When we went out for a hike that morning, I didn’t expect I’d end up dangling from a metal contraption sixty feet high in the middle of the night while being shot at. You were mad and said I got to have all the fun, but I wasn’t the one who clobbered the two guards.
We had been passing through Colorado and you suggested we take a detour. On the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains stands a friendly little forest we like to visit from time to time.
“It’s been forever since we’ve been there.”
“Well…” I thought for a second. “At least six months.”
I’ve lost track of how often we’ve visited, but we recognize many of the trees and they recognize us, though some are still wary of people after all the logging that used to go on there. We got a room in town and the next day drove up into the mountains.
We were walking along a dirt road when we came to a clearing and saw several construction workers and some heavy equipment — a flatbed truck, cherry picker, and a mobile crane with telescoping boom holding up the biggest artificial tree we’d ever seen — a cone-shaped eyesore, five stories high and thirty feet wide at the base. It bristled with hundreds of thin cylinders or rods poking out all over, each of which held clusters of devices, sensors and leaf-sized solar panels.
“I don’t think they’re with the Forest Service,” you said.
“Looks like they’re installing that thing.”
We watched the proceedings for a moment. The metal tree was set into place and released from the crane, which retracted its boom, backed out onto the road, and rumbled away belching fumes. The cherry picker truck moved in and a technician was lifted in the bucket to make adjustments on the external devices, while the rest of the crew worked around the base.
One guy stood off to the side, wearing slacks and a polo shirt. He seemed to be in charge, so we approached him.
“What is all this?” you asked. “Some kind of Christmas tree?”
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” I said. “We come here a lot.”
He regarded us with interest.
“Oh, you like trees, do you? Well you’ll love this one.” He was brimming with enthusiasm, eager to tell someone about the greatest thing since sliced bread. “We’re from Arbortronix Corporation. Have you heard of us?”
“No, I don’t—”
“Course you have. Small company with big plans, that’s us. And what you see here is our latest invention.” He made a grand gesture toward the metal monstrosity gleaming in the noonday sun.
“It looks sort of… treelike,” you said, trying to be polite.
“Absolutely treelike! In fact, better.”
“What could be better than a tree?” I asked.
He turned to me. “Looky here. Trees get water from their roots, transport it up to their leaves, and let it evaporate into the air. And do you know what that’s called?”
“Evapotranspiration! Bet you never heard of it. Sounds technical, right? And if it’s technical, a machine can do it. And we’ve got just the machine! It’s the X109 Totally Automatic Computerized Arboreal System, complete with sensors for moisture, wind, light, gamma rays — you name it. Plus converters for air and water. Equipped with GPS, so we can always track its location.”
“But what’s it for? Why do you need it when there are all these real trees here?”
“Yeah,” I added. “They all seem perfectly capable of handling the usual tree responsibilities.”
“Capable? Bah! Inefficient, slovenly, overpaid. Why, half these trees hibernate in the winter — just shed their leaves and go right to sleep, then make the evergreens take up the slack. And they still expect full pay and benefits? Hah! We can’t afford those kinds of work stoppages, not if our forests are going to compete in the global economy against all those hard-working Asian trees, not to mention the Germans.”
“Wait,” you said, “are you talking about replacing the trees?”
“Every last one of them. This forest employs more than two-hundred thousand trees, based on our last census, though not all are of working age. Each X109 can replace enough so-called ‘real’ trees to eliminate eight thousand tree-hours per seven working days, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on employee insurance, salaries, and profit participation.”
“I didn’t know trees got insur—”
“This,” he said with another sweep of the hand, “is the Forest of the Future! Totally automated and operated from a central location. No more time clocks, no more personnel department. How’s that for efficiency?”
“It sounds rather dystopian,” you said.
“Better,” he replied, not understanding the word.
“The X109 costs just a few cents an hour for electricity. It lasts indefinitely, doesn’t get diseases, isn’t bothered by insects, and won’t lose branches in a windstorm. It doesn’t go on coffee breaks, complain to management, or take maternity leave. It provides higher rates of transpiration and better erosion control — and it doesn’t drop leaves all over the place, so no need for a janitor to sweep them up… or whatever happens with them.”
“You seem pretty eager to replace nature with machines,” I said.
“The stockholders demand progress. The world demands progress. Out with the old, in with the new!”
I noticed that the pines and firs around the clearing were trying to look busy, puffing themselves up to appear as fully green and productive as possible. No one wanted to be replaced. The deciduous members of the forest — who were mostly bare by this time of year — had slunk away, doing their best to remain inconspicuous.
“That machine can never outperform a tree,” you said. “It can never take pride in its job.”
“We don’t need pride, we need the work to get done!”
“But a tree has value, a tree has worth,” I said, like I was quoting from a trade union’s pamphlet.
“Value? Yeah — as firewood!”
Things were getting heated. I was starting to imagine how my hands would feel around the neck of this scrawny salesman. The rest of the crew had turned to watch, and they weren’t on our side.
