The Axe and a Grove of Trees
by Shellen Lubin
June 25, 2022
Story for Friday Night
There was a grove of trees by a deep, rushing river. The grove was full of strong, sturdy oaks, richly-colored ever-changing maples, prickly evergreen pines, supple balletic weeping willows, and huge lilac bushes overflowing with soft, beautiful flowers.
The grove of trees had lived contentedly for hundreds of years. Well, some of them had lived contentedly, but no, not all. The oaks were considered the masters of the grove, because they were the tallest and strongest of the trees, and they liked being masters, and so they ruled the grove. Even in fall when the oaks lost all their leaves first, and the maples’ leaves had turned to bright reds and purples, and the pines were still equally as green as in midsummer, the oaks remained the masters, and were allowed to rule. Even after huge storms, when the oaks had their branches ripped from them, and the willows were still supple and flexible enough to stay strong, and the lilac bushes still filled the air with their flowers and their magnificent odor, the oaks remained the masters, and were allowed to rule.
The oaks wanted to be fair—or at least to appear fair—but never to lose control of the grove. So in all decision-making they gave each oak tree five votes, each maple four votes, three to each pine, two to each willow, and only one to each lilac, because they were just bushes, even though some of the lilac bushes were bigger than some of the trees. And the oaks made sure the maples felt more important than the pines, the pines more important than the willows, and the willows more than the lilacs, so that they never banded together. Because if they had all banded together, they could have defeated the oaks’ decision making, but that never happened. The pines and the maples, the willows and lilacs, could never agree enough on what they wanted most and what was most important for long enough to get their way, and so all decisions favored the oaks.
The oaks would always pick an old, strong oak to be the prime minister of the grove, and each old, strong oak would be kind and caring to all—well, relatively kind and caring to all—but always ensuring that the oaks remained in power, and that each type of tree knew their place, and did not seek more. So, when I say they were contended, well, to be frank, that was a matter of perspective and degree.
And then one day in the middle of one dark, cold winter, when the oaks had commanded the other trees to bow to them before speaking, one of the oldest pines said “I believe a pine tree might do a better job of decision making for the grove than an oak tree. Especially in winter—as we are evergreens—I do believe the pines might make better choices for the grove than do the oaks.”
The oak who was the prime minister scoffed. “I don’t need leaves—or your pathetic little pine needles—to make decisions. I know what is best.” All the oaks followed him and scoffed at the old pine, and the maples and willows—wanting to be accepted and respected—scoffed, too.
Then one maple spoke up. She had not scoffed; actually, the old pine’s words had made her think. She said, “We maples see things differently than the oaks, because we change colors, and our sap runs sweet and strong. Maybe we should be making some of the decisions.”
The prime minister scowled. “You’re too emotional. Your sap makes you too unstable. We can’t put you in power.” All the oaks scowled at the maple, and the pines—wanting to be accepted and respected—scowled, too.
A weeping willow spoke up next. “We willows are supple. We last longer in the storms than the oaks, because we are flexible, and know how to go with the winds. Maybe we should be making some of the decisions.”
Now a number of oaks started to grumble. The prime minister said, “You’re far too mercurial. You bend and fly in every direction and go along with anything.” The oaks grumbled. And the maples grumbled, too. And the willows went along, as willows do.
Lastly, one lilac bush spoke up. “We lilacs have learned many things growing our flowers and tending to them. The lilacs could offer much as leaders.”
The prime minister burst into laughter, and all the oaks and pines laughed with him. “You’re just pretty and you smell nice. You’re bushes! You can’t make important decisions.” All the other trees started to laugh along, pleased with themselves that they were trees and could not be belittled as bushes. Some of the lilac bushes even laughed as well, relieved that they had not spoken up and so been ridiculed.
But after that day, the oaks grew fearful that they were losing control of the grove. And then, soon after, along came the Axe. The Axe came into the grove on the very day of the year that was set aside to vote for the next prime minister. The Axe told the oaks privately that he could help them make sure they retained power. His handle was oak, just like them, and he said he was just like them. But he also seemed richer and fancier, because he had a huge, sharp, metal blade that gleamed in the sun and sliced through almost anything with ease. The oaks were very impressed by the Axe.
The Axe told the oaks, “There is an old Turkish proverb. Oak trees can trust axes because they, too, are made of oak.” And that seemed to make perfect sense to the oaks. The Axe seemed so smart and capable, even more smart and capable than their current prime minister, and so they went along with him and voted him into that office.
As soon as the Axe became prime minister and was in power, the grove changed. First, the Axe cut down some of the lilac bushes so he could have their flowers and their sweet odor on the oaks’ side of the grove. The lilac bushes started to live in terror, but the oaks were happy to be oaks, and to have the pretty lilac flowers scattered at their bases. And so, they supported the Axe and cheered him on to greater power. And the willows and pines were glad they were not lilacs.
Some willows were the next to get cut down. The Axe said they blocked the view of the river for the oaks and so he chopped them down easily. The willows started to live in terror, but the oaks were happy to be oaks, and to have a better view of the flowing river. And so they supported the Axe and cheered him on to greater power. And the pines and maples were glad they were not willows.
Next came the pines. The Axe cut down the oldest, biggest pine tree to decorate for a celebration, and he had the pine decorated with lilac flowers and dried weeping willow strands and red and purple maple leaves, and all but the oaks were afraid, but the oaks were happy to be oaks, and to have that decorated tree as a sign of their superiority. And so they supported the Axe and cheered him on to greater power. The other trees were too afraid to complain. They quivered in fear that if they spoke up, they, too, would be chopped down.
As the oaks—along with some of the other trees, were—cheering at the majesty of their decorated tree and the power of their prime minister, that old pine who had spoken up before on that fateful day before the Axe came to the grove—that old pine tree who was now mourning her beloved—boldly cleared her throat and said “I have discovered the old Turkish proverb of which the axe was speaking. It does not say what he has told us.”
“What??” said many of the trees in shock. “Impossible. The Axe has made our grove great and beautiful, more beautiful than any other grove in the whole wide world.”
“Listen,” said the pine tree. “I have found the proverb. It is not a promise, but a warning. What it actually says is, ‘The forest was shrinking, but the trees kept voting for the axe because its handle was made of wood, and they thought it was one of them.’ You cannot trust anything he says. You cannot believe him. He is destroying the grove. He is destroying us all.”
“You’re just a pine,” jeered one of the oaks. “He’s an oak. I believe him. He wouldn’t lie to us. You just wish you could be a masterful oak. Why should we listen to you?” All the oaks agreed. They supported the Axe and cheered him on to greater power as he chopped down that old pine and rolled her into the river. And so all the other trees believed the Axe as well, or wanted to believe, or were just too afraid to speak up against him.
That was the one moment, the last moment that the oaks could have defeated the Axe. All the other trees together could have defeated the Axe at any time. But did they? No. The other trees all wished they were oaks, and the oaks dreamed of someday being Axes themselves, and being able to chop down the other trees—defeat all the other trees—and so have complete power over all of the grove. And so, all the trees remained under the Axe’s control. And so, the grove was destroyed.
Photo: Ali Ncir, War Axe in Tree