with the tentacles of its roots, began to push the cliff upwards. Any rocks in its way it split and cracked.  In two places, right by its trunk, table-size chunks had come crashing down on it. The tree enveloped them in its bark, smothering them like molten lava, simply digesting them both. The rocks beneath it, it crumbled into pieces by embracing them in its roots and squeezing them like an anaconda until the rocks choked to death, splintering into crumbs; in a deadly embrace over the years it voided them of resistance. Now the lime has three roots, each the girth of a man’s waist. One, after several twists and turns among the blocks of granite, has driven itself straight into the side of the mountain. The second has split into forty or fifty sinuous strands, an enormous, fifty-fingered hand with a grip that makes the spine of the mountain range crack with pain. The third root is half-naked, as the rocks have dribbled away from under it, like a mass of entrails from a stomach slit open. And above it, three man-size, four-storey-high straight trunks gash into space, dragging along the vastness of their branches and leaves; it’s alive like a laugh that never dies away.

It would be good to know what this lime tree thought about itself when it was still a seedling. It wanted to be regular and proportionate, like all trees, ideal trees; like all beings, ideal beings. But it was no dreamer. A dreamer would have been crushed by the crags. Nor was it eccentric. An eccentric would have lost patience and fled long ago. To flee is to deny one’s destiny. To deny one’s destiny is to be weak. To be weak amounts to being vanquished.

There are such trees, dreamers dreaming with eyes closed of a life that is not to be found on this earth. Trees with troubled faces, sullen in secreted satisfactions. Their life is unhappy, not because it is hard but because it is easier for them to fantasize; a tree like this devours its fate like a predator ripping into flesh, like the ivy’s dark embrace strangles its sustaining frame. There are eccentric trees that twist and wave their branches about like madmen, reaching upwards with thoughtless movements, making clumsy dancing gestures, making fools of themselves because they are not of one mind. There are trees full of pathos, there are those that are grave, those that are lonely. There are idiotic trees, obscene, perverse, stupid trees. In fact, there is no mistaking the nature of a tree.

The lime tree of Koloska is a heroic tree. It is not beautiful. But it is a glorious thing, the strength of life: there is no tree like this in Homer, nor in statuary, nor in the music of Beethoven, the philosophy of Nietzsche, or in Caesar’s lands. It has waged a silent struggle for a century and a half, here, on this unpropitious mountainside, amid sudden storms, lacerating winds, crashing rocks, under giant slabs of stone in a narrow gorge. It had to stretch and flex, it lost all shape, it had to make compromises; it could allow no mercy, not for a moment, and only with unswerving assurance, foresight and endurance was it able to continue to grow without cease, and today, when it is victorious and the battle’s over, it can, wrinkled, careworn, and crippled, at last laugh, and laugh such a full and healthy laugh. Is there anything more to be said about life to this tree, after all this, anything that would not make it laugh? Is there anything more that it could be threatened with? Is there anything more for it to fear? Can anything happen to it that is more terrifying than what it has already lived through and overcome? What does it mean to die?  What does it mean to fear death? It fears no more. It never knew happiness, not for a moment, but laughs at anyone pitying it for that. It does not know what plenty is. It does not know, except in its dreams, what tranquillity might be. Peace is alien to it. It has never even heard of riches. Comfort? What is that? It is a lean, gaunt, sinewy, almost metallic being, possessing the viciousness of the evil-doer and the circumspection of a sage. Had it been a man, it would have lived the life of an Attila the Hun, or a Genghis Khan, but eating like Gargantua and laughing with the belly of a Falstaff, and killing with the coolness of a Borgia. Had it been an animal, it would have had the regal mien of a lion, the bloodlust of a tiger, the strength of a giant snake, the serenity of an elephant, the muscles of an antelope, and an eagle’s sureness of pounce. As a poet, it would have written poems that make the paper catch fire. As a composer it would have made even the mountains dance to its music. If people today had any feeling for anything that was of a higher order, this tree would have its own priest, a slim young man to sing its praises, offer it sacrifices. On bright summer mornings he would come before it, bow, and laugh back at it. 

Translated by Peter Sherwood

From the collection entitled Trees (Editio M, 2006) - see details here

Tags: Béla Hamvas