The Star Walker and The Tree Shepherd
The Tree Shepherd was quietly minding his own business, arranging a few stands of alder, throwing sycamore seeds about and trying to find the best place for a hornbeam, when he heard a voice from above.
“Not there” it said, “you want a walnut there.”
The Tree Shepherd stopped and looked up, surprised and irritated. “If I had a walnut, which I don’t, I’ve a much better place for it than this. This is a slope, a steep slope, for a start”
“And what do you know?” said the voice. “You only think it’s too steep because you’ve never tried it.”
“Walnuts don’t grow up mountains.”
“Only because you’ve never planted them there.”
The Tree Shepherd paused for a moment and then, righteously, replied, “I don’t plant them on mountains because that’s not where they grow.”
“That’s what they call a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“It’s what’s right is what it is. I’m not the only one that plants trees, you know.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Well then, tell me where these came from” and he waved at an assortment of firs, “I didn’t plant those.”
“Maybe they planted themselves.”
“Planted themselves?” bellowed the Tree Shepherd, angrily, “and how would they do that, exactly?”
“In this case, squirrels.”
“Squirrels. They take the seeds, wander off, bury them somewhere and, Bob’s your uncle, before you know it, tree.”
“I’ve never heard such preposterous tosh in all my live. Squirrels, indeed! Vermin.”
“Just you watch them,” said the voice.
“As if I’ve the time to watch squirrels,” and then, curiously, “What’s it to do with you, anyhow?”
“I just notice things, that’s all.”
“Just notice things? If that’s all you have to do, I’d ask you kindly to go notice things elsewhere.”
“I do,” said the voice, smugly, “I notice everything.”
“And how’s that, exactly?”
“I’m the Star Walker.”
“The Star Walker. I do to stars what you’re supposed to do with trees. Arrange them well and keep them in order.”
“Stars?” said the Tree Shepherd.
“Yes. Stars. All of them”
“Like the Great Bear?”
“Exactly. That’s one of mine. They all are.”
“It doesn’t look like a bear to me. It looks like a skillet.”
“You have no imagination,” said the Star Walker, “which is presumably why you’re stuck down there, playing with a few trees.”
“No imagination!” expostulated the Tree Shepherd, “Have you seen the Amazon?”
“I’ve seen what’s left of it, and I can’t say I’m impressed. There are planets up here that have much more creative ways with woodland.”
“Planets? Other planets? With woodlands?”
“Yes, of course. Would you like to see some?”
“Perhaps, if it doesn’t take too long.”
“No time at all,” said the Star Walker confidently, “but you might want to think carefully first.”
“Think about what?” asked the Shepherd.
“That you’ll have to come back.”
“That’s exactly what I want to do.”
“Sure I’m sure. Now, are you going to waste any more of my time, or shall we get on with it?”
The Tree Shepherd had never seen a plug-hole, or imagined what it would be like to fall into one. Tree Shepherds, on the whole, are born as Tree Shepherds and never spend time as children. This is a good thing, as Tree Shepherds don’t have the time to notice much more than trees. But, as the Star Walker implied, it leaves them a little short of imagination. All the same, the next few moments felt exactly like falling into a plug-hole, being cold and wet and dark and whirlsome, leaving the Tree Shepherd, when it had finished, damp, dizzy and disorientated.
“Here we are” said the Star Walker.
“A dark-matter well in the space-time continuum, if you prefer.”
“I don’t prefer.”
“Space it is, then. And, from here, we’ve a good view of Athene Z7.”
“Down, and to the left, from where you’re standing.”
“Am I standing?”
“No. But never mind. Look to the left of your left foot.”
The Tree Shepherd looked down and saw in the darkness as slightly darker sphere. A slightly darker sphere at least the size of his foot, and getting bigger fairly rapidly.”
“Arguably,” said the Star Walker, “though we’re really just in the way”
Below, the sphere had doubled in size and didn’t seem to be slowing.
“Don’t worry”, said the Star Walker, “it’s quite soft.”
“What is?” the Tree Shepherd was about to ask when he felt an arm surround him and, at the same time, an oddly squishy pressure on his feet. If he’d had any imagination, he’d have thought it like falling into a bath of treacle.
“You can breathe now,” said the Star Walker, “we’re here.”
The Tree Shepherd breathed. The air, if that’s what it was, flowed slowly into his nose, but he didn’t feel worried. There was something very calm about him now, and he felt as relaxed as he’d ever felt. Here, he was sure, was nothing to worry about. No bears, no landslide, nothing. Just the familiar canopy of trees.
“Open your eyes, too, if you want.” teased the Star Walker.
Around them was, as far as the Shepherd could tell, nothing but darkness.
“It’ll be dawn shortly,” said the Star Walker, “but I thought you’d like the feel of the place before you got to see it.”
