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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Forest
By Jules Quesnay de Beaurepaire (1838–1923)
 
From ‘The Woodman’: Translation of Mrs. John Simpson

THERE is no country more severe and striking in its aspect than the forest range uniting the Department of Maine to that of La Beauce, and extending from Montmirail to Authon. It is an immense extent of wood, intersected by narrow grassy paths, untouched by the hand of man, which have given to the whole region the picturesque name of Chemins-Verts (The Green-Road Country). Absolute solitude reigns; the villages are far off, scattered on the ridges of the hills; the principal hamlet is called Grez-sur-Roc (Stone-on-Rock). This name alone suffices to indicate the wild, rugged scenery of this remote district. In the foreground, on the slopes rising one above another, are a few detached cottages crouching amid the golden broom and furze; the paths between them wind upward toward the forest in sinuous lines that look like serpents springing from the hand of a sorcerer.  1
  The dense forest begins half-way up, and widens as it reaches the valley on the other side; then climbs the opposite height, and stretches itself at its ease over the vast plateau of La Beauce toward Chapelle Guillaume, where, reduced to brushwood, it follows the vast undulations of the plain, and is finally reflected in the stagnant waters of the surrounding marshes.  2
  A stream, rising in the hills, falls into the ravine, and winds at its own sweet will among the trees; some of which, thrown across from one bank to the other, under hanging festoons of bryony and traveler’s-joy, serve as bridges to the dwellers in the forest.  3
  These are a robust, shy, and taciturn race. At the close of day some return to their homes on the distant plain, while others seek their cabins built among the brushwood. Charcoal-burners encamp near their work, the light of the smoldering fires playing over their dark faces; the makers of wooden sabots lie among the shavings in front of their workshops; the wood-cutters, bent with fatigue, hang up their wallets on the branches, trample the wild flowers with their sabots, and settle themselves comfortably on the sloping ground;—all these people live and work together without noise or outward expression. The wind sobbing in the high branches, the sun piercing at rare intervals the leafy roof and shedding a pale ray on the grass beneath, are the only tokens of life and light in the gloom of this vast crypt.  4
  Singing is not in fashion among the foresters; none but the birds ever raise their voices in this solemn silence, and it is remarkable that even their song is sad.  5
  The forest is unique in its aspect; but it may be compared with the sea in its grandeur, its infinitude, its rolling waves, its deep murmurs, and its wild tempests. Look at those venerable oaks: the tallest peasant is less than an ant at their feet. If a water-spout discharges on the Chemins-Verts, its progress is marked by a frightful disruption of these enormous trees, overthrown as easily as a bundle of twigs. Thus, in its calm and in its wrath, the forest lords it over man, and man in this imposing wilderness is driven to silence and contemplation. The inhabitants live exactly as their ancestors lived before them. It is not poverty, but contempt of comfort: their maxim is that the forest ought to provide all they want. Theft is considered lawful; the feeling of mine-and-thine does not exist: they do not steal, they take.  6
  These strange notions of ownership, due to ancient tradition, seem justified by the astonishing fertility of these leafy regions. The father carries on his back a sack filled with wild plums to make his drink, or loads his barrow with acorns for the pig,—the great resource in winter; the son brings home a block of ashwood, out of which in the long winter evenings he carves cups and basins for the family; the mother returns with a load of fagots. Do they want an extra bed? she takes her sickle and cuts withes from the willows near the brook. That tall, bare-legged girl gathers mushrooms, with which her little sister fills the basket made over-night. The little boys are employed, after their dinner of nuts, in cleaning moss; and the old grandfather, with tottering step, hobbles towards the copse to cut a stick for his crutch.  7
  The Chemins-Verts is so vast that all these people have elbow-room without disturbing its solitude. From time to time a faint tinkling of bells in the distance announces the arrival of a band of small horses belonging to the charcoal-burners, ambling along with bent knees and backs worn by the loads they carry. The noise of their shoes is muffled by the leafy carpet. No other sound is heard. As for the busy gatherers of the spoils of the forest, they are nowhere to be seen.  8
  The inhabitants are in love with their forest—an unconscious but incurable passion. They can breathe freely only under the shade of their woods. It is true the men are willing to spend a few weeks every year during the harvest in La Beauce, to enable them to lay by a little sum sufficient for their frugal needs,—enough to buy a new blouse, and tobacco to last till the next summer. The forester’s work in the plains is scarcely finished before he hastens to hide his money in a corner of his handkerchief, suspend his whetstone from his waistband, throw his scythe merrily over his shoulder, and return in all haste to his forest. As soon as he catches a glimpse of the tall trees he pauses; he is happy, he knows not why.  9
  “Ha! here’s the boy as has finished his August,” says his old neighbor as soon as he sees him.  10
  “Yes, I have done with La Beauce,” he replies, looking slowly round him. “Here I am—no less.”  11
  “No less” is the regular expletive used as a superlative on all occasions.  12
  This intense love for the forest is hereditary; it is instinctive in the child, grows with his growth, and never leaves him when he becomes a man; when away from his woods it becomes a perfect nostalgia. It found its expression in mythology, which after all is only nature—nature symbolized and personified under the names of faun and hamadryad.  13
  The woodman has perpetuated these myths; the Chemins-Verts have their own legends, of which Renaud the Poacher was the hero and type.  14
 
 
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