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THE LAW OF THE WOOD
"Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good."
—ROM. xv. 2.
What a word to be heard in a wood on an early summer
morning, before the sun had quite struggled through the
mists, and before the dew had left the flowers; and
while all Nature was passing through the changes that
separate night from day, adapting herself gently to the
necessities of the hour.
What a word to come from a young creature, which knew
very little more of what had gone before, than of what
was coming after, and who could not, therefore, be
qualified to pronounce a very positive judgment upon
But, somehow or other, it is always the
young and inexperienced, who are most apt to be
positive and self-willed in their opinions; and so, the
young Spruce-fir, thinking neither of the lessons which
Nature was teaching, nor of his own limited means of
judging, stuck out his branches all round him in
everybody's face, right and left, and said—
 It so startled a squirrel, who was sitting in a
neighbouring tree, pleasantly picking out the seeds of
a fir cone, that he dropped his treasured dainty to the
ground; and springing from branch to branch, got up as
high as he could, and then, looking down, remarked
timidly to himself, "What can be the matter with the
Nothing was the matter with the Spruce-firs, exactly;
but the history of their excitement was as
follows:—They, and a number of other trees, were growing
together in a pretty wood. There were oaks, and elms,
and beeches, and larches, and firs of many sorts; and
here and there, there was a silver-barked Birch. And
there was one silver-barked Birch in particular, who
had been observing the spruce-firs all that spring;
noticing how fast they were growing, and what a stupid
habit (as he thought) they had, of always getting into
everybody's way, and never bending to accommodate the
convenience of others.
He might have seen the same thing for some years
before, if he had looked; but he was not naturally of
an inquisitive disposition, and did not trouble himself
with other people's affairs: so that it was only when
the Spruce-fir next him had come so close that its
branches fridged off little pieces of his delicate
paper-like bark, when the wind was high, that his
attention was attracted to the subject.
People usually become observant when their own comfort
is interfered with, and this was the case here. However
little the Birch might have cared for the Spruce-fir's
behaviour generally, there was no doubt that it was
very disagreeable to be scratched in the face; and this
he sensibly felt, and came to his own conclusions
 At first, indeed, he tried to sidle and get out of the
Fir's way, being himself of a yielding, good-natured
character, but the attempt was a quite hopeless one. He
could not move on one side a hundredth part as fast as
the fir branches grew; so that, do what he would, they
came pushing up against him, and teased him all day.
It was quite natural, therefore, that the poor Birch
should begin to look round him, and examine into the
justice and propriety of such a proceeding on the part
of the Spruce-firs; and the result was, that he
considered their conduct objectionable in every way.
"For," said he, (noticing that there was a little grove
of them growing close together just there,) "if they
all go on, shooting out their branches in that manner,
how hot and stuffy they will get! Not a breath of air
will be able to blow through them soon, and that will
be very bad for their health; besides which, they are
absolute pests to society, with their unaccommodating
ways. I must really, for their own sakes, as well as my
own, give them some good advice."
And accordingly, one morning,—that very early summer
morning before described,—the Birch, having had his
silvery bark a little more scratched than usual, opened
his mind to his friends.
"If you would but give way a little, and not stick out
your branches in such a very stiff manner on all sides,
I think you would find it a great deal more comfortable
for yourselves, and it would certainly be more
agreeable to your neighbours. Do try!"
"You are wonderfully ready in giving unasked advice!"
remarked the young Spruce-fir next the Birch, in a very
saucy manner. "We are quite
 comfortable as we are, I
fancy; and as to giving way, as you call it, what, or
whom are we called upon to give way to, I should like
"To me, and to all your neighbours," cried the Birch, a
little heated by the dispute.
On which the Spruce-fir next the Birch cried "Never!"
in the most decided manner possible; and those beyond
him cried "Never!" too; till at last, all the
Spruce-firs, with one accord, cried, "Never!" "Never!"
"Never!" and half frightened the poor squirrel to
death. Every hair on his beautiful tail trembled with
fright, as he peeped down from the top of the tree,
wondering what could be the matter with the
And certainly, there was one thing the matter with
them, for they were very obstinate; and as nobody can
be very obstinate without being very selfish, there was
more the matter with them than they themselves
suspected, for obstinacy and selfishness are very bad
qualities to possess.
