Bags of Bran

Instruction from a Farmer and His Favorite Trees
March 22, 2010, 12:03 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In a world I often frequent (or frequent frequently, if you like), I recall a certain farmer who had been entrusted with the cultivation of certain groves of trees. (Really, it was an orchard, but I don’t want to confuse the reader by using the title “Orchard Keeper,” as that title applies to another friend.) This farmer was unfortunately a rather naive man, given to superstitions and easily swayed by arguments containing lots of numbers and figures. He was particularly given to the habit of measuring his own success merely by single positive attributes of the trees in his care. For example, if a tree grew to a great height, yet did not bring forth any fruit or provide shade for the weary, he would point to its height and remind those within earshot how he had sacrificed a high position in the courts of the Prince of that land so that he could be a lowly tree-keeper on a lowly manor.

Two trees that were curiosities to many who thought about such things were very near this farmer’s heart. He loved them like his own, which I suppose was just, since they were his own trees in many ways. The elder of the two had once been tall and straight, and had once brought forth at least some leaves to shade weary ones, and had at one time promised a meager yield of fruit. In a small wind-storm, however, this tree lost its meager yield while it was yet green, and from that point, it despised the very idea of fruit-bearing. This turn of events made all who visited the orchard disappointed, and it was a great embarrassment to the farmer, whose words toward the tree may not have been very kind. (It will help the reader to know that in this world, good trees could communicate with those who were willing to listen. I have had many wonderful conversations with a few such trees in my day, and the reader is invited to find such trees as have voices of their own. You will know such trees by their fruit!)

From that day forward, the once tall and straight tree began to gnarl and curl, and to hide its leaves from the Sun as though it feared that its very marrow would be exposed by that great Light.Its branches were covered with sharp thorns, and no bird or beast could nest in it. What leaves it had were small and dark, and it situated them only so that it would give shade to itself, as though it were trying to cover the face of the Sun with its hands.

A day occasioned that I return to the orchard for some nearby business. I tried to talk to this tree, the older of the farmer’s favorites. It snarled and cracked, and shook its branches in menace: it had lost what voice it had. I backed away saddened and frightened, and afraid for the tree, because although it had turned its face from the Sun, it could not hide itself. Puzzled at what should cause such a turn, I began to examine the tree’s roots. It was certainly planted in sour soil, yet I had known other trees planted thus to produce good fruit, though perhaps not very nutritious. It seemed as though the tree’s roots were very shallow and had sought far and wide for nourishment. It clearly was not content with the soil it was planted in. Walking its circumference, I nearly tripped and fell over a root that was twice the size of the others, and nearly completely unearthed. It was as straight as a sewer-pipe, about eight inches in diameter, and covered with blackish, slippery bark. I followed it quite a long ways, noticing some shallow notches like scars in this root along the way. Apparently the farmer had tried to cultivate this root at various times, but finding it as tough as iron, he gave up. I followed it still: it disappeared under the earth only briefly a time or two. Such a root! Clearly the tree had expended great effort in producing it. It was fifty yards at least before I saw its dreadful terminus.

The root had made its way to the edge of a notorious lake that was polluted with waste from the Prince’s industries. Several years ago, I worked for the Farmer in the same orchard, and noticed that many of the trees had roots in this lake. Reader, have you ever had a sick feeling about something without knowing why? That’s how I felt about this lake back then: the water itself was sweet to the taste, but it was nauseating to me when I swallowed it.   One could see that a great many trees from the farmer’s orchard had sent roots to this lake, and many of the roots bore marks where the farmer had feebly struck them with a very dull axe. (I had moved away to study agriculture from master farmers, I had learned a good bit more about the lake and how it got there, but that is a story perhaps for another time.)

Horrified by the sight of the once-tall tree’s root into the lake, I made my way back to the orchard. I was so different now from when I worked in the orchard…I had learned so many things… All those roots from the orchard to the lake… was this why so few of the trees bore any good fruit? Deep in meditation, I arrived back at the orchard where I found the farmer talking to his older tree. The once-tall, gnarled tree had recently dropped a few pieces of misshapen, bitter fruit, sweet only with the waters of the toxic lake. The farmer held a piece of the fruit triumphantly up for me, beckoning me to taste. It was very much like a wilted football in its shape, about seven inches long and five across. It was, by my estimation, a pale orange color, mottled and livid with brown spots like a bruised peach that had faded. It sagged in the farmer’s hand and was leaving a sticky mess on his glove. It smelled like cooked spinach. “This,” I said under my breath, “is what happens when trees drink from the Prince’s lake.”  I politely declined to taste it.

