Yesterday had been the crappiest day of Devon's twenty-three years. By dawn, he'd lain Jake Tremblay’s neatly wrapped body, trussed up like a plastic Egyptian mummy, on the gravel shoulder. Rolling the corpse into the tarp had been the hardest thing Devon had ever done. Waiting beside it for Poitr, the frontline coordinator, to arrive after Devon's hasty text message was the second hardest.
"The RCMP aren't coming. Not after they found out the condition of these roads and who Jake was. They figure they know what happened. Goddammit." Poitr had said, as soon as he'd gotten out of the Enviro-Pact pickup truck and crossed himself. The new guy, a tall, sleekly-groomed Asian, climbed out after him.
"He fell. He was up on the platform and he just… fell." Devon heard the anguish in his own voice and winced. Never let them see you sweat. The mantra that had got him through innumerable foster homes wasn’t working now. Poitr made consoling noises. The new guy, Francis, said something in commiseration too, but Devon couldn’t make himself listen.
"Devon, buddy, do you want to say a few words about Jake to Mother Gaia?" Poitr interrupted the flow of words, holding his Enviro-Pact ball cap respectfully in both hands in front of him, his perpetual toothpick almost lost in his full beard.
Devon shook his head. He’d already rasped out some inadequate phrases into the darkness as he hauled Jake’s body off the rock where it had landed last night. And as he carefully used his other T-shirt to wipe the tarp clean before wrapping Jake in it. And as he squatted against a stump in the pre-dawn light waiting for Poitr’s arrival.
Francis put a hand on Devon’s shoulder in sympathy. Devon let himself feel the warmth for a second before jerking away. Francis' sigh was long and loud.
Poitr rubbed a hand across his eyes and shook his large head, making his blond dreads dance. "I know, Devon. It's hard. Let's talk about other things. And look at other things."
Devon wrenched his gaze away from the tarped corpse. The clear-cut was almost as painful a sight. Uprooted stumps, shattered branches, and other slash clawed up at the sky. The ground, desecrated with scattered branches and shredded bark, steamed in the weak February sunshine. A harvesting machine plastered with Massive Pulp logos sat silent in the middle, its grasping arms frozen in tableau.
Francis gave a low whistle and pointed where the logged area met the forest a few hundred yards away. An enormous Douglas fir rose above the tree line, its upper branches broken and stripped by exposure to centuries of west coast storms.
"Wow, man, I can’t believe I’m really on Vancouver Island. I mean, I'm sorry about your friend and all, but that’s Big Beauty, right? I heard it was over two hundred feet high! But I don’t see the tree-sitting platform. How far is it up the trunk?" His scent, like a fancy hair salon’s odor, drifted toward Devon.
"British Columbia is an amazing province, this is an amazing island, and this here is amazing Majestic Grove," Poitr answered in his public relations voice, ever the spokesperson for The Cause. "The platform is just over a hundred feet up, almost as high as Cathedral Lady’s, may she rest in peace."
Devon forced the image of the slain Lady, butchered and strapped to a logging truck, out of his head. The guilt about that, and about Jake, might leave him someday--if he waited long enough.
He needed to focus on today and what he could do for the current project: saving Majestic Grove and the tree known as Big Beauty by assisting in the tree-sitting protest. Big Beauty deserved to live out the remaining couple of hundred years of her lifespan. He’d do anything he could to stop the loggers--anything other than actually climb the tree.
Poitr cleared his throat. "Okay, well then. This isn’t how I expected the day to go but here’s what we’re going to do. Devon, buddy, you were supposed to have a week off in Victoria. That’s cancelled."
Devon nodded. Poitr never understood that he would rather stay here in the quiet forest than wander the city malls endlessly, waiting for the time off to end.
"Francis, you’ll still be Jake’s replacement on the platform, just like it was going to be while Jake had his week replacing Devon at the ground camp here." Poitr worked his jaw and shifted his toothpick, faltering for a moment, looking down at the blue-wrapped corpse. Francis shrugged and began hauling gear out of the truck.
He sighed and continued. "I’ll get in touch with Jake’s folks as soon as I’m back in cell phone range. The RCMP will want to have a quick look at his body and maybe file a report, but that’ll be it. Just another druggie Pacter, eh."
