A short story about trees

There’s no room for nuance in tree politics. Trees remain in the same position, physical and moral, for their entire lives. When they are mere saplings, they pick sides, and that’s that. There’s no such thing as a swing voter or centrist policy. Trees are partisans, and they grow more stubborn as they age. Each new ring on the trunk represents another year of defiance, a thicker skin against views that conflict with one’s own. It’s frowned upon for a tree to change its political position, just as it’s frowned upon for a tree to uproot itself, and move to a different part of the wood, to steal sunlight from its peers. As a result, trees find themselves stuck, for their entire lives, between trees with radically different views. They stand side-by-side with the opposition, arguing at great length about how best to preserve the wood for future generations.

 

Every one hundred years, trees vote on important issues. The hundred-year gap is a long one, but it allows plenty of time for old trees to die and new trees to be born, and for the opinions of the forest to shift naturally with time. A more frequent vote would be pointless, since the trees don’t change their views. They also take a long time to get anything done.

 

There is only one tree that’s allowed to remain impartial, and that’s the grandest tree in the wood. It cannot be swayed by anything other than the wind, and when it speaks, the entire forest feels its presence. Though it has the most power in the wood, it wields it only in the name of democracy. It is both nameless and genderless. It is everything and it is nothing and is known only by its title, ‘the minister.’ The minister of the forest.

 

And the forest in question, for the purposes of this tale, was a sequoia wood. Its exact location is irrelevant, and the date is difficult to determine, but suffice to say that an election was due, and the topic in question was humans.

 

The trees needed to settle, once and for all, what to do about humankind. Among the sequoias, there existed two opposing ideologies: one which espoused the benefits of a future alliance with people, and the other, which depicted all Homo sapiens as a categorical waste of space.

 

Throughout tree history (all four-hundred million years of it), trees have happily accommodated other forms of life. And thousands of years ago, when humans first walked through the sequoia wood, this was no different. Just another species, the trees said. No harm done. Humans gave the trees some carbon, and in exchange, the trees pumped out some oxygen. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. In fact, humans barely registered on the radar; they paled in comparison to the sequoias’ other concerns, which were a) keeping the myriad organisms in the ecosystem alive and b) avoiding pests and disease. These were the typical issues upon which the sequoias voted.

 

Later though, the forest found itself under attack. The early humans used axes for firewood. The trees didn’t mind much, at first. They understood the human need to keep warm, and were happy to support a species less hardy than themselves. In fact, the trees would often laugh at the pitiful attempts of humans to inflict pain on the forest. The axe felt less than a pinprick to a sequoia. Even if an axe chopped a tree down, it was a painless and easy death. The sequoias knew that they served a purpose larger than themselves. With each death, new life was bred. The felled trees became nursery logs for mosses and lichens, and ferns and berries, and countless other instances of re-birth. The logs absorbed moisture and passed down nutrients to the forest floor. They created new habitats for burrowing insects and resting places for birds. All this made trees comfortable with the idea of dying. It made them the architects of eternal life.

 

Yet, as humanity thrived and civilisation developed, a second wave of attack came, in the form of agriculture. The fringes of the forest were cut to make way for new farmland. The trees thought it unfair of humans to pick on the fringe; those trees were just as important as the central trees of the wood, and were only located there through a misfortune of birth. Some of the oldest, wisest trees lived on the fringes, as did some of the youngest and brightest. What most upset the forest though, was that of the trees cut down for agriculture, none were given an opportunity to support new life. This fuelled anti-human sentiment, and trees began to take sides. The pro-human trees still had reasons to believe that humans were putting the forest to good use. The farmland produced crops that fed the people and the logged wood was turned into paper for making books and letters other wonderful papery things like origami and lanterns and wrapping for presents. But as agriculture developed, the case for humans became less compelling, and many of the older, pro-human trees were cut down for their bountiful supply of wood. This angered the saplings, and many of them chose to be anti-human in protest.

 

By the time of the third wave of attack - the industrial revolution - the deforestation got worse and the climate got hotter[1] and trees around the world were getting really hacked off – literally and figuratively. Support for humankind dwindled as the forest shrunk.

 

As one young sequoia so eloquently put it: “they’re really starting to take the piss now.”

 

Virtually every new tree in the forest shared the sentiment, as the logging scaled up. The number of human-caused forest fires increased. The most egregious of which were those started by discarded, and still lit, cigarettes. The sequoias weren’t big on smoking. Eventually, the rising destruction prompted whisperings that a fourth wave of attack was happening. The trees gave it a name: globalisation. They didn’t really know what it meant, but one thing they knew for sure, was that humans wanted to make the forest even smaller. The pro-human trees remained stoic, as was their political obligation, but they were beginning to feel outnumbered; much of the older, pro-human generation had by then been lost to the loggers.

