The Second Story World:
Fairy Tales for Grown Ups (and curious children)
I have this silly idea that there might be a second-story world, one which most people can’t perceive but that quite possibly exists, nonetheless. It hovers just above this world like a very faint shadow or delicate, shimmering fog and it’s populated by beings and things others don’t see or hear because they are too focused on or anchored to the ground floor. There is no furniture within this realm, and everyone wears soft-soled slippers, so it remains pretty quiet. That’s also partly why few of us realize it is there.
Some people, however, seem to know about and occasionally visit this place. When we dream, we may climb the stairs gingerly to enter this world, but we usually forget our errant sleepwalking once we come back down. People in love might catch glimpse of it as well and a few of them even desire to stay there.
Here are a couple of stories that could be from this world. They were related to me by an affable donkey, and he indicated they are part of a trilogy. In the first rather fantastical one called “Fabulism”, the donkey is a horse. In a more absurdist second story, “Folly,” the donkey is a zebra. In the third tale—a kind of romance—”Fortuna,” the donkey is disguised as a donkey. I know . . . it’s a bit confusing; I’m not clear either.
Don’t feel obligated to read these tiny tales or do anything with them. Really. They are just distractions from the extremely busy first-story world where we all work hard to get by, and they are probably quite content to remain in the second-story where no one normally pesters them much. Imagine: they don’t have to worry about rent, parking meters, or stepping accidentally into the gutter there. But if you want to invite one downstairs for a cup of tea before bedtime some night, the donkey will be more than happy to oblige and chat with you for a while. You can even change the ending if you like; he’s not that stubborn despite his reputation.
Fabulism (a sort of forest fantasy)
The Burro and the Book
Jack was a friend of pain, of the burdens of the burro, of weight and ponderous thoughts about things belonging to the foreign world of those who move about on only two legs. Weight that crushes but when borne properly does not saddle one with unbearable sadness. He spoke of shoulder stress and shin splints and the fear of being sold to the glue makers, but also fondly recalled ferrying a tired peasant safely across a swollen river or delivering a lost child home to her parents.
“My weight is my love,” he whispered proudly to himself. “Pondus meum amor meus,” he added in the few words of Latin that he had learned from the scholarly monks who dwelled in the nearby abbey. Their goats, who wandered freely on the steep mountain paths, would on occasion coax Jack to kneel down and remain still, enabling them to leap off and onto his strong back—which served as a sort of shaggy rock—again and again as part of a playful game. When he complied with the goats’ requests, Jack felt thoroughly loved; he experienced a deep sense of the world’s beauty as well as his own usefulness to others. “Beau…tility,” he brayed through his big chomping teeth, in an attempt to combine these two feelings into one new word.
Over time, Jack had developed a consummate ability to adapt to conditions in which he found himself and to metamorphose—to shape-shift—seemingly into bodies that resembled in appearance his birth form as a donkey but that differed in subtle ways. He would not, however, share how he accomplished this trick or transformation. “There are things of which one should not speak aloud,” he apprised me, “for they have a way of coming into being beyond one’s control: storms, pestilence, nightmares, war, even death.”
I was left myself to imagine whether Jack’s mutations were due to his artfulness with dyes, hair, powders, maquillage, and fabrics; to the inventiveness he may have acquired through his wide journeys about the Continent; to his growing awareness of the customs of other creatures; or even to some kind of familiarity with black magic.
Regardless of the true nature and origin of these alchemical charms, while toiling in the fields one summer morning with a congregation of bawdy monks who were harvesting a cornucopia from the land—including pomme de terre, truffles, cassava, and Jerusalem artichokes—Jack happened across a weathered old book. The ragged and fraying tome, which was tucked deep inside the hollow of a decaying tree stump, contained exquisite water-stained illuminations in the marginalia of Gryphons, Basilisks, Cynocephalus, Centaurs, Pegasus, Sun-lizards, Ercinee, Sirens, and other fabulous beings whose names he could not fathom.
But, as he inspected the work more closely, what struck Jack most strongly was that the volume was dedicated to a singular topic, now apparent as he opened to the faded title page, which announced The Book of Trees. What followed were chapters devoted to their classification, geography, biology, and history. There were illustrations, too, of odd and usual trees like the Baobab, the Dragon’s Blood, the Rainbow Eucalyptus, and the Blue Jacaranda.
Jack was conversant with a great variety of books—the “the alphabet re-arranged” as he jested—from working many seasons with the learned monks, who spent countless hours in the colder months copying, translating, and preserving esoteric texts of all types—and he prided himself as a bibliophile. In his satchel, Jack carried a small trove, including a primitive atlas, a few chapbooks of poetry, a guide to edible plants, several philosophical treatises, works on both alchemy and astrology, a collection of fairy tales, and three or four dictionaries in different languages. He lamented that he could not transport more with him, but the weight of these books was already quite enough, even for a resilient donkey.
Jack flipped awkwardly but attentively through the pages of his new loosely bound manuscript with his right hoof—the most dexterous of his four—his eyes halting upon short passages written in a florid and unfamiliar script, some of which were also accompanied by colorful drawings:
Bury me beneath a great tree in the Diamond Forest.
Or plant me deep inside one.
Let the woodpeckers chip my eyes out.
Let the squirrels thieve my Adam’s apple.
Let the vultures feast on my entrails.
And let the cicadas strum my clavicle to make beautiful music
at midnight once every 17 years.
Beside this cryptic entry, he spotted a note entitled, “To the Next Tenants”:
You no longer need the keys.