Devon couldn’t let the crack about druggies stand. "Jake was clean. He’d been clean for two months, easy." No way was he going to mention the foam that he’d wiped off Jake’s cold lips as he’d rolled him onto the tarp.
Poitr pressed his lips together and unlatched the tail gate of his pickup truck. "You take his feet, I’ll grab his shoulders." Together they heaved Jake’s body into the truck bed.
"All unloaded. I’ve got everything, man. I’m all ready," Francis called over to Poitr, laying yet another duffle down on the pile of gear on the gravel and swinging the passenger door shut.
Poitr said, "Ok, got it. I hear you, buddy. You’re set," and winked at Devon. Devon might be bad at picking up social cues but he was sure that Poitr thought Francis was an idiot. Poitr had found Francis trying to get accepted by the New Occupy headquarters in Vancouver and persuaded him to change teams. You took what you could get, these days.
Poitr leaned out the window as he started the ignition. "Oh, and another thing. There’s a court appeal by Massive Pulp to break the stop-work order tomorrow. I’ll let you know the outcome. Take care, buds." With a wave, Poitr drove away, the pickup crunching on the gravel. A thin curtain of rain began to fall, gently then more insistently. The clear-cut blurred as Devon looked across it.
Cathedral Lady had been cut down as the result of a court appeal by Massive Pulp Logging Company. An appeal that had only succeeded because Devon had failed.
Chances were, Massive Pulp would win this appeal too and get permission to fell Majestic Grove.
Chances were, Big Beauty had one more day to live.
"No more environmentally conscientious fabric in the universe than alpaca wool, man," Francis said, tossing his waist-length ponytail behind him. "These boots are lined with it and the soles are recycled tires. Titanium spikes, man, look!" He turned his ankle so Devon could admire the half-inch caulk spikes gleaming in tiny rows on the sole. "They’re gonna last forever. Three hundred dollars was a steal, eh."
Devon continued to nod, wondering if Francis was ever silent. Did he know that tree-sitting required inner peace? A respect for the sounds of wind and birds? A resilience of spirit?
Francis kept chattering. "You should get a pair of these boots, Devon. You can give your shoes to the Goodwill store in Vancouver." They both regarded Devon’s graying Nikes. Most of the eyelets were missing and hemp string was knotted in a criss-cross pattern. Devon shrugged and scratched his bristly scalp. No point in mentioning that he'd found the shoes in the dumpster behind the Goodwill store.
Francis managed to mention his new boots, his Gore-Tex 2.0 raincoat, and even his underwear, all during the time it took him to clumsily fasten the climbing harness around his narrow hips. Devon waited in the rain, his T-shirt getting sodden as the water soaked through his tattered jacket collar.
"Okay, I’m all set, man. Here I go!" Francis raised a hand towards Devon for a high-five. Devon returned it, Francis frowned, and Devon belatedly realized he should have hit Francis’ hand harder. Why couldn’t people see he wasn’t good at this social stuff and let him opt out?
Devon hauled on the winch, the solar-powered battery almost dead, and Francis, one foot in the rope loop, rose into the air, wobbling from the weight of his large pack.
Devon swallowed a sigh. It was only for a week. He could handle it. Then Francis would be replaced by someone else. Another someone that wasn’t Jake. The cold rain beat down on his head and streamed down his cheeks.
Devon twisted restlessly in the narrow cylinder of the person-sized tent at the foot of Big Beauty. Francis’ snoring was a distant rumble above, only partly masked by the intervening branches. Beyond the tent entrance, mist swirled in the moonlight, thick coils twisting across the nearby clear-cut, revealing uprooted stumps like witches' hair, then shrouding them again.
The evening had been long and wearying--waiting for Francis to stop shouting questions down from the tiny platform high in the tree, waiting for his own thoughts to cool, just waiting. Now he waited for sleep. He’d always been good at waiting; he could remember a childhood social worker commenting on it. And, now, he figured his patience made him the perfect tree-sitter assistant.
He’d make a good tree-sitter if it wasn’t for the height of the damn things. Devon’s stomach roiled, just thinking about the one time he’d gone up a tree last year. An older woman, Marcy, had just quit, Jake had not yet taken over, and Poitr had been awfully persuasive. A breeze had made the tree sway and the platform had creaked alarmingly. The tree was sturdy but so awfully high in the air. He’d lasted only a few minutes before rappelling downwards so rapidly he’d ripped his jeans and gouged his knee. The platform had remained empty for four days before Poitr could find a replacement sitter. Devon hadn’t realized that Massive Pulp would act so quickly; they found a sympathetic judge who permitted them to cut down Cathedral Lady along with twenty other old growth trees before the fourth day was up.
