NAOMI ALDERMAN > THE STORIES THE TREES KNOW

Our world is full of unintended consequences. Aspirin, a medication derived from willow bark and intended to treat pain turned out to thin blood and help prevent heart attacks. Minoxidil, a drug developed to treat high blood pressure, turned out to reverse hair loss. And the creation of the Universal Translator, long a dream of the human race, turned out to have stranger consequences than we could have imagined.

The first devices were clunky, as large as a housebrick, requiring the user to speak into them very s l o w l y a n d d i s t i n c t l y. But they found their market. Businesspeople took them to important meetings with foreign customers and investors. Anthropologists used them in the field to communicate with peoples whose languages had not yet been studied. The United Nations procured them in large numbers.

It was at this time that the first reports came that, when the devices were presented to an animal, some decipherable words could be made out. The reports were sketchy, the results not reproducible. A human would have to train a first generation Universal Translation Device by repeating the same word 20 or 30 times; an animal of course would have no way to understand and perform this task. Nonetheless, the reports came. A woman in Birmingham whose frequent work in Japan had made the UTD an essential accessory reported that her dog’s barks had been translated. “I missed you,” it had said when she returned from a trip, “while you were gone I dreamed of the Great Black Dog my mother told me about.” I record this here as the first known mention of one of the Stories.

As the technology developed, UTDs became smaller and more affordable. They began to be built into telephones: now you could call anyone in the world and know that you’d be understood. People wore them on chains around their necks, with a separate tiny earpiece. The need to learn foreign languages disappeared. And the evidence of animal conversation became irrefutable.

The UTD was not designed to cope with the structures of animal languages but nonetheless even the most taciturn poodle or Persian cat responded to basic enquiries: ‘would you like a walk?’, ‘do you prefer Whiskas or Iams?”, “was it you farted just now?” And the more voluble animals began to speak ceaselessly.

The Stories grew. Who would have known, who could have thought that animals told stories? Who could have known it? And yet they do. No one who has heard the Shadow of Shining Brow (known to humans as Bucephalus) – a story told by a stallion in Wyoming – can fail to be moved by its power and proud dignity. The Endless Sagas of the starlings, with their alien morality and strange beauty continue to fascinate and beguile. The tales of the crickets are curious indeed, and although we understand their words we have not come close to divining their meaning.

The vegetarian movement, of course, already so powerful, received the final evidence it needed of animal consciousness and legislation banning the eating of meat was passed across the world. It is one thing to eat a chicken when all it does is squawk, quite another to eat it when it has just told you a funny story about nesting boxes. Stories convince us of each others’, for the want of a better word, humanity.

The next logical step in the development of the UTD came quickly. Within two years OmniTrans, my employers and the makers of the UTD, brought out the Text Translator. A scanning programme, embedded into the camera function of a mobile phone, it could translate any written text, in any language, in any handwriting quickly and accurately. When embedded into a pair of sunglasses, any text the wearer looked at would appear to be written in their native language. And unlike the voice translation system, it could decipher dead languages as well as living ones. Its first notable success was in decoding the Linear A script, a language which hadn’t been read for over 4,000 years.

But then there were the trees. Sometimes, just occasionally, an OmniTran glasses-wearer would look at a tree and see something written on its bark. The words never made much sense, sometimes they were gone when the light changed. A birch tree in Green Park in London seemed to say “adamant, the red redemption.” A willow in Cornwall read “ablative though what may”. OmniTran said it was a system glitch. Of course it had to be. Why would trees have writing on their bark? Trees don’t have eyes. Trees can’t read. We’d always known animals’ noises meant something, but trees don’t communicate.

And yet. And yet. The reports are growing, again they grow. The software becomes more accurate. More words appear on trees. Here at OmniTran we ‘adjust the tolerances’, trying to ensure that the programme will translate only human writings. That’s my job, adjusting tolerances. But it’s getting harder and harder. If the programme can translate Mohenjo-Daro and Eteocretan, it will translate tree bark. And it’s an evolving programme, designed to learn. The translations are starting to make more sense.

Tonight, I left my cool still office on the San Francisco seafront and drove up along the coast. It was evening, but still light. I found a quiet place by the beach with a broad old Monterey Cypress growing out over a cliff. I took out my OmniTran glasses and, using the security codes only we have access to, I turned the tolerance down. Way down. I wanted to test a theory. I put my glasses back on and looked at the bark of the tree. The programme was still uncertain of the meaning, it introduced several bracketed queries. But nonetheless, there were comprehensible sentences.

The bark said:

The water speaks to the earth. It says: these quick ones will not endure. The earth replies: only you and I my dear one will remain when they are gone

I took off my glasses and placed a hand against the rough bark of the old tree. I wondered if the tree felt my touch, if it knew it in some way. And I wondered: if all things are alive and conscious, if they all tell stories, how then will the human race continue?

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