We’ve removed the lock.
Then unhitched the door from its jamb.
And unscrewed the jamb from its wooden frame.
Voilà. There is now a vast window onto the cosmos.
Un-build this house.
Enlarge this portal to provide yourself a front row seat—
To the forest. To the mountains. To the sea.
To the yellow moon and the morning sun and
—when you peer deep into the night—
To the feral animals in the constellations.
Aries, the winged ram
Cygnus, the swan
Volans, the flying fish
Draco, the dragon
Apus, the footless bird of paradise
Monoceros, the unicorn
Aquila, the thunderbolt yielding eagle
Canis Major, the great dog
Hydrus, the water snake
Capricornus, the sea goat
Vulpecula, the little fox,
Musca, the fly
An elk may stroll into your living room.
A velvet-winged owl might roost in your attic.
The postman will un-deliver your mail.
Your neighbors live below you in the soft earth.
They scramble about in the canopy overhead, too.
The headlines in the wet newspaper on your Welcome Mat
may announce “Nothing happened today”.
You will know otherwise.
And delight in that.
Inspired by this cryptic missive and the allure of an enchanted woods, Jack resolved right then to seek the Diamond Forest with the aid of a folded map that was in danger of falling apart upon its very first opening, one that had been placed inside the pocket of a small brown envelope slipped behind this very page. It was a risky proposition, he reminded himself, because in all likelihood the forest was simply a figment, a flight of a monk’s literary fancy.
The Forest and the Trees
Jack’s gamble, however, was not in vain. After many weeks of travel and some long and lonely nights of being lost along the way, he arrived at last upon the Diamond Forest, which was marked by a barely legible sign and a dilapidated wooden gate, which seemed to swing open on its own when he touched the Wisteria vines that were strangling it. On the sign, Jack could make out a few faded words: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest of wilderness.”* Below it in capital letters, he read: “WELCOME HOME”.
Emboldened by this apparent fortune, he then located the house referred to in the note. As the “next tenant,” Jack set about transforming it into a home—an open air stable and pavilion of the kind he imagined on first reading the text.
In short order, nightingales came to nest in the porous rafters. Swallows flittered through the windows. A family of ducks shared his bathtub. Large Wolf Spiders took up residence in the corners. And Jack happily communed with these and many other creatures while studying their habits and this new habitat, recording his observations in an old leather journal.
It should be duly observed that Jack was now living as a horse—to the best of anyone’s guess, likely an Andalusian—whom others called Jacques, their having initially mispronounced his name, which afterward then stuck to him. As a sensitive fellow with a penchant for wry humor, he was keen on walking backwards when someone was before him but trotting forward when someone was approaching him from the rear. He explained that the reason he slept on the ground was so he wouldn’t fall out of bed. And he joked that he maintained a vegetarian diet not because he loved animals but because he hated plants. As for his appearance, he possessed a large refined head, a long broad neck, a thick tail and mane, and a massive chest.
By establishing a series of small vegetable gardens and erecting trellises to grow grapes for wine around the perimeter of his porous home, Jacques staked a further visual hold upon the bottom corner of the diamond-shaped woods. Much to his consternation, the forest possessed long narrow cemeteries along each of its four edges, creating a sharp distinction between the vertical, sky-bound world of the living flora and the horizontal earthen realm of the dead. And at each of the other corners stood singular striking trees that by their unique appearance defined the surrounding groves and seemed to anchor and orient the canopy of the forest around them like magnificent circus tent poles nailed to the earth.
Over time, Jacques discovered that Poe was one of these three great trees, a versifying Willow, also known affectionately as the “PoeTree” of the forest. Poe was youthful and elegant, with long graceful limbs that she could bend down to reach a pool of water or, if necessary, to pluck up a hatchling that had fallen off a branch and return it to the nest. Poe was always daydreaming, singing, or swaying in the wind, enticing colorful songbirds to perch upon her branches and share their mellifluous tunes. And the grove around her was alive with ephemerals like Bloodroot, Calypso Orchids, Dogtooth Violets, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Shooting Stars.
At the apex of the forest lived a second tree named Sy, the empathetic Banyan and soulful “PsychiaTree,” as friends frequently pointed out. Sy was journeying through the middle passage of life. In fact, much of what characterized this tree was an expression of the middle and in-between. Sy was of mild and flexible temperament, and his or her roots extended far and wide so as to connect with most all of the other trees in the neighborhood. “It would be like tucking an octopus into bed,” Poe joked, “if they ever need to place Sy and her tempestuous skein of roots into a pine box.” Sy’s character and gender fluctuated with the weather and seasons and often depended on who he or she was interacting with. But Sy’s support of other forest beings was constant and completely unwavering.
The third and oldest tree was Philo, the wise and reflective Bodhi Tree, sometimes respectfully referred to as the “Tree of Knowledge,” though only at the most formal of occasions. He rooted himself upon the angle of the forest opposite Poe. Philo possessed gnarled, wizened bark, and many knots on his limbs. He had been struck by lightning more than once. It was a sign, some surmised, that he was endowed with special insight, bestowed with flashes of brilliance that could also have hints of darkness. Philo spoke slowly and deeply in a baritone voice that boomed at times like thunder. His branches formed an umbrella of shade. He had a stout and sturdy trunk. Whereas Poe tended to communicate in verse, rhyme, or lyric song, Philo preferred the precision of philosophical discourse and the concision of more prosaic speech.
