Hi all. I thought I would post the first chapter to a story I’ve been working on for awhile now, so I could keep up with my blog.
It’s part satire, part fairy tale, very much in the vein of Animal Farm, except with plants instead of animals. It takes place in the Redwood Forests of California. The working title is Constellation of Giants. If you have any thoughts or opinions, I’d love to hear them. Thanks!
Constellation of Giants
The inhabitants of Bretton Woods had watched the river diminish in the midst of a long drought. Not only could they see the waterline sink year after year, baring the smooth rocks of its bed, but they could also feel it receding from their roots. They had spread their runners to the edges of the bank, but it was clear that things were not going to get better anytime soon.
Eventually the creek was gone. Only a line in the sand. The fog belt that was so regular and necessary, especially for the larger trees, grew thinner, burning up before midday. The Eel River itself had shrunk to nearly half its original width, creating what would come to be known as Bose Bar. It was at this point that the inhabitants of Bretton Woods felt the need to come together as never before, to discuss the problem in an open forum and try to come up with a solution to the vanishing water.
This was no small feat, as Bretton Woods was very large.
Located in the lesser known, intractable parts of Humboldt State Park, east of Highway 101, Bretton Woods was an old-growth forest, the kind that is lost to time. The extent of the woods, which shouldered the Eel River, was divided into several distinct communities, or groves, which were all connected to, and affected by, that particular portion of river. Their creek, which was Belford Creek, was perpendicular to the river, and divided the woods almost neatly in half, or as neatly as a creek could. This watery cradle held the woods together, while within it was divided by several other means. Yet, with the drought so severe (worse than any their oldest relatives could recall) they were forced to call on their neighboring communities to see what might be done, since the problem was graver than any one grove could manage on its own.
The Bretton Woods Conference officially convened on the 9,758th Autumn since the Great Fog. Though, it’s important to note, trees and other various flora do not gather in quite the same way that animals do.
While they lack the evolutionary muscles and ligaments necessary for walking or even crawling, plantæ are no less constrained in their communication among each other than animals are by virtue of having to be “within earshot” in order to be heard. It might even be said that plants in general are better at communication precisely because they don’t have to move in order to speak. They may stay in one place, which requires less energy, and be perfectly understood by those around them, if they so choose to be heard.
“Speaking” in the plant kingdom requires only that one’s conscious thoughts be reproduced as a chemical compound and secreted through one’s branch, shoot, rachis, petiole, or the like, where it can then be carried on the currents of the wind to its “listener.” These compounds contain the unique signature of the plant that produced them, as well as their desires, intentions, opinions, et cetera. Wafting thoughts are inhaled by any plant within a reasonable radius through the stomata, the porous underside of leafy greens where carbon dioxide is also taken in. Plants, in essence, speak through scent. They express themselves by distilling their emotions into a cologne, and learn of their neighbors by inhaling those same perfumes, taking in one another as it were, and mingling their own concocted molecules in just the right proportions so as to signal a reply or answer.
Of course, this form of communication certainly has its difficulties. The wind, while fairly regular in direction over large time spans and large swaths of area, can sometimes switch forwards to backwards without warning, stealing some poor tree’s loving odors to its companion and sending them upwind instead, to the surprise of some unknown and unprepared bush. And while there is always at least the smallest fluctuation in air pressure, there have been, on extremely rare occasions, what is known as “dead air,” or an air in which everything seems to fall straight down or hang absolutely suspended. But, in truth, don’t similar problems plague animals and their own speeches, when one’s voice is supplanted by a crashing waterfall, or lost in the vastness of a field? The acoustics of sound and smell are alike enough, hopefully, that a speaker of one may tentatively grasp the mechanisms of the other.
To help speed along the process of speech, a tree may employ the help of a bird, for birds understand the language of trees better than most. In exchange for a ration of berries or nuts, a bird will perch on the branch of a tree, and rub its feathers against the bark. Then, faster and more precisely than the forest wind, the bird will carry the message, lodged in its downy chest, to its proper recipients. Likewise, when bees alight from bud to bud, they’re charged not only with the task of delivering pollen, but also news, gossip, and anything else worthy of being heard. Bees, it turns out, have a long history as couriers of the understory, and take pride in their efficiency as messengers.
