Written by Mary Austin.
The prince’s pine is half as tall as the woodchuck that lives under the brown boulder; and the seedling fir in his first season was as tall as the prince’s pine, so for the time they made the most of each other’s company. The woodchuck and the prince’s pine were never to be any taller, but the silver fir was to keep on growing as long as he stood in the earth and drew sap. In his second season, which happened to be a good growing year, the fir was as tall as the woodchuck and began to look about him.
The forest of silver firs grew on a hill-slope up from a water-course as far as the borders of the long-leaved pines. Where the trees stood close together the earth was brown with the litter of a thousand years, and little gray hawks hunted in their green, windy glooms. In the open spaces there were thickets of meadowsweet, fireweed, monkshood, and columbine, with saplings and seedlings in between. When the fir which was as tall as the woodchuck had grown a year or two longer, he made a discovery. All the firs on the hill-slope were crooked! Their trunks bulged out at the base toward the downward pitch of the hill; and it is the proper destiny of fir trees to be straight.
“They should be straight,” said the seedling fir. “I feel it in my fibers that a fir tree should be straight.” He looked up at the fir mother very far above him on her way to the sky, with the sun and the wind in her star-built boughs.
“I shall be straight,” said the seedling fir.
“Ah, do not be too sure of it,” said the fir mother. But for all that the seedling fir was very sure, and when the snow tucked him in for the winter he took a long time to think about it. The snows are wonderfully deep in the canyon of the silver firs. From where they gather in the upper air the fir mother shakes them lightly down, packing so softly and so warm that the seedlings do not mind.
About the time the fir had grown tall enough to be called a sapling he made another discovery. The fir mother also had a crooked trunk. The sapling was greatly shocked; he hardly liked to speak of it to the fir mother. He remembered his old friend the prince’s pine, but he had so outgrown her that there was really no comfort in trying to make himself understood, so he spoke to the woodchuck. The woodchuck was no taller than he used to be, but when he climbed up on the brown boulder above his house he was on a level with the sapling fir, and though he was not much of a talker he was a great thinker and had opinions.
“Really,” said the fir, “I hardly like to speak of it, but you are such an old friend; do you see what a crook the fir mother has in her trunk? We firs you know were intended to be straight.”
“That,” said the woodchuck, “is on account of the snow.”
“But, oh, my friend,” said the sapling, “you must be mistaken. The snow is soft and comfortable and braces one up. I ought to know, for I spend whole winters in it.”
“Gru-r-ru-,” said the woodchuck crossly; “well for you that you do, or I should have eaten you off by now.”
After this the little fir kept his thoughts to himself; he was very much afraid of the woodchuck, and there is nothing a young fir fears so much as being eaten off before it has a chance to bear cones. But in fact the woodchuck spent the winter under the snow himself. He went into his house and shut the door when the first feel of snow was in the air, and did not come out until green things began to grow in the cleared spaces.
Not many winters after that the fir was sufficiently tall to hold the green cross, that all firs bear on their topmost bough, above the snow most of the winter through. Now he began to learn a great many things. The first of these was about the woodchuck.
“Really that fellow is a great braggart,” said the fir; “I cannot think how I came to be afraid of him.”
In those days the sapling saw the deer getting down in the flurry of the first snows to the feeding grounds on the lower hills, saw the mountain sheep nodding their great horns serenely in the shelter of a tall cliff through the wildest storms. In the spring he saw the brown bears shambling up the trails, ripping the bark off of trees to get at the worms and grubs that harbored there; lastly he saw the woodchuck come out of his hole as if nothing had ever happened.
And now as the winters came on, the fir began to feel the weight of the snow. When it was wet and heavy and clung to its branches, the little fir shivered and moaned.
“Droop your boughs,” creaked the fir mother; “droop them as I do, and the snow will fall.”
So the sapling drooped his fan-spread branches until they lay close to the trunk; and the snow wreaths slipped away and piled thickly about his trunk. But when the snow lay deep over all the slope, it packed and slid down toward the ravine and pressed strongly against the sapling fir.
“Oh, I shall be torn from my roots,” he cried; “I shall be broken off.”
“Bend,” said the fir mother, “bend, and you will not break.” So the young fir bent before the snow until he was curved like a bow, but when the spring came and the sap ran in his veins, he straightened his trunk anew and spread his branches in the star-shaped pattern.
“After all,” said the sapling, “it is not such a great matter to keep straight; it only requires effort.”
So he went on drooping and bending to the winter snows, growing strong and straight with the spring, and rejoicing. About this time the fir began to feel the tingling in his upper branches.
“Something is going to happen,” he said; something agreeable in fact, for the tree was fifty years old, and it was time to grow cones. For fifty years a silver fir has nothing to do but to grow branches, thrown out in annual circles, everyone in the shape of a cross. Then it grows cones on the topmost whorl, royal purple and burnished gold, on the ends of the branches like Christmas candles. The sapling fir had only three in his first season of bearing, but he was very proud of them, for now he was no longer a sapling, but a tree.
When one has to devote the whole of a long season to growing cones, one has not much occasion to think of other things. By the time there were five rows of cone-bearing branches spread out broadly from the silver fir, the woodchuck made a remark to the prince’s pine. It was not the same prince’s pine, nor the same woodchuck, but one of his descendants, and his parents had told him the whole story.
“It seems to me,” said the woodchuck, “that the fir tree is not going to be straight after all. He never quite seems to recover from the winter snow.”
“Ah,” said the prince’s pine, “I have always thought it better to have your seeds ripe and put away underground before the snow comes. Then you do not mind it at all.”
The woodchuck was right about the fir; his trunk was beginning to curve toward the downward slope of the hill with the weight of the drifts. And that went on until the curve was quite fixed in the ripened wood, and the fir tree could not have straightened up if he had wished. But to tell the truth, the fir tree did not wish. By the end of another fifty years, when he wagged his high top above the forest gloom, he grew to be quite proud of it.
“There is nothing,” he said to the sapling firs, “like being able to endure hard times with a good appearance. I have seen a great deal of life. There are no such snows now as there used to be. You can see by the curve of my trunk what a weight I have borne.”
But the young firs did not pay any attention to him. They had made up their minds to grow up straight.