Bounteous Time: Three Descriptions and a Word from the Devil

Trees — bigger and longer-lived than we are.

Trees — bigger and longer-lived than we are.

Conveying the immense stretches of time in which we find ourselves — how to do it?  Writers often use the natural world and the landscape, which outlast humans to an awe-inspiring and unsettling degree.  I’m going to start this little meditation on time with a quotation from the private memoir of my cousin Hope Lull, who was describing the trees on our property in the town of Hope.  Most of the trees were planted around 1880 by my great-great-grandfather, “Grandpa Holland” (Francis Raymond Holland, 1820-1894).  Hope writes:

“’Grandpa’ Holland planted a ginkgo opposite the south door of the kitchen. After it had grown to fair size it died. Later a shoot appeared from the root. Now a flourishing tree stands in the original location, but it is not the ginkgo that he planted.”

This is the ginkgo that sprang up from the stump of the previous tree.  It is large enough that a person could easily stand under the branch.

This is the ginkgo that sprang up from the stump of the previous tree. It is larger than this picture shows —  a person could easily stand under the branch on the right.

So everything looks the same — a gingko in the same location — but it is not the same. This called to mind the passage from Dickens’ Child’s History of England, about the ancient Briton Caractacus, captured and taken to Rome:

“His noble air, and dignified endurance of distress, so touched the Roman people who thronged the streets to see him, that he and his family were restored to freedom. No one knows whether his great heart broke, and he died in Rome, or whether he ever returned to his own dear country. English oaks have grown up from acorns, and withered away, when they were hundreds of years old — and other oaks have sprung up in their places, and died too, very aged — since the rest of the history of the brave Caractacus was forgotten.”

Even when I was ten years old, I was struck by the image of the trees that have grown and died since the fate of Caractacus was forgotten, and I remembered it all the way until now, when I went to look it up without having read it again.  But then Dickens’ description of time and forgetting brought to mind the passage of great loss and melancholy from Tolkien — loss and melancholy being his speciality:

“They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again….”

LOTR Vol. I book I ch. 7

The mound of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey in Wales.

The mound of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey in Wales.

So to this sobering and mournful assemblage of quotations on the expanse of time I add one from the mouth of the devil, as conveyed in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, where he is trying to convince a hapless innocent that debts will not come due for a long, long time:

“There is time enough, plenteous, bounteous time, so much that you can’t see to the end of it, and so much excitement coming first — you will have plenty to do besides taking heed to the end, or even noticing the moment when it might be time to take heed to the end.”                                       — Doctor Faustus

“So much excitement coming first”!  But the end — the end lasts a long, long time.

 

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