« PreviousContinue »
LONDON PARK AND FOREST TREES— (Continued).
In this lone open glade I lie,
Screened by deep boughs on either hand,
Lines on Kensington Gardens.-MATTHEW ARNOLD.
F we Londoners can look upon a fair specimen of English
landscape scenery simply by taking rail or omnibus to almost
suburban elevation within a few miles of the Royal Exchange, it follows that we can enjoy a prospect of Nature, especially in this leafy month of June, to which English travellers in sub-tropical or equatorial countries deliberately award the palm. The difference in favour of the rural scenery of our native land is one which many of us will hear of with surprise. Our rural landscapes, we are told, are more varied in colour and vivid in hue than those of the tropics. An eminent naturalist and traveller, and a practised observer of landscape scenery, who has himself been struck with the discovery, has recently given us the following testimony :
“ My whole experience in the equatorial regions of the west and the east Las convinced me that in the most luxurious parts of the tropics flowers are less abundant, on the average less showy, and are far less effective in adding colour to the landscape than in temperate climates. I have never seen in the tropics such brilliant masses of colour as England can show in her furzeclad commons, her heathery hill-sides, her glades of wild hyacinths, her fields of poppies, her meadows of buttercups and orchises—carpets of yellow, purple, azure-blue, and fiery crimson, which the tropics can rarely exhibit. Our hawthorn and crab-trees, our holly and mountain ash, our broom, foxglove, and primroses and purple vetches, clothe with gay colours the length and breadth of the land. These beauties are all common; they have not to be sought for. They are characteristic of the country, and they gladden the eye at every step.
“In the regions of the Equator, on the other hand, whether it be forest or savannah, a sombre green clothes universal Nature. You may journey for hours, and even for days, and meet with nothing to break the monotony. Flowers are everywhere rare, and anything at all striking is only to be met with at very rare intervals.”
In the course of his prolonged tropical excursions, Mr. Wallace saw nothing aborescent or floral at all to compare with the effect produced by Spring and Summer vegetation in the fields, the heaths, and woodlands around London -in Surrey, Kent, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire—when the meadows are yellow with the crowfoot, flushed with the sorrel, or purple with clover; whilst the thornbushes are white or pink with their blossoms, the commons golden with mellowing fern or glowing with purple heather, and deciduous trees are contributing their various tints to the
For varied and chromatic landscape pictures, for beauty of dress if not grandeur in contours and horizons
Be sure to distant climes we need not roam,
for all around us are the aspects of Nature on which the eye of the artist most loves to rest, and which best meet the needs of a lifelong companionship.
To appreciate justly the effect in the landscape of such natural features of our London environs as our familiar hedgerows, be they thorn or bramble, hazel or commoner dwarf tree, a run to the nearest continental country is all that is needed. A journey merely to the north of England would suffice for the dwellers in the southern counties. But it is not so easy to appreciate the landscape beauties of our deciduous forest trees. To enjoy this pleasure, we must range to other climes, or accept such testimony as that of Mr. Wallace. As much as we are able, let us look with the eye of the tropical traveller on familiar objects of Nature around London-on the landscapes at Hornsey, Highgate, and Stanmore, at Sydenham and Richmond, at Box Hill, High Beech, or Cheshunt.
Before we once more take in the well-known prospect, let the mind's eye revert, for the sake of the contrast, to the scene which a tropical or Australian arborescent landscape presents. The vegetation in such scenes is more imposing and grand than our own,
life more prolific, the forms more colossal and stately. But the foliage is evergreen. The grandeur is gloomy, the aspect is sombre, monotonous, and changeless. Let us now look from one of our London hills at the bright and manifold hues of the deciduous panorama beneath us, as it lies
Half prankt with spring, with summer half embrowned.