Each of the three great trees was gifted too with an unusual form of communication in addition to more ordinary ways of relating to their forest companions. They used these methods when they couldn’t see one another across the forest due to a storm or bout of fog. As a friend to the winged and being herself rather dreamy of character, Poe used the sky and a form of “air mail”, summoning birds, moths, and even low-lying clouds to carry her messages to other trees near and far. Having a close connection with the ground, Sy relied more upon “snail mail”, strapping his letters and memoranda onto the backs of box turtles and salamanders, or even groundhogs, when more speed or strength was required. And, finally, Philo took to “shipping” his communiques on floating sheets of bark that sailed through the meandering brooks to their destinations. In this way, the three stayed in touch with one another and the other creatures of the woods.
A central stream, The Arbor, also coursed through the forest, nourishing the trees and providing food, bathing, and recreation to all the inhabitants. As it passed by Philo, the stream coiled slowly into clear reflective pools that calmed the landscape and allowed him to view the heavens above through the liquid eyes of the earth. Philo used the placid water to meditate upon grand questions and issues. When the stream reached Sy, it spread out, branching into a network of dendritic tributaries, spilling like vascular roots in all directions. And upon nearing Poe, The Arbor gurgled and gushed. It spoke with its mouth open before cascading over a tiny waterfall that led to regions outside the forest.
The Library and Its Keeper
Near the midpoint of the Diamond Forest stood a slender but towering library referred to as The Tree House. The library was formed through the progressive enlargement of the interior of a rotted-out Giant Sequoia that rose many stories into the sky. A steep spiral staircase linked a series of small rooms together, stacked as they were like layers of a wedding cake on top of one another. This organic edifice was surrounded in turn by a tight circle of ancient trees, which protected it from the wind and rain.
The library possessed an interesting origin and history, too. For years, a Franciscan monk nicknamed Orpheus surreptitiously deposited old, unread, or discarded manuscripts and damaged books that he had removed from the monastery into the cavity of the decaying Sequoia, which he carved out incrementally. He dreamed of establishing a small sanctuary and school for outcastes, runaways, and orphans, but when the Abbot at the monastery got wind of these deeds, which were deemed illicit, Orpheus absconded one night in order to avoid punishment, and then lived as a fugitive and genial outlaw in the temple of the forest. Here, he tended the library and built his home.
At night, Orpheus would ascend The Tree House staircase to the roof, where he would play the lyre or flute, and then read aloud from the books he was repairing or translating. At such times, the forest would grow silent—as if awaiting a great snowfall—as the animals and trees tuned in to the many songs and tales he shared. In this way, the forest denizens learned the nuances of human language, music, and story. When Orpheus died, his body was ceremoniously embedded upright at the base of the library in the very tree itself—just as the fragment in The Book of Trees had suggested—after he was embalmed in amber sap. That allowed others to honor him or, as Jacques chose to do, greet him with a gracious wink or knowing nod of the head upon entering.
After Jacques was situated in his home, he gladly assumed the role of Librarian in the Diamond Forest. He swore to himself that he would do his best to protect the books and serve his new forest friends. Due to having four legs and a large girth, however, Jacques had to forego using the spiral staircase and instead accessed the interior shelves of the library by way of a platform rigged to a pulley on the outside of the Giant Sequoia, one that had been set up by Orpheus when he was constructing and, over time, maintaining and repairing The Tree House. The platform, which Jacques fitted with a settee fabricated of hay bales, a crude telescope for observing the stars, and an awning made of palm fronds to shield the sun and rain, suited him well because it enabled him to read and work in the open air while watching the birds and activity below on the forest floor. Jacques could not have imagined a more perfect way to pass his days.
Trialogues and Debates
Given their very different vantages on the forest world, the troika of eminent trees debated all sorts of issues with passion and verve, conversations followed intensely by Jacques, who increasingly joined in or, alternatively, provoked discussions himself, which he recorded later in his journal as “trialogues,” three-way colloquies.
Jacques mentioned in passing that he once overheard the monks at the hermitage disputing the conundrum, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” Apparently, most of the monks claimed that sound does not occur without a human perceiving it.
Philo let out a trunk full of laughter when he heard this and, as Poe tells the story, almost fell down himself, convulsing in mirthful disbelief. “Oh my. Of course, a sound occurs,” he belted out. “So many beings in the forest would witness that—deer, bear, and chipmunks, not to mention millipedes, pill bugs, and termites. They would all hear and also feel us tumble and fall. Those two-legged theologian types are so silly and self-centered to believe that no one would be around to experience the sound. That is the problem with humans. They imagine the world would not exist at all without them.”
Later that evening, Jacques looked over the notes in his journal to recall some of the other more engaging and entertaining interchanges the three trees had since his arrival:
Does a tree have a face? Poe was adamant that trees possess a countenance, and he appealed to their senses as proof. “Look at my willowy tresses that flutter and pirouette in the wind. My mouth imbibes the stream’s ambrosia. My eyes are a pair of spiraling knots that soak in the feral world,” she cooed.
Philo was less personal but more philosophical: “All of the outer appearances of a tree are surface, meaning over or above the face. Trees face in all directions: skyward, earthwards, and around-wards. We face the sun. We face our forest relatives on all sides. And we interface with the soil, the subsoil, and the deep earth. Our trunks are faces all the way down and all the way up.”
