Ancient Wisdom: The Woodcutter and the Trees

Thomas_Corsan_Morton_-_The_Woodcutter_1887

By Thomas Corsan Morton (1859–1928) (oil on canvas) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how the poorest and most vulnerable people in society are being neglected – both on a national and international scale. In the UK, the disadvantaged are the ones suffering the most as a result of economic austerity (and not, sadly, the investment bankers who ruined our economy in the first place), while on the global scale, we are ignoring the suffering through disease and conflict of some of the poorest nations because we have no vested interest in them.

Some may argue that it is inevitable that the least influential should suffer the most in times of crisis, because resources are stretched so there is little to spare for those who are already in difficult situations. But if we look at the wisdom of past societies, we can find warnings as to what can happen when we neglect certain members of society because we do not value them. One of my favourite of Aesop’s Fables is “The Woodcutter and the Trees,” which illustrates this point very nicely.

***
A shabbily-dressed woodcutter with a battered old axe once entered an ancient woodland filled with mighty oaks. He found a grove of the largest and oldest oak in the forest, bowed before them, and said,

“Oh, mighty lords of the forest, I ask that you may grant this simple, humble woodcutter one small request. I wish to cut down just one tree from your forest – not one of you great oaks, of course, but perhaps a small tree of no importance. Would you permit me to cut down such a tree?”

The oaks were greatly flattered by the woodcutter’s words, and said, “Yes, woodcutter, we know of just the tree. There is a small, weak ash sapling nearby; it is of no significance to us ancient oaks. You may take the sapling for whatever purpose you may have.”

So the woodcutter cut down the sapling with his battered old axe.

The woodcutter took the ash wood home, and with it, he fashioned a new, stronger, bigger axe than ever before. And then he took the axe and returned to the ancient wood, and with this new axe, he started felling the mighty old oaks left and right.

As the oldest oak felt the axe chop into his bark and realised his doom was upon him, he cried out, “How foolish we have all been! If only we had protected the sapling from the start, we would all have been protecting ourselves.”

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