Thursday, 14 January 2010

André Theuriet and the wild service tree

André Theuriet was a 19th century French novelist and poet well known in France for his fine descriptions of field and forest, of small villages and the lives of their people. Unusually for an author, he seemed particularly fond of the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), alisier in French, and I have translated some of his references below.

In his book Sous Bois, impressions d’un forestier (1880) he writes in the essay Autumn in the woods:

“The earthy smell, especially of the woods, the discovery of a bunch of wild services still hanging from the branch.” And later in the same essay: “They came there, answered Tristan, bathed themselves and drank deeply after their lunch of wild services, sloes and other astringent berries had dried their throats too much.”

And “The berries of dogwood like scarlet olives ripened beside the crimson barberries, and high in the wild service trees hung brown bunches of fruit similar in taste and colour to tiny medlars.”

In a poem Automne he wrote:

In the great forest of purple and yellow umber,

The song of the birds was slain in September.

But an airy music still reverberates.

On the ground one hears, like light hail pattering,

Ripe acorns, wild services and beechnuts falling.

And in his book Surprises d’amour there is the following: “He preferred, to the fruits of the Tree of Science, the crab apples and wild services with which, in the autumn, he would fill his pockets while wandering through the woods.”

Finally in Theuriet's novel Bigarreau there is a longer passage involving a wild service tree:

"The work of the day was interrupted with half an hour’s rest and the warder relaxed his sharp-eyed surveillance a little. He, Seurrot, had a susceptible heart, and the bright eyes of the landlady of the Lion d’Or drew him irresistibly towards the inn’s orchard at the end of the yard. Bigarreau, prisoner number twenty-four, had hoped for this. When the warder had followed the track into the orchard, he wormed away like a grass snake into the junipers on the slope, reached the copse and picking out a slender wild service with a leafy crown among the trees on the edge, he climbed up it in short order like a squirrel.

Perched astride a fork in the uppermost branches and hidden by the thick foliage, he took out his cigarettes, lit one and slowly savoured this forbidden delight. It was good up there in the greenery and the fresh air! Between the branches he could see the roofs of the village, the reflections from the river Aube across the meadows and, on both sides of the valley, the wind-brushed fields of rye and oats variegated with pink sainfoin and crimson clover. Blackbirds were singing in the bushes, reed warblers chattering in the willows by the river and a fresh wind rocked him as though he were in a hammock. It was so good there that Bigarreau was lulled into a false sense of security.

When Seurrot returned, chewing a rose between his teeth, and cast his eye over his little troop he immediately noticed that one of the prisoners was missing. “Where is number twenty-four?” he cried, but the others only exchanged sly glances and shrugged their shoulders.

The warder thought at first that there had been an escape and turned pale. His eyes scanned the bushes anxiously, then suddenly at the top of a young standard tree he spotted some wisps of bluish smoke. This was hardly a natural phenomenon and the offender must be hiding up there. Seurrot jumped on to the slope and in the twinkling of an eye was at the foot of the wild service tree where he had no difficulty in picking out Bigarreau’s dangling legs.

“You scoundrel” Seurrot shouted “you think you’re above everybody else and you are smoking again – it’s against the rules. Are you going to come down, you brat?”

Bigarreau had been discovered, but he had the advantage of his position and tried to make good use of it.

“I’d be happy to” he replied “if you promise not to punish me.”

“It seems as though you’re making conditions” replied Seurrot angrily “come down sharp or you’ll regret it.”

“I’m staying put” replied Bigarreau stubbornly.

The wild service tree was very slender and had a very tall trunk; the warder had no talent as a climber and, although he had shaken the tree violently, the delinquent did not budge.

“So you defy my authority, you scoundrel.” “Just wait a minute – you others, go and get me an axe, and make it quick.”

The other two prisoners obeyed his bellowed order. Seurrot furiously grabbed the axe that was presented to him and, without the slightest hesitation about breaking forest law, attacked the wild service tree at the base of the trunk. After the first few blows the tree shook from base to tip, but Bigarreau remained unmoved. The blows of the axe continued, bark and wood flew in splinters, sweat beaded the warder’s forehead. All this greatly amused the two young prisoners who followed with interest the deepening V at the base of the trunk. There was a loud crack and this time Bigarreau reflected that of the two evils it was wise to avoid the worst and he let himself fall through the branches in a bundle on to the ground which, happily, was covered in a soft layer of moss.

“You rat! I’ll teach you to defy me!” shouted Seurrot grabbing his arm. (He had been a policeman and his fingers were like pinchers). At the same time he rained blows on Bigarreau’s back and pushed him towards the yard.

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