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Prince Andrei and the oak

In the spring of 1809 Prince Andrei set off to visit the Ryazan estates which his son, whose trustee he was, had inherited.
Warmed by the spring sunshine he sat in the calèche, looking at the new grass, the young leaves on the birch-trees and the first flecks of white spring clouds floating across the clear blue sky. He was not thinking of anything, but looked about him, carefree and absent-minded.
The crossed the ferry where he had talked with Pierre a year before. They drove through the muddy village, past threshing floors and green fields of winter rye, downhill by a drift of snow still lying near the bridge, uphill along a clay road hollowed into runnels by the rain, past strips of stubble land and a copse touched here and there with green, and into a birch forest extending along both sides of the road. In the forest it was almost hot; there was not a breath of wind. The birches, all studded with sticky green leaves, did not stir, and lilac-coloured flowers and the first blades of green grass lifted and pushed their way between last year’s leaves. Dotted here and there among the birches, small fir-trees were an unpleasant reminder of winter with their coarse evergreen. The horses began to snort as they entered the forest and the sweat glistened on their coats.
The footman, Piotr, made some remark to the coachman; the coachman agreed. But apparently this was not enough for Piotr; he turned round on the box to his master.
‘How mild it is, you Excellency!’ he said with a respectful smile.
‘What?’
‘Mild, your Excellency.’
‘What is he talking about?’ wondered Prince Andrei. ‘Oh, the spring, I suppose,’ he thought, looking about him on either side. ‘And indeed everything is green already… How early! And the birches and the wild cherry and alder too are all beginning to come out. …But I don’t see any sign of the oak yet. Oh yes, there’s one, there’s an oak!’
At the edge of the road stood an oak. Probably ten times the age of the birches that formed the bulk of the forest, it was ten time as thick and twice as tall as they. It was an enormous tree, double a man’s span, with ancient scars where branches had long ago been lopped off and bark stripped away. With huge ungainly limbs sprawling unsymmetrically, with gnarled hands and fingers, it stood, an aged monster, angry and scornful, among the smiling birch-trees. This oak alone refused to yield to the season’s spell, spurning both spring and sunshine.
‘Spring, and love, and happiness!’ this oak seemed to say. ‘Are you not weary of the same stupid, meaningless tale? Always the same old delusion! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness! Look at those strangled, lifeless fir-trees, everlastingly the same; and look at me too, sticking out broken excoriated fingers, from my back and my sides, where they grew. Just as they grew; here I stand, and I have no faith in your hopes and delusions.’
Prince Andrei turned several times to look back at this oak, as they drove through the forest, as though expecting some message from it. There were flowers and grass under the oak, too, but it stood among them scowling, rigid, misshapen and grim as ever.
‘Yes, the oak is right, a thousand times right,’ mused Prince Andrei. ‘Others – the young – may be caught anew by this delusion, but we know what life is – our life is finished!’
A whole sequence of new ideas, pessimistic but bitter-sweet, stirred up in Prince Andrei’s soul in connexion with that oak-tree. During the journey he considered his life as it were afresh, and arrived at his old conclusion, restful in its hopelessness: that it was not for him to begin anything new, but that he must live out his life, content to do no harm, dreading nothing and aspiring after nothing.


