The World & the Tree
The World & the Tree
BEFORE MY JOURNEY I hesitated to commit to writing my views concerning the Tree, which heretofore was the world, for they were heterodox in the extreme, and I was not eager to lose the esteem of good friends. Nonetheless as this age draws to a close and things cease to be as they always have seemed, I feel it necessary to put down in some form my objections to conventional wisdom concerning the Tree before complete ruin is upon us and all is truly lost. For I have reason to believe that Tree is not the world; that there was a time before the Tree, and yet there was a world; that there was a time when the Tree was merely in the world—a tree among trees, bordering great spaces in which no tree at all was to be found.
With these observations fresh before the mind, I acknowledge that the Tree's divine bounty cannot be discounted: its fine twigs furnish not merely kindling, but also the most remarkable cloth when shredded and spun; its garden limbs, frassed and shaggy with a hundred varieties of lichen, mosses, and mushrooms, where dead leaves and twigs and spent bark drift down and catch, turning to soil that sustains gardens of chokes and worts fed by fat worms; its broad branches leading on for league upon league through the canopy which, when cleaned and planed to living blond wood, make routes wide enough for wagons to drive two abreast; its great crooks and cavities where rainwater collects in placid pools or gushes in cataracts through the hollowed-out pillars of the trunks. But for the hissing stones which, fallen from the sky, are skeined in boughs to make our altars of memory, and the air and water (which are also of the sky), there is no material which is not wood, which is aught but the Tree transmuted.
How long our ancestors subsisted without shelter in the Tree, beyond that which the largest limbs could afford, cannot be known. But at some point in the primordial past, the miracle of the cutting was discovered—the subtle patterns of scoring, biting down through bark into the living cambium, out of which emerge the traceries and buttresses from which our storage huts houses, and great halls are grown. By these gentle woundings our ancestors discovered that the Tree would yield new swift-growing limbs, strong, ropelike vines, or a flourishing bouquet of fresh green twigs, depending on the subtle art with which the depth and density of the scoring was accomplished. Nestled mid-canopy, our settlements affect a symbiosis with the Tree that is necessary to the survival of the human species. Our very homes are carved and grown from the living tissue of the Tree; its rainwater catchments and lightly sweet sap hydrate and refresh us; its fruits and tender young shoots, together with a flourishing flora that festoons bark and limb, nourish our bodies. All the world's creatures—the flying dogs that caper and carom amidst the middle boughs, the fish teeming limb-crook pools, the butterflies that visit the hearkening blooms, even the all-but-immobile pythons wound around trunks in the sepulchral deeps, where they await the falling dead—all depend upon the Tree's bounty.
Only the great soaring birds, it seemed, subsisted beyond the beneficence of the Tree. We have no name for the birds, which have never been discovered roosting or alight; they only pass high overhead, rolling down the endless limbs of the clouds. It beggars belief to think that they never settle, that they only orbit forever in passage like planets amidst the far-off leaves of the stars. To watch the aloof grandeur of their migration—when at the equinoxes the great, black birds balloon from East to West in vast battalions—is to know an uncanny and alienating power. Few now climb to the Tree’s very top to see their passage, however. I have made the journey—I have climbed beyond the shaped and tended boughs to where limbs grow upward into wild air, where the sunlight no longer filters through the leaves' living green but dissolves in the very atmosphere its golden heat. I have climbed the tallest branch, crooked and aged, and have looked out across the Tree's undulating canopy spreading out beneath the sky to see the masses of foliage mounding like clouds beneath the sun; I have watched the wind ripple the the Tree in rolling gestures I cannot name, which measure off the leagues in shadows while the birds pass beyond reckoning.
The comprehensive and ubiquitous nature of the Tree seems to defy all attempts to draw limits around its extent or influence. With all the Tree offers and does—all the promises it long has kept—even to hint at skepticism or questions its infinitude provokes nervous energies of the highest order. Nonetheless my ideas concerning the Tree are founded upon not mere reflection, but empirical evidence.
And the birds offered my theories a sort of infernal hope. Wherever their passage led, the Tree was no part of it. To see that further world—to journey with the birds, to follow the winds through the boughs of the very clouds—this became my obsession.
Many years the kites have flown, gathering fire from the clouds to light our nights and brighten the Tree's encircling limbs. Their tethers rise, dipping and stretching as the sails drink the great currents of wind on high. And when lightning rends the black clouds and lights their very skeletons from within, the tethers crackle and glow. To make a journey by limb and branch as the seasons turned and the Tree went bare and the limbs went slippery with ice seemed beyond endurance; however, whenever I spied the kites making motes of themselves on high, I thought I glimpsed a way. And so I set to building a great kite—sharp and black, soft as the lichen-down from which it was woven, like one of the great birds themselves. And some ten lengths of a man from the kite, I wove myself into the tether line. From the heights to which the kite could pull me, I hoped, I could see farther than anyone had before.
It pulled me into the sky with astonishing force; quickly the canopy dropped away and the ripples of foliage flattened beneath me. Soon the Tree lay far below, an undulating skein of limb and leaf, its topmost mounds flattening into the whole, the tether snapping and singing in the wind, dropping away beneath me in an immense catenary curve to the trees far below. I had never been so distant from the boughs and leaves, and the estrangement combined with the height to carve out a hollow in my stomach. But as the tether stretched and tightened, it tore at the harness I had made to connect me to the kite; I heard the fibers of lichen as they creaked and began to break. In desperate hope that the kite would spiral softly downwards and return me to the Tree with little injury, I yanked out the small grafting knife from my belt and cut the tether.
