Hi all. School is fast approaching, and I’ve been trying to squeeze in more work before the real work starts.
This is the second chapter of my work-in-progress, tentatively titled Constellation of Giants, or A Tall Tale. I polished this one up a bit so I’d have something to post.
The story is part satire, part fairy tale, very much in the vein of Animal Farm, except with trees instead of animals, and capitalism instead of socialism. If you have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them, and if you’d like to read the first chapter, click here. Thanks for reading!
Constellation of Giants
There are three things valued above all else by any right-minded tree: a plot of rich soil, enough water for one’s roots, and an open sky above. Such things are not given freely, but must be earned through hard work, perseverance, and ingenuity. From the moment the radicle emerges from its seed, it’s in constant conflict. This is especially true in old-growth forests, where the floor itself is often lost in dense thickets of ferns and bushes, in caked duff and detritus. Out of the hundred thousand seeds shed each year, and uncountable pollen, the percentage of trees that successfully grow beyond the first three years is, remarkably, less than one.
Nor is a tree guaranteed any kind of standard of living for having made it past its third year. It must weather scarcity always. It must compete for its share of resources, negotiating the right of way for its roots, sometimes stubbornly, to make the most of its dripline. It must plan its crown for the available sky. It must draw up water to its highest limbs, fighting unforgiving Gravity, which every moment is working against it. It must do all these things, only in the hope of more fruitful work.
A tree is very much a factory, and plays the role of both owner and worker. It labors every day, with every green it possesses, to manufacture vital sugars. It must distribute these to the right places in its body, deciding whether they should be mixed with water to make sap, or used to thicken the walls of its bark, or stored as starches for future needs. It must be rational, spending and saving its sugars wisely, that it may make the most of them. All this is done in the expectation of a proper, annual flourishing, and the hopes of rising, higher and higher, to the top of the canopy, to bask in the brightness of the Sun.
And yet, despite all these seemingly impossible obstacles, sometimes a sapling gets lucky. This was the case of one sapling, a coast redwood, who just so happened to sprout in the most advantageous of places.
The stand in question was once overrun by mounds of hearty sorrels, but had been cleared away recently by a brief but fierce fire. This left a rather conspicuous clearing, one that was close enough to the river to make the soil bed soft, but not too damp. And since a nearby tree had fallen not long ago, the topsoil was rich with humus. It was a fine piece of real estate.
The sapling sprouted with ease, and grew to the height of fifty feet in hardly any time at all. He grew so quickly that his neighbors gave him the name Odin Tall, for they were sure that he would tower above the whole grove in no time.
It was around the time when Odin Tall was three years old, old enough to understand the language of trees, that he took in the scent of a welcoming neighbor, a pacific madrone named Arbutus Menzies. It was Arbutus who told him what his name was, and what the other trees thought of his remarkably quick growth spurt. The words drifted down the slope of Arbutus’ slanting crown, rolling down the incline of his greens and onto the forest floor.
“Where are these other trees who speak of me?” Odin Tall replied, his very first words as a plant.
“All around us, of course,” Arbutus explained. “You may see them by adjusting your greens to the air pressure. This will give you an idea of where you are, and who’s around.”
Odin Tall did this instinctively, and could suddenly “see” the forest for the trees. It was dark and dreary so close to the floor. Everything was damp, and smelled sweetly of decay. All around him the symmetry of trunks bent and converged upon the sky. The canopy shut out the daylight almost entirely, what was known as noon darkness, but here and there bars of white light filled with cascading dust. There seemed to be a small opening in the roof of the canopy that filtered a dim, translucent light upon his crown. It was just enough that he could feel its energy working on him. There was, too, plenty of space for him to stretch out his limbs. Arbutus Menzies was to his east, standing almost eighty feet above him. The pacific madrone’s lowest branches began ten feet above the floor, and the incline of his crown rose into the understory.
“Your bark is peeling,” Odin Tall noted.
“Like the rolled cuffs of gentlemen,” Arbutus said proudly.
