I went for a walk the other evening and found my path blocked by a tree. There are, of course, a host of literary connections I could make: Birnam Wood; the Ents of Middle-Earth; the “very, very country dance” of the Narnian trees that Lucy dances her way through to reach Aslan in Prince Caspian; the trees that “walk[…] down the side of the cutting” in the landslide scene of The Railway Children…
In that last scene, the trees on the railway cutting make “a sort of rustling, whispering sound” as they move, and I wondered what sort of noise the tree in the picture had made.
Since it was on a path across the local common where I wouldn’t expect many people to walk in bad weather, it was logical to go on to wonder if anyone heard it when it fell. And, of course, whether it actually made any noise at all.
Which brings us nicely on to these verses:
There was a young man who said “God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”
“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”
The first is by Ronald Knox, but I am not sure whether he wrote the reply himself or not.
Reading around a bit as I drafted this post, I ended up on the Wikipedia page If a tree falls in a forest. I knew about Bishop Berkeley, having read my brother’s philosophy textbooks at an impressionable age. I did not, however, know that William Fossett wrote about the same question. I rather like the quote:
“If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course.”
I wonder if any of the local cats were out hunting on the common when the tree fell.