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My Father the Druid, My Mother the Tree

Tree root sculpture

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:




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