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Saturday, 21 March 2015

Saturday Story - 'Can't see the wood for the trees' - part 1 of 2

Last week, a UK newspaper columnist wondered why local councils ‘love nothing better than murdering lovely old trees in case they fall down all of a sudden.’ The French government apparently plans to cut down thousands of roadside trees because cars often collide into them. He ended with the assumption that presumably trees got drunk and steered themselves into cars…

In 1974 my published short story ‘Can’t see the wood for the trees’ was inspired by a similar observation.


Part 1 of 2

 Nik Morton
Quercus - oak - Wikipedia commons

Port Meadow whispered in the strong September breeze. Halyards smacked discordantly against metal mastheads in the nearby boatyard. From the Meadow's far side, a single grey mare voiced a strident whinny but her companions continued chomping and she fell silent.

            Well-concealed in the sylvan protection of a coppice of sycamores, Roger laughed brazenly.

            His companion, Pauline deVille, tried silencing him, though not with much serious effort. 'Quiet, Roger, or someone'll hear us!' she berated, laughing drowned by the chugging of a close by motor-boat.

            Sunset was a good hour away but Roger had assured her they were secure even from the numerous fishing enthusiasts lining the banks with their buckets of writhing worms and maggots. 'Come here, wench!' he grinned, making a grab for her. The breeze whispered her long blonde hair as she struggled half-heartedly. Distractedly, Roger attempted brushing aside two bothersome crane flies. They scattered as he fell on top of her.

            'What's Michael doing?' he asked, playfully pecking her moist lips.

            Already her cheeks had flushed with the onset of passion. She was almost purring, caressing his lank black hair, long fingers stroking the broad muscular back. Between lengthy demanding kisses, she said, 'He's at the House - debating - the latest attack on - on our Gaza outpost...'

            Copy. Through millions of cellulose pipes running from the bottom-most roots out into its leafy veins, Acer the sycamore absorbed the information the two lovers unwittingly furnished.

            The human creatures are exceedingly mobile, a distinct advantage, Acer observed, conveying the information through his body's fine network of sapwood, deep into the trunk's central storage core, where the dark and ponderous heartwood was stained and clogged by the impure earthly resins and oils he had had to suffer.

            As Pauline sat up and lit a cigarette, Roger gently plucked the leaves from here bare back, where they left delicate indentations. His hand slid round, cupped a full breast, and felt the nipple harden in his palm. 'That was delicious!' he said, meaning every word. 'If Michael concentrated less on becoming history's greatest peacemaker and more on his wife, I'd - '

            But she silenced him. 'Don't remind me, Roger, please.'

            It was apparent to Acer that procreation could occur in a similar manner to their most recent cavorting: they had discussed the possibility of such an unwelcome eventuality earlier in the proceedings. As a system, the human reproductive method could plainly be improved. So clumsy! Photon data follows.

            Acer rustled his large plate-like leaves slightly in the act of drooping closer, listening intently.

            Murmuring, gentle, soothing. Some concern injected into the verbal exchange. The young people seemed distraught.

            'Can't you admit you made a mistake, Pauline?'

            She shook her head, struggling angrily into her fawn pullover. 'I know, I shouldn't have married him! But I can't just up and leave. It would shatter him. His career - he's doing so well... All the parties trust him, don't you see?'

            Acer concluded she was attached to the absent Michael by some esoteric rite. Judging by the absence of a golden band on any of Roger's fingers, it seemed possible that the ring on hers - which she agitatedly fingered - was some testimony of initiation in the rite.

            As the illicit lovers talked, Acer glimpsed clues regarding the man's work, the cuckolded Michael's work, of the subservient role she led. Much of their physiology remains a mystery. Alas, I am not ideally situated to obtain specimens for vivisection. Acer sighed through the cat's-eye pores on the underside of his leaves, air-conditioning his part of the world. A slower, solitary human would be more suitable. I proposed a nocturnal assignment. Sequoia G please advise.
Quercus, a sturdy English oak, received Acer's messages and passed them on, appending his own detailed observations.

            Corresponding in size with his trunk, the taproot forked down into huge primary branch-circuits, then more secondaries and slimmer tertiaries, which slanted into millions of hair-fine capillaries. Here, clustering near the tips of the capillaries, Quercus had stored a great quantity of useful information gleaned from the Conference Centre his boughs overshadowed.

            Absently, Quercus drank through his root hairs. He divested each soil particle of its moisture, each adjacent grain yielding its liquid content as though he was thirsty blotting paper.

            Where normal earthly trees would suck up the elements of nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus et al by transpiration stream to its living organism, Quercus collated the elements and analysed them and indexed his findings: '... iron, copper, zinc, magnesium...'

            Then, shuffling and cross-indexing all the stored information from his millions of ultra-fine root hairs, his memory-banks, he dispatched the entire data:

            There are regular scientific symposiums held here - and doubtless elsewhere too. Some scientists have an endearing habit of boasting of their most treasured projects when they have proved workable. At least at this Centre, jealously guarded professional secrets do not exist!