A seedling had sprung up from the turf at the feet of this older tree, and it was clear that the tree was shading the seedling from the Sun. The farmer did not seem to notice this, beaming as he was that one of his favorite trees had produced a seedling. His other favorite tree seemed to be beaming as well, and seemed to be voicing agreement, but it was difficult to tell. It had a voice, but it was tinny and shrill, like a tea kettle’s whistle, or the cry of an injured rabbit. It could make out the forms of words, but only as a parrot would, and could not actually talk for itself.

The younger tree was not nearly so tall as the older, but had situated itself on a large mound of dirt as to appear taller. It was very odd in appearance, having silky-smooth, slippery bark that no creature could climb upon, and a few thick tufts of leaves on the ends of its slender branches. These tufts of leaves gave some shelter to insensible creatures on the forest floor, but if any man besides the farmer tried to enjoy shelter from the heat of the day, the tree would pretend that a great wind had gripped its branches and rudely whisk the shade away. It would almost have been humorous, were it not so spiteful.

I went up and reacquainted myself with this tree, as I had done some cultivation (rather unsuccessfully) years prior. It looked healthy enough, although it had grown thorny in its higher branches to keep nesting critters away. It seemed capable of producing leaves, at least where it wanted to. The farmer seemed not to notice these peculiarities because the tree produced copious, brightly colored fruit that floated down like pearly soap bubbles to the turf. They were so shiny and colorful, they looked like iridescent Christmas ornaments. The farmer scooped up a basketful and handed them to me, grinning ear-to-ear. They were as light as air! I tell you the truth, I was holding a basket about the size of a five-gallon bucket filled to the brim with fruit from this tree, and it weighed next to nothing! I picked up one of the pieces and examined it closely. It was a bright red color, somewhat translucent. It had almost a cartoonish character to it, like a child had drawn it with a crayon. Suddenly a gentle breeze rustled leaves from other trees overhead and a bright ray of Sun warmed us. As soon as the Sun’s Light hit the fruit, it popped like a balloon with a startling crack! Instantly, the tree moved a leafy branch to cover the bucket of fruit I had been given and shade it from the Sun’s Light. It rattled forth some tinny, screechy, unintelligible objections at its fellow trees for rustling in the wind thus, and proceeded to shade all its fruit from the Light. I could hear some faint cracks from further away, beyond the tree’s ability to shade the Light from its fruit, but it was clear: this tree’s fruit did not survive in the Light of the Sun.

When the farmer’s fruit-gathering enterprise was over, he had several bushels of fruit, the total weight of which a man could easily carry with one hand were it not for the bulk. The farmer insisted that I try a piece. The fruit broke apart when I tried to sample a piece. It was like a bubble made of hard candy with a hint of… what was that taste? It seemed familiar, like a memory from childhood, not unpleasant, but somehow inappropriate now that I was older. I thought I had been acquainted with it before. It was sweet and delicate… and… “Crack!” another piece detonated in the strength of the Sun. I blinked and gathered my wits. Why was this happening?

As if awakened from a dream, I excused myself as politely as I could (and I don’t think it was polite enough, now that I’ve had some time to reflect on it) and began to do some inconspicuous investigation. The tree suspected immediately that I was doing so and began a furious rustling of its leaves, as well as dropping another load of gossamer fruit twice as fast as before, until the ground was covered with it. (When the farmer saw this, he thundered away to the manor of his employer to boast of his accomplishment, in hopes that his employer would see what a great job he had done on this favorite tree of his) (Oh, and as soon as the farmer left, the tree stopped dropping fruit!)

I worked around in circles: this tree also had shallow roots, but they were very snaky. One root looked so much like another that it was often impossible to distinguish them as they crisscrossed each other and braided together in patterns. They seemed to be searching as well, but not as earnestly. They were much thinner than the once-tall tree’s roots, and not as straight. Most were below the surface, although not very deep.

