The “she” is young Sylvia, from Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.”
In the scene so eloquently described above by my student, Sylvia is laboriously climbing the tallest pine tree in the woods. From there she hopes to see the heron’s nest.
Jewett describes the plan:
But the stately head of this old pine towered above them all and made a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away. Sylvia knew it well. She had always believed that whoever climbed to the top of it could see the ocean; and the little girl had often laid her hand on the great rough trunk and looked up wistfully at those dark boughs that the wind always stirred, no matter how hot and still the air might be below. Now she thought of the tree with a new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover from whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest?
Here is Jewett’s (eloquent) description of the climb itself:
The way was harder than she thought; she must reach far and hold fast, the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree’s great stem, higher and higher upward.
In Jewett’s narrative, the active voice used for the tree itself (“caught and held her and scratched her”) seems at first unremarkable, but develops further as the passage becomes more lyrical:
The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and frowned away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east.
The tree becomes loving and intentionally supportive, and then even protective of the “solitary gray-eyed child.” And from its branches she does in fact see the heron and his mate, and their nest.
Why didn’t my student just quote some of this? With so many student writers, quoting is all or nothing: they either quote entire poems in order to refer to a single line, or madly and awkwardly paraphrase, generally getting close to the original statement but missing the tone or spirit or, many times, the point.
So here, my student makes Sylvie the subject and center of the sentence, where Jewett highlighted the tree itself. Okay, if the point is about Sylvie. But then in the adjective clause we’re thrown into not the passive voice but a very passive notion nonetheless, as Sylvie “receive[s]” pain and scratches, and the tree “get[s] stuck to her by the twigs.” As in Jewett’s description, the tree is doing the work; but here neither Sylvie nor the tree seems to have much consciousness; furthermore, the passage that in Jewett’s hands is so tender, so benevolent, becomes prickly, uncomfortable, virtually hostile. Jewett makes the scratches incidental to the child’s determined climb; my student turns Sylvia into some kind of indomitable heroine, overcoming pain and scratches.
When at the end of the story Jewett’s narrator calls on the woods and wild creatures to give Sylvia some comfort in her newfound loneliness, the reader is not surprised: the narrator has been solicitous of the child all along, an active presence in the lines, even breaking into the story several times to speak directly to Sylvia. But my student must have felt some confusion at the end, since he gives no indication in his paraphrasing that he has noticed Jewett’s animation of the landscape or affection for the character.
Is my student’s problem an insensitivity to the writer’s voice, or an inability to achieve a voice of his own? I’d call his prose “lumbering,” and was about to when I realized and shrank from the unintended pun on woods. So I’ll call it “staggering” instead. And I wonder if the student found any grace in the reading of the story. If this is the best he can do to capture it, then I have to entertain the possibility that reading for pleasure must be dying out, since his writing reflects no pleasure at all, but a long hard slog.
Well, that’s not why I chose this passage for today’s blog, though. I chose it to honor all those who are wrestling with pine trees or other evergreens in this holiday season. May no trees get stuck to you by the dry twigs. May any scratches they inflict on you be mild and fleeting, ignored or forgotten in the festivities. May your tree be happy during its sojourn in your home, and may your home be filled with light as, the solstice passed, we head out of the dark season and the dawn grows bright in the east.