Be it Middlesex, Surrey, Essex, or Kent, what varieties of foliage and tint and shadow entertain and divert the eye! Observe the many hues which make up the diverse landscape, from the glaucous tint of the willows and the fresh young leaves of the oak, through the medial shades of the elm and the beech, to the darker hue of the firs, as in their varied contours they stud the pastures, crest the swelling upland, or retire in terraces to the far-off horizon, under the skies of Linnell and Constable !
Our holiday ramble this Saturday afternoon shall serve to enlarge our acquaintance with some of the deciduous trees that give to our rural scenery the distinctive charm it possesses as compared with landscapes of a dull and evergreen foliage. We shall find but few better specimens of the trees we seek than those which dignify and adorn the old and historical parks of London. In the West End parks what giant foresters we find invading almost the heart of the Town! In the West End parks and at Greenwich Park, we find trees that Gilpin, and the gardeners of King William of Orange, and Le Nôtre, and still older landscape artists, have planted. How we miss in the newer parks of London — Battersea, Victoria, and Finsbury Parks—the charm that old and stately forest trees would confer on the scene charms that generations to come will look for in vain in these modern and garden-like pleasure grounds!
We enter Hyde Park at the Marble Arch. The wide-stretching grassy space that opens before us is almost prairie-like in extent. The scene is one which promises us an afternoon with Nature, even in Hyde Park.
The grass, the elm, the blossomed thorn,
make the place look quite rural. But the scene soon becomes one for the moralist as well as the naturalist.
The young, the happy, and the fair;
And some in talk and merriment. Some are managing their misery to the best advantage, and some their prosperity. What is there left to the impecunious spectator of this fashionable scene, but that happy line of the laureate poet
Our hoard is little, but our hearts are great!
and who is there would grudge our vanity so cheap a solace !
the ornamental trees and shrubs which line the gravel path on the north or Bayswater side of Hyde Park, you pass under quite a grove of our favourite silver birches. It is pitiful to see this lovely and delicate tree at any disadvantage ; of the specimens before us, the foliage, as is commonly the case near London, is so poor and thin as not at all to shade the silvery white limbs over which it droops in feminine tresses. Birches of a more Amazonian stature and deportment may be seen at the sluice end of the Serpentine, surrounded by rock-work, dwarf trees, and shrubs. But, continuing our path, we pass specimens of the weeping wych-elm, with umbrella-shaped heads and pendulous twigs, and rows of Spanish chestnuts (Salvator Rosa's chestnuts) with leaves not septate, like the horse chestnut, but simple and prickly at the edges. But those tall, spreading, whispering trees just on the greensward must be our study now.
The aspen-poplar stands before us. It is a tree the poets have found useful to point a moral or a proverb, and it is a tree to be known for its own sake. But let the poet rather than the botanist speak first
Variable as the shade
His hand did quake
Not a breath
Now let us turn for a moment from the aspen to the various companion trees around her, as they stand breathing the ambient air. They are motionless and calm, for there is an interval between the breezes. The elms, the planes, and the chestnuts are still, and the branches of the aspen itself are as unmoved as its trunk. Yet every leaf on the branches is agitated, as if answering some whisper, inaudible to us, which has reached them from the sapphire sky. The Dryad is answering in a multitudinous ripple of silvery, shingly sound a music all her own. Yet the sturdier sisterhood about us remain silent and unmoved. Why should this be? Can it be explained by anything in the structure of the tree ?
The peculiar foliage of the aspen puts us on the track of the explanation. It presents no masses of shadow for the painter to deal with, and is indeed one of the least umbrageous of trees. With the least wind, it becomes transparent to the light of the sky behind it, which, as we view it, looks like a bright and twinkling nebula. And now pluck a leaf, that you may see the cause of the ceaseless agitation in the leafy community that dwells aloft. The stalk of the aspen, unlike the stalk of the elm and other leaves around us, as it enters the leaf, is compressed laterally. It is also a long and slender stalk, so that the leaf hangs dangling from it (like the hand from a weak wrist). With no rigid support from the stalk, the leaf becomes the sport of airs impalpable to other trees.*