My Father the Druid, My Mother the Tree
The Great Oxygen Strike is over and done, an agreement reached, or near enough, so now I can tell you how it began. Maybe I should have sent this sooner. I told the negotiators everything that mattered, of course; the only thing I refused to reveal was the identity of my counterpart on the other side—the backchannel that proved so crucial.
It was my mother, the tree.
Years ago, when the thaw was just starting, my parents left their small apartment in Edmonton to try something new. It was one of my mother’s grand summer impulses, not the first, not the last, but definitely the most consequential. They dragged a modular cabin north from the city, set it down beside a copse of white pine, and planted some flowers.
There, my father became, basically, a druid. This was totally surprising; he had never evinced any outdoorsiness at all. But something about that place unlocked a hidden room in his heart, and he was suddenly outside in all seasons, roaming the patchy forest. From fallen branches, he constructed geodesic domes and A-frames, fixing the joints with the stalks of ferns; these were intended as shelters for small animals. In the dark depths of winter, he stayed inside and updated his blog, which tracked the contentious politics of the thaw.
My mother, meanwhile, was turning into a tree.
A year ago, when the tree thing was starting, I took a short break from the academy in Berlin. Rather, a short break was recommended to me. Strongly encouraged. Possibly, it was demanded. So, I announced to my parents that I would visit them in the north. I hadn’t been home in more than a year, and I assumed they missed their eldest and most normal daughter terribly. In fact, I sat mostly alone in the modular all week while my father merrily constructed his sheltering polyhedra and my mother canvassed the pines.
She was scouting a location.
Her tree was growing in a lab near Toronto. It was technically a ginkgo, but it didn’t look like a ginkgo; its genome had been altered, so its leaves were larger and darker than a regular ginkgo’s, with barely the ghost of a cleft. More importantly, the structure of this new tree’s trunk and limbs had been modified to make room for a mind. Those long skeins of cells weren’t human neurons, exactly; but they weren’t NOT human neurons, either. Their weave was dense, and correspondingly expensive.
As part of the process, my mother had answered thousands of questions basic and surreal, and also submitted to a full-body scan at the university three hundred miles south, the results of which—petabytes worth—had been transmitted to the lab near Toronto. That data wasn’t uploaded into the tree, exactly; but it wasn’t NOT uploaded into the tree, either.
All that remained was to choose where the tree would be installed. My mother has always been an avid furniture arranger and rearranger; the small apartment demanded it. She took long walks around the modular, executed spiraling search patterns, weighing the options with various flavors of feng shui, drawing small maps, scribbling them out, starting over.
In the documentation from the tree service, site selection was described as a solemn, intuitive process. For my mother, it was exciting and stressful, her brain fizzing with the possibilities, shadowed by the specter of choosing wrong.
It was Tig who told our mother about the tree service, so I guess you could say Tig saved the world.
My sister’s given name is Danica, but we have called her Tigger since childhood for her ceaseless motion and unbothered response to near-constant injury. (I always suspected there was also an implicit contrast to my own Eeyore-ish-ness.) She is a kinesthetic genius: given one demonstration—a dance move, a saber strike—she can, on her first try, replicate it exactly. On her second, she will be inventing a new, better version.
Tig was briefly a professional player of a sport called driftball. She has strands of kangaroo in her legs and she can jump ten feet high. Ten literal feet, straight up in the air! It really did seem for a moment like driftball was going to be the next big thing, but then it was eclipsed by a rival sport that offered the same verticality with the additional attraction of violence, courtesy of spikes.
Now, Tig plays the slow games; they are the central pastime of her milieu in Pyongyang. These are the games where you sit staring at your opponent for three days, watching for the tremor in the corner of their eye that indicates you have an opening to strike. If you stumbled onto one of my sister’s gatherings, you would think you were in a wax museum, but apparently they are all having a great time. In Pyongyang, there are things they can do to your nervous system; my sister says it feels like a new, lower gear. She says they can also make it so you don’t have to pee.