I did not fall, but was vaulted upward viciously, borne aloft like a leaf amidst a rushing of air. Peeking in and out of the torn clouds faraway, the black kite spun, speaking in stutters to me through the wind-strummed rope. I was ripped up and up through a quilt of colder air before the kite and I settled into an uncanny train, the black sail measuring its distance in the plunging tether line, cold bands of rain slashing me like boughs across the face and body. And soon the clouds closed in and became a fog; drinking each breath from the ragged wind, I soon lost consciousness as time passed out of mind.
I awoke dangling, swinging almost imperceptibly in the in cold, wet air. Around me all was utterly black; I wondered if I had somehow crashed through the Tree in the night and now hung from the lowermost boughs in the deeps. My arms flamed numbly from the harness straps biting deep into my shoulder, and at first I could barely make them move. Shaking them back to life, I took hold of the tether line in both hands, and struggled to haul myself upwards. My palms burned from the coarse fiber of the rope when at last I thrust upward and struck my arm on what seemed to be a wrist-thick bough—only it was strangely cool, slippery, and resoundingly hollow, a thing made not grown. Grateful for the support, I swung a leg over the strange limb and hauled myself over. My leg slid onto a kind of ledge from which the thing jutted, and I cautiously backed myself onto what proved to be a broad, flat surface, gritty and broken, receding into darkness.
I lay there awhile gathering strength while the sun’s thin light leaked over the horizon. Slowly the scene resolved around me: planed edges and sharp angles, solid surfaces polished to a watery sheen. As morning broke, an unanticipated spectacle lay spread beneath me: a canopy of limbshorn towering trunks of vast girth, seemingly fabricated from frozen water and piled into a vast pattern, dull and dazzling, planar like children’s blocks, but enormous, stretching into misty distances. The scene was hemmed in on one horizon by a sight I had only glimpsed in dreams: the end of the Tree. A faraway thatch of boughs rested cloudlike atop a wall of buttressed trunks, which stretched upward to impossible heights from what even the shadows could not conceal was a massy surface, composed either of a fretwork of branches so deeply intertwined as to have been knit into a vast oneness, or a single limb of colossal, world-bearing size. Or so it appeared to my Treeborn eyes; I know it now to be the omphalos mundi, the limbless land, itself fallen from the sky —or perhaps falling now, and ever falling—that is the basis and origin of the Tree.
Before me lay a broken range of deadfall and ruptured blocks and prisms; whole trunks lay defeated amidst the ruins of some shattered, inscrutable industry. And between me and the Tree stretched this vast shardscape of fabricated towers, both built and broken, reflecting the morning in bright cards and patches of great size hanging in the very air. No wood, living or dead, lay close to hand; between where I stood and the uncanny, belief-beggaring edge of the Tree I could see neither wild bough nor worked living lumber, but only the piled-up mirrors and blocks and shields, shining and cool, but not cold enough to be frozen. And in all that vastness nothing stirred.
It was atop one of these built, frozen towers that I now stood, having caught by mere fortune on a kind of mast that stood out from the corners of its topmost edge. I found my way within—a door that shrieked on its hinges gave upon a dark shaft and stairs that led to the bottom, where horrid maze of rot-smelling hard walls led me out through more doors of shattered ice. Ruin lay everywhere: shattered uncanny machines, surfaces like fire-hardened wood only cracked and riddled with holes; great gaping cavities overhung with brambles of strange, cutting branches of rough orange and the taste of blood. And everywhere in heaps or hanging in shards and blades, more of the frozen, strangely cool materials out of which the great towers were built.
I made my way through this shattered maze to the base of the Tree—though I could see clearly now that it was not one Tree but many, each vast in size but not so vast as the tumbled towers. There I gazed into the uncanny shadows that clung to the trunks and saw into the truth of the world and was shaken to the marrow. Somewhere high above, the sun was setting amidst the plaited scaffolding of the Tree. I gazed up into its dusky heights, my homeland, knowing now that it was after all not all my people had ever known. Someone had not grown but made the ruined towers, and then abandoned them for the Tree. Whether it had been opportunity or calamity was not given to me to know. Perhaps somewhere back in the figured labyrinth there were carvings or records to tell me.
When darkness fell, I made a fire, and slept in the hollow beneath a shattered trunk of the Tree. The night was filled with a sound of storm, like wind roaring in the finest branches, freshening and receding in a rhythmic, breathlike cycle.
In the morning the sun shone up the long, tortured defile where the piled towers and the Tree both came together. There was a brightness there, glimmering and vast, and I walked down to it. It took a long time, although the way was dizzyingly straight and plain; I was faint with hunger and footsore from long walking on flat surfaces. As I wandered down the broadening way, the sheen composes itself into a prodigious sight: a vast amount of water toiling and heaving in a body. Even the smell of the water was vast and rank; at its edge it foamed, angry and bright and heaving like some wounded beast, while up and down the lengths of its vastness trunks of the tree and shattered towers fell crashing and disappearing in its depths. And everywhere I looked, the black birds were crashing into the bright water, wheeling and dropping and diving, and when they rose to the surface their beaks flashed with fish gathered from below.
Now I live alone in the vast ruined habitation, and watch as day by day the Tree’s trunks fall, widening the lumber yard of the world.