            Many of their theories are quite remarkable. In the realms of astrophysics, and particularly nuclear engineering, they have developed some revolutionary concepts. They are possibly two Earth-decades away from inter-planetary flight employing the Jones-drive and space-time equations similar to our own... I prefixed this transmission with a MOST URGENT for the following formulae...
The White House crouched remote and sepulchral from the tree-lined drive. A solitary weeping willow had somehow become enmeshed with the other trees. No one, not even the Secret Agents, appeared to notice.

            Salix reported continuously, apprehending top-level discussions round the clock. Here is where the power lies, he declared.

            High on the slope of the Sierra Nevada Range a host of Sequoia giants snatched Salix's messages, studying the secret Presidential decisions.

            Reaching well over 200 feet tall - his lowest bough as high as a 12-storey building - Sequoia G correlated the data, multiplexing through the other brother-trees, all of them 8,000 feet above sea-level, way above the lush green ferns and awe-struck travellers who thronged to gaze at the 2,000-year-old giants, unaware of the threat.

            A plane-tree in Harlem confirmed other reports in the Deep South: There is sufficient unrest among the black populace to meet our second-phase objective. The massive influx of Hispanics has exacerbated the situation. Fostering this disaffection might prove chronically damaging to the existing government and partially neutralise much of the country's immense power...

            Sequoia G administered a hasty admonishment: Platanus, you were selected for this task-force to observe, collate and transmit information. Not, I repeat, NOT to form suggestions or opinions on our Conquest!
Hunched over the leopard-skin wheel of his stationary MGB, Roger Alcock scowled at Pauline's reflection in the night-blackened windscreen. 'But we'd had it all planned,' he moaned, thumping the dashboard. 'You said he'd be away in Cairo.'

            She was in a mood too. The atmosphere seemed palpable, easy prey even for a blunt instrument. 'You don't think I enjoy this, do you?' she croaked. 'I was looking forward to the weekend just as much as you... But - can't you see, it'll always be like this?'

            Roger's chest felt constricted with suppressed anger. 'As long as you're married to him, we'll never be happy!' he declared, barely holding his fury in abeyance.

            She closed her eyes. 'You don't understand. That horrible murder in our UN outpost - the sergeant was from his old regiment... Michael knew him...' Her fingers twined and unwound her soaked handkerchief repeatedly, punctuating her words. 'He's terribly upset. Disillusioned.'

            'He's not the only one!' Jealousy slithered under his skin, pried open his smouldering anger at the disappointment. 'Oh, for God's sake! Michael's upset, Michael's not well, Michael's trying to save the world! Sometimes I think you still love the fat old goat!'

            Roger immediately regretted his outburst. He hadn't meant to be so brutal. But his pride wouldn't permit him to apologise: she would have to take him as he was, warts and all. But he had cut deep. She stiffened, shunned his compromise, a comforting arm.

            The silence that swamped them now gnawed at him like a cancer. Couldn't she see what she was doing to him? He didn't want to have a row. They should be happy, loving, during these few stolen hours, not arguing. God, how he wanted her!

            'Drive me home, Roger, please.'

            Almost with perverse relief he sighed, nodded, and switched the engine on. Jabbing the light rocker-switch viciously, he vented his spleen on the powerful machine.
Meanwhile, on the East African coast, a thick-boled rather unwieldy baobab was receiving the final touches to an adornment of beads and bangles, its bark garishly daubed in coloured pigments.

            In front of the grotesque tree chanted a group of Sebola natives. To Adamsonia, the mission's only female agent, it sounded like prayers of some sort. As her cells absorbed and translated, she was not completely surprised to learn the natives believed she and other baobabs had provided their ancestors with life-giving fruit since time immemorial.

            Possibly the baobab itself holds some religious meaning. Adamsonia could sympathise with the Bushmen of early Earth who had explained the baobab's freakish appearance. According to their legends, the force of evil, the hyena, had spitefully planted the baobab upside down - and its branches certainly resembled tree roots. I must admit to a certain feeling of discomfort. I feel positively haggard!

            Concentrate on your mission, Adamsonia, chided her link-tree, Taxus, a Yew at the foothills of the Himalayas.

            She immediately began compiling her sources' data.

            Other baobab agents had detected a plethora of blood-lusting young natives in secret societies all along the East Coast. Am repeatedly receiving indications that the northern nations are contemplating an overwhelming attack on South Africa.

            Blood-red sunset scored the horizon, glowed on the painted bark, on the native hides, glistening in oils and dyes.

            Gunfire disturbed her. The eldritch screams from the Sebola tribesman alarmed her. Adamsonia evinced anger: they had been doing no harm! She had even been a little flattered: their ornaments had considerably improved her appearance...

            The Transvaal border-patrol sprayed another salvo into the night air, disturbing the crowds.

            Evidently, the white people are already concerned at the incidence of murder, looting and rape occurring along their border, Adamsonia transmitted. Illegal incursions into Mozambique by the SADF to 'attack the head of the snake so the snake must draw in its tail' have created international alarm.

Concludes tomorrow…

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