Rain in an Oak Forest by Ivan Shishkin, 1891
Trees hold a special power over the human psyche, perhaps because we identify with their individuality and perhaps because, like us, they link earth to the heavens, reaching skyward even as they root to the ground. Our respect for the knowledge and sublimity of trees invests them with heavy and pervasive symbolic value. Our deep cultural heritage is embedded with the belief that trees have something to tell us about ourselves—we have only to listen. No wonder, then, that in Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy should choose the setting of a copse and nearby forest for the spiritual epiphany of Levin, his most autobiographical character. Perpetually burdened by his need to discover meaning in life, Levin, a non-believer, is spontaneously brought to prayer by the sight of an oak falling during an unexpected thunderstorm—potentially crushing his wife, Kitty, and their newborn son.
In the passage below, wind and rain conspire to create an atmosphere of human helplessness in the face of nature and the inexplicable contingencies of life. As the storm tears at Levin’s clothes, it strips the lime and birch trees of their bark and foliage, metaphorically linking man and tree. Vulnerable, naked, struck, Levin experiences for the first time the freedom and gratitude that come when the limits of human agency are recognised. The novel thus ends in a spiritual place antithetical to the mechanical certainty of Anna’s death, itself a calculated, wilful act on the iron tracks that were steadily transforming Tolstoy’s beloved Russian landscape.
In that brief interval of time the storm clouds had moved on, covering the sun so completely that it was dark as an eclipse. Stubbornly, as though insisting on its rights, the wind stopped Levin, and tearing the leaves and flowers off the lime trees and stripping the white birch branches into strange unseemly nakedness, it twisted everything on one side—acacias, flowers, burdocks, long grass, and tall tree-tops. The peasant girls working in the garden ran shrieking into shelter in the servants’ quarters. The streaming rain had already flung its white veil over all the distant forest and half the fields close by, and was rapidly swooping down upon the copse. The wet of the rain spurting up in tiny drops could be smelt in the air.
Holding his head bent down before him, and struggling with the wind that strove to tear the wraps away from him, Levin was moving up to the copse and had just caught sight of something white behind the oak tree, when there was a sudden flash, the whole earth seemed on fire, and the vault of heaven seemed crashing overhead. Opening his blinded eyes, Levin gazed through the thick veil of rain that separated him now from the copse, and to his horror the first thing he saw was the green crest of the familiar oak-tree in the middle of the copse uncannily changing its position. “Can it have been struck?” Levin hardly had time to think when, moving more and more rapidly, the oak tree vanished behind the other trees, and he heard the crash of the great tree falling upon the others.
The flash of lightning, the crash of thunder, and the instantaneous chill that ran through him were all merged for Levin in one sense of terror.
“My God! my God! not on them!” he said.
And though he thought at once how senseless was his prayer that they should not have been killed by the oak which had fallen now, he repeated it, knowing that he could do nothing better than utter this senseless prayer.
Anna Karenina (1877) Leo Tolstoy, translated by Constance Garnett
Russian paintings (above and below) of trees from around the time of Anna Karenina
The Birch Grove by Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1879
Birch Forest by Isaac Levitan, 1885-1889