It would take all these techniques and more, along with some fortuitous winds, to bring the inhabitants of Bretton Woods together. While normally birds and bees fly within the boundaries of their grove, they were called upon to deliver messages across Bretton Woods. This was how the conference was conducted. They accepted the task without complaint or additional compensation, for they understood how their homes, too, were threatened. Desperate times, they sang into the canopies, are desperate times for all.
The conference lasted the entire Autumn season. Progress was slow, but each plant waited patiently for new scents to arrive, and considered the thoughts and ideas of their neighbors long and hard before dispersing their own into the air. Among each grove there was an ambassador chosen to speak on behalf of all. From Riverside Grove, whose borders ran the length of the river, the giant sequoia Alfred C. Hallock the Many-Awled spoke. To the east, in Wicksell Grove, a stout, flourishing tanoak named Kellogg spoke. Beyond Wicksell lay the Gascon Vale, where M. Pay, a bigleaf maple, spoke. South of Belford Creek was Surety Grove, whose ambassador was two redwoods fused together. Their name was Semper Semper, and they, who were always of two minds, spoke together as one when they spoke. To the north were the Sierra lodgepoles of North Pine Grove, whose branches stood upright with needling greens. Their leader was Contorta Murrayana, a tall, narrow Sierra Pine. These were some of the best and brightest trees in all of Bretton Woods. They were elected on behalf of the Mother Trees of their respective groves.
In each grove there was one tree that was wider than all the others, and dug its roots deepest into the earth. This was the Mother Tree. It was always by her roots that groves became groves. She was the center of every grove, and into her woody body went large reserves of sugars and starches from all the plants of her grove, shuttled through the root networks of trees and fungi. Through her the community either thrived, or was replaced in no short time. It was the Mother Trees who first called for a conference of Bretton Woods, and what was urgent to the Mother Trees was urgent to all.
After many rounds of talking, which lasted long into Autumn, Kellogg the tanoak proposed a solution to the drought which found favor with nearly all the Mother Trees.
“We should build a dam upstream,” he said, “and turn our river into a reservoir. It will be a reservoir for all of Bretton Woods. Every grove will be able to draw from it equally. We will record the usage by measuring the level of the reservoir, and this will help us plan for the future. In times of good rain, we will be able to save for droughts. In times of drought, we will be able to flourish as normal. If each of the groves agrees to pool their water in the reservoir, we will all benefit together.”
The idea floated around the woods, and was generally thought to be a good idea at first. By controlling their water supply, and sharing commonly in it, they would be able to regulate the water level. They would also be able to discover which parts of the woods were using the most water, for it was known that some areas took in more than others, whether out of necessity or out of greed. Many of the trees suspected the effects of the drought had been made worse by the unnecessary taking of water, and a reservoir would allow all the groves to record and track their water usage. This, Kellogg reasoned, might bring the entire woods together in solidarity, avoiding future droughts and saving precious plant life.
However, the idea was not without its problems, as Contorta Murrayana, the Sierra pine of North Pine Grove, pointed out.
“Such an undertaking,” she said, “would put even more stress on our groves. Can we afford such a project in the midst of this terrible drought? Do we even have the resources necessary to accomplish this, when times are so desperate?”
The trees agreed with her sentiment.
“Such a task would require the cooperation of the entire animal population,” the bigleaf maple from Gascon Grove, M. Pay, added. “Of course the birds would agree, for they benefit so much from us, living in our snags and feeding off our berries. But their help would not be enough. We would also need the larger animals. We would need bears, and mountain lions. Good luck with that! They care nothing for trees, except to sleep on our limbs and rub freely against our bark. They have no pacts with us. If the water is low, they simple travel elsewhere. How could we offer them anything of value? The amount it would require—it would cost a whole year’s worth of flowering! And with the drought having drained our reserves of sugars and starches, we would be left with nothing. We might not even flourish come next season.”