Devon fingered the scar on his knee and scrunched down deeper in his sleeping bag.
Francis muttered in his sleep, loud enough to still the late-calling thrushes. He’d asked Devon four times about a cell phone signal in the space of an hour before he believed there were no nearby towers, no internet, no texting, nada, without a very long walk. Then he played a game on his tablet most of the evening, giving the occasional groan or gleeful shout as the game progressed. Devon drifted off then startled at a treble note and Francis' chuckle and suddenly remembered Jake’s tablet. He retrieved it from the netting suspended just above his head. It had survived the fall, unlike Jake, apparently sliding from branch to branch to land on Jake’s sodden and broken body.
Turning it on felt like a violation of privacy, but Jake had called Devon his right hand man, a term of endearment if Devon ever heard one. Besides, maybe it would give a clue as to why Jake was back on the drugs, why he’d fallen to his death.
The last file that had been opened was a video, recorded at one a.m. the previous night. Devon hit the play button, his throat tightening as Jake’s familiar blonde and bearded face filled the screen.
"Hi folks, this is Jake Tremblay of Enviro-Pact. I’m here in Majestic Grove on Vancouver Island with my fellow environmentalists. I’m hoping posting this video and your help in making it go viral will let Mother Earth realize her potential. That’s why my buddies and I are here. Mother Earth is something that the Master Pulp Logging Company doesn’t seem to grasp. Look at this beauty of a fir here. We call her ‘Big Beauty’ for obvious reasons. She’s two hundred and twelve feet tall and more than fourteen feet in diameter – just picture six school buses stacked end on end. She’s survived six hundred winters, countless storms, and, so far, the logging industry." Jake shook his head, his blonde hair glowing almost silver in the tablet’s light. "I’m going to be sitting up here until the loggers can be stopped. It may take months or years, but there is no compromise possible. And you can help. I’ll tell you how at the end of the video. Anyhow, let me show you around." The screen moved past Jake’s shaggy head as he zoomed out to show the huge furrowed trunk. "It’s a whole world up here, populated by many creatures, even some that spend their whole life in the crevices of the bark." Jake put a hand deep into a lichen-encrusted crack to demonstrate.
Jake continued on for a few minutes. He was good with the standard message. He was patient with the tree-sitting. Jake had been solid.
At first Devon didn’t notice the sparkling lights behind Jake’s head as he spoke. As the cloud of tiny bright spots moved to surround him, Jake began to lose focus on his speech, hesitating and turning to look at them. The screen followed the lights as they flowed over the platform and took up most of the remaining space. Jake must have been holding the tablet facing them, as he continued to record.
"Uh, folks, not sure what’s happening here. Not a natural phenomenon that I've seen before. Some lights are here, they’re glittery and shiny. Like fireflies, only British Columbia doesn’t have any. They’re forming a square, lots of them. I don’t know what’s happening." His voice squeaked on the last word.
Devon watched the screen in fascination as the lights solidified into a rectangle, several feet on a side. They coalesced into a semblance of a video screen and tiny characters, made of even brighter lights, began flowing from left to right. Devon leaned closer and amplified the picture until he could see the tiny words.
Capture these words. Send them to your organizations. You, the collective human civilization, must steward these trees, the ones you call Old Growth. They must be maintained. We had come to gather genetic potential but, against our true wishes, we have enacted protective measures.
"What? Who are you?" Jake had rasped out.
We come from many light years away. We have not been here since the Old Growth was the height of a human.
"This is a joke, right? Or I’m hallucinating?" Jake’s voice shook.
We will protect the trees, at any cost. Cease the logging.
"I can’t stop the logging trucks. I mean, that’s what I’m up here trying to do, but you need to talk to the Prime Minister or something. Oh man, I can’t believe I just asked if you meant to say ‘take me to your leader’, " Jake said with an uncertain laugh.
If you are not with us, you are against us. This is a human aphorism that applies here.
The last string of letters scrolled right and disappeared. The glowing rectangle dispersed back into hundreