I’ve read through Leaves of Grass hundreds of times during my life and was both surprised and embarrassed to discover an overlooked poem, “Song of the Redwood-Tree,” while researching material for The Reluctant Harvest. There it was, taunting me, wedged between “Song of the Exposition” and “A Song for Occupations” in the 1881 Osgood Edition of Leaves. I was more surprised that Walt Whitman had written a California poem since it was a lifelong assumption that he never ventured west of the Mississippi River. I was wrong, he once traveled to Colorado, but never set foot in California.
On the initial reading of the poem, I was struck by some of the imagery, both of the landscape and of the activities one was likely to find in the Mendocino forests at the turn of the century. In the second section, Whitman gives us:
Whitman had been exposed to the Atlantic coast throughout his life, so would have no trouble imagining the bare, rocky Mendocino bluffs and the thundering surf. The references to logging such as “the chain and jack-screw men,” however, reveal a savvy for both the jargon and practices of the time. There’s evidence of thorough research in other references to Mendocino geology and botany, and in his understanding of issues surrounding the California lumber boom that was in full tilt by the time he penned the verses.
Along the northern coast,
Just back from the rock-bound shore, and the caves,
In the saline air from the sea, in the Mendocino country,
With the surge for bass and accompaniment low and hoarse,
With crackling blows of axes, sounding musically, driven by strong arms,
Riven deep by the sharp tongues of the axes—there in the Redwood forest dense,
I heard the mighty tree its death-chant chanting.
The choppers heard not—the camp shanties echoed not;
The quick-ear’d teamsters, and chain and jack-screw men, heard not,
As the wood-spirits came from their haunts of a thousand years, to join the refrain;
But in my soul I plainly heard.
Murmuring out of its myriad leaves,
Down from its lofty top, rising two hundred feet high,
Out of its stalwart trunk and limbs—out of its foot-thick bark,
That chant of the seasons and time—chant, not of the past only, but the future.
Though the Good Gray Poet may never have “[Faced] west, from California’s shores,” as he trumpeted in a second California poem, his opening stanzas persuaded me of the authenticity of his words. I find no fault with him imagining the California frontier. It’s no different than a modern historical novelist, adequately armed with copious research, trying to imagine hauling a load along a skid road or trying to sail a lumber schooner into a doghole port during foul weather.
I expected the rest of the poem to be a testament to the grace and beauty of the redwood-covered hills and a condemnation of the jack-screw men intent on plundering ancient natural resources. But when I reached the last part of the last line above, which read, “not of the past only, but of the future,” I sensed a shift in Whitman’s defense of the natural world, a shift that would continue over the remaining stanzas.
Thus, on the northern coast,
In the echo of teamsters’ calls, and the clinking chains, and the music of choppers’ axes,
The falling trunk and limbs, the crash, the muffled shriek, the groan,
Such words combined from the Redwood-tree—as of wood-spirits’ voices ecstatic, ancient and rustling,
The century-lasting, unseen dryads, singing, withdrawing,
All their recesses of forests and mountains leaving,
From the Cascade range to the Wasatch—or Idaho far, or Utah,
To the deities of the Modern henceforth yielding,
The chorus and indications, the vistas of coming humanity—the settlements, features all,
In the Mendocino woods I caught.
Whitman’s tone quickly turned from condemnation to one of acquiescence: “To the deities of the Modern henceforth yielding.” It’s a shame, he seemed to be saying, but these revered ancient treasures must be sacrificed for the good of “coming humanity.” For someone who has idolized the poet since high school, it was mortifying to read.
At last the New arriving, assuming, taking possession,
A swarming and busy race settling and organizing everywhere,
Ships coming in from the whole round world, and going out to the
To India and China and Australia and the thousand island paradises
of the Pacific,
Populous cities, the latest inventions, the steamers on the rivers,
the railroads, with many a thrifty farm, with machinery,
And wool and wheat and the grape, and diggings of yellow gold.
The historical novelist in me kicked in—don’t judge the words and actions of people by the standards and mores of your own age. Whitman was swept up in the fervor of western expansion and manifest destiny like so many of his contemporaries. It made sense; it was a natural extension of the brave, hardworking, democratic, young America he so loved. This fascination with expansionism and conquering the wilderness had been there in his work all along but I’d never perceived it as such. The third and last part of the poem confirmed Whitman’s maturing world view:
As I read through the poem several more times, I couldn’t help thinking how little we’ve learned since “the true America” began “clearing the ground for broad humanity.” Western expansion may have been a natural response to a nation looking west across so much undeveloped land, but it played out at a frenetic pace and often without thought of the eventual outcome. In that fervor, we cleared miles of hillsides, fouled rivers, depleted resources that required hundreds or thousands of years to develop, and marginalized the people, whatever their origin, that stood in our way. Than fervor and, in truth, unbridled greed is one of the underlying themes I explore in The Relentless Harvest.
But more in you than these, lands of the Western shore,
(These but the means, the implements, the standing-ground,)
I see in you, certain to come, the promise of thousands of years,
till now deferr’d,
Promis’d to be fulfill’d, our common kind, the race.
The new society at last, proportionate to Nature,
In man of you, more than your mountain peaks or stalwart trees imperial,
In woman more, far more, than all your gold or vines, or even vital air.
Fresh come, to a new world indeed, yet long prepared,
I see the genius of the modern, child of the real and ideal,
Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America, heir of
the past so grand,
To build a grander future.
My final thought as I shelved my treasured copy of Whitman’s opus was, if Walt Whitman were able to return now and once again stand “facing west, from California’s shores, would he see the “grander future” he anticipated so long ago?