Sy, however, was skeptical about the question and its assumptions: “What is a face anyway, and why must we possess one like animals or humans? The clouds have no faces, and yet they provide us with rain and shade and colorful displays of light and shadow. We can see without true eyes and breathe without distinct noses. We can drink lacking mouths and hear lacking ears. We are facing each other right now but devoid of conventional faces.”
Jacques listened intently, but he was now more confused as to what he should believe. He wondered whether he also possessed a face himself or just owned a large handsome nose and sculpted head.
What makes tree a tree beautiful? Poe, Sy, and Philo were all in agreement that most trees possess beauty, but they differed as to why this is so. Sy argued that beauty is related to function: “Trees perform so many different services for the forest and wider world, and they do it wonderfully well. There is splendor in this excellence, and the more one knows about our ability to help sustain a diversity of life or prevent erosion, the more one appreciates this beauty. These functions are expressed by our very form: our leaves have evolved to synthesize light; our roots are fashioned to seek out water and secure soil; our branches are perfect for generating shade and homes for birds and so many other critters.”
Sy continued to argue along these lines that beauty does not exist separately as a stable property or independent trait. Rather, it is linked to a broader place, a living system, or a local environment. “It is a delightful part of a greater whole that we cannot always see or know,” he said. “The beauty of a tree is but the attractive bait that should lure us to love the forest of which it is a tiny but important part.”
Philo presented his case in terms of the merits of order and proportion: “Trees exhibit exquisite harmony and balance in their shapes and deeper essences, especially when it is evident in our features like radial symmetry and concentric rings.” From his perspective, beauty emanates from objects themselves, and hence is more objective. It is based in living things, not merely in the minds of human beings. “Everyone,” he said, “finds geometrically proportionate objects to be beautiful.” “Trees are archetypal—ideal models—because of their structure and form; they point beyond themselves to more perfect possibilities.”
“The very word ‘tree’ is related to ‘truth’ in the aspirational sense of seeking light and enlightenment in ‘the above’, and every tree has a truth to share and story to tell. Our leaves are intricate and ordered maps that can be read and studied. Like animal hands or paws, the shapes and lines and veins therein tell us who we are; what we’ve been, and where we might be going,” he said. “The forest is nature’s most magnificent museum,” Philo suggested, “and it is dedicated to lofty works that have taken long periods of time to be assembled or, more exactly, self-assembled. There is art, even if there is no visible artist at work here.”
Poe listened closely to his friends, but also desired to signal his differences with them. He liked the comparison of the forest to a museum but said he might prefer an analogy with a church or, better yet, a temple. He believed that arboreal beauty is tied more closely to the varying aesthetic qualities of a tree’s sensual appearance, its particular disclosure in the forest, the way it stands or sways or shows off its colorful fashion in autumn or spring.
“Let’s be more superficial, Philo, but also more profound,” he declared with some swagger. “We all love different kinds of trees. And, in fact, we are three very different trees ourselves. There is little in terms of sheer outward qualities that all trees share. Some of us are tall and lean; others are short and bushy; some bear fruit; others generate cones; many of us are green; others are white or brown or red, or some combination thereof.”
Poe proceeded to claim that there is no real agreement about what defines a tree, and that there is even less common ground therefore on what makes one beautiful. “I can appreciate the allure of proportionality, of which you speak, but I also adore deviation from it—bedraggled trees that cling heroically to windswept cliffs; silky bamboo that lacks growth rings, stem girth, and traditional wood; and even the lightning strikes on your own trunk, Philo, and the charming fire scars tattooed all over your wrinkled body.”
Philo thanked Poe, if a bit reluctantly, and interjected, “I take it that you were referring a few moments ago to more subjective and ‘observer-dependent’ aspects of ‘tree watching’—if you permit me a loose comparison with bird-watching—namely, ‘secondary aspects’ such as color that don’t really belong to an object itself but arise in the observation of it.”
“Yes, if I understand you correctly,” replied Poe. “And it is the job of poets like me to praise the beauty of trees while admitting that there is no universal standard or form to which we can appeal. Rather, beauty is born of personal experience and our encounters with it. I will sing a celebration of the Joshua Tree, the Ginkgo, the Sassafras, the Mango, and the Lebanon Cypress, as well as your very own stubborn but lovable self, Philo.”
“Perhaps at my funeral eulogy,” Philo retorted, “after I lay down and die so as to become a forest log and a decomposing host for mushrooms and mice, Poe. But not before then.”
They both laughed.
After listening to this discussion, Jacques inquired if there couldn’t be a more holistic approach to beauty. “Why must there be only one defining trait that we are trying to chase down?”, he asked. Jacques raised the possibility that many of the aesthetic features that the three had considered could be compatible. “Might it not be the ensemble of such characteristics that makes trees beautiful?” He added, “beauty, it seems, also appears to be bound closely with goodness—a tree’s generosity, self-sacrifice, and value to the forest and to others. Yes, the inner and the outer are kindred; beauty and duty are allied.”
Jacques felt like he was on a roll and had something to offer to the debates for the first time. He asked if there might be a difference between the beauty of individual trees and the aesthetic qualities of the forest as a whole, which he suggested could actually be an instance or embodiment of the sublime. He elaborated briefly on this distinction, explaining that in contrast to the beautiful, which involves expressions of pleasantness, attractiveness, or charm, the sublime has the power to overwhelm us and inspire mystery and awe—even the suspicion of something awful, including a sense of terror.