“The feel?” and the Tree Shepherd felt. He wasn’t standing, but he wasn’t lying down, either. More floating. “It’s very odd.”
“We’re in the canopy, held by the leaves.”
The Tree Shepherd reached around him and felt something like oatmeal. “It feels like oatmeal.”
“That’s right. The gravity here is strong, so the leaves have to be very small.”
The Tree Shepherd felt again. “Where are the branches?”
“There’s no need for them. The leaves grow out of each other.”
“So what,” the Shepherd asked warily, “is holding them up?”
“The Trunks. They hold everything up like the pillars of your planet’s old cathedrals.”
“Oh”, said the Tree Shepherd, who had never been into a cathedral, nor even hear of one.
“The big churches in cities”
“Oh” said the Shepherd again, not having spent much time in cities.
“You’ll see in a moment.”
And so they did.
The sun was colder and less yellow than that of Earth, and the greenish rays did little to warm the Shepherd. The did, however, illuminate a great sea of tiny leaves, each a tile in a vast mosaic that shifted its colour as the Shepherd moved his eyes, from a vibrant mauve to a peculiar gold. In places, the canopy was punctuated by rising stalks, from the tops of which splayed other seas, casting deep shadows on the seas below that reached as far as the curved horizon, under a cloudless blue sky.
“So these are all trees?”
“And where’s everything else?”
“What everything else? This is it. It’s all trees. I thought you’d like it.”
“So what’s below the canopy?”
“Darkness, mostly. Dead trees, of course. Leaves, clouds. Nothing much.”
“And what lives up here?”
“Just trees. As I said.”
“And who looks after them?”
“Nobody. They look after themselves. It’s why they’re here.”
“But that’s terrible. What if they got sick?”
“Diseased? There are no diseases here. It’s not like your planet, riddled with bugs and vermin and humans. It’s all just peaceful trees.”
A sudden crash disturbed their flat nest, sending ripples across the canopy, followed by a roar like firecrackers.
“What’s that?” the frightened Shepherd asked.
“Just thunder down below. And leaves falling. As I said, the gravity is strong here.”
“I’m not sure I like this place at all,” said the Tree Shepherd, “can we go home now?”
“It’s not the only place with trees. We can see another if you like.”
“What sort of another?”
“Somewhere more like Earth.”
“And what’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch. Come along and you’ll see.”
Again, the Shepherd felt himself tightly held and again he felt disturbingly as if he was being pulled gently in four different directions at once. But soon it stopped and, without being told, he started breathing again and opened his eyes.
They were at the top of a valley, just like a valley on Earth, with a little stream running along the bottom, a small village beside it and a neat little wood that ran down one side, from the ridge of the hill almost to the edge of the village.
“Isn’t this Earth?” asked the Tree Shepherd.
“Just watch.” said the Star Walker.
And so they did.
The sun was rising quickly to the right of them but, so far, the valley was still in shade. A small figure came out of one of the houses. It was difficult to tell how big it was, or even how big the house was, but it looked a little like a human, though a human with longer arms, walking half-upright on all fours. On its back was a red object and, in one hand, a long wand. The creature loped away from the river towards the edge of the wood and then, with a roar, the wand belched a yellow flower of flame that quickly caught hold of the nearest trees. Soon, the whole wood was on fire, sending up a huge plume of black smoke that slowly rose, darkening the valley once more.
The Tree Shepherd watched, stunned and silent, as the trees burnt down to stumps of charcoal, the trunks smouldering as they fell, leaving a black, charred landscape of destruction. He shed a bitter tear.
“Cheer up,” said the Star Walker, “it’s not over yet.”
True enough, the Sun was still rising and shortly its rays touched the ridge above where the wood had been. Almost as soon as it touched, a tree seemed to sprout at the top and was almost immediately joined by another, and then another. Looking carefully, the Shepherd saw they weren’t so much sprouting as jostling, each tree precessing, lifting its roots, tilting its canopy and then falling to grasp the earth before it. Shuffling along, the trees grew in number along the ridge before cascading over into the valley, following the line of sunlight as it ran down into the valley, approaching the little village until the woodland that had been there that morning was completely covered. At that moment, the sun disappeared behind a mountain to the left, and the trees seemed to stop in their tracks.
“It’s a war.” said the Star Walker. “Every day the same. The trees come, the valley-dwellers burn the back. It’s been like this for centuries, now, so I don’t suppose it will change. Ecological balance is what they call it. Fun to watch, once in a while, but it quickly gets boring.”
“Don’t they have Tree Shepherds here?” asked the Tree Shepherd.
“You saw one” said the Star Walker. “If things go well on Earth, you’ll be doing that job soon.”
Back on Earth, the Tree Shepherd soon got back to arranging his alders. The Star Walker accompanied him sometimes.
“I don’t know why you bother.” she said, “Trees can look after themselves”
“That’s exactly why I bother,” said the Tree Shepherd.