“Pines,” a chestnut here, got a good weeviling this week. It fit a project at school. A friend was so complimentary that she set me to revising it deeply.

3PicturePines4I grew up where pines grew sure and tall. We lived under the pines. We didn’t live in the trees like the squirrels and the elves, and we didn’t live in the canopy like the birds and that tribe I knew from National Geographic. We lived under the pines, and they outnumbered us.

The trees were quieter than we, but not much quieter. They whispered a little more quietly. They bent and bowed, but not demonstrably. They lived together and we could see how they did it.

The vertical lay on the pines’ shoulders because Tidewater was flat. The only vistas were across the tidal James to a shore with pines that outnumbered the people there, too. The water reflected the pines and their people reflected us, invisible beneath our pines where we lived. We heard about each other from the same local radio and television stations.

But we had no business across the water. We heard their street names and high school football scores on the news and it meant nothing to us, ever. We shared the river, but each side had its own pines, and each tribe of pines had its own people, respectful and quieted with their eyes raised.

The pines carried the vertical handsomely. They suggested God when we were as still as they, just moving. The clouds also suggested God when we were on our backs in the grass. I remember staring at the clouds in the summer.

The pines were deep files, discreet and sound absorbing. The crevices in their bark and the long horizons around their trunks made dressing rooms for the locusts, who left their skins for us to fix onto one another’s shirts.

We used the pines other ways. We raked their needles for flowerbeds. We broke off their bark for sidewalk chalk. We threw their cones at one another. We knocked off their branches punting footballs. The pines took all of our noise and heat and memory and channeled it up, diffusing it through their needles. They also absorbed the resulting lightning strikes, channeling the sky’s heat the other way. Never a scream, never a word though entire childhoods.

Sometimes a pine would fall, and it was a to-do. The birds and the National Geographic tribe and Jack’s giant came down with it — startled, volatilized, and out of their element — too stunned to speak of higher worlds. We were shut-mouthed to see the vertical horizontal, to see a fallen angel. My father would call the tree service, and the tree service would cut off its limbs. We put the logs under tarpaulin to dry them before winter. If they were too green, they would pop a lot, burning: the vagility of heaven.


On “The basis of liberal-conservative rapprochement.” In his 1955 book The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann points out how progressives need conservatism:

. . . no one generation of men are capable of creating for themselves the arts and sciences of a high civilization. Men can know more than their ancestors did if they start with a knowledge of what their ancestors had already learned. they can do advanced experiments if they do not have to learn all over again how to do the elementary ones. That is why a society can be progressive only if it conserves its traditions. (136)

While Lippmann here uses an example more suited for science or mathematics, the larger context of his claim is political or civil.

Riposte 5 (class)

“I believe my dear sir, that a class is the greatest drawback in the world. You must do everything which the class does and nothing else.”

– John Randolph of Roanoke, while at Columbia University, to his stepfather St. George Tucker in 1788 (from David Johnson’s John Randolph of Roanoke, pages 21 – 22)

“[Woodrow] Wilson, though an excellent teacher, was not a very good student, in the sense that he had no real knack for learning from other people. ‘Everything of progress comes from one’s private reading,’ he said. He stopped attending class [at Johns Hopkins] and arranged to complete his [Ph. D. there] by studying on his own.”

– Jill Lepore’s book review in this week’s New Yorker.

Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s poetry

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam GoodheartLincoln didn’t scribble the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope in a train or on a napkin at a diner on the way to Gettysburg, but “he wrote it fairly quickly.” Historian Adam Goodheart’s assessment is in line with other accounts I’ve read, but in his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, he explains Lincoln’s quick work in a way that finally makes sense to me. He says that Lincoln did most of the thinking necessary for the famous 1863 address a couple of years earlier, when he was drafting his July 4, 1861 message to Congress justifying the Union war effort (360).

Lincoln worked hard then. He started writing the address over two months before its delivery, and by mid-June his secretary John Nicolay recorded that Lincoln was “engaged almost constantly in writing the message.” Goodheart presents evidence that “many Americans shook their heads in disbelief at how much time the president was spending on his message” (356). But the long work in 1861 made for short work in 1863:

Lincoln had already done the hard work of the Gettysburg Address, the heavy intellectual lifting, in 1861. The two intervening years would go to pare away the nonessentials, to sculpt 6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry. (361)

Goodheart’s insight rings true from what I know of writing. Writers write to understand what their preoccupations make of experience. Essentially, then, writers rewrite. A writer’s new works are, more than most anything, new attempts to frame or answer old, nagging questions.

So I reread Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 message in light of the Gettysburg Address. I used to mark up and comment on the latter address with portions of the former one. The result is a pdf file you can view and download here: GettysburgAddressJuly41861Message.  (A link to the text of the entire 1861 message is here.)

1861 is one of the most engaging books I’ve read that recounts a year of American history. It weaves the stories of disparate Americans as the country transitioned from a long, uneasy peace to civil war.