A rumor was running through the trees that day, a blight of news that spread through the gossiping boughs. We had to chase it down — to get to the root of the matter, so to speak — before the entire forest was engulfed in a wildfire of misinformation. I said as much to you.
“Sorry, one metaphor per customer,” you replied. “Is it a blight or a wildfire? And you can’t say ‘fire blight’ — that’s still a type of disease.”
“It’s moving fast. Let’s go with wildfire. Plus, it’s dangerous to us.”
Some of the trees had come to believe we were villainous loggers who had infiltrated the forest to destroy their way of life, kidnap their offspring, subvert their belief systems, and maybe kill a sacred cow or two. It was all a lie, of course. We were simply out for a hike in the woods, minding our own business.
Once the rumor got started — through malice or mistaken identity — it was just too irresistible to ignore. Even the squirrels began chattering about it.
We approached three stylish poplar trees — high-class members of the social scene in those woods — who huddled together and chatted in a friendly way. We wanted to warn them against the alternative facts about us making the rounds, but couldn’t get a word in edgewise. They simply ignored us. We were strangers, looked upon with disdain if not outright suspicion — easy targets for the rumor mill.
“Maybe if we dressed like the locals,” I said, “and tried to mimic their ways of speaking, we might fit in better.”
“It’s not our attire they don’t like, or our accents. It’s us.”
“They’re prejudiced against our species? That attitude seems a bit outdated.”
“That’s the way it is out here in the sticks,” you said.
“City trees are more tolerant of our kind.”
“They’ve never been devastated by clear-cutting.”
True. But that tragedy happened long ago in this forest. Trees under thirty didn’t seem to mind us. And the saplings were simply curious and thought we were funny-looking.
“It’s just an awful thing to say about us,” I complained. “Let alone repeat in decent company.”
“Some trees will believe anything.”
Blue spruces are particularly gullible, which is why so many of them are taken in by penny-stock schemes, psychic healers, and the claim that Mount Rushmore was carved by ancient aliens. Aspens are notorious gossipers who don’t give a second thought to passing along anything they hear, no matter how absurd. Douglas firs — avid listeners of public radio who tend to be more cosmopolitan than the average conifer — are as prone to confirmation bias as anyone and readily accept falsehoods that fit their point of view. Oaks are more discerning and rarely engage in rumor-mongering, but wise oaks were sparse in these woods.
That left us surrounded by too many suspicious trees ready to accuse us of evil intent, and willing to take the law into their own hands.
“But we’re not breaking any laws,” I said.
“If they think we’re a threat, well… it’s mob justice out here.”
We jogged down a trail and across a meadow, then into a stand of pines, hoping to head off the rumor before the entire forest turned against us. But the pines had already heard about us through the underground network — a lot of information gets transferred through roots and fungal connections in the soil — and they absolutely knew we were the masterminds behind the logging-industrial complex — in league with the lizard people, funded by The Bilderberg Group, involved in a vast international conspiracy to control the world by destroying forests — and probably in contact with UFOs to boot.
“A mastermind, eh?” I said. “I should put that on my résumé.”
“I’d like to know how we get that funding.”
We showed them driver’s licenses, wilderness passes, hiking permits — all to no avail. It was just more evidence of a government cover-up to hide our true identities. We gave up trying to convince them of our innocence. They dropped pine cones on us and moved to hem us in, so we pushed through the branches and hurried on our way.
We had no luck anywhere else.
Everyone had already heard some version of the story about us — by root, by scent, by squirrel or bird — whatever their preferred means was of sharing information. And no amount of rebuttal on our part could keep the fiction from growing and spreading. Conspiracy theories feed on themselves, nurtured in the swamp of muddled imagination where no illuminating truth can penetrate, quarantined from reality and immune to clarifying facts.
It was no longer safe for us there. We finally had to leave the woods, helped by a kindly oak who hid us until dark and showed us an escape route out the back way.
“The irony is,” you said later, “we’ve actually had our share of run-ins with conspiracies and secret organizations…”
“But usually to thwart their operations.”
“… yet the rumor about us never mentioned any of those. It was a complete fabrication from top to bottom.”
“I guess our reputation didn’t precede us. We need to find out how to get better publicity.”
“Let’s go talk to those lizard people.”