In the company of trees

By Danske Dandridge

If one wishes to be taken into the intimate confidence of a great tree, and to get the full enjoyment of Its strength and beauty, he should lie upon his back on the greensward beneath it, cross his arms under his head by way of pillow, and let the eye climb slowly up the mighty trunk from root to topmost limb. Thus have I lain beneath an ancient White Oak; thus watched the infinitely varied play of light and shade through the dense foliage; thus noted the delicate tracery of the leaves against the blue of the sky, and learned by heart each wrinkle of its rugged bark. This is the way to study the varying characteristics of trees, and to learn many a sylvan secret only revealed to the real lovers of nature, upon whom she has graciously bestowed eyes to see and the heart to feel her beauty and her mystery. I have spent a summer afternoon moving slowly from trunk to trunk, from Oak to Maple, from Maple to Sour Gum, from Gum to Walnut, and then to Ash, to Poplar, and back again to the old White Oak, most satisfying of all. 

Sometimes the sun would smile upon me through an opening in the boughs, or a light-hearted vireo warble a lullaby; the orioles whistle plaintively; the friendly squirrels pretend to scold, and scurry away from branch to branch, only to hasten back to peep again and drop a tiny acorn on my cheek. The great white clouds sailing far overhead; a distant hawk leisurely cleaving the air on his strong wings; a few drops from a flying scud—all these become stirring Incidents, fraught with healing and refreshment to the heat-worn nerves and weary brain of the house-dweller. Should the eyes close into delicious slumber the great tree stands guard over its puny visitor, filling one with a sense of security and of being cared for as by a mighty and gentle nurse. 

Thus has it chanced to me to be overtaken by a summer shower, and to be awakened by the first cool splash of rain-drops upon my brow. The Oak had no need of mackintosh and umbrella; it was only necessary to turn the water-proof side of its varnished leaves uppermost, and stand quietly to take whatever came, strong in the security gained by a hundred years of storm and sun. The foliage of the tree protected its sleeping guest as long as possible, but now, with a gentle warning splash, the drops fell more and more quickly; little streams ran down the trunk, following the corrugations in its rough bark; the leaves twinkled merrily as they shed their burden of moisture in my face. Then the sun came out a moment, and the whole tree sparkled joyously like the countenance of a friend who is bringing you welcome news.

This was originally printed in Garden and Forest, July 20, 1892.  It is part of a collection The Garden at Rose Brake.  Justin McHenry collected the essays and provided the introduction.  Among other things, he is notable as a former student of West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Past President Cynthia Ellis.

Caroline “Danske” Dandridge (1854-1914) was a prominent West Virginian gardener, poet and historian. In numerous articles published in the leading gardening magazines of the time, Dandridge brought readers to her country estate on the outskirts of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a place she called Rose Brake.