But, so ignorant were they of
their real character, that they thought it quite a fine
thing to answer the Birch-tree's mild suggestion in
such a saucy manner. Indeed, they actually gave
themselves credit for the display of a firm,
independent spirit; and so, while they shouted "Never!"
they held out their branches as stiffly as possible
towards each other, till they crossed, and recrossed,
and plaited together. On which they remarked—
beautiful pattern this makes! How neatly we fit in one
with the other! How pretty we shall look when we come
out green all over! Surely the Wood-pigeons would have
been quite glad to have built their nests here if they
had known. What a pity they did not, poor things! I
 them cooing in the elm-tree yonder, at a very
inconvenient height, and very much exposed."
"Don't trouble yourselves about us," cooed the
Wood-pigeons from their nest in the elm. "We are much
happier where we are. We want more breeze, and more
leafy shade, than you can give us in your close
"Every one to his taste," exclaimed the young
Spruce-fir, a little nettled by the Wood-pigeons' cool
remarks; "if you prefer wind and rain to shelter, you
are certainly best where you are. But you must not talk
about leafy shade, because every one knows that you can
have nothing of it where you are, to what you will find
here, when we come out green all over."
"But when will that be?" asked the Wood-pigeons in a
gentle voice. "Dear friends, do you not know that the
spring is over, and the early summer has begun, and all
the buds in the forest are turned to leaves? And you
yourselves are green everywhere outside, not only with
your evergreen hue, but with the young summer's shoots.
I sadly fear, however, that it is not so in your inner
"Perhaps, because we are evergreens, our sprouting may
not go on so regularly as with the other trees,"
suggested one. But he felt very nervous at his foolish
remark. It was welcomed, however, as conclusive by his
friends, who were delighted to catch at any explanation
of a fact which had begun to puzzle them.
So they cried out, "Of course!" with the utmost
assurance, and one of them added, "Our outer branches
have been green and growing for some time, and
doubtless we shall be green all over soon!"
 "Doubtless!" echoed every Spruce-fir in the
neighbourhood, for they held fast by each other's
opinions, and prided themselves on their family
"We cannot argue," cooed the Wood-pigeons in return.
"The days are too short, even for love; how can there
ever be time for quarrelling?"
So things went on in the old way, and many weeks passed
over; but still the interlaced branches of the
Spruce-firs were no greener than before. But beautiful
little cones hung along the outermost ones; and,
judging by its outside appearance, the grove of firs
looked to be in a most flourishing state.
Alas! however, all within was brown and dry; and the
brownness and dryness spread further and further,
instead of diminishing, and, no wonder, for the summer
was a very sultry one, and the confined air in the
Fir-grove became close and unhealthy; and after heavy
rains, an ill-conditioned vapour rose up from the
earth, and was never dispersed by the fresh breezes of
Nevertheless, the Spruce-firs remained obstinate as
ever. They grew on in their old way, and tried hard to
believe that all was right.
"What can it matter," argued they, "whether we are
green or not, inside? We are blooming and well
everywhere else, and these dry branches don't signify
much that I can see. Still, I do wonder what can be the
reason of one part being more green than another."
"It is absurd for you to wonder about it," exclaimed
the Birch, who became more irritated every day. "There
is not a tree in the world that could thrive and
prosper, if it persisted in growing as you do. But it
is of no use talking! You must
 feel and know that you
are in each other's way every time you move; and in
everybody else's way too. In mine, most particularly."
"My dear friend," retorted the Spruce-fir, "your temper
makes you most absurdly unjust. Why, we make a point of
never interfering with each other, or with anybody
else! Our rule is to go our own way, and let everybody
else do the same. Thus much we claim as a right."
"Thus much we claim as a right!" echoed the Spruce-fir
"Oh, nonsense about a right," persisted the Birch.
"Where is the good of having a right to make both
yourself and your neighbours miserable? If we each of
us lived in a field by ourselves, it would be all very
well. Every one might go his own way then undisturbed.
But mutual accommodation is the law of the wood, or we
should all be wretched together."
The Law of the Wood is to be as accommodating as possible.