“The trees won’t put up with this,” you said quietly, giving him a steely-eyed look. “They’ll go on strike, shut the whole forest down.”
“What’s that to you?” His mouth curled into a Grinch-like smile. “Don’t worry, they’ll get their severance deal. Now why don’t you leave us to our business? We have to get this test run going, to see how the X109 does. Our investors are coming for a demonstration tomorrow.”
Test run? I looked up at the contraption, then felt your fingers digging into my arm. We were both getting ideas.
“So if it does okay…” you said.
“Then we give the redundant trees their termination notices and start making more of these beauties — get the replacement process going, make our investors happy. Now, if you please?”
We wished him luck, without a trace of sincerity.
“I think that’s just a prototype,” you whispered to me as we walked away.
“Yeah. What a shame if it completely failed. The investors might get discouraged.”
“I don’t like the way he said severance, like it was a pun. They mean to cut down all the trees. We have to do something — tonight.”
“But first, a little reconnaissance.”
We found a place at the edge of the clearing where we could spy on the setup process for a while. The worker in the cherry picker had removed a square plate near the top of the cone and was fiddling with something inside, probably the control panel. Others were filling in dirt around the base, covering up pipes that served as mechanical roots for the tree.
A Jeep pulled up and two guys got out — security guards, with sidearms. They set up a campsite about fifty yards off. We figured they’d be patrolling the grounds that night and included them in our list of obstacles, then we headed back to town to pick up a few items.
Around midnight we returned, keeping off the dirt road and walking silently through the woods. On the way, you collected fresh pine needles, rotting oak leaves, and slivers of bark from a spruce. You crushed them between your fingernails and put them into a jar, mixing them with some store-bought ingredients that included lavender oil and a few herbs.
“In case we have to put the guards to sleep,” you explained. “It’s a sort of disremembering elixir — when it works right. Learned it from my grandmother.”
You let the mixture steep for a half hour or so — the time it took us to reach the clearing — then strained it into a spray bottle. You aimed it at me. “Should I try it out?”
“I’m forgetful enough as it is, thank you.”
You shoved the sprayer into a water-bottle holster you wore on your hip, like a gunslinger ready for action. I was envious — I hadn’t come armed. But I did carry a few hand tools, since I was to be the one who’d climb the mechanical tree and make a few choice adjustments on the control panel.
We left our daypacks in the woods, taking only what we’d need, and crept to the clearing to see if the security guards would get in our way. We wanted to disable the tree without anyone immediately suspecting sabotage — it had to look like a design failure, or incompetence — so the guards couldn’t know we’d been there. They sat by their tent in the glow of a lantern, talking in low voices.
“I bet they patrol every hour,” you whispered.
I nodded. We had encountered enough security guards to know the typical routines. You kept watch over them while I snuck off for my rendezvous with the X109.
There wasn’t much of a moon that night, but the camp light provided enough of a glow to see by. The sensors and solar cell arrays sprouted out of metal cylinders the size of wrapping-paper tubes. I hoped they were strong enough to hold me, since I planned to use them as a ladder.
Climbing up was tricky. I had to lie flat against the surface of the tree to crawl under the clusters of devices, while keeping my weight evenly distributed on the cylinders to avoid breaking any. It took me longer than expected, and that delay nearly got me killed.
The control panel was toward the top where the cone became steeper — almost vertical — and the sensor arrays were spaced farther apart, giving me fewer footholds. I got myself positioned with my feet spread wide apart, steadying myself with a hand on a sensor rod to the left of the panel. I slid the wrench out of my back pocket and loosened the four bolts holding the cover.
“What the hell am I going to do with this?” I asked myself, once the cover was free.
It was about a foot square — slightly curved — and weighed several pounds. Tossing it to the ground was out since I’d need to put it back on when I was done. I tucked the bolts in my pocket then shoved the thick metal plate inside my coat, where it rested against my stomach, balancing on top of my belt. I mentally kicked myself for not having planned that detail.
I put my headlamp on the dimmest setting, pulled out a screwdriver, and set about the delicate work of undetectable sabotage.
A short while later I heard the oo-oo of an owl — your signal that the guards were on the move, making their rounds. My watch said one o’clock. I hurried to finish making an adjustment — reversing the valves in the pipes under the tree, if I interpreted the labels correctly. Just then a flashlight shined at me from below.
“Hey, Sam, look at that. What’s he doing there? Hey, you!”
“Stop or we’ll shoot!”
I glanced down, but their light blinded me. My right foot slipped. I twisted to the left, dropped the screwdriver, and grabbed the sensor rod with both hands. Then my other foot slipped, leaving me hanging there, facing the guards, unable to get a foothold. The rod started to bend.
My hands couldn’t be any more up. I dangled there, arms straight above me, knowing if I let go I’d crash through all the sharp metal sensors and solar cells below, which would slice my skin to shreds.
“Careful, Sam. Don’t wanna damage the tree.” I had to agree with that guard. He seemed more sensible.
