The thing that makes life rich is the remembrance of moments of great beauty. — John Keats
It is a remote corner of the world indeed that does not at some time provide the setting for a significant scene in the human drama. One such scene is enacted during the last week in each year when the famous avenue of deodars in Altadena, California, is transformed, for eight successive nights, into a lane of Christmas trees, with a splendor of light and color that transports the beholder back into the fairyland of his childhood.
All through the year, this mile-long avenue remains a relatively obscure street, little traveled, the majestic trees towering in mysterious silence, with only the whisper of the mountain breeze to give it voice. But at the year's end, all this is changed. Crews of men with huge trucks and equipment get busy with their special technique festooning the trees with garlands of lights; and if you are standing at a strategic point at dusk on Christmas Eve when the lights come on, you will see a sight that makes you think the stars have fallen and have come to rest among the glistening needles of the trees.
Great numbers of people, in their cars, have gathered for the thrill of the opening; and it is just at this point that a unique procession begins to move like a single entity under that radiant archway. Thousands of cars, all moving in the one direction, slip by with headlights dimmed, and no sound but the purr of idling motors and the 'frish' of tires on pavement. From your point of vantage, you observe that the occupants of the cars are also silent, and this gives to the scene a curious intentness. The strange processional continues on hour after hour, while the night mists gather, and diffuse the light, so that the great out-flung branches and tall pinnacles of the trees are plainly visible.
Standing there, you recall how these trees came to be planted. One day in 1883, Captain Fred Woodbury, co-owner of the 900-acre ranch that was Altadena's beginning, stepped out of the backdoor of the ranch house and set to work to plant in cold-frame boxes a packet of seeds of the Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus Deodara) which he had just received. He and his brother were interested in introducing the deodar to this part of the country. For two years the seedlings were carefully tended, and when they were about 20 inches high, were set out in their present positions along the lane which was to be the principal driveway of the ranch. The young trees received the most attentive care until they were safely established.
There has been in American life a spirit of pioneering, compounded of courage and vision, of faith in the future, that has built the great westward-moving civilization now reaching its culmination on the shores of the Pacific. This soul-quality of the American nation, into which many other nations have poured what was best in themselves, has left its memorials, some stupendous, some modest enough, through the length and breadth of the country. Altadena, still very recently a pioneer community, has many such memorials, but none more presently living and beneficial than this noble avenue of the Himalayan sacred trees. The Hindus have long revered this tree, and the name they have given it, deodara, is Sanskrit for "timber of the gods". . . .
The line of cars keeps coming, moving bumper to bumper, and there is something peculiarly impressive in seeing these powerful machines tamed and controlled to a snail's pace, each fitting into an organized plan that reaches over an area of several miles of approach. Without mishap they move in from the outer darkness into the area of light, linger, and disappear in the distance, while others and ever others follow them. If Captain Woodbury could see them now — his trees, and what had come of his planting so many years ago!
For it is obvious that under the sacred influences of the Christmas season these people are here not entirely through curiosity, or merely to satisfy their hunger for the picturesque. Their silence, their reverent attitude, give this moving pageant almost the character of an ancient ceremonial. Why are they here? The answer lies within the consciousness of each individual, of course, and the answer will differ somewhat with each one. But deeper than all conscious urges are the underlying energies that spring from the immortal quality in the heart of man, and which, at this time, are far more potent as we pass from the old year into the New.
Only at a time like this could they who ride here feel so clearly the sacred influences, realize the hidden longing to move among the stars, come near to the world of Truth through the gateway of Beauty. What they are really feeling, if they only knew it, is a faint intimation of the spiritual origin of things. They would almost understand, at such a time, the meaning of the old story that tells how "a bright star dropped from the heart of Eternity; the beacon of hope on whose Seven Rays hang the Seven Worlds of Being." From this star, "the irradiating spirit of every creature of the human family," come ultimately the immortal sparks that ensoul all living beings, as innumerable candles are lighted from one central flame.
"Man is born a fire-worshipper," remarks a writer in the staid and sober London Times; and he goes on to show that some interest and participation on the part of the moderns in ceremonies of light and fire, was a distinct mark of survival of the spirit of the "pagan characters," and "ancient festivals." The Bible, which has always been a source of inspirational thought for our Western peoples, has also exquisite passages concerning spiritual light and fire, which no doubt have glowed in the memory of many as they passed down the avenue of stars.
"Behold," sings Isaiah, one of the greatest mystics among the Prophets: "Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that you have kindled." (50, xi) And St. John, the most occult of the Gospel writers, says, "While ye have light believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light." (12, xxxvi) From the Psalms: "O send out thy light and thy truth: let them bring me unto thy holy hill." (43, iii) And St. Luke has this: "To give light unto them that sit in darkness . . . to guide our feet into the way of peace." (1, Ixxix)
The influences at work during the last days of the Old Year open doors of possibilities, bring us "hours of insight," show us Beauty as Truth, Truth as Beauty. It is Nature's way of giving us in full measure the brightness and joy that our souls crave for, preparing us to take up once more the toils of the road that "winds uphill all the way."
On the eve of the New Year, the lights go out along Christmas Tree Lane, and the great deodars retire once more into their arcanum of mystery and silence. But why should we doubt that in the quiet of the night they commune with the watchful stars, in preparation for the time when, at another year's end, they and the stars can come together and bring another benediction to men?
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You asked me, "What is courage?" And I took
The dictionary down and spelled it out,
For such a little boy, the heavy book
Was ponderous. You twisted it about,
You said, "It's being brave — and what is that?"
You said, "It's not to fear — am I afraid?
Does Courage arch its back up like our cat,
And spit at everything it meets?" you said.
Perplexed, we closed the book and took a walk
And came where fire had worked untimely death,
The woods were gone. But on a slender stalk
A flower inched for life. I caught my breath.
"Courage," I said, and took you by the hand,
"Is one white flower in a fire-swept land."