 

At the last count, the balance between young and old was almost 50/50, which mirrored the political divide. With a vote looming, the trees knew that humans had to be on the agenda. They were the biggest threat to the forest’s existence, and also the biggest user of resources. The debates became so heated, that the entire forest nearly self-combusted in disagreement. The calls for an election grew so loud that the minister of the forest would have heard them from miles away, on the far side of the wood. It was generally thought among the sequoias that the next vote would be the one in which the question of humans would be decided.

 

And so voting day came around, 36,525 days (including leap years) after the last one. It was a scorcher; the hottest that the trees could remember. They were transpiring like never before, and could barely keep up with the rate of water and gas exchange. It was exhausting work, and the vote was a welcome distraction.

 

The minister, the most connected tree in the wood, mustered the attention of each and every constituent. A silence came over the leaves like the sound of ending rain. The minister spoke upon the stillness, through the roots and the soil and the fungal network of the forest floor, and the ecosystem hummed with connectedness.

 

The minister cleared its proverbial throat, and said:

 

“There is one thing that all the trees can agree on: the preservation the forest for future generations. We have different views on how this can be done, but today we must decide: Do we like humans? Or do we not? Today we vote, for the first time in one hundred years. Many trees have been born since our last vote, and many have been lost. I highly doubt you need reminding, but for formality’s sake, I must state that our present position on humans is that they are a species to be allied with. Our official stance is that they are friends of the forest, and we are friends of theirs.”

 

A few distant leaves rustled and treetrunks creaked, as they made their feelings known about the forest’s official stance. The minister waited for silence to return. It had plenty of time to allow dissenting voices to settle. It hadn’t spoken for hundreds of years; it could wait a little longer. A few hours passed before proceedings finally resumed.

 

“Now is the time, sequoias, to cast your votes. Send me a signal with a simple ‘yes’ for pro-human, or a ‘no’ for anti-human. Any more colourful language will not be taken into consideration.”

 

The trees duly did their democratic duty[2], before swiftly returning to photosynthesis. They were sweating in the heat.

 

The minister did the counting instantaneously, but liked to allow some time to pass to build a little dramatic tension. When the minister was satisfied, it announced the results:

 

“Fellow trees, here is where we stand on the question of humankind:

 

The total of Pro-Human votes is: 13,796

The total of Anti-Human votes is: 15,802

 

Therefore, we are now officially anti-human.”

 

Riotous voices tore through the forest. This time, the minister could not wait for calm, before speaking again. The fervour on both sides of the political divide was too strong. Above the grumbling and groaning of the trees, the minister boomed its final message:

 

“We will continue to do our duty as trees. We are a noble species, and will work as we have always done, to provide for the planet. We will work rain or shine, and never, ever, take sick days. As a collective, we must now decide the best way to deal with humankind. That is all for the current vote. I will speak to you again, one hundred years henceforth.”

 

The minister’s voice disappeared, and for the first time in all of human history, the trees decided they were anti-human. The forest raged like it had never raged before. Only those that spoke the language of the wood would have truly understood the level of conflict. And the minister, bound by the ancient laws of tree justice, could only listen, unable to wield its power to prevent the fighting.

 

The night came in hot and thick, and suggestions about how to deal with humanity spread around the wood. Ideas included:

 

“Suffocate the bastards – cut off their supply of oxygen.”

 

“Poison them with juicy-looking berries.”

 

“Rot our wood so it becomes useless.”

 

But the trees couldn’t agree on a way forward. There seemed to be no way for them to hurt humans without damaging the other species in the ecosystem, or themselves.

 

Then, the lightning came. A tree was struck, and it was the beginning of the end for the sequoia wood. A tinder sparked, which grew into a voracious wildfire, and devoured the forest. The minister was caught in the blaze, too, and died after living for more than a thousand years. Overnight, the entire forest was wiped out. The leftover land was charred and barren by dawn. Life was eradicated from the forest. Ash suffocated the soil.

 

Months later, a seedling germinated from the ash. It was a lonely speck of green bursting through grey. It stood limp and vulnerable, until a young woman found it. She approached with tears in her eyes. Half-outraged by the devastation, half-awed by the possibility for re-birth, she decided in that moment to do something. From that day, she nurtured the tree as if it were her own child, and its trunk grew thick and tough during her lifetime. Being the first tree in the wood, it became the minister of the forest, though the lady knew nothing of that. She simply brought her friends to the new forest, and they too planted their own trees.

As generations passed, the forest rose up again, and all the trees were pro-human, thankful for their opportunity for life. But they, like the dead trees before them, had no idea that their opinion meant nothing.

 

 

[1] The anti-human trees suspected the increasing temperatures had something to do with humans, but they didn’t have the scientific understanding to back it up.

[2] Tree voter turnout is always 100%. When you only get to vote once per hundred years, you want to make your vote count.