Sometimes a Tree is Just a Tree, But Not Always

Over the holidays, my older son (read his blog here) introduced my wife and I to Sherlock, the British tv crime drama. Benedict Cumberlatch (is there a more British name on the planet?) offers viewers a contemporary adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Each episode is 90 minutes long and, quite frankly, they offer some of the best entertainment on tv (or on Netflix as the case may be). It’s always nice to know that your kids have decent taste in tv and movies.

What’s unique about the series, especially to someone used to American television broken into 22 or 40 minute episodes, is that each episode is a mini-movie. At 90 minutes, without commercials, each show offers us a relatively complete look at both Sherlock and the supporting characters. There is, simply put, heft to this show that trusts its audiences’ intelligence while willingly challenging their intellect.

My wife and I are only about four episodes into the series (each season has only 3 episodes so cut us some slack), but I found myself discussing “Sherlock” this morning in class during a conversation about Sarah Orne Jewett’s excellent short story “The White Heron.”

If you don’t know Jewett’s story, you can read the story here. (Go ahead. I’ll stop writing while you read.) Jewett’s story is a great one to teach. On the one hand, she crafts this artistic piece that flows quite nicely, but like most great art, Jewett’s story transcends art to speak to something elemental about human nature. At the time she wrote, Jewett was considered a regionalist much like Twain, Stowe, and others. Of course, as the “anthology” of American literature began to solidify in the post-WW II era and scholars began to define great American writers, Jewett got trapped by her regionalist label while Twain somehow managed to transcend his. That’s a shame, too, but we’ll save the politics of defining a country’s literature for another day.

“A White Heron,” though, is a story that moves well beyond the concerns of the New England woods. Little Sylvia moves to the woods to help her grandmother manage her house and cow. In this story, a John Audubon-type character shows up carrying a gun and a bag full of birds he will stuff and study at a later date. His singular goal on this trip is to find the white heron, a bird Sylvia has seen. One morning, she gets up early, climbs a ridiculously tall pine tree and locates the nest. FYI–if you are afraid of heights, Jewett’s narrative of Sylvia climbing the tree will cause your palms to sweat and your stomach to flutter.

Climbing the tree causes issues for Sylvia, as well. As we all know, sometimes a gun is just a gun and sometimes a tree is just a tree.

Not in this story. You don’t have to be a Freudian devotee to read Jewett’s description and realize that Sylvia’s decision to find the heron and tell the young man carrying his gun around for the whole world to see is about a lot more than just getting sap on her clothes and scratches on her hand.

In fact, Jewett offers us a pretty clear sense that Sylvia is right at that age where she must choose to follow the young man or remain a sylvan creature of the woods. Certainly, there’s nothing real complex about reading the story. Sylvia (sylvan) is at home in the woods. The woods allow her to remain innocent and childlike. The guy shows up with a gun, she climbs a tree, and she’s got sap all over her after her climb.

But, and here is where I think Jewett is so good, Sylvia has a choice. She can see that following the young man, giving in to that slight flutter in her stomach (and other areas), will take her from that sylvan world and force her into the violent, industrial experience of adulthood. In doing so, we also know that Sylvia will lose not just that innocent purity. We know she will also lose that innate, natural intelligence that comes from not being an adult.

Or at least an adult like the ornithologist. He has to kill the birds to study them. He literally murders innocent creatures in the pursuit of knowledge.

In Jewett’s story, we discussed in class today, sexual awakenings and sexuality is one step away from “knowing” and experiencing, but those responsibilities and that information doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. Just more experienced. After all, the young man (even with his fully loaded gun–wink, wink, insert your own joke here) has no idea where the heron might rest but Sylvia does.

Which led me to a brief discussion of Sherlock today. The last episode my wife and I watched, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” is incredibly sexually charged. Irene Adler, a dominatrix, has taken some comprising photos of a client and Holmes is tasked with finding the photos. Throughout the episode, there is the implication that Holmes is at best a virgin and at worst an asexual character who doesn’t have time for human relationships.

We have, in some ways, Jewett’s concept in reverse. Throughout the episode, the more Holmes engages with the hyper-sexualized Adler, the more addled he becomes.

In essence, sex and sexual tension works to decrease his intellectual ability. Much like Sylvia, Holmes must decide, at one point in the show, to reject Adler’s advances so that he can hold on to his intellect.

Which, one of my students pointed out, makes sense. Adam and Eve, we noted, get punished when they eat fruit from the tree of knowledge and the first thing they notice is their nudity. They will labor in the fields and in child birth. The human curse, I tell my students, isn’t just getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden so that they have to sit in my class at 8:00 am twice a week. The human curse is forcing us to become slaves to our physical desires. We are eternally cursed to experience both the pleasure and pain of the body’s desire and those desires distract us from our innocence and the intellectual purity implied. Meditation, prayer, breathing deeply–these are all designed to help us reject, ignore, and reduce those passions.

I am, of course, oversimplifying a little but we certainly, I told my class, want to pay some attention to the relationship between sex, experience, and intellectual insight as we read through the stories in our class. Physical desire is, simply put, distracting and intellectual debilitating.

 

Which is why, I told them as we finished class, you should never sit next to someone attractive when you are taking a test.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Sometimes a Tree is Just a Tree, But Not Always

  1. John Wegner says:

    Good morning. Thank you for the comment and the correction. You caught me being lazy and writing too quickly (and without editing). Don’t tell my students!

  2. Suzanne says:

    Fascinating! Thank you–had heard of Jewett, but now am motivated to go and read her (this story and others that I may find).

    Somehow, I’ve resisted the come-ons for Cumberbatch’s Sherlock series (seen after Downton Abbey episodes)–the memories of the real Sherlock stories are too vivid, or something. I’m not condemning it, just don’t feel interested enough to check it out.

    I hope this next is taken in the way (friendly and helpful) that it is offered:

    we can’t say ” …[he] introduced my wife and I to … ” ; you need the objective form, ” … my wife and me,” because (in this sentence) it’s your son who is the subject of the verb “introduced.”

    “My wife and I are only about four episodes into the series,” on the other hand, has “wife and I” functioning as subject of the verb “are.”

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