The Paris Review – Chestnut Trees

Artwork by Hermann Hesse. Photograph by Martin Hesse Erben. Courtesy of Volker Michels.

Everywhere weve lived takes on a certain shape in our memory only some time after we leave it. Then it becomes a picture that will remain unchanged. As long as were there, with the whole place before our eyes, we see the accidental and the essential focus almost equally; only later are secondary matters snuffed out, our memory preserving only whatIt’s worth preserving. If that werent true, how could we look back over even a year of our life without vertigo and terror!

Many things make up the picture a place leaves behind for us—waters, rocks, roofs, squares—but for me, it is most of all trees. They are not only beautiful and lovable in their own right, representing the innocence of nature and a contrast to people, who express themselves in buildings and other structures—they are also revealing: we can learn much from them about the age and type of arable land there, the climate, the weather, and the minds of the people. I don’tt know how the village where I now live will present itself to my minds eye later, but I cannot imagine that it will be without poplars, any more than I can picture Lake Garda without olive trees or Tuscany without cypresses. Other places are unthinkable to me without their lindens, or their nut trees, and two or three are recognizable and remarkable by virtue of having no trees there at all.

Yet a city or landscape with no predominating woods of any kind never entirely becomes a picture in my mind; it always remains somewhat without character, to my feeling. There is one such city I know well—I lived there as a boy for two years—and despite all my memories of the place, my image of it is of somewhere foreign and alien; it has turned into a place as arbitrary and meaningless to me as a train station.

Its been a very long time since Ive seen a real chestnut-tree city—this thought occurs to me whenever I see a single beautiful horse-chestnut tree around here or sadly catch sight of the shabby little horticultural chestnut trees in certain villages. If they only knew how chestnut trees could look! How mightily they can stand there, how luxuriantly they blossom, how deeply they are rustle, how luscious and complete the shadows they cast, how they swell with monstrous fullness in the summer and lay down their golden-brown leaves in such thick, soft piles in the fall!

Today I am once again thinking of the city with the beautiful chestnut trees: a town in southwest Germany. In the center is the old castle, a massive sprawling boxy structure, with the whole sprawling building ringed by an amazingly wide moat, long since turned into a dry ditch, and surrounding the ditch in a wider circle is a splendid avenue. On one side of the avenue is nothing but old low houses and little gardens, and on the other, open side, facing the castle, is a mighty garland of large chestnut trees.

On one side hang signs for shops and inns, the joiners hammer away, metalworkers smash menacingly at their sheet metal, cobblers lurk in the twilight of their cavelike workshops, tanneries give off their mysterious stink. On the other side of the wide avenue there is silence and shade, the smell of leaves and the green play of light, the song of honeybees and the flight of butterflies. So the poor devils beating carpets and doing handicrafts have their windows facing an eternal holiday, the never-ending peace of God, and they squint longingly at it all the time, and on warm summer evenings they cannot go out to visit it early enough, or with enough seats.

I stayed in that little city once, for a week, and although I was actually there on business, I liked to look patronizingly in through the merchants, and craftsmens windows and put on a show of strolling—slowly, aristocratically, and often—on the shady, leisurely side of the street and of life. The best thing, though, was that I was staying by the moat, at the Blond Eagle, and had the many blossoming chestnut trees, red and white, outside my window in the evening and through the night. Now, enjoying this visual pleasure was not entirely without a cost, since the seemingly dry moat still had a damp enough moss-green bottom to send up a hundred thousand hungry mosquitoes a day. But a young person traveling doesnt sleep much on such summer nights anyway, and when the mosquitoes got too rude I rubbed some vinegar on myself and sat by the window with a cigar lit and the light off.

What singular evenings and nights! The smell of summer, a little warm street dust, the buzz of mosquitoes, and mugginess filling the air with its electricity, secretly twitching and thrashing.

After all these years, those warm nights along the chestnut alley now come back to me and seem precious and poignant, like an island in my life, a fairy tale, a lost youth. They look at me with a gaze so deep and holy; their whisper is so beguilingly sweet and hot; They make me so sad, like the legend of paradise or the lost song that dreams of Avalon.

