The handkerchief tree

“Oh, please,” said I to an irritating person, with whom I was having a bar-room “debate,” from which I was trying to extract myself. “If you must insult my intelligence, would you have the decency to do it behind my back.”

I will leave gentle reader to imagine the topic, and the circumstances. There is a certain multivalent use in such phrases. I was confronted by a customer who was using angry emotional arguments in the hope of defeating syllogistic reason. We get a lot of that today. It appeals to the crowd, who share with the speaker strong views inculcated by brainwashing, together with gobsmacking ignorance of a wide range of subjects. Their arguments consist entirely of hurling epithets, of whose meaning they have also not been apprised: “fascist, racist, misogynist,” &c.

My epithet for them is, “liberals and progressives.”

There is no way to confute dirty words, and the only way to deal with their chanters is by not being there. Unfortunately, they come to you. Leaving would be cowardly.

One may answer a proclamation only with a better proclamation, dirty words with clean, and an unsound premiss only with a sound one. This may have, at first, only shock value. Maybe in the fullness of time, the very possibility that another view is possible, may have some effect on one’s opponent. Likewise it may have some effect on individual members of the audience, who observe that one party to the “debate” is more reasonable than the other. An auditor might come, and leave, on the side of unreason; but the medicine begins to work, later on.


Davidia involucrata. — I refer to the “handkerchief tree,” sometimes called the “ghost tree” or (by the Chinese, I think) the “dove tree.” As a breeze passes through the bracts and flowers (that resemble pinched white handkerchiefs), they rise and flutter as a cote of doves. Or, a flight of receding angels, “waving adieu, adieu, adieu.” This tree will make a beautiful ornament in any alpine garden, though without ascending the hills of western Hupeh, or making connexions with the Royal Horticultural Society, one is unlikely to find seeds.

Davidia at Kew, near London, once limned or illuminated for me a profound theological idea. It did this by a kind of liturgical dance, from a stationary position, corresponding to the opening of a waltz. I remain grateful to it.

Discovered by an intrepid naturalist, the French Vincentian missionary, Père David — then adroitly tracked by some Victorian Scotsman — this tree is a remarkable, a miraculous creature, the only species in its genus. It was also found near Drumheller, Alberta, but as a fossil there, buried a hundred million years ago.

The handkerchief tree is among the innumerable calling cards the divine gardener left in his wake, while preparing our world for human habitation. By contemplating it we may understand God, not as the watchmaker but as the constant sustainer of a world that is no mechanical device. In that specific sense, the “First Cause” — prior (in logic) to the merely chronological. One must be a hardened atheist indeed, not to fall upon one’s knees in the presence of that deeply unmodern, Davidia revelation. For men today are pinned like butterflies or beetles to Time’s flat board, no longer conscious of the movement of the heavens, or themselves able to float or fly.

The waving flowers are “a proclamation,” enunciating Life. (E pur si muove!) This works better than any argument. Defamation, insult, murder and blasphemy are ineffective against it. No sooner is it seen than it begins to lead, beyond the world of Time to which it is a signal.