“What’s a gentlemen?” Odin Tall asked.
“Oh, just forest talk. I’ve never met a human myself, but these things make their way around the woods.”
Indeed, Arbutus was peeling. His bark was orange and papery, and there were pieces curling back like ice-cream shavings, revealing a smooth, bright-green wood beneath. The greens of his branches were full of sprays of small, white flowers.
“You may also perceive the plant life around you, not through the organs of your greens, but with your very roots.”
Odin Tall did this, turning his attention to his roots and suddenly feeling every natural thing within the soil. He could taste the various elements, and found that he was well acquainted with them even before he decided to concentrate on them.
“I can feel you,” he said.
“Wonderful!” Arbutus said with fragrant glee. “Then you are officially a member of the neighborhood. I’m so pleased to be the first to introduce you to the grove. Such an honor, to have a sturdy young redwood in our midst.”
“There’s something else down there.”
Odin Tall could sense the large, bulbous head of a toadstool nestled beside the base of his trunk.
“Your personal fungus,” Arbutus explained. “Not many saplings are lucky enough to start out with their very own fungus. Not just any fungus, mind you. This is a fly agaric, an excellent, hard-working, mycorrhizal fungus. It will extend your roots to all the right trees.”
“What’s your name, fungus?” Odin Tall asked.
“I work for you,” it replied. “My name is Odin Tall’s fungus.”
“Is that what others call you?”
“Many fungi don’t have names,” Arbutus said, “They don’t seem to require them. Best just to say fungus, and it will know who you mean.”
Arbutus Menzies had fungi growing around the base of his trunk, too. Their wide, flat bells teetered this way and that, looking like pancakes balancing on very small stumps.
“Well it’s just the two of you then,” Odin Tall said.
“What about your parent?” he asked. “It’s quite common for a plant to receive the help of one’s parent. Why it’s practically a necessity in these parts. Otherwise one is likely to be assimilated or plucked up by the crows.”
Odin Tall, as it turned out, couldn’t perceive his parent anywhere. This was strange, since a parent always supported its seedlings, in the event that any seeds were able to germinate and take root. That Odin Tall had taken root, and his parent hadn’t enriched the soil around him with nutrients from its own roots, was strange indeed. They agreed that Odin Tall’s seed must’ve fallen a long way from his parent for them not to be connected through their roots. Whoever his parent was, they must be living in another stand, or perhaps another grove. And their crown must be high in the canopy, where the highests winds don’t fall below the treetops.
“This is probably why they haven’t contacted you with their odors yet,” Arbutus said. He went on to explain how the world above was quite different from their own. While Arbutus himself was only about eighty feet tall, which was tall enough to know most trees, he was not tall enough to know the tallest trees. The top of the canopy, in a forest full of redwoods and Douglas-firs, was around three hundred feet. It was quite the climb, and most trees lived their entire lives knowing the sky only through the tangled branches of the tallest redwoods and firs.
Odin Tall looked at the tiny halo of sky above him, and felt the sunlight on his greens like warm, pumping blood in the veins.
“I have no doubt you’ll soon be standing with the tallest of them,” Arbutus proclaimed. “Perhaps even with the emergents themselves.”
The emergents, Arbutus explained, were the very tallest trees. Taller even than the canopy itself. Their crowns peaked out of the crowded rooftop, and bathed in the full, undisguised light of the Sun. Their numbers were so few that it was thought to be a solitary existence. An emergent always hailed another emergent from a great distance, waving their crowns at one another in lonesome salutation. They did not speak with the rest of the forest, but became instead a part of the landscape itself, like a mountain or a river. Arbutus, of course, was being obsequious. Even though Odin Tall had grown rapidly in just a few short years, the probability of any tree becoming an emergent was even less likely than the odds of them taking root in an old-growth forest. The chances were impossibly against one, as trees plainly knew, for they were extremely rational in their assessment of things. Arbutus, however, was gregarious, and talkative, and one became that way by saying many flattering things.