* * * * *

It was already the beginning of June when, on his return journey, he drove into the birch-forest where the gnarled old oak had made so strange and memorable an impression on him. In the forest the harness-bells sounded still more muffled than they had done four weeks earlier, for now all was thick, shady and dense, and the young fir-trees dotted about here and there did not jar on the general beauty but, yielding to the mood around, showed delicately green with their feathery young shoots.
The whole day had been hot. Somewhere a storm was gathering, but only a small rain-cloud had sprinkled the dust of the road and the sappy leaves. The left side of the forest lay dark in the shade, the right side gleamed wet and shiny in the sunlight, faintly undulating in the breeze. Everything was in blossom, the nightingales trilled and carolled, now near, now far away.
‘Yes, that old oak with which I saw eye to eye was here in this forest,’ thought Prince Andrei. ‘But whereabouts?’ he wondered again, looking at the left side of the road and, without realizing, without recognizing it, admiring the very oak he sought. The old oak, quite transfigured, spread out a canopy of dark, sappy green, and seemed to swoon and sway in the rays of the evening sun. There was nothing to be seen now of knotted fingers and scars, of old doubts and sorrow. Through the rough, century-old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves had sprouted, so juicy, so young that it was hard to believe that aged veteran had borne them.
‘Yes, it is the same oak,’ thought Prince Andrei, and all at once he was seized by an irrational, spring-like feeling of joy and renewal. All the best moments of his life of a sudden rose to his memory. Austerlitz, with that lofty sky, the reproachful look on his dead wife’s face, Pierre at the ferry, that girl thrilled by the beauty of the night, and that night itself and the moon and… everything suddenly crowded back into his mind.
‘No, life is not over at thirty-one,’ Prince Andrei decided all at once, finally and irrevocably. ‘It is not enough for me to know what I have in me – everyone else must know it too: Pierre, and that young girl who wanted to fly away into the sky; all of them must learn to know me, in order that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others, like that young girl, live so apart from it, but may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony together.’


From War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.


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Tourist

Feel like a tourist out in the country
Once this whole world was all countryside.


- from Glass, by Julian Casablancas (Phrazes for the Young)


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Of Arcite’s funeral (A Knight’s Tale)

High labour and full greet apparailinge
Was at the service and the fire-makinge,
That with his greene top the heaven raughte,
And twenty fadme of brede the armes straughte –
That is to sayn, the boughes were so brode.
Of stree first there was laid many a lode;
But how the fire was maked upon highte,
Ne eek the names how the trees highte
(As ook, fir, birch, asp, alder, holm, popler,
Willow, elm, plane, ash, box, chestain, linde, laurer,
Maple, thorn, beech, hasel, ew, whippletree)
How they were feld shall not been told for me;
Ne how the goddes runnen up and down,
Disherited of hir habitacioun
In which they woneden in rest and pees –
Nymphes, faunes, and hamadryades;
Ne how the beestes and the brides alle
Fledden for fere whan the wood was falle;
Ne how the ground aghast was of the light,
That was not wont to seen the sunne bright;

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.


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An ecstasy of peace, or a sparkling, glorious jubilee?

”One time, however, we were near quarrelling. He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool, dusky dwells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy. He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk; I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine, and began to grow very snappish. At last, we agreed to try both, as soon as the right weather came; and then we kissed each other and were friends.

From Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.


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An oak in a flower-pot

You talk of her mind being unsettled. How the devil could it be otherwise in her frightful isolation? And that insipid, paltry creature attending her from duty and humanity ! From pity and charity ! He might as well plant an oak in a flower-pot, and expect it to thrive, as imagine he can restore her to vigour in the soil of his shallow cares!

From Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.


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Night forests

Forests in the day are friendly places. They remind you of Sunday walks, swooshing leaves, holding a parent's big, warm hand, or providing that hand yourself. At night the woods take the gloves off and remind you why you're nervous in the dark. Night forests say, 'Go find a cave, monkey-boy, this place is not for you.'

From The Lonely Dead by Michael Marshall.


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The Mirror of Galadriel

Sam climbed up on the foot of the pedestal and leaned over the basin. The water looked hard and dark. Stars were reflected in it.

'There's only stars, as I thought', he said. Then he gave a low gasp, for the stars went out. As if a dark veil had been withdrawn, the Mirror grew grey, and then clear. There was sun shining, and the branches of trees were waving and tossing in the wind. But before Sam could make up his mind what it was that he saw, the light faded; and now he thought he saw Frodo with a pale face lying fast asleep under a great dark cliff. Then he seemed to see himself going along a dim passage, and climbing an endless winding stair. It came to him suddenly that he was looking urgently for something, but what it was he did not know. Like a dream the vision shifted and went back, and he saw the trees again. But this time they were not so close, and he could see what was going on: they were not waving in the wind, they were falling, crashing to the ground.

'Hi!' cried Sam in an outraged voice. 'There's that Ted Sandyman a-cutting down trees as he shouldn't. They didn't ought to be felled: it's that avenue beyond the Mill that shades the road to Bywater. I wish I could get at Ted, and I'd fell him!'

J.R.R. Tolkien


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