Botanists will admit — when put under oath, or after one too many drinks — that trees communicate in coded signals through their roots.
“Yes, that’s true,” you said to the two government agents who stood over us.
I sat to your right in the tiny gray room and nodded at your response. We had been brought in as consultants, but were being interrogated like suspects. Maybe that’s how they treat everyone.
“Just as we thought,” one of them said. He switched off the bright lamp that had been shining in our eyes. The other one put a file folder on the table and slid it toward us.
You opened it and flipped through a few pages, then handed the report to me. Sensors in the forest had detected unusual amounts of underground activity, suggesting an increase in chatter among some beech trees as they exchanged messages in the form of chemical signals. Naturally, the government assumed the worst — the trees were planning an attack, or even a revolution of some sort.
We were skeptical. Beeches are the last trees anyone would suspect of plotting to overthrow the government.
That’s what makes them so dangerous, the agents informed us. They stand around all innocent looking, waving gently in the breeze, while silently planning an uprising.
“So what do you want us to do?” you asked.
“And how much do you pay?” I added.
We left there with a certified check and a court order giving us permission to put a wiretap on the root system of an enclave of beech trees. Our assignment was to infiltrate their headquarters, monitor their communications, and find out what they were up to.
The disguise was the tricky part.
“We could go as gravediggers,” I suggested, “so the trees won’t get suspicious when we start digging near their roots. We could be like the two gravediggers in Hamlet — that scene was pretty amusing.”
“The grove’s not anywhere near a cemetery,” you said. “No. They’ll be on to us in a second.”
“But I’ve already started rehearsing my lines.”
After much discussion we decided to go as innocent picnickers who were exploring the forest. We spent a day preparing some crucial pieces of equipment and reviewing our plan.
The following morning found us tramping through the woods, hunting for the conspirators. We came to a stand of beech trees in full spring growth, where the yellow-brown carpet of last year’s leaves smelled faintly of damp decay, with undertones of subversion. We knew we were close.
We recognized the ringleaders in the grove by the way they huddled together and rustled anxiously as we approached. Some of them wore their branches in the European fashion — lower on the trunk with boughs reaching outward in sweeping curves to create wide canopies. Maybe it was a political statement, or an attempt to mask their identities, or just a pretentious fad. Either way, it proved useful to us later.
We strolled toward them and pretended to admire their foliage, to make it seem like we just happened to come upon them. Then we said, “What a lovely place — let’s have lunch here,” and took off our packs for a rest. Nothing suspicious in that, we figured.
Next step: Get the surveillance equipment in place.
We had no real need to set up a lean-to, but it provided an excuse to pound four stakes into the ground. We hoped the trees would think it was normal picnicking behavior — for humans anyway — though they might wonder why their shade wasn’t good enough for us. You pulled out a tarp and some rope from your daypack while I found two long sticks for the frame and whittled off the twigs.
We worked quickly and efficiently, without saying a word. That was a mistake — we should have been making small talk, or arguing about how to set up the lean-to, as any normal couple would. But the beeches didn’t seem to notice.
You tied the ropes to two trees and unfolded the tarp between the sticks. I knelt and hammered in the stakes, our secret weapons.
Each stake held a thin, metal spike inside — like a telescoping antenna — which shot out from the tip when I triggered the spring-loaded mechanism. The probes extended far enough into the ground to touch the root systems, where the receivers could pick up any chemical signals sent between trees. Contrary to popular belief, most tree roots grow in the top two feet of the soil, where all the good stuff is — nutrients, water, oxygen — so the probes didn’t have to be very long.
I attached a wire from each stake to a signal converter, then plugged that into our laptop. We had already installed a Beech-to-English translator, a specialty application that took a significant chunk out of our budget. You finished tightening the ropes and setting up the lean-to.
All we had to do then was enjoy our lunch, record the underground conversations, and act casual so the trees wouldn’t suspect us of eavesdropping. From time to time we looked at the translated text as it scrolled past on the screen.
After a while you whispered, “What’s this about a wind farm? Seems to be a lot of discussion about it.”
A troop of wind turbines had recently been assembled a few miles from this forest, out on the open hills, providing enough power for thousands of homes.
I looked at the transcript. “They want to destroy it? Why would they do that?”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Why would these trees be against renewable energy? That’s just dumb.”
“They must have some reason.”
We scrolled through the text and started to piece together their intention.
Trees, as everyone knows, breathe in carbon dioxide. That’s what they use to make glucose to help them grow big and strong. And over the last hundred years they’ve been blessed with an abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere, thanks to modern civilization.
Trouble is, too many trees have become overfed and lazy due to all the fossil fuels we’ve been burning, to the point where they’ve come to depend on us pumping out more and more CO2. And, like an addict being weaned off drugs, losing their sources of carbon dioxide makes some trees a bit edgy — they’ll do anything to keep the greenhouse gases flowing to get their fix.
