Britten’s Paul Bunyan premiered in 1941, with a libretto by WH Auden, a long-time friend and collaborator of Britten’s. At 77 years, it’s hardly the oldest of operas, but its subject matter – the American folk story of Paul Bunyan – is somewhat older.
It’s a story of man taming nature, of opening up frontiers in the wilderness of the New World. It starts with singing trees and geese, but then come the swinging axes and hale and hearty woodchoppers. By the end the trees have fallen silent. This can be read as triumph – man has overcome nature. But today with ongoing habitat destruction, huge swathes of forests gone and animal extinctions coming ever faster, the lines “No longer the logger shall hear in the Fall/The pin and the spruce and the sycamore call” take on a very different meaning.
The first recorded reference to Paul Bunyan was in a Duluth newspaper in 1904, but it’s likely that oral stories originated in the late 19th century. Paul was a folklore hero of the American frontiersman – a giant lumberjack capable of superhuman feats of strength, able to clear forests in an instant and creating the Grand Canyon simply by dragging his axe behind him, among other exploits. He is accompanied by a giant blue cow known as Babe.
It could be argued that he was a product of the Industrial Revolution as well as white Americans’ desire to subjugate the land, turning it from wilderness to more productive farmland. Today we might refer to this as habitat destruction. Paul is a symbol of the drive to force nature to bend to the will of humanity.
Brittan’s Paul Bunyan remains off stage – a powerful but unseen voice. He recruits a gang of loggers to clear the forests and in the second Act goes off to establish farmland on the cleared land, giving some of the loggers the chance to rebel and try to take over the logging operation. On his return, though, Paul quickly puts down the rebellion.
The success of the logging continues as Paul’s gang empties the forest of trees. At the end of opera, Paul announces that it is time for him to leave. The characters’ futures have been satisfactorily resolved and the forest has been cleared – Paul’s work is done. The triumph of Man over Nature is complete. Or is it?
By 1941 western society would have been aware of the need for conservation. Both the RSPB in the UK and the National Audubon Society in the United States had been established more than 50 years before, in 1889 and 1905 respectively; while the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon in 1914 was widely known.
At the time librettist WH Auden wrote in a piece for the New York Times: “Until the advent of the machine the conquest of nature was still incomplete, and as users of the machine all countries share a common history. All countries are now faced at the same and for the first time with the same problem. Now that, in a material sense, we can do anything almost that we like, how are we to know what is the right thing to do and what is the wrong thing to avoid, for nature is no longer a nurse with her swift punishments and rewards?”
Prophetic words indeed, and a question we are still struggling with today. When it comes to conservation, the inability or unwillingness to address that very question, for countries to not work together, has had devastating consequences – wholesale extinction of species, massive habitat destruction and climate change are just three.
Paul Bunyan begins with a chorus of old, established trees singing that they “like life to be slow”, that they wish to remain where they are and grow. This is contrasted with the young trees, which are “bored with standing still”, instead they want a new life, as a ship’s hull, roof beams or a chair.
Some wild geese counter that the old trees are “unexpressive, unprogressive”, that they don’t “understand the Modern Age”. They predict that a man will be born to “bring [the trees] to another life”.
It’s hard to listen to this without a sense of irony. The young trees will get their wish, but for this to happen they must be cut down, destroyed. Their lives cut short so that they can serve humanity.
The man in question is, of course, Paul Bunyan. His mission is to clear the forest. And if Paul serves as a representation of the European frontiersman then he fulfilled that mission well – since 1630, about 120 million hectares of forest land have been converted to other uses, mostly agricultural, according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture. Most of this clearance happened before 1910, at a time when the legend of Paul Bunyan would have been at its most popular.
There is no way of knowing if Britten was aware of this when he was composing his opera, but he was a keen birder who would take ‘composing walks’ through the Suffolk countryside. He was also living in the United States when writing Paul Bunyan; it’s easy to imagine him walking through the deforested American countryside while gaining inspiration for the work.
The opera ends with a litany performed by the main characters and a chorus. The lines – sung by the chorus – “No longer the logger shall hear in the Fall/The pine and the spruce and the sycamore call” have particular resonance in these days of mass habitat destruction.
The UK’s woodlands have fared no better than those of the United States. Some 6,000 years ago, 90% of the UK was woodland; by 1900 only 5% of the land was covered in forest and even today our woodlands are woefully underprotected. This has consequences for all wildlife; woodland birds, for example, are rapidly declining and many species are on the road to extirpation in this country unless something is done.
Unless we do figure out what the right thing to do and the wrong thing to avoid doing are, the pine, the spruce, the sycamore and much more besides will be lost forever. Paul Bunyan might not have the answers, but it does serve as a wake-up call to us all that we need to act.
Statues of Paul Bunyan and his trusty cow Babe can be found across the United States (Ellin Beltz, via Wikimedia Commons).