The stark reality of such an idea shook the trees to their very heartwood. The well-being of a grove depended on its annual flourishing. If plants did not yearly bloom and flower, and brandish their inflorescence, and rain their seeds and shed their greens over the forest floor, even for a single season, they risked poor soil next year, and they risked their value as a plant. This was a tragic thing. Birds would no longer alight on their limbs. Animals would leave in search of more fruitful stands. Their roots would be cut off from the larger groval network, for no one wanted their roots connected to someone who added nothing, who might as well be a snag waiting to fall over, selfishly uprooting their neighbors in the process. This was a terrible fate for a tree, not to flourish even for a season. And if such a thing happened to multiple trees, then the grove itself was as good as dead.
“Not only this,” Semper Semper, the fused redwoods from Surety Grove added, “but how could we be expected to contribute equally to the construction of such a reservoir? It’s no great secret that our groves deal with similar but different problems. While Riverside Grove and Wicksell Grove have abundant humus over much of their floor, and rich loam that goes deep into the earth, the same can’t be said of Gascon Vale, which lies at the very fringes of Belford Creek. Likewise, the lodgepoles of North Pine Grove live on a slope. The soil there is gravelly, and shallow. In my home of Surety Grove, certainly we have plenty of banana slugs who turn the soil, but we often get the very last of the fog drip as it travels downwind. You see, we each require different things. To ask us to contribute equally in the building of a reservoir, would inevitably rob one grove of the thing that it requires most. The logistics are quite puzzling, you see.”
The final objection to the reservoir was voiced by Alfred C. Hallock the Many-Awled. The giant sequoia from Riverside Grove was a relatively younger tree, about three hundred years old, but was very tall for his age, and very thoughtful in his speech. He was named Alfred for the King Alfred’s cakes that grew on the midsection of his trunk, though plants called him A. C. for short. These unfortunate fungi, normally found on decaying trees, had clustered on the bole of A. C., and gave the appearance of a charcoal-black moustache.
“I agree with the issues brought up by all these worthy trees,” he said. “I believe their various complaints stem from a single, fundamental root. The underlying issue with building such a reservoir is that it would disrupt the natural processes of plant life itself. Listen to this, worthy trees: we are all a part of Nature. But what, exactly, is Nature? It is not merely a single plant or animal. Nor is it all of us together, for if every tree in Bretton Woods were suddenly uprooted and lined up in a neat column, or arranged like a grid, we would not call that Nature. It seems to me that Nature is the relationship, the very structure, of living things. Nature is the plants and animals of Bretton Woods, but also the river and the creek, the northern slope and the eastern valley. Nature is the various connections of plant life, the root networks of trees mixing with the mycelium of fungi. Nature is the circuits of birds, and the territories of roaming elk. Nature is the bend in the river, and the height of the mountains. Nature is the very delicate, complex structures that make up the woods. Therefore, to change these structures would be to change Nature itself. To change the river into a reservoir would be to alter the delicate structures of Nature. How could we be so bold? How could we impose our own designs upon Nature? When it is only because of these structures that we are considered a part of Nature. To change the river, to change the landscape of the woods themselves, we would become something different from Nature entirely, something we could neither foresee nor safeguard against.”
These were wise thoughts that wafted under their greens. Nor was the giant sequoia finished, for another perfume of his was carried on the backs of many birds and dusted on the branches of the trees.
“Here is what I propose,” A. C. said. “Soon it will be winter, and either the rains will come, or the drought will continue. If it does continue, then the building of a reservoir would be useless, not to mention destructive. If a dry winter does come to pass, each grove will need even more of the resources it lacks most. Why should an entire grove perish because it does not have that which another grove has in abundance? Let’s not worry about trying to change Nature, but rather, let’s expand upon its designs. Let’s extend our relationships across the boundaries of our groves. Let’s trade our resources freely, and build a wood-wide network of roots for the exchange of sugars and starches. That way, whatever one grove lacks, the others may supply in exchange for sugars and starches.