“The sublime operates upon us on a much grander scale and can make us feel small, finite, or insignificant as well as provide an experience of amazement and wonder. While the day is beautiful, the night is sublime. While trees are beautiful, the forest is sublime. The forest engulfs us non-trees by its sheer immensity and complexity, and it can trigger responses that oscillate between the poles of temptation and repulsion,” Jacques confessed. “This might be why humans are both drawn to the forest and fear it as well,” he added.
Poe and Sy listened closely to Jacques’s soliloquy, signaling to him their general agreement. Philo remained quiet but was noticeably impressed by what his equine friend had said.
What exactly is a tree? Philo advocated the view that a tree is a person, a “who” and a subject rather than simply a “what” or a mere object, even as he still clung to his position about objective beauty. “Trees are people, too. We have individual stories and histories,” he said.
“Persons?” replied Poe.
“Yes,” Philo stressed. “Personhood is not restricted to humans. We have identities, needs, interests, experiences, and ways to communicate, too, as we all well know. Humans are two-legged persons. Horses like Jacques are four-legged persons. And we trees are one-legged persons, though with many more limbs than others if you count our branches.”
Sy responded by arguing that trees are not separate individuals: “We extend deeply into the ground and high into the air. Our roots dovetail with those of many forest dwellers. Some of us—like epiphytes—grow onto and even into other trees, using them like ladders to reach the upper echelons where light is more plentiful. We piggy-back off some bodies, but we also provide homes for owls, squirrels, and snakes, to name but a few. There are often no clear endings or beginnings to our beings.”
In fact, Sy considered trees to be more like relationships than distinct beings. “In some ways,” he submitted, “we are primarily a web of roots, a network. One could say that we are wooden tentacles that tunnel and claw through sediment; fingered serpents that expand into the soilless sky; sluggish filaments literally hell-bound and heaven-bent on connection. We provide a living bridge between the earth and heavens. We are an over-flowing and ever-evolving middle. We are driven by a desire for addition, for growing outward—by ‘and’ and ‘and” and ‘and’ as we scatter our seeds and nuts—in the guise of food to Blue Jays or squirrels, for example, or launch spores into the capricious but complicit winds.
Poe was feeling a bit blue and elected not to argue with Sy or Philo but instead simply presented her own perspective:
A tree is an unfolding event, an expansive field of Being as we mature into the oldest living witnesses to a place—wise elders or presiding statesmen for an entire community. Everything else grows small in our presence, though no less important. The children of men as well as many forest critters appear to sense this power when they play in our shadows or shimmy up our branches. I overheard one child say to her siblings: ‘Hey, there’s Great Grandpa standing on the hill, sharing stories with the wind again. Let’s go ask him how many rings he carries in his wooden trunk this year.’
Jacques chimed in: “What if a tree falls down or is sawed up, turned into lumber, and made into a house? Is it still then a tree?”
“Like our Tree House library?” asked Poe.
Sy and Jacques both chuckled, but Philo gazed up into clouds, scratched his upper trunk with a branch, and underscored that the question merited serious consideration: “Yes, if a tree is primarily matter—wood, fiber, leaves, bark, water, roots, and so on—then we must agree the house is still a tree. But that would be absurd. A wooden bench or a wagon wheel is certainly no longer a tree, nor is a log that the monks might toss into the fireplace.”
“That would mean The Book of Trees is actually a tree, wouldn’t it,” added Jacques. “I mean . . . books depend upon you all for their paper, right?”
“Yes, all these uses of trees are making my bark itch,” Sy noted in a conflicted tone of voice. “It seems that we are often taken for granted or viewed simply as resources, even if it can feel good to be useful to others.”
Philo sought to return to the question at hand, but the others were willing to let the conversation ramble more freely. Philo conceded to their wishes but managed to slip in a final word, as he was wont to do: “Well, if we view a tree in terms of its more fundamental form or essence, as I’ve been maintaining, rather than as soulless ‘stuff’ or mere material, then we will arrive at a different answer to this issue and perhaps even a possible solution. If a tree is not ‘tree-ing,’ meaning performing actions that are proper to its respective nature—such as birthing apples, figs, berries, or flowers—and also developing into what it was intended to become since the day it was a tiny seedling, then maybe it is not really a tree.”
Jacques smiled and couldn’t hide his amusement as he spoke: “I certainly hope that doing philosophy, psychology, and poetry are legitimate ways of being a tree. Otherwise, you three oddballs are in trouble and might be exposed as forest interlopers and imposters, or worse, instances of invasive species.”
Does tree life have a purpose? Sy turned to address Jacques’ question and drifted into a meditative mood:
Strange to think, but humans evolved with trees and without us their curious tribe would not likely have come into being or survived at all. A primary reason they possess dexterous hands and whirling arms stems from the fact that their ancestors spent many eons in our midst before they climbed down to the ground. We serve as connections with and compacts between their generations. When humans plant a tree, it binds them to biota and the living landscape, but it also ties them through time to future persons or, genealogically, to their own ‘family tree’, especially when a young elm or maple, for example, is established as a ‘green headstone’ above the grave of one of their departed relatives.
Poe was less interested in the role that trees might play for humans and more intrigued by their ancient origins and what that might say about the future of forests. He spoke of the World Tree, whom he described in terms of a kind of primal existence or, to use Philo’s more abstract word, “being-ness”. Poe said this cosmic tree likely burst forth from the navel of the earth, and it connected the four cardinal directions of north, south, east and west, creating a pillar and axis that linked the underworld with the terrestrial realm and the sky.
“We trees,” Poe asserted, “must still go down and descend into the darkness in order that we might grow up and mature into the light. We need to remember that there is an aboriginal source to our existence that cannot be snuffed out, not by fire or even human fury.”