I would usually be finished with my business” by the afternoon. As soon as that moment came, I would stroll the whole circle around the castle once or twice with the gentlemanly hauteur of the idle do-nothing, enjoying the freedom and laziness I felt such a talent for in those days. Oh, if Im ever going to accomplish anything in life (but is that really as very necessary as everyones always telling me?)—if I am, I will have to work so hard, so bitterly, that surely I can now enjoy the gift of these few free day…

Then I would saunter off through the city and the park outside town, and up some hill to a high, fragrant summer meadow or dim, secret corner of the woods. The squirrels racing like lightning, the tumbling butterflies—I hadnt looked at them with so much idle abandonment since I was a boy. I would swim in a brook, or at least splash water on my warm head. Then, in some hidden spot, I would take out a little notebook of graph paper and write in it with my sharpest pencil things I was ashamed of, but which nonetheless made me unbelievably happy, even proud. Presumably my poetry from then was worthless, and Id probably laugh if I saw any of it again today … No, I wouldnt laugh. Definitely not. But I wish I could ever be as crazily silly, giddy, and deeply happy again when I was writing or, indeed, doing anything.

And so evening would come, and Id walk back into town. I would pick a rose in the park and carry it in my hand, for how easily it might happen that I would find myself in a situation where one wants to have a rose in ones hand. For instance, if I ran into Kiderlen the carpenters daughter on the market corner at a propitious moment, and I doffed my hat, and maybe she didnt just nod but let a conversation spring up, would I have any qualms about offering her that rose with some suitable words? Or maybe it might be Martha, the niece and waitress at the Eagle—it was because of her that they had renamed the Black Eagle Inn as the Blond. She always looked down on me so. But maybe she wasn’tt really like that.

Lost in such thoughts, I would enter the city and walk back and forth through the few little streets, inviting Chance to show its face, before returning to the Eagle. As I walked up to the door of the inn I would stick my rose in my buttonhole and then enter, and politely order ham with mustard or a ham hock or ribs with cabbage and a Vaihinger beer to go with it.

I would page back through my little book of verses until the food came, quickly putting a line in the margin or a question mark or crossing something out here and there, and then I would eat and drink and take the older, more elegant gentlemen among the regulars as my model for proper conversation and conduct. It sometimes happened that the innkeeper, husband or wife, would do more than wish me bon appétit, they would sit down across from me for a bit and start a conversation. I would answer their questions, affable but modest, and I could manage to offer a pithy saying, a political opinion, a joke.

Finally I would pay for my dinner, take a bottle of lager with me, and go upstairs to my room. The mosquitoes would be whirring busily. I would have to stick my beer in the washbasins water to keep it cool.

Then came those strange evening hours. I sat on the windowsill, alone, and half-consciously felt how beautiful the summer night was, and the slight mugginess, and the ghostly pale beacons of the chestnuts white blossoms, like large candles. Then, anxious and melancholy, I would see the couples walking in the dark under the great trees, slowly, pressed up against each other, and I would sadly take my rose from its buttonhole and throw it out the window onto the slightly dusty, shimmering white road for carriages and guests from the inn and lovers to trample.

Have I promised to tell you a story here? No, I promised nothing of the sort, nor do I want to tell any stories. You can tell a story about getting engaged or breaking your leg. I only want to hear the song of those summer nights once more—it is dearer to me than all the songs of Avalon put together. I want only to call back to mind the old city, and the castle, and the moat, so I dont forget them forever. I only want to think about those chestnut trees for a little while, after all these years, and about my little poetry notebook, and all of that, because it will never return.

But it does seem unbelievable that I only spent seven days and nights there. It feels like I took at least a hundred walks up to the woods, broke off at least a hundred roses, planned to give at least a hundred roses on a hundred evenings to the pretty girls in the chestnut-tree city and then gloomily threw them out onto the darkening street later, when no one wanted them. Of course Id stolen those roses, but who would have known that? Not Kiderlen the carpenters daughter, not blond Martha, and if one of them had wanted that stolen rose from me, I would have gladly bought a hundred more to give her.

This essay, originally written in 1904, is an excerpt from Trees: An Anthology of Writings and Paintings by Hermann Hesse, edited by Volker Michels, and translated by Damion Searls. The anthology will be published by Kales Press in May.

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