I found a main root (or what I guessed to be a main root– at about four inches, it was twice as thick as any of the others) on the side of the younger tree that was facing away from the Prince’s lake. I was relieved at that discovery: perhaps the funny taste of the fruit was due to the sourness of the soil. I began to follow the root, but it plunged quickly underground. Digging with my fingers, I discovered that this root grew to nearly eight inches as soon as it disappeared beneath the surface of the soil! With difficulty, I could trace the root by the small ridge of earth that it had pushed up as it bloated and swelled underground. I say “with difficulty” not because the ridge was not prominent (it was), but because the ridge went this way and that through the orchard. It made wide loops and figure-eights, and, as near as I could guess, spelled out a word or two in a sort of slovenly cursive. I won’t reproduce the words that I believe the tree was spelling with its root: they aren’t nice words.

After spending nearly an hour tracing this root, I had followed it back upon itself, around other trees known for their good fruit, through patches of trees known for no fruit at all, and finally through a small grove of trees I had never seen before. They had no discernible voices whatsoever, but groaned distantly in the wind. They were neither tall, nor seemingly old, but it was clear that their hearts were rotten. Sticks littered the turf around them like antler-sheds, and I could feel them glaring coldly at me, wishing they could fall over on me and crush me. They had no command over such things while the Light of the Sun shone however, and though I was chilled at such cruel trees, I felt no fear for my life.

The root I had been following made a wide and circuitous route and seemed to stop near  an ancient cemetery. The small ridge of earth I had been following for an hour and a quarter had come to an end. “This tree must have been sentimental,” I thought to myself, “but why all the trouble of making a maze through the countryside when it could have sent a root straight over here?” The weatherbeaten cemetery was only about twenty yards from the orchard, and the root I had followed was at least ninety. It did not make sense.

Puzzled, I began disturbing the dirt at the terminus of the ridge of dirt with my boot. In the distance, I could see that the farmer was back, and the younger tree was dutifully dropping fruit for the lord of the manor, the farmer’s employer. The lord of the manor was not a shrewd man, but he at least knew enough to point out that the farmer’s younger tree produced fruit that didn’t weigh very much. The farmer was only slightly put off, and went back to lovingly gathering the fruit. “Crack! Crack Crack!” The Sun was shining full strength on a patch of ground that the younger tree could not shade, and some of its fruit had tumbled over to it. The tree was straining with all its might to shade it with a leafy branch, but as I said before, it was not a very tall tree. The lord of the manor strode off, muttering and whistling a tuneless tune to himself.

During this momentary distraction, I had dislodged a good deal of dirt from the terminus of the root I had followed. When I looked down at it, I was surprised to find that it was not a single root, but a knot of at least a dozen thinner roots that grew from the end of the swollen root, which ended at the cemetery gate.  The roots of this knot sprayed out a bit from the thick root, and plunged deeper beneath the soil. They were a sickly white color, from which I deduced that they had never seen the Sun before. I dug down to find that within a few feet, they were all assembled in a formation at about a right angle to the terminus of the swollen root.  Within a few feet, they were straight as rulers and nearly exactly parallel, and were running to the southeast–straight for the Prince’s lake.

I walked slowly back to the Prince’s lake in what I guessed to be a straight line from the cemetery gate, and on the bank of the lake I dug down deep. I must have strayed a bit from the right course because it took four tries, but eventually I found those twelve roots intertangled with several other roots whose origins I could only guess. Almost immediately, I was powerfully sick  (and not wishing to offend the reader, I won’t describe what exactly happened–it’s disgusting).

I composed myself and began walking back to the orchard again. This time, I was sorely confused. Why could the farmer not see it? Was he not aware of the toxic effects of the Prince’s lake?  Well, he must have been partially aware, because he at least made a show of hewing ineffectively at some of the roots that ran towards it. Many of the roots on the surface bore scars and bruises. But then roots that ran in other directions had axe-marks as well, and it seemed that the farmer had been successful in cutting off some roots that were reaching towards noble sources. Again, I was confused. The two trees most dear to him were drawing their chief supply from the Prince’s lake: one overtly, one covertly, and he had been powerless to intervene either by cultivation or by severing.

I pitied the farmer as I rode away. The futility of his situation was not entirely lost on him: one could see it as he frantically gathered the ephemeral fruit of his younger tree, and as he lovingly gazed on the seedling produced by his older tree. I could tell that he was aware of other problems: when the younger tree spoke in shrill, parroted gibberish, a pained expression crept over him momentarily; and when the older tree cracked and growled, swinging thorny branches to protect its seedling from the farmer’s cultivation, the farmer turned and wept softly by himself. It didn’t seem like a good time to give him a detailed account of the dangers of the Prince’s lake, so I left him be.

I looked on this orchard and received instruction.


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