If you’d told me about the tree thing, my first thought would not have been, oh, yes, this will click powerfully with my mother the retired nutritionist who lives up in the thaw. But Tig knew. She sent our mother a link to the service, and the next day, our mother signed up.
Years ago, my mother announced to us that, after her death, she wanted to be excarnated. Specifically, she wanted a sky burial, her body left on a patch of bare earth to be consumed by vultures and eagles. My father found this disturbing; my sister found it beautiful; I mostly wondered if it was legal.
On the last day of my visit, my father went walking in the snow, and after some time had passed—it might only have been twenty minutes—I grew worried. I called him from the porch, intending to produce a great summoning bellow, but my voice was swallowed by the snow.
“What are you shouting for?” my mother asked. I told her I was worried about my father. She gave me a look of great pity and returned to her grocery list.
I couldn’t calm myself down—the stillness seemed deeply sinister—so I suited up for the cold and went out after him. Quickly, I discovered that I could not track him. My father was not a small man, but he had passed over the snow without a trace. He had placed his steps precisely into pre-existing deer tracks and turkey divots.
Ten minutes into my search, I looked behind me and saw the trail of carnage I’d left—a churned-up furrow. There: that was the difference between my parents and me, and if before it had made me feel happy or proud—look at the signs I am leaving in the world!—in that moment, it made me feel plodding and foolish. I turned around and, on my way back, I tried my best to emulate my father’s light step. When I reached the modular, he was standing on the porch, watching for me.
By the summer, my status at the academy was, if possible, worse. Another break was suggested. So, I went north again, and there, I learned that my mother’s tree had been delivered and installed. She pointed through the modular’s largest window, and I thought I could see it, but I wasn’t sure. I peppered her with questions—did she like the tree? Could she detect the mind moving within?—but she deflected them, and not gracefully, either. She told me, apropos of nothing, about an airship that had floated ominously above the forest recently, and for a whole week, watching, sensing. She asked me what I thought about the new location of the kitchen table. She offered me fresh coffee. Finally, I got it out of her: she hadn’t visited the tree at all since its installation.
The tree service claims they will soon be able to engineer not just a crude impression of a mind, but a high-fidelity copy. Thus, when the “you” in your animal body and brain expires, another version will persist in the tree, maybe even consciously, for as long as it stands.
There are about nineteen paradigm-shattering advances in the new biology that have to happen before that will be possible, so, for now, the tree is a crude impression.
I wondered if my mother was nervous about the tree because she had realized that its impression, however crude, was still an impression, a portrait, and might therefore still betray her—might reveal some deep flaw, long suspected or lamented.
Would the tree be dull? Annoying?
I thought even a dull tree would be pretty mind-blowing, so I hiked over to meet it properly.
My mother’s tree was set up on a low rise beside a cluster of young jack pines. Down below, there was a wide patch of blueberries, at that moment being raided by a gang of sparrows. The tree’s bark was silver. It was a good tree in a good spot.
The tree had a data port, the only means by which you could verify that the service had done what it claimed and not just charged you a small fortune for a sprig from the nursery. I peeled back the port’s weather sealing and strung a cable across to my phone. According to the service, the weaving and imprinting of the tree’s neural network was, comparatively, the easy part. It was this port, the bridge between the the tree’s hybrid mind and the human world of symbols and speech, that had been their great breakthrough.
The data port recognized my phone, opened a channel, and roared to life. I straightened. I’d read the documentation; I knew better than to expect a cheery H-E-L-L-O. The tree’s transmission had to be processed and interpreted using esoteric statistical techniques by a powerful computer near Toronto. But, even so, watching the raw stream, I felt like I could detect a mood. That mood was … urgent.
Looking at the tree, you’d think it was perfectly stolid: like maybe you’d be lucky to coax a few words out of it, and those words would definitely be wise. But my phone raced to keep up with the stream. This was no koan.
I moved my eyes across the tree’s neighbors in the copse, which appeared likewise stolid. My phone made a beleaguered bloop to warn me it was almost out of memory. I stared at the silvery not-a-ginkgo. What was roiling beneath that bark?