"My friend," rejoined the Spruce-fir, "you are one of
the many who mistake weakness for amiability, and make
a merit of a failing. We are of a different temper, I
confess! We are, in the first place, capable of having
ideas, and forming opinions of our own, which everybody
is not; and, in the second place, the plans and habits
we have laid down to ourselves, and which are not wrong
in themselves, we are courageous enough to persist in,
even to the death."
The Spruce-fir bristled all over with stiffness, as he
refreshed himself by this remark.
"Even," enquired the Birch, in an ironical tone; "even
at the sacrifice of your own comfort, and that of all
"You are suggesting an impossible absurdity,"
the vexed Spruce-fir, evasively. "What is neither wrong
nor unreasonable in itself can do no harm to anybody,
and I shall never condescend to truckle to other
people's whims as to my line of conduct. But there are
plenty, who, to get credit for complaisance to their
neighbours, would sacrifice their dearest principles
without a scruple!"
"Come, come!" persisted the Birch; "let us descend from
these heights. There are plenty of other people my
friend, who would fain shelter the most stupid
obstinacy, and the meanest selfishness, behind the mask
of firmness of character or principle,—or what not. Now
what principle, I should like to know, is involved in
your persisting in your stiff unaccommodating way of
growing, except the principle of doing what you please
at the expense of the feelings of other people?"
"Insolent!" cried the Spruce-fir; "we grow in the way
which Nature dictates; and our right to do so must
therefore be unquestionable. We possess, too, a
character of our own, and are not like those who can
trim their behaviour into an unmeaning tameness, to
curry favour with their neighbours."
"I ought to be silent," cried the Birch; "for I
perceive my words are useless. And yet, I would like
you to listen to me a little longer. Does the
Beech-tree sacrifice her character, do you think, when
she bends away her graceful branches to allow room for
the friend at her side to flourish too? Look, how
magnificently she grows, stretching protectingly as it
were, among other trees; and yet, who so accommodating
and yielding in their habits as she is?"
"It is her nature to be subservient, it is ours to be
firm!" cried the Spruce-fir.
 "It is her nature to throw out branches all round her,
as it is that of every other tree," insisted the
friendly Birch; "but she regulates the indulgence of
her nature by the comfort and convenience of others."
"I scorn the example you would set me," cried the
Spruce-fir; "it is that of the weakest and most supple
of forest trees. Nay, I absolutely disapprove of the
tameness you prize so highly. Never, I hope, will you
see us bending feebly about, and belying our character,
even for the sake of flourishing in a wood!"
It was all in vain, evidently; so the Birch resolved to
pursue the matter no further, but he muttered to
"Well, you will see the result."
On which the Spruce-fir became curious, and listened
for more. The Birch, however, was silent, and at last,
the Spruce-fir made a sort of answer in a haughty,
"I do not know what you mean by the
"You will know some day," muttered the Birch, very
testily, (for the fir branches were fridging his bark
cruelly—the wind having risen—) "and even I shall be
released from your annoyance, before long!"
"I will thank you to explain yourself in intelligible
language," cried the Spruce-fir, getting uneasy.
"Oh! in plain words, then, if you prefer it," replied
the Birch. "You are all of you dying."
"Never!" exclaimed the Spruce-fir; but he shook all
over with fright as he uttered it. And when the other
Spruce-firs, according to custom, echoed the word, they
were as tremulous as himself.
"Very well, we shall see," continued the Birch. "Every
one is blind to his own defects, of course;
 and it is
not pleasant to tell home truths to obstinate people.
But there is not a bird that hops about the wood, who
has not noticed that your branches are all turning into
dry sticks; and before many years are over, there will
be no more green outside than in. The flies and midges
that swarm about in the close air round you, know it as
well as we do. Ask the Squirrel what he thinks of your
brown crackly branches, which would break under his
leaps. And as to the Wood-pigeons, they gave you a hint
of your condition long ago. But you are beyond a hint.
Indeed, you are, I believe, beyond a cure."
They were, indeed; but a shudder passed through the
Fir-grove at these words, and they tried very hard to
disbelieve them. Nay, when the winter came, they did
disbelieve them altogether; for, when all the trees
were covered with snow, no one could tell a dead branch
from a live one; and, when the snow fell off, they who
had their evergreen outside, had an advantage over many
of the trees by which they were surrounded.
It was a
time of silence too, and quiet, for the leafless trees
were in a half-asleep state, and had no humour to talk.