“Never mind. I’ll get him down.”
I heard a shot and a device near my head split apart. A lucky miss, though a shard of metal had stung me on the cheek. Before I could surrender or enter into negotiations, he fired again. I felt a punch in the stomach as the bullet ricocheted off the metal plate under my coat. Lucky again, but I was sure the next shot would get me.
“How’d he get up there?”
“Maybe he’s got a ladder.” The flashlight aimed toward the base of the tree.
With the light out of my eyes I looked down and could see them standing side by side, guns in hand. Then you came up from behind, holding a thick branch like a club. You brought it down onto one guard’s head — thunk — at the same time kicking the other guy in the back of the knees. His legs buckled. While he tried to regain his balance you clubbed him as well. Another thunk, wood against skull.
They were both down — not seriously hurt, just momentarily stunned. You pulled out your bottle and sprayed each one in the face, giving them a dose of the elixir that would send them into a deep sleep, after which they’d remember nothing from this night. You waited a second, then sprayed them again for good measure.
You called up to me. “I didn’t want to do that.”
“I know.” I was struggling to regain my footing.
“But you’re having fun I see.”
“Give me a few more minutes. I’ll help you get them back to their tent.”
It took more than a few minutes. First I had to pull myself back up into position without slipping. Once I was steady on my feet again I set my headlamp on full brightness — no need for stealth now — and reached into my back pocket for another screwdriver.
I slid out the console labeled ‘transpiration’ and reversed a couple of wires. “I wonder what this will do,” I said under my breath, then submitted other controls to a similar treatment. Once done, I took the metal cover from under my coat and reattached it. The dent didn’t show too much. I gave it a loving pat for saving my life.
After climbing back down, I joined you and we carried the two guards to their tent, where we laid them on their cots. One was snoring.
We searched the ground by the tree and removed any evidence of our having been there, including the dropped screwdriver and the two shells from when Sam the guard shot at me. You had even cleaned his gun while I was finishing up with the control panel, and replaced the two cartridges from a box of them you found in the tent. As far as they were concerned, neither one had used his gun. We weren’t sure how they’d explain the bumps on their heads.
“Next time,” I said, “we should bring a bottle of whiskey or something, so we can make it look like they got drunk and passed out.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Though I wouldn’t want them to get fired for it.”
“No, that would be unjust.”
We needed to perfect our subduing-the-guards strategy, since we seemed to run into that situation a lot.
The following day we violated a rule and returned to the scene of the crime, mostly because we wanted to finish our hike. To avoid being recognized we wore street clothes, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats. We weren’t worried though — the investors would be there, the press had been notified, and even the public had been invited to this groundbreaking experiment in forest innovation. Sure enough, by about ten o’clock a crowd had gathered at the clearing. We had to park a quarter mile down the dirt road.
The X109 was a sad sight.
It leaned at a precarious angle. The ground had gotten soaked — don’t ask me how — and several root-pipes stuck out of the mud, squirting water. The thousands of leaf-sized solar cells drooped in wilting clusters, unable to receive sunlight, forcing the machine to drain power from its backup batteries. A greenish layer of slime was spreading over the once-gleaming surface, oozing from millions of pores designed for taking in air. Again, I won’t admit to knowing how the intakes became outputs.
“What a shame,” you said, holding back a smile.
I nodded, trying not to be too smug about my flair for sabotage.
Of course, we knew the technicians would figure out the problem eventually. The real damage was to the company’s reputation. The unveiling of the prototype was a public relations disaster and Arbortronix lost the confidence of its investors. A group of them pushed their way out of the crowd, followed by our acquaintance from the day before. He was pleading with them.
“Okay, this didn’t work so well. But I gotta tell you about our next big thing. We’re going to replace all the crops with mechanized plants. Better for the environment. We’ll call it ‘Beyond Wheat’ — how about that?”
The investors waved him away and strode off toward their cars, shaking their heads and grumbling. The trees around the clearing looked on with amusement. The press had a field day.
Later, Arbortronix was denied permission to run further tests on public lands. Private property owners also weren’t keen on giving the company access to their lands, not after all the bad publicity. A small victory for the forests.
“They’ll keep trying,” you said as we headed back to the car. “They think they’re part of a crusade to improve on nature.”
I stopped and looked off into the distance. “Then we’ll be there, all around in the dark. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry trees can eat, we’ll be there. Wherever there’s a logger beatin’ up a tree, we’ll be there. We’ll be in the way trees sway in the wind, and in the way they laugh when they’re dry and they know rain’s a-comin’. Wherever trees are tryin’ to make a decent livin’, we’ll be there to—”
“No we won’t. What are you talking about?”
“I’m just practicing my solidarity speech.”
“What are you — Tom Joad? I think the forest needs more than the good intentions of an Okie from the Dust Bowl era to fight off this threat.” You patted me on the shoulder. “But you did a pretty good Henry Fonda there.”
We changed into hiking clothes and walked into the woods. The trees were glad to see us.