“Of course he’ll reach the top,” someone said. Their words floated around the stand, and tasted rather tart in Odin Tall’s greens. Absorbing the odorous compounds, which were a new smell to him, he was able to discover their source.
Just north of his plot was a large nurse log that stretched lengthwise before him. It ran the entire length of the stand, and was overrun with mosses and liverworts and many bells of rosy gomphidius. There were shrubs, too, and the trunk of a large tree whose crown stood well out of view. It was in front of the nurse log that the words floated. Odin Tall looked with his greens and could see the figure of a pacific yew. It seemed to lean back into the nurse log and spread its greens over the mossy, decaying body.
Arbutus, also taking in the scent, expressed his displeasure with the yew.
“Pay no mind to her, young Odin Tall. She’s quite disagreeable, and rude.”
“I only speak the truth,” she said. “If you find the truth disagreeable, then you’re a fool.”
The yew, which was only about thirty feet tall, had long, fanning greens that looked more like the pinnæ of a fern than the sturdy branches of a tree.
“You believe I’ll reach the top of the canopy?” Odin Tall asked, excited to hear such wonderful news from someone who only spoke the truth.
“You certainly will,” she said, with the same air of sourness as before. “Just like all the other redwoods. Stealing the sunlight for yourselves, leaving nothing for the rest of us.”
“Oh, sink into the earth with your nonsense, Folia,” Arbutus said. “You would condemn a mere sapling, for desiring what all plant life aspires to? Sink into the earth with your resentment at once.”
“He’ll put you in the shade, too,” Folia said.
“There’s plenty of sunlight for all,” Arbutus declared.
“Exactly,” Folia retorted. Her odor was pungent and grew heavy in the mist of the early morning hours. It fell wet and sticky on the greens of Odin Tall and Arbutus. “Plenty of sunlight for all, but hardly enough for some.”
“Why don’t you grow tall yourself?” Odin Tall inquired. “Then you’ll have as much sunlight as you need.”
“You’re right,” Folia said. “Why didn’t I think of such a thing? Don’t mock me, sapling. You’ve only just got here. I’ve lived in this stand many hundreds of years now. Longer than Arbutus Menzies. Do you think I’m ignorant to the way things work around these woods?”
Folia the pacific yew was indeed hundreds of years old, though precisely how old was unknown even to herself.
If a tree ever lost a great deal of its neighbors, either to forest fires or dieback or some other tragedy, eventually it lost its sense of age, too, as it no longer had any way of keeping track of time. New generations succeeded where areas of growth were lost, and those new trees were able to keep track of time by virtue of having come after the older trees; but the older trees themselves had no way of knowing exactly how old they were. Folia was this older tree, having lived in the stand longer than any of its current inhabitants. She’d experienced a good deal of time, and this had turned her bitter. She criticized the tall redwoods for taking all the sunlight and water for themselves, and criticized the trees for taking advantage of the fungi for their own gain. She even criticized the Mother Tree for favoring the redwoods over all other plants. Folia was so disagreeable that many of her neighbors had cut off their roots from hers. This, too, she criticized.
Odin Tall, who was unfamiliar with the bitterness of her words, and therefore had no idea what sarcasm was, assumed that she really just didn’t know how to grow tall. So he offered to help her. Let’s connect our roots, he said, and we’ll grow together. Arbutus Menzies tried to dissuade him of the idea, and Folia herself refused multiple times. But after several weeks spent trying to convince her, she eventually agreed, if only to shut him up. Odin Tall would spray the floor with his enthusiasm and his earnest, and seemed absolutely confident as the months went on that he could help Folia grow taller.
“When I reach the top of the canopy,” Odin Tall said, “and meet my parent somewhere in that crowded roof above, you’ll be standing just as tall as me, and we’ll both enjoy all the sunlight we’ll ever need.”
Folia let out an air of agreement that, to anyone else but Odin Tall, smelled entirely unconvincing.