Old Philo was exhausted. It was late in the evening, and he wasn’t feeling especially well. Although he had a definite opinion about what he called a tree’s “inherent purpose” and “indwelling goal,” he yawned and stretched his limbs toward the moon, promising to reply another time. As he looked at the tombstones in the cemetery near his base, he said they reminded him of young trees pushing boldly upward. “I’m tired, very tired,” Philo declared in an uncharacteristic whisper. “I would love to lie down in the graveyard and sleep a long time, a very long time.”
From his perch atop the library, Jacques glanced toward Poe and then Sy so as to judge their reactions to Philo’s concerning remark, but they were both nodding off as well.
Jacques was unable to get to sleep that night, and so he flipped through the entries in his journal. There, he read through other conversations he had recorded that addressed topics such as Are trees stationary or nomadic?; Should trees respect humans?; and Do trees possess a soul?. He paid particular close attention to the entry entitled, What happens when a tree dies?.
As Jacques recalled these discussions, it occurred to him that perhaps one day there might be a new Book of Trees, except this time it should be a book in which the trees speak for themselves and tell the world directly what they think, feel, believe, and experience.
Calm Turned Crisis
Despite the climate of woodland tranquility that persisted for many months, the word circulated in the forest that Poe was feeling melancholic and forlorn beyond measure. She now rarely whistled in the wind with a light-hearted voice. Sy was similarly stressed and losing his jacket of leaves rapidly even though it was not yet autumn. The top of his head was nearly bald and extremely sunburned—though not from “crown shyness,” wherein neighboring trees avoid touching one another in the high canopy.
And, most seriously, Philo was having a terrible time remaining upright. He wobbled in the gales and summer storms, as if he were drunk or standing on a teetering ship. There were signs that he might be dying—brittle peeling bark, deformed leaves, fungi growing at his foundation, and yellowing foliage. All throughout the forest, omens arose that things were not right, that a plague of some sort was assaulting life on all fronts.
In short time, The Arbor began to run coffee brown and then charcoal black, losing its hallmark clarity. A sticky tar-like mucus choked and coated the water, which then stagnated. Dialogue and trialogue between the trees subsequently slowed because messages would often go undelivered or disappear entirely, like lost mail. Gray smoke wafted from sinkholes that opened in the forest floor, ones that grew disturbingly hotter and larger. The smoldering holes darkened the sky, turned white butterflies dusky, and fouled the soil. The songbirds of the forest took flight and also disappeared—along with fox, hare, raccoon, and wolves—and the accompanying silence added to the eerie atmosphere.
No one knew why these things were occurring. Speculation and superstition accompanied the panic. Jacques thus took it upon himself to conduct an investigation with the help of The Council of Trees, the most prestigious body of the forest’s beings. He also sequestered himself in the library and poured through books on geology, botany, hydrology, meteorology, and engineering, along with reviewing the shards of forest history that he cobbled together from oral interviews with the oldest sylvan residents.
Through his inquiry, Jacques discovered that the Diamond Forest was so-named because it was once thought to be on the grounds of a diamond mine, in addition to having its distinct geometric shape. It turned out, however, that no jewels had been found in the earth, but only a soft black rock, which forms diamonds over many millennia, and which can be burned for fuel more immediately.
Apparently, a shady scalawag and his huckster sidekick had initially sold the forest to a diamond prospector with this lie, and for the past half century, crews of men had mined the black rock for fuel before abandoning the woods suddenly. The mining tunnels that had long been concealed from view since that time were now collapsing one by one, and the low grade mine fire that had burned for the past five decades was now fully inflamed as it fed on rich dense, but previously untapped, ore.
From the monks, Jacques heard as well that the men who had adjourned the forest because of concerns about the safety of the mine might be planning to cut down the oldest and tallest trees on the perimeter in order to produce fuel for their infernal machines. It was even rumored that in the coming cooler months, they might resort to burning books in some of the remaining libraries in the kingdom, including The Tree House, in order to keep warm, thereby destroying the forest’s archive of knowledge in the process. Jacques could not confirm this hearsay, but it added to his anxieties.
The situation was grave. And the unspoken worry that the tribe of the two-legged—the crowd of men—might return to the forest very soon with their noisy instruments and dangerous ideas necessitated action.
On the evening preceding a planned meeting of the forest’s most vaunted elders, Poe released into the twilight air a gargantuan Atlas Moth, whom he called Noah and whose wingspan was nearly the length of the king’s foot, with instructions to seek out and find the great World Tree, in hopes that it might share some kind of inspiration or assistance.
Jacques had grown impatient and was unwilling to wait stoically for a change of fortune or miraculous rescue. Under his tutelage, The Council of Trees debated their options. After many heated sessions and policy disagreements, they adopted a three-fold approach to addressing the urgent problem that the forest had acquired from the past; to quelling the present and very pressing threats; and to minimizing the likelihood of future travesty. Further, the strategy relied on a line of defense that coordinated the forest’s own elemental resources: the realms of water, air, and earth would be enlisted and allied with the trees to battle the emergency brought forth by the fire and its unbearable heat, smoke, and appetite.