Once, I went out with my father’s walking club, expecting to eavesdrop on all the fun chatter about signs and portents. “Look! The telltale sign of a chipmunk’s passing”—that sort of thing. Instead, they walked in silence, barely together, strung out in a ragged chevron, looking straight down, their steps slow and deliberate. Combing the ground for cast-off elk antlers, my father explained later. After it was over, with zero antlers found, they all climbed back into their trucks without a word. For weeks afterward, I thought of almost nothing except that walking club. I wanted one badly for myself.
Back at the modular, while I waited for the transmission to squeeze through the satellite link on its way to the computer near Toronto, I told my mother that her tree seemed agitated. “I’ve heard about that on the forum,” she said.
She meant the private message board established for the people who had planted one of these trees. My mother had forged a few connections there that seemed nourishing, most notably with a woman in England who had planted her silvery not-a-ginkgo along one of the great sunken holloways.
My mother said, “People on the forum think the trees are up to something.”
She said it so plainly, but: what could a tree be “up to”?
“Jo says”—that was the woman in England; she was a textile artist—“Jo says her tree is trying to warn her.” Huh.
“She thinks the trees are planning something.”
I looked up from my phone.
Jo was right, of course. At that time, no one at the academy, no one anywhere, believed there was any mechanism by which an entire biosphere could “plan” anything at all, let alone a meaningful suspension of photosynthetic services. But, let’s face it, no one at the academy, no one anywhere, understands anything at that scale. Even now, I find it almost impossible to grasp just how slowly an ecosystem can move, and, consequently, just how powerfully.
It’s ironic that the news emerged first from that patchy forest, hundreds of miles into the thaw. Before, I had often wondered: if the hot detente over the Sea of Japan ever faltered, if the saboteurs sleeping in all the network switches ever woke up and shut the internet down for weeks, for months, for good… how long would it take my parents to find out?
I mean, they are WAY out there, at the end of a long dirt road that is reached by a long dirt road that begins in a very small town. If the hot detente broke down, or if aliens revealed themselves, asserted their dominion, I just don’t think my father’s walking club would hear about it for a while. I mean, obviously if there were fireballs in the sky. But besides that.
The next morning, I told my mother I had been called back to the academy. For my father, I left a sign, a twig bent into a circle, tied with a curl of bark. A car drove me to Edmonton, where I boarded a direct flight to Berlin, all of which was very expensive, but I was in a hurry to get the transmission to the academy, to have my colleagues confirm the tree service’s interpretation.
Because, the night before, my parents both asleep, I had been lazing in my mother’s chair, moved recently to reside closer to the modular’s largest window, when my phone bonged to announce that it was ready to deliver a message from the tree. Text filled my screen, and it was all there, a matter-of-fact statement of what was going to happen, along with a set of simple demands, all of it signed by the trees and the ferns, the sparrows and the blueberries, the elk and their fallen antlers, too. Signed by everything—the whole damn thaw. My mother’s tree had been its amanuensis.
So that’s how I became one of the first humans to know the biosphere was organizing. That’s how I was warned about the Great Oxygen Strike.
My mother’s tree had revealed something about her, after all—something hidden, but only partially. The trees’ demands will all be met. My mother, the list-maker. The planes are already grounded, and by the terms of our new agreement, the last remaining gas-fired power plants will be shuttered before the solstice. My mother, the furniture-rearranger.
There was a sound file—how the tree service pulled that out of the transmission, I have no idea—and when I played it, I learned that the trees were… how else can I say this? They were shouting. They had been shouting for years, and they had more recently settled on a strategy, and now, thanks to the tree service, its strange invention, they had spokespeople.
Dumb luck. We might never have been warned—might have been left to puzzle it out as the atmosphere attenuated—if not for those data ports, through which the trees were shouting, my mother’s among them now, a tree patterned with a mind that had, apparently, always harbored a dream of insurrection, because it too was shouting:
The image above is from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art: a tree root sculpture from the Qing dynasty. The typeface used for the story’s title is Marvin Visions, a brilliant reinterpretation by Mathieu Triay of Michael Chave’s original.