Like a Tree Planted, my science fiction novel:
Summary: Seventeen-year-old Miranda lives in future San Diego, a city enclosed in a Dome because chemicals destroyed the natural world. Everything is made of plastic, and wood is more valuable than gold. The daughter of scientists, Miranda is Keeper of The Last Tree, which is dying. She is also great-granddaughter of the famous environmentalist Gabrielle Leigh who foresaw the trees’ destruction. By means of The Archives, a multimedia library, Miranda studies Gabrielle’s life. Each “visit” through The Portal becomes more real, and Miranda gradually materializes in Twentieth-Century Oregon to explore the Pacific Northwest evergreen forests. She breathes pine-scented air, sees stars and waterfalls, tastes real food like chocolate, and wears cotton clothes. She watches Gabrielle fall in love and is caught in a battle between loggers and “greens.” After Gabrielle’s husband is killed and their child born in a snow-bound cabin, Miranda tries to stop the other tragedies the Archives foretold. She almost forgets her own world. Back under the future Dome, her family and boyfriend try to keep her from being trapped in the past. Government security forces, afraid that the outside world is too dangerous to explore, hunt them down. Miranda and Gabrielle struggle, between two places and times, to reintroduce trees to the future and lead people outside The Dome.
Once again, I am drawn into Gabrielle’s world. I take off my shoes in the Hall of Trees, my toes feeling the grass carpet. On either side grow plants and flowers–ferns nearly as tall as I, tropical lilies white against dark green fronds, poinsettia plants with fiery leaves. I pass the many aisles, only half interested, noticing again the holes–the many holes spaced equally on the floor, holes once filled with trees.
Now there is only One. A bluegum eucalyptus, it stands at the path’s end, its hundred-foot crown reaching toward our dome. Its clumps of thin-leaved branches sway slightly in the “wind” that breezes the Hall, its trunk mottled with peeling bark. Odd, to me it resembles a photograph I saw once in the Archives–a tall African dancer under a mask.
I pause in the tree’s shelter, look up at the leaves. Each seems to dance a separate dance. Does each have its own piece of life? I pick up a newly-fallen leaf, break it, and smell the sap. How sweet for a tree without blossoms or seeds.
I bend down and press a blue button, and the Tree is enveloped by moisture. Tiny droplets of water drip from the lower boughs to my head and lashes. Another button–a brown one–rolls away the moss at the Tree’s base, revealing plastiground, in which the Tree’s roots wrap themselves.
“More vitamins for you?” I ask aloud, pressing the red button. A pink liquid streams toward the Tree’s roots.
What good will it do? I wonder. You are dying. I feel like hitting the tree’s indifferent trunk, shocking it to life.
I want more trees. Thousands of them. Time to visit the Archives again, to watch Gabrielle’s world spring up around me in moving pictures that seem almost real.
I leave the Hall of Trees and walk next door to the Archives. I hardly notice the forty-storey building with its rooms divided into centuries for easy study. I pass the ancient times, the medieval times, the Renaissance. My only interest lies in the century of technology, Century Twenty.
As I step in, the room is bare: translucent walls, white carpet, a metal platform for standing. I climb on the platform and speak:
Time of study: late Twentieth Century
Person: my great-grandmother, Gabrielle Leigh.
I wait for the Uniprint System to enliven. Tired, I sit cross-legged on the platform, my hands on my knees, my head leaning back. I close my eyes. This room is a sanctuary, a place of rest and meditation–a place of prayer. I open my eyes as the Portal arch appears, glowing green, with green sparkles in its doorway.
Strange, it seems brighter today, as if more sparkles dance around the arch, sending shadows against the walls. I watch the shadows, mesmerized, sleepy. Is that shadow a hand? Startled, I snap my head around, my skin prickling my back. Was someone watching through the cracked door behind me, forgetting to remove his hand from the door edge? The door closes softly, and I wonder if my imagination dreamed the hand. Maybe I just forgot to close the door all the way, anxious to visit Gabrielle’s trees. Maybe a passing monitor noticed the door ajar and shut it just now. Maybe.
I forget the shadowy hand as pictures appear around me. I am about to enter the careful illusion of time past–a coordinated, three-dimensional, moving world of images far superior to those old-style motion pictures.
Over a hundred years ago, when my great-grandmother walked this planet, there were trees: great forests of pines and firs in springtime, their lacy boughs poised downward like dancers’ fingers; cypress trees in swamplands–their trunks heavy with water like pregnant women; rain forests, with broad leaves and crowns so thick that from above they seemed one continual tapestry of woven green.
The System shows me these trees–and the eucalyptus groves, lean trunks peeling in shades of gray and pink, ribbons of thin, windblown leaves–bluish tint above, silver underneath, so careful of water, known for their healing sap. No wonder our Last Tree is a eucalyptus.
