A Book of Words, by Rudyard Kipling

The Trees and the Wall

IN thanking you for the warmth and good-will of your welcome to-night, I would point out that this is not even the second time that I have set foot in Alsace. The first was when I visited Thann in the autumn of ’15. But then, for reasons now happily removed, it was difficult for me to advance more than half way up the main street of that beautiful town. The second occasion was when I came through Alsace, for too short a time, in April of this present year, and saw the first crops pushing through in the superbly cultivated fields.

I have been told recently, what I learned long ago from the books of your Erckmann-Chatrian, that it is his devotion to his native soil which he cultivates which gives the Alsatian his historical hardihood and independence of character. That may well be. The soil is the best and wisest of teachers. But we know also that when a people, free by instinct and origin, have been forced to act and suffer for their liberty as Alsace has been forced, their character is developed exactly as the strength and quality of a forest is developed by the very storms that seek to remove it.

Remember what your Jaures says about a certain forest. “You may build a wall through the heart of the forest if you please; but the roots of the trees will touch each other beneath it. The branches of the trees will meet and join overhead. The forest has only one soul.”

Alsace is that Forest, and that Wall, as we know, was built very cleverly and very strongly by a people whose ambition was, and is, to build a wall around all mankind. But the slow, irresistible strength of the trees undermined and upheaved it. The Forest defeated the Wall yet again, and for ever.

It is so with all forests. It is so with all races. Listen a little while I speak to you of my own race, for there are foolish people who would try to build a wall between France and England.

Your attachment to your land is because you have lived in it and suffered for it, as your fathers did before you. Your dead of your old wars are scattered all along its frontiers. They lie in all parts of France, and beyond. Have you forgotten where they lie? Wissembourg, Reichshoffen, Gravelotte, St. Privat? The mere names of their resting-places are to you part of your national, your individual life and history and pride. Come with me now to the west of your great country — to those giant bastions of our war that stretch, one after the other from Calais to Rheims. We English have left there, a larger army than Napoleon led into Russia — four hundred thousand of the bodies of our own sons, beside a multitude of whom no trace remains. They died with your sons. Have we forgotten where they died? Ask any man or woman in any English street or field. They will give you at once the name of some little demolished French village of which, perhaps, even you have never heard. They will tell you the very turn of the road to it, the very hedge beside the orchard where their man fell. They will tell you too of the hundreds of kindly, patient French villages behind the lines where your people were so good to our people, not for a little time, but devotedly and continuously, through all those terrible years when yours and ours suffered and toiled together. And more than that! Every square kilometre, indeed almost every square metre, of that France which we know so well, is to us, nationally and individually, a background lit with every human passion; represents to us some intense and burning focus of effort in the days when the English and French came to know the very fibre of each other’s souls.

Do we forget those experiences of the living — those memories of the dead? They have been burned into us for ever. So, you see, that living and dead, it must always be the same between our peoples. Our roots meet beneath the soil. Our branches join and touch each other overhead. The forest has only one soul.

All we have to do is to guard against the people who would try to build a wall across the heart of our forest. We must look to it that they do not find even the chance to make a preliminary reconnaissance for this work. They are very clever. They are utterly without scruple, since it is vital to their attack upon our civilisation that that wall should be made. And they will try to commence it in the name of Civilisation!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38