In the beginning earth gave birth to plants
After their kind, and ringed with shining green
The hill and plains. The flowering meadows shone
With verdure. Then between the various trees
A mighty race began, all galloping
To be the first to shoot up into the sky.*
Yesterday, standing at the base of a majestic white pine shooting up into the sky (Pinus strobus, 727-2008*A), I was reminded of this passage from On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), the magnificent Epicurean poem by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. These wonderful lines, about the extraordinary transition from a world of herbaceous plants to a world filled with trees, surely speak to the evolving and ever-changing planet that we have inherited.
Interestingly, the earliest English translation of this passage (below) was by none other than John Evelyn, the diarist and author of the first book published by the Royal Society of London: Sylva or a Discourse on Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (1664). Who better to capture the meaning of trees and their rise to prominence!
First the Earth cloth’d with herbs the little hills,
Whose pleasant verdure all the surface fills,
And shining with its rich inamel spreads
The florid fields, and the luxurious meads;
Trees without checq did plentifully spring
*Translation by Ronald Melville