Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it

mossy tree trunks

It is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand

There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use. Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine, – who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane, – who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it, – who has not bought the stump-age of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand. I have been into the lumberyard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack-factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.

by Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862)
from The Maine Woods (1864)

Sidebar: What is a Flageolet?

In case you’re wondering, the “flageolets” written of in the first paragraph above are simple, relatively inexpensive musical instruments that were popular among amateur musicians from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. Imagine a cross between the recorder and a more genteel version of today’s kazoo, and you’re halfway there. Often made of boxwood and ivory, the mellow-toned flageolet was eventually replaced by cheap penny whistles.

“Flageolet” may also refer to flageolet beans, though in this case my vote is for something that can be manufactured by humans, like “buttons.”

The coincidence of beans being the magical fruit may be making some of you grin, but, being me, I have other plans. One day I’ll have an opportunity to spout/mangle a little something like this, which you’ll just have to figure out yourself:

O flageolet, flageolet! wherefore art thou flageolet?
Deny cannelini and refuse fast food;
Or, if thou wilt not, feed me boullabaisse,
And I’ll no longer want a cassoulet.

(with apologies to Romeo and Juliet)

| More

4 Responses to “Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it”

  1. ninbroken52 Says:

    you know you got issues right?

  2. Elizabeth Able Says:

    Dood, baby, without issues what would we do for poetry & causes & stuff?

  3. ninbroken52 Says:

    touché!

  4. Keli Whidden Says:

    Ah, thanks for the giggles!