First, the forest dwellers set about extinguishing the burning mine, which now crackled and rumbled loudly beneath the ground. Since trees suck up, absorb, and store water—which they routinely share with their thirsty neighbors—Poe revealed how the fluid could be flushed out of their systems all at once by a method she referred to as “cleansing breath,” what the monks practiced as kapalabhati. Toward this end, she instructed the trees how to inhale deeply, holding a great trunkful of watery breath before exhaling it all out. She was inspired by the creative ability of water and air to do invisible and patient work: to quietly seek low ground or empty spaces, to be both passive and powerful, to sustain life, and to show stylish exuberance as they performed their daily tasks.
There was, of course, a risk of de-hydration to the trees should they lose too much water at one time but, Poe advised, if they drank up great volumes one day after it rained and saved just enough for their own well-being overnight, they could survive a single instance of a mass release in order to squelch the mine fire. And, in fact, this stratagem worked. On the timed signal of dozens of screech owls who were positioned on observant perches throughout the forest, ten thousand trees surrendered their water, which flowed directly down the interiors of their trunks and straight out toward the abyss of the burning pit, thereby suffocating the smoldering flames.
Plumes of steam shot up steadily into the sky for hours like hot geysers. And the fire simmered, fizzled, and eventually died out entirely over the course of the rest of the day. Jacques was overjoyed and remarked that he felt like they had just blown out a large roman candle that was about to explode on a birthday—or, as Philo quipped, “death-day”—cake.
While this first response was a convincing victory, Philo reminded everyone that the tribe of the two-legged was still clearly addicted to what he called “fuels from hell,” those originating underground in the mineral veins of the bounteous land. These deposits were always going to be a potential source of aggravation in all forests throughout the kingdom because the extraction process felled trees; it despoiled the water, air, and earth; and it heated up the temperature in the surrounding regions. Surely, he reasoned, addicts will continue unfailingly to demand energy to run their contraptions. Their avarice and compulsion to seek comfort and convenience would certainly send them again and again in search of fire sources. “As more smokestacks rise from the ground, fewer trees will stand,” warned Philo.
Philo conveyed to the Council that “fuels from heaven”—from the blue air and oceanic atmosphere itself—were a much better prospect and a safer long-term solution. Through the engineering guidance of Jacques, along with the creative assistance of a battalion of crafty beavers, carpenter ants, and Bower birds, the trees were able to make micro-adjustments to their own woody fibers, veins, and leaves—their mitten-shaped “solar collectors” as Poe put it—to gather enough additional clean energy from above and convert it to a form of potential power, beyond what they needed themselves to survive. By altering the light-sensitive pigments in their leaves, in particular, the trees thus engaged in a kind of reverse alchemy, converting the gold of sunlight into a new currency. “As long as the sun glows in the sky,” Philo said, “the mines in the earth no longer need to burn”.
With a blend of thoughtful improvisation and practical know-how, the team of engineers also transmitted the sun’s tamed energy through a “pipeline” of enhanced and strengthened roots to each of the four cemeteries along the angles of the Diamond Forest. There, it was stored in the many coffins submerged in the earth. These caskets, to which stumps of inflammable petrified wood were added for safety reasons, served in effect as powerful batteries until a more permanent storage remedy could be found.
The dead were now in some real sense charged with new vitality, and some of the youngest trees feared that the corpses might be fully reanimated, brought inadvertently back to life so as to walk the woods with blank faces at night. “I wouldn’t mind that, however” Philo commented, “since most of the dead are likely Druids, who have a naturally affinity with trees. They might even share some of the secrets of the netherworld with us.”
The engineering crew took a further step as well. They proceeded to tap, trick, and trap the ever-moving energy of the wind that blew from the mountains across the treetops. By repositioning the limbs of many Redwoods—the tallest trees in the forest—onto circular wooden pallets that rotated in the gusts of air, they were able to transform these living giants into colossal windmills. The energy collected was then stored in the local graveyards as well.
On the heels of these communal feats of ingenuity, Jacques composed a letter to his friends in the monastery that apprised them of the developments and included detailed descriptions and diagrams of their work. He asked the monks to share this news discretely with the men in the city, though to be sure not to attribute anything to intelligent trees or a talking donkey. He further suggested that the monks might offer this supply of energy to the city for a reasonable fee and thereby use the funds to repair their own monastery walls or to build a new refectory.
Finally, Sy addressed the persisting concern that men might return to the forest to raze the trees, to ransack the library, or perhaps even to burn their books out of fear, envy, or another form of unreason. He had been working on a long-range response to this worry for some time. Sy proposed that in order to preserve the knowledge in the library and the wisdom of the forest as a whole that each tree memorize a story or treatise before the tree’s time arrived to fall and collapse back to the embracing earth. Many of the trees in fact had already committed to heart a tale or two from the readings that had been regularly offered by the former librarian, Orpheus.
In this way, Sy prophesied, the books of the forest would be “tree-incarnated”. The great stories and truths would survive and even attain a kind of living immortality. They would be preserved in the physical shapes and bodies of the trees—recorded and encoded deeply in their rings of memory like grooves for a gramophone—as routinely happened with the sunlight, the rainfall, the temperature fluctuations, the storms, and the changing seasons that left their peculiar marks and traces for posterity.
Word of this idea spread excitedly through the forest. Almost every tree adopted a book and began committing its words and images to memory. The canopy was abuzz with the sound of trees reciting passages, talking to themselves almost as if they had lost their very wits, and murmuring aloud in the warm breezes. Jacques could not always decide if the voices in the trees rang out more like a symphony or a cacophony. But he was hopeful they would bear a kind of forest fruit.
