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So eager are our pilgrims to continue on their journey that they don’t even wave goodbye to Nessus, but start wending their way through the woods before our horse-friend even reaches the far bank.
As they walk, they notice there is something seriously wrong with the trees. Hmmm, like they have black leaves, instead of green. And that their branches are gnarled and knotty, instead of nice and natural and straight. And instead of bearing tasty fruits and flowers, these trees have poisonous briers.
Dante, using his poet’s knowledge, recognizes this as the homeland of the Harpies, those inverted angels who stink to high Heaven and harassed Aeneas and company on their way to Italy. (Note: Another reference to Virgil's Aeneid).
Virgil now takes the opportunity to state the obvious: they’re now in the second ring of the Seventh circle.
Right on cue, a slew disembodied voices start moaning all around them.
Freaked out, Dante stops dead in his tracks.
Virgil suggests that Dante might discover the source of these crying voices if he breaks a branch off a tree.
So Dante does as he’s told, at which point the violated tree goes "Owww! Why’d you do that, man?" and proceeds to bleed black blood (no, not sap) from its wound.
Ignoring Dante’s gape-mouthed amazement, the tree goes on to explain that he (and the rest of the forest) used to be men and would’ve expected greater mercy from a fellow (former) brother.
Dante compares the speaking tree to the sounds that a burning log makes. You know, hissing sap and all. Of course, he does this in his head to keep from offending the tree.
Meanwhile, Virgil steals Dante’s spotlight in making a roundabout apology to the tree that goes something like, "you poor soul, if only Dante had believed my words he wouldn’t have hurt you, but because he’s slow like that, I had to make him maim you. It hurt me as much as it hurt you. I swear."
Virgil continues, asking the injured tree to introduce itself and tell its story so that Dante can make a proper apology.
The tree is moved by his "sweet speech" (another instance of Virgil’s "persuasive word") and feels compelled to tell his story.
Turns out this guy was a bigshot in life. He was Pier della Vigna (though he never says so), otherwise known as the private counselor to Emperor Frederick II, and so trusted by His Majesty that Pier boasts he had "the keys / of Frederick’s heart" and served him faithfully.
To show he can match Virgil in poetic-ness, Pier then turns to personification. His downfall, he claims, was brought about by Envy, which he personifies as a "whore." In other words, he was so loved by Frederick that it made all the other bigwigs jealous. So they started nasty rumors about him.
And Pier, thoroughly disgusted by it all, killed himself.
While we’re having our "Wha?" moment, Pier hurriedly tries to justify himself, claiming he never betrayed Frederick. He begs Dante to clear his reputation once he returns to the living world.
In the awkward silence that follows, Virgil finally encourages Dante to speak and ask questions.
But Dante’s not having any of it. He’s in I-feel-so-bad-for-him-I-can’t-speak mode and tells Virgil to do the question-asking.
Seizing the opportunity to flaunt his persuasiveness, Virgil asks Pier to tell him two things: 1) how does a suicide victim become a tree? and 2) can one ever be freed? He claims that knowing such things will help Dante restore Pier’s reputation in the world above. Which is only a little fib.
As Pier answers, it becomes more and more obvious that he is no longer a man. For instance, "the wind become[s] his voice" as he tells of suicidal souls judged by Minos and flung into the seventh circle. But their souls have no proper place and wherever Fortune flings them is where they take root and sprout into trees. As saplings, they are tortured by the Harpies, who—for all their famous ferocity—eat leaves.
The suicides, Pier claims, long for their fleshly bodies more than any other sinners. But they cannot have their bodies back because they willingly gave them up by taking their own lives.
Only when Judgment Day comes will they be reunited with their bodies, but even then their former skins will only be able to sit atop the stumps of their trees.
As they’re waiting for tree-man to go on, a sudden commotion breaks out.
Dante, drawing on his endless supply of metaphors, compares it to the cracking sounds made by a hunter and his quarry running through the woods.
To the left are two naked men, fleeing desperately from a pack of hounds. (Wow, Dante was right.)
The quicker one begs for death while the slower one names his companion as "Lano" and teases him about being slower.
By wasting his breath teasing his friend, the second man loses his footing and falls into a thorn bush. Ouch!
There, the hounds find him and rip him limb from limb.
Dante and Virgil approach.
Ironically, it is not the dismembered sinner who weeps and speaks, but the thorn bush, which has had all its branches broken in the unfortunate encounter.
It blames the runner, Jacopo da Santo Andrea, for its pain.
Virgil addresses the poor plant, asking it for its name.
The thorn bush, instead of answering, says only that it is a Florentine and sadly predicts that Florence will never be at peace (because when John the Baptist brought Christianity, he replaced the pagan patron of Florence, Mars, the god of war. Presumably, Mars wants revenge and so plagues Florence with never-ending civil war).
The thorn bush ends by admitting its own sin of suicide.