This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
To the earnest, practical scholar, who likes to keep his thoughts busy with something beyond the dry husks and integuments of ancient learning, everything pertaining to the country and landscape scenery of the Greeks is endowed with a singular fascination. So deeply is he enchanted with the spirit of Homer and Plato and Theocritus, so intimately is their life absorbed into his life, that he owns an attachment for the soil they trod, for the skies that bent above them, for the streams beside which they walked, weaving their thoughts and feelings into verse; for the trees, beneath which they playfully chatted, or soberly discussed knotty problems in philosophy. This interest is not unnatural or puerile: it brings both a pleasure and a profit. The mountains and rivers, the rocks, glens, and trees of Greece all had a voice in deciding and shaping the character of its inhabitants. Especially was this true of her poets, whose companionship with nature was more intimate, unreserved, and free from disturbance, than that of her orators and historians.
If one would arrive at the truest conception of the Greek character, in its aesthetic phase, teaching his inner eye to detect all its delicate shadings of thoughtfulness and half-hid revealings of poetry, he must take into account the influence of these natural agents.
" Can you tell me what he is; he intimates that he is deeply versed in Natural Philosophy and scientific research. Really I never heard of him. He intimates that the Pomological Society should give him the same encouragement and patronage that the New York Stale Agricultural Society gave Dr. Fitch. It is self-conceit all over, without any knowledge." Very true, but it is not the first time the individual has mistaken his vocation, nor will it, we suppose, be the last, such is the unfortunate constitution of his mind. Jerrold said to a young man who burned, to see himself in print, "Be advised by me; don't take down the shutters before there is something in the window".
Amid the perpetual flux and noisy changes of human life, nature remains the same. It is pleasant to know that, as it regards physical features, Greece continues at this day what she was twenty centuries ago. Her sky is pierced by the same Olympus whereon the early fables fixed the home of the gods. Her poets and orators are gone; her temples and theatres are in ruins, but her rivers and her trees remain, like her literature, unchanged.
"Art, glory, freedom fail, yet nature still is fair".
If we take the trees of the Greeks, more especially those selected for gardens and public grounds, as giving an expression of Greek character, it will be seen that they were made to satisfy higher needs than those of the mere mechanic, the fruit-grower, or even the ornamental planter. To the eye of a Greek, whether cultivated and tasteful, or ignorant and superstitious, a tree was something better than a bundle of vegetable organs, that answered its only mission when it had contributed to his physical support, enrichment, or pleasure. It had amoral significance. It spoke a language as many-voiced and potent as that which flows from human lips. Such of the Greek trees as were distinguished for their beauty or utility were held sacred to divinities. They had also emblematic uses, as numerous as they were ingenious and eloquent. This was not all. The Greek trees discharged other offices, which, though less specific, and not recognized in set phrases, were none the less real, touching closely the national life. They had tongues, and preached daily lessons to all who sought the cool baptism of their shade. The squandered fragrance of their blossoms breathed lessons of kindness. Their gesturing branches and murmuring leaves gave instructions in grace and music.
Their autobiography, as rehearsed by their very presence, was a volume of wisest proverbs. They taught that the most stupendous results are inclosed in the seed of each living principle, as Dodona's forest sleeps in the acorn's cup. Starting from minute germs, making themselves tall and strong and fair, by their own industrious vitality, by slowly adding fibre to fibre, by pushing out branch above branch, and leaf beyond leaf, by getting something of gain from each shower and dew-fall, from sunshine and breeze, by wrestling with storms manfully, by striking deep their roots and sending them out on remote excursions after food, they taught the exceeding worth of strong will and plodding patience, and hopeful energy and faith. Over all the large, earnest souls of Attica, the Attic trees stretched out fraternal arms, breathing blessings.
Of all the superstitious notions entertained by the Greeks, the most poetic was that which associated with every tree a wood-nymph or hamadryad, whose life commenced and was doomed to perish with the life of the tree. Reference is made to the fabled hamadryads in a paragraph of Homer's Hymn to Venus: "Along with these nymphs at their birth are born either beech-trees or high-headed oaks on the generous earth, graceful of form, vigorous. They reach towards the sun on lofty mountains, and are called the groves of the immortals, which mortals never assail with the axe. But when the doom of death is at hand, the graceful trees arc first withered and the bark dries up about them, and the boughs fall off, and then their life quits the sun-light".
Several ingenious allegories have been founded on this botanic myth. Not to dwell at this time on such fancies, (poeticis decora fabulis,) and without undertaking a description of individual trees, (a topic that would claim an entire article, and might be made to fill up a volume,) I propose to speak of the treatment that trees received from the Greeks in their gardens, public grounds, and ornamental landscapes.
Among the Greeks, the art of ornamental planting, or of expressing the beautiful in Gardening, divides itself historically into two periods. They are the Homeric and the Platonic periods.