Poe himself was torn between many possible options, but he eventually picked a thick volume to learn that included poems and haiku by writers of the faraway East. Sy selected the sutras of the great Buddha, a figure who had influenced him during the most troubled periods of his life. And, after much deliberation, Philo chose the collected works of two of the most enlightened philosophers of the ancient world, fond as he was of their originality, their love of the natural world, their practical wisdom, and the fact that they usually disagreed with one another.
Some of the other trees began to request more obscure books about which they had heard but that were not available in The Tree House. Since the monastery contained a far larger library, they prodded Jacques to obtain these works on loan. Assuming his earlier guise as a donkey, Jacques obliged to borrow as many of them as he could, relying upon his friendship with the monks as well as the gift of energy that the forest had bestowed upon the monastery, one which served as a gesture of good will and tacitly as a form of collateral for the borrowed books.
In order to expedite the process of tree-incarnation, Sy experimentally identified a distinct pattern of vibrations—a simple musical rhythm in essence—that could be telegraphed easily along or inside tree roots and, through its meditative and repetitive beat, facilitate the memorization of a lengthy novel, a complex scientific tract, or a challenging work of philosophy. He called these “tap roots,” and the method for memorization reduced by half the time that an ordinary tree required to incarnate and fully embody a book.
As Sy’s assistant—so chosen because he could move on four feet about the forest— Jacques would place a book carefully at the foot of a tree, and after intoning a few secret words, he would tap the visible roots and apply a milky substance to them that Sy had distilled from the sap of young healthy trees. From that point, it was up to the tree to perform the careful work of memory—to upload the volume it had selected.
It occurred later to Jacques that The Book of Trees which he had fortuitously found in the stump many moons ago might have come to be there independently in a similar way—left for some unknown reason at the base of the tree after it had been memorized. Was this arboreal communication part of the very fabric of the forest universe itself, he wondered? And how might the world of humans possibly benefit if they were to become aware of this secret? Would they treat forests more humanely? Would they enlarge their communities to include trees and other beings? Would they envision new kinds of cross-species and cross-kingdom interactions?
After hundreds of books had been uploaded, memorized, and preserved, The Council of Trees soon discovered what no one could have possibly expected. And it delighted them all. Since the trees were already tethered in so many unique ways, it turned out that most of the old growth veterans and some of the younger saplings of the forest could access one another’s stories through the vast network of fine roots that linked them: a “Wilderness Web,” as Sy dubbed it. “It is like Indra’s Net,” he said, “whereby each diamond or jewel in a beautiful lattice mirrors the images and reflects the light of all the others.”
If the trees shared water, air, and a common soil, it stood to reason that they could also belong to a larger “forest mind,” as Philo speculated. Here was an elaborate “echo-system”—as Poe, with his musical talents, put it—wherein the voices of all trees and their adopted books were coupled at both the material and mental levels. In other words, over time, the library itself would be diffused laterally—and also literally—throughout the entire forest, rather than existing vertically and singularly as it now did. Practically anyone would be able to access it on their own. And until that time arrived, they could at least gain entrance through one of the portals in the three great trees who lived on the angles of the great woods: chez Poe, chez Sy, and chez Philo.
In this manner, with the aid of elemental water, air, and earth, the trees were able to drive the pernicious forms of fire from the forest or, minimally, keep it at bay for a while longer. Together, the triangle of distinguished friends—now become four with the addition of Jacques to make a supportive square or seamless diamond—discovered that they could create astonishing change by yoking themselves to one another, a union of disparate forces.
As if the firmament sought to approve the protracted resolution of this storied struggle, Noah, the giant Atlas Moth, returned on cue to the forest, alighting on Jacques’ shoulders, where he continued to rest for days. Following the moth in great raucous flocks, the songbirds came back, too: Marsh Warblers, Thrushes, Lyrebirds, Nightingales, Magpies, Finches, Bluebirds, Mynahs, Larks, and many others. And on their heels arrived the remaining departed forest animals.
From Overstory to Second Story
Jacques—”née Jack” as he would still whinny by force of habit—was grateful that catastrophe had been averted. The arboretum survived, at least for the time being. The greatest weight of his adventurous life had been lifted or, minimally, lightened.
Poe recovered her fairer spirits and took once again to song, composing an epic poem about the challenges the forest had faced and surmounted. Sy’s beautiful jacket of leaves was being repaired by a platoon of leaf-cutter ants, who stitched it back together with the silky threads of Golden Orb Weaving spiders. Philo stood more erectly, though now with the aid of crutches that had been wrought for him by young Birch trees.
The woods once again hummed with peaceable activity. Ivory-billed woodpeckers drummed in delight as they chiseled indentations into the branches of scores of trees who volunteered their services. The wasps appended empty hanging paper nests to these holes and the fireflies, in turn, filled these makeshift lanterns with pulsing light. The whole forest glowed in celebration. The gem that it was sparkled throughout the night.
As Jacques descended from the overstory, he gazed across the canopy and saluted the three great trees one by one. As he exited the library, the crickets, cicadas, and bullfrogs applauded his leadership with percussive clicks, chirps, and bellows. A chorus of appreciation rose from the understory. Poe, Sy, and Philo each bowed their crowns toward Jacques in gratitude.
Jacques flashed a big-toothed grin and gazed around the illuminated forest. He let out a great neigh and sigh of relief. For the first time since arriving, he permitted himself to dream of setting forth on another journey, towards a new story, one that would not likely be contained in any book yet written on this verdurous earth.
Copyright: David Macauley, 2020
*Line borrowed from John Muir.