The evergreens were the only ones who, now and then,
had spirit enough to keep up a little conversation.
At last, one day, the Spruce-firs decided to consult
with a distant relation of their own, the Scotch-fir,
on the subject. He formed one of a large grove of his
own kind, that grew on an eminence in the wood. But
they could only get at him through a messenger; and,
when the Squirrel who was sent to enquire whether he
ever gave way in his growth to accommodate others, came
back with the answer
 that, "Needs must when there is
no help!" the Spruce-firs voted their cousin a degraded
being even in his own eyes, and scorned to follow an
example so base.
Then they talked to each other of the ill-nature of the
world, and tried to persuade themselves that the Birch
had put the worst interpretation on their condition,
merely to vex them; and told themselves, in conclusion,
that they had nothing to fear. But their anxiety was
great, and when another spring and summer succeeded to
the winter, and all the other trees regained their
leaves, and a general waking up of life took place, a
serious alarm crept over the Spruce-fir grove; for,
alas! the brownness and dryness had spread still
further, and less and less of green was to be seen on
the thickest branches.
Had they but listened to advice, even then, all might
have been well. Even the little birds told them how
troublesome it was to hop about among them. Even the
Squirrel said he felt stifled if he ran under them for
But they had got into their heads that it was a
fine thing to have an independent spirit, and not mind
what anybody said; and they had got a notion that it
was a right and justifiable thing to go your own way
resolutely, provided you allowed other people to do the
same. But, with all their philosophy, they forgot that
abstract theories are only fit for solitary life, and
can seldom be carried out strictly in a wood.
So they grew on, as before, and the Birch-tree ceased
to talk, for either his silver peel had all come off,
and he was hardened; or else, he had taught himself to
submit unmurmuringly to an evil he
 could not prevent.
Certain it is, that no further argument took place, and
the condition of the Spruce-firs attracted no further
notice; till, one spring morning, several seasons
later, the whole wood was startled by the arrival of
its owner, a new master, who was come to pay his first
visit among its glades.
The occasional sound of an axe-stroke, and a good deal
of talking, were heard from time to time, for the owner
was attended by his woodman; and at last he reached the
Alas! and what an exclamation he gave at the sight, as
well he might; for nearly every one of the trees had
fallen a victim to his selfish mistake, and had
gradually died away. Erect they stood, it is true, as
before, but dried, withered, perished monuments of an
The owner and the woodman talked
together for a time, and remarked to each other that
half those trees ought to have been taken away years
ago: that they were never fit to live in a cluster
together; for, from their awkward way of growing, they
were half of them sure to die.
But of all the Grove there was but one who had life
enough to hear these words; and to him the experience
came too late. All his old friends were in due time cut
down before his eyes; and he, who by an accident stood
slightly apart, and had not perished with the rest, was
only reserved in the hope that he might partially
recover for the convenience of a Christmas-tree.
It was a sad, solitary summer he passed, though the
fresh air blew freely round him now, and he rallied and
grew, as well as felt invigorated by its sweet
refreshing breath; and though the little birds
 sung on
his branches and chattered of happiness and love: for
those who had thought with him and lived with him, were
gone, and their places knew them no more.
Ah, certainly there had been a mistake somewhere, but
it did not perhaps signify much now, to ascertain
where; and no reproaches or ridicule were cast upon him
by his neighbours; no, not even by the freed and happy
silver-barked Birch; for a gentler spirit than that of
rejoicing in other people's misfortunes, prevailed in
the pretty wood.
So that it was not till Christmas came, and his doom
was for ever sealed, that the Spruce-fir thoroughly
understood the moral of his fate.
But then, when the crowds of children were collected in
the brightly-lighted hall, where he stood covered with
treasures and beauty, and when they all rushed forward,
tumbling one over another, in their struggles to reach
his branches; each one going his own way, regardless of
his neighbours' wishes or comfort; and when the parents
held back the quarrelsome rogues, bidding them one give
place to another,—"in honour preferring one
another," considering public comfort, rather than
individual gratification: then, indeed, a light seemed
to be thrown on the puzzling subject of the object and
rules of social life; and he repeated to himself the
words of the silver-barked Birch, exclaiming—
"Mutual accommodation is certainly the law of the wood,
or its inhabitants would all be wretched together."
It was his last idea.