“Such trading is already common within groves. When an alder produces more nitrogen than it needs, it may trade it with another tree in exchange for sugars and starches. Perhaps a tree desires certain acids that it can’t make for itself, or it wants more resin to cover its cracks. That tree may purchase acids or resin in exchange for its own sugars and starches. Our Mother Trees process thousands of transactions like these every day in our groves, in the form of sugars and starches. Even the birds we use have been paid with sweet sugars from our Mother Trees. Every living thing trades like this. Why not entire groves then? All that’s needed are the fungal networks between groves. These would take time to build, of course, but far less time than the reservoir proposed by Kellogg, and far less destructive to Nature. Let us create a network that brings together all the groves of Bretton Woods. A trans-groval network.”
It was this idea that won the approval of the ambassadors and the Mother Trees. Even Kellogg the tanoak eventually agreed. Although he was not entirely convinced by A. C.’s reasoning about Nature, he realized that a reservoir was too much to ask at a time when water was scarce.
They went to work drawing up rules for the way trading should be conducted across groves, as this was something that hadn’t been done before. There were rules about how much sugar and starch could leave a grove at one time, so that a grove did not suddenly lose all of its energy-producing capabilities. Without sugars and starches, a grove’s plant life could not flourish, and this was terrible thing. There were rules about the kinds of things that one grove could buy from another grove, resources from the soil like potassium and phosphorus, or things like humus, nectar, and saps. There were limits to how much could be bought at one time, and from where it could be bought.
One of the most important issues was the measuring of sugars and starches. Since the sugars and starches produced by one grove were different than the sugars and starches produced by another—varying by richness, viscosity, solubility and the like—all the groves agreed to a standard of measurement, so that the sugars and starches of one grove could be accurately measured and exchanged with those of another grove. They decided that the value of sugars and starches would be determined by the amount of water these things contained. All the groves thought this was a good idea, since it reminded them of the river itself, how high and how fast it was flowing, and it encouraged them always to look to the water which gave them life.
Work on the root networks began almost immediately after the conference concluded. Extensive plans were drawn up for new fungal lanes that would connect the groves so they could exchange sugars and starches through their roots. Snags were felled by industrious elk to make new nurse logs. These logs were the roads on which fungi and other plant life grew. The white, webbing mycelium of fungi would become tangled with the root hairs of trees, then with the stolons of a fern, then the creeping roots of shallon, then azaleas, then huckleberries, and on and on like this, until the soil was like a huge net upon which all plant life was suspended.
The winter was hard going, with little rainfall and ever thinner fogs. It meant less riverwash, which meant poorer soil, and the plants could feel this in their roots as a physical pain, as pangs of malnourishment. Yet they persevered, and worked persistently, gathering resources into their roots and greens, and working them into precious sugars and starches. Through the Mother Trees they funneled these sugars and starches to the plants nearest the border, to hurry along their runners and connect the groves. The work continued for many years, and sometimes the drought was better, and sometimes it was worse.
Despite A. C. Hallock’s injunction not to change the delicate structure of Nature, some things did indeed alter their behaviors. Now more than ever before, the continuous and almost constant need for the trees of separate groves to communicate with one another, to coordinate and plan their network, meant that many birds were carrying messages from grove to grove, often outside of their normal circuit. This caused a great deal of confusion, not only for the birds but also for the trees, who often received a wrong message from some disoriented bird, and proceeded to act on improperly handled information. The flightpath of birds became tangled, as it were, and it fell to an intrepid marbled murrelet named Auk to organize the various working birds into an efficient delivery system. The small, black and white bird had already been working in the courier service of Wicksell Grove, but by negotiating with the birds of Riverside and Surety Grove, he’d managed to combine three separate businesses into a single one. Eventually the trees of all three groves were serviced by a single carrier with a regular flight patterns and a rotating crew of thrushes, robins and waxwings. It was, in fact, the first successful trans-groval business, called Commurrelet.