A few months ago I held a creative writing class at RHS Wisley, and the subject matter needed to fit the setting. I suppose the first book I read as a child that really featured vegetation as something important was The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
However, plants aren’t always the good guys. The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, was a ground-breaking science fiction novel, based around the idea that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Take away everyone’s eyesight, and carnivorous plants that walk can fill a lot of suddenly-vacated evolutionary niches. Plants themselves can provide a lot of really good ideas. Tumble weed is not fixed to one place, and moves freely with the aid of the wind. There are pitcher plants that are so large that they can devour frogs and small birds as well as the insects we usually associate with their diet, and this came in very useful in my book Jinx on the Divide. The Joshua Tree can live for 1000 years, and just think about the changes that might have seen.
Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce in Sweden, is a tree on top of roots that have been carbon dated to 9,550 years old, established at the end of the last ice age. There is a Quaking Aspen whose roots have been dated at 80,000 years.
New research is also suggesting that plants are intelligent – not in exactly the same way as us, but with their own ability to sense things. They can react to the sound of caterpillars eating nearby leaves, and begin to secrete defensive chemicals. They can sense gravity, and the presence of water. Anyone who remembers the TV series, The Private Life of Plants, may recall the speeded-up footage of a bramble growing. It was absolutely terrifying, using its thorns to grab hold of things in order to climb higher, and strangling other plants in its way. I’ve had fun with plants over the years. This is a short story called Ash Wednesday, which was originally published in Magnet Magazine in July 2013.
Genetic engineering can work in mysterious ways.
The Great Timber Shortage led to the development of rapid-growth trees, and their subsequent and enthusiastic cultivation worldwide – but genes have agendas of their own, and we are not party to all of them.
Initially, the walking trees were hailed as a triumph. Pines were the first; fast-growing, sensibly-shaped for inner-city walkabouts, faintly aromatic. A touch of Scotch mist in every shopping precinct, and no extra outlay each Christmas – just get the whisky companies to sponsor the fairy lights. The walkers weren’t vandalised, either – ripping off a branch seemed more like an amputation. But best of all, as far as the local councils were concerned, you couldn’t put a TPO on a single one of them. Tree Preservation Orders had been the bane of every developer; you had to build around protected trees, and if one was ever-so-accidentally cut down, the culprit got a hefty fine.
Joshua Green had seen his job description change beyond belief. When he’d started as a tree officer he’d felt like an environmental warrior, saving damsons in distress. And then it had all changed. The first pine had walked into the shopping mall one December morning and settled down in its appointed place like a belly-dancer, shivering and shaking until its roots were thoroughly buried in the loosened earth. Joshua eyed it with caution.
When the main waterpipe under the pavement fractured some months later, the tree was simply led off to the nearest park and left there while the repairs went ahead unhindered. The cause of the fracture was never identified. Joshua sat in the park, eating his lunch and watching the tree, wondering what would happen if it decided to go for a wander on its own. The council printed a new leaflet, Branching Out, detailing the latest species they’d acquired for the car-park of the new superstore. Five oaks had been felled to tarmac it, which was now perfectly legal. Over a period of ten years half the trees in Britain had disappeared and been replaced with walkers. Unfortunately oaks had refused to mutate, so the council had opted for silver birches and an ash.
The new ash tree was very beautiful; graceful sweeping branches, pale grey-green trunk, an inbuilt immunity to ash die-back disease.
“Nice bit of shade for the cars,” said Corby, the developer.
The tree rustled faintly.
“Cars? Is that all you care about?” said Joshua, who cycled everywhere.
“I care about what I’m paid to care about,” said Corby, who’d just won the contract for the new by-pass. “The oaks will have to go. We’ll be using walking willows. That way, if they start to undermine the road they can just uproot themselves and back off a bit.”
That autumn, the trees stayed green until November. Then there was a sharp frost and the borough was stripped of its foliage overnight – all except for the ash in the car-park. Joshua blinked in astonishment; the leaves seemed impervious to cold, and now that he could see it against the skeletons of the other trees he could see how much it had grown. A slight breeze ruffled the greenery, and the tree spoke the way ashes have spoken time out of mind; a whisper, a rustle, a sigh… Yggdrasil, Yggdrasil... A thrush started to sing, and a butterfly settled on the trunk. The tree was brimming with unseasonable life, and Joshua felt a powerful sense of unease.
That Christmas, the fairy lights on the pine in the shopping mall fused eleven times. The following February an escaped apple tree overturned some fruit stalls, and a holly caused considerable damage when it broke into a balloon factory.
On Shrove Tuesday, while Joshua was eating pancakes for breakfast, the phone rang.
“Josh!” yelled Corby. “Get down here, quick as you can! I’m on site…” But the rest of his words were lost in a howling gale, and then he was cut off altogether. Joshua looked out of the window, but the sun was shining and the sycamore was as motionless as a painting. He bolted the last of his pancake, and got on his bike.
There only seemed to be half as many trees as there had been the day before. When he reached the site he realised that everyone had stopped work. The oaks were surrounded by walking willows. Above them all towered the ash, far taller than he remembered it, right in the way of the bulldozers.
Someone had a radio. The sound fizzed and crackled, and the newsreader’s words ebbed and flowed like the sea. A man was being interviewed about Norse mythology, about Yggdrasil, the tree of life, the giant ash that bound together heaven and earth – and hell.
A chainsaw coughed malignantly into life. Lightning flashed and thunder roared as the tree started to pull its snaky roots out of the ground. The workforce dropped their tools and ran.
That evening, Joshua sat staring at the television in disbelief. A copse of hawthorns was marching up Whitehall. Giant redwoods had surrounded the White House, Cairo was overrun with palms, Tokyo by flowering cherries, Nairobi with baobabs. Then a weeping fig walked into the newsroom, and the picture turned to snowflakes.
Five minutes later there was a power cut. Only the clock in the church tower had anything to say.
As Joshua listened, it struck midnight.
It was Ash Wednesday.