After the tree images, the comforting voice of my great-grandmother pervades the room, vocal music from a four-wall stereo. She speaks words from her journals, later published in a book every schoolchild must read:
“I was born in the shadow of the nuclear age, that giant mushroom feeding on our earth. The mushroom never formed globally–but it was there, hovering over us all with its silent threat. I preferred, instead, the smaller shadow of a California live oak tree that grew outside my window. I noticed it first when I was three and tall enough to lean over the windowsill. My eyes were too small to catch all fifty feet of bark and leaves. The tree managed somehow to shelter me from that other shadow that haunted my dreams, whose picture I had seen in my mother’s book on World War II. . .”
I feel that connection to Gabrielle again–more than the love of trees which binds us, the same blood in our veins, the same sad passion to preserve. It’s almost as if I become Gabrielle, as if the words she speaks are mine.
I lean my head forward. The images, taken from old-style videos and photographs, spring from the walls to spaces all around the room. I sit in the midst of them, reaching out a hand to touch the orange of a century-old sun above the white wood ranch house where Gabrielle spent her childhood. There, by the upstairs window, stands her oak tree, stretching wide its heavy-laden branches (the leaves a strange bluish-green). There her pastures, dry and yellow in summer, spread beneath the slate blue Cuyamaca Mountains.
There stands Gabrielle, in her open doorway. She is grown now–a little older than I, yet similar in her long-legged height (for hiking in the hills). In fact, we are very much alike: her hair is more blonde than mine, long; her face suntanned and delicate. Her eyes are blue, with flecks of green; her lips full for speaking, her chin dimpled at its point. One long-fingered hand rests on the doorpost, and the other waves–to me? I wave back, becoming utterly part of her world, reliving again her story of the trees.
I find myself in nineteen ninety-three, standing under the oak tree by Gabrielle’s house. I know I am invisible and cannot speak. Still, I can almost touch the rugged bark my hand leans upon. Just six feet away stands Gabrielle, speaking into her tape recorder (which she used instead of paper) as she paces back and forth on the front lawn:
“I am nearly finished with my botany course at San Diego State. Evergreen is sending me to Oregon to investigate this Spotted Owl thing. They want me to write an article for their magazine. It looks like my English degree will come in handy this time. I wish I had taken kung fu. I don’t relish the idea of running into an angry lumberjack. Much though I hate the cutting down of trees, I want to understand the lumber industry’s point of view. I have the feeling this issue isn’t as simple as Evergreen wants us to believe.”
Gabrielle pauses and looks up at the mountains. “Everyday I see more pines turn brown on these mountains–from the drought and the beetles. It isn’t just the lumberjacks who kill them. And the forest fires–thank God the one on Vulcan Mountain was contained before it spread to my own oak tree.”
She walks over and stands just inches from me. She places her hand on the bark, just above mine. She wears no rings.
“Ah well,” she continues, sitting down on a protruding root and crossing her legs. “I suppose I’ll always have a tree to sit and think beneath. Ah, the smell of green . . . ”
Gabrielle leans her head on the oak’s trunk and closes her eyes. Her hand slides down along the bark, and I think I feel something as it passes through mine. Were we, for a moment, almost touching?
Gabrielle falls asleep for awhile. With a start, she opens her eyes, grabs her tape recorder, and leaps up. “Take care, my Treasure,” she whispers, leaning to pat the exposed root. “I must study for my last final exam and pack for the trip. Mom and Dad shouldn’t see me dozing again!”
Gabrielle sprints into the house and shuts the door behind her. I follow, but my hand cannot touch the brass handle. I wait for the scene to change, as it always does, from the ranchlands of San Diego County to the forests of Oregon. But this time the images hesitate a moment, as if waiting. I look back at the oak tree called Treasure. Then I hear someone call my name.
“Miranda Gregory, you are wanted in your Homeplex. Please report immediately.”
Images of oak tree, ranch house, and mountains fade. The sparkly Portal disappears, and I realize the room’s far wall glows red with Summoning. The soft, unobtrusive voice of the Summoner repeats her message. I stand up from the platform, rub my eyes, and head for the door. Before exiting, I turn and look at the slightly glowing walls, Gabrielle’s ranch still fading into gray.
It was different this time. It felt more like a journey–as if the images and sounds were not just being beamed to me from camerachords set into the walls. I became part of the scene somehow, mixing my substance with Gabrielle’s world. I noticed something I never heard before–the oak tree’s name–though I know each word and picture by unmistaken memory. And Gabrielle–did she touch my hand? Did her flesh and bones brush me as she passed her fingers through mine?
What will happen next time I visit her? For the first time today, I smile.
“Treasure,” I whisper, thinking of the tree’s root.
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