All the above wasn’t in the transcript — that’s just my commentary. What the beeches did discuss was Article 1 of their Manifesto:
“Whereas coal was created from plant material, including trees, and whereas burning it to release carbon dioxide for trees to consume is a valid method of recycling, therefore beech trees and other plant life are the rightful heirs to all that stored carbon, and no one shall interfere with the transfer of said carbon.”
“I can see their point of view,” I said.
“No, they’re missing the big picture.”
Trees have long memories, but like most life forms without a prefrontal cortex they don’t think too far into the future. The current threat to their sources of excess carbon was a more immediate concern than any long-term change in the environment. As it turns out, not all trees belong to the Green Party.
“They think this wind farm is going to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants,” I said. “And they’re right.”
“There’s nothing in here about their actual plan though.”
I gave it some thought. “I can’t imagine a group of militant trees destroying a wind farm.”
It’s not as if they could march in like the Ents attacking Isengard. These particular beeches didn’t have the upper-body strength to hurl boulders and tear down wind turbines. They’d be more likely to get their branches caught in the blades.
“Maybe it’s all just tough-sounding talk,” I said. “Rage against the machine and all that, without having to go out and do anything. Though I guess they could still sabotage the power lines.”
You were about to respond when something on the screen caught your eye. “Look at this. There’s an alarm going out. They’re on to us!”
“We can’t leave yet. We still don’t know what they’re going to do, if anything.”
“We have enough for our report.” You shut the laptop and handed it to me, then got up and began taking apart the lean-to.
I packed up the computer and was disconnecting the wires when I noticed the ground starting to churn.
“Something’s happening. Watch your feet.”
“Better get those stakes out.”
I reached for one of the stakes but it was yanked from my grip and pulled under by the tree. The other three disappeared into the earth before I could save them. Damn! We had worked hard to develop those extendable probes. But we could still deduct them as a business expense.
As I stood up to put on my pack, a root grabbed me by the ankle. I tripped and fell to my knees. Another root broke through the layer of dead leaves, like a zombie hand reaching up from the grave, then wrapped around my wrist and tried to pull me down into the damp, crumbly soil.
You shouted something and I glanced over to see you backed up against a tree. I tore the root off my arm and flung the pieces away, then rolled over and wrestled with the one clutching my leg. After a brief struggle I freed myself and jumped to my feet.
You were kicking at the ground in front of you, keeping back a mass of protruding roots that had hemmed you in. I joined you and helped stomp on the woody growths until they withdrew. That gave you enough time to finish shoving the tarp into your pack.
“Let’s go!” you said.
“No, wait. Look.”
Our way was blocked. Dozens of snaking roots punched through the ground all around us, clawing at the air. We’d never get through that. One false step and we’d be brought down into the writhing horde, which would finish us off.
You looked up and pointed — “We’ll go this way” — then shimmied up the tree. You climbed onto the lowest branch, shuffled along it, and leapt to a branch on the next tree over. I would have preferred a vine to swing on, but I followed anyway. Not so easy, given how smooth the bark was.
The conspirators had made the mistake of clustering together, which gave us easier access to adjacent branches and let us avoid running the gauntlet of root tips waving hungrily below. The beeches tried to shake us off as we leapt from one to another, but we were too quick. I only slipped once.
Just when it seemed we had run out of trees — the next one was too far to reach by jumping — you swung down from the branch and dropped to the ground. The path was quiet, not a root stirring. The trees in this part of the grove weren’t part of the conspiracy, and were no doubt amused by a couple of humans playing among their leaves. I dropped down beside you.
“Well that was fun,” you said, eyes bright from the excitement.
“Yes, if by ‘fun’ you mean a narrow escape from death.”
A few days later we met with the two agents and gave them the intel we had collected during our brief surveillance. They nodded and looked grim.
“The power company will have to beef up security around that wind farm,” one said, “to keep it safe.”
“Damn trees,” said the other. “Always a nuisance. Do you want to press charges?”
We looked at each other, confused. “Why?” we asked. “For their attack on us?”
“Yeah. Attempted murder, however you want to phrase it.”
We declined. The beeches were just protecting themselves from our infringement on their privacy. Besides, it’s a risk we take with assignments like this.
“Are you going to charge them?” I asked. “Conspiracy, or whatever?”
“No,” the first one said. “Only if they willfully destroy property. Nature is always planning something against us.” He gave a low chuckle. “Hell, the whole universe has it in for us — entropy and all that. Can’t arrest every living thing for following its instinct.”
“Even if we’d like to,” the other one added. “Damn trees.”
The beeches never did do anything about the wind farm, and I think they realized it was a lost cause. Humanity is moving away from fossil fuels, so trees are just going to have to tighten their barks and make do with less carbon dioxide in the air. The free ride will be over — in about a century — and they’ll have to go back to working for a living.
“If a beech tree fought a windmill,” I asked you, “who would win?”
“I’m not sure. But let’s just hope the clouds don’t decide to go after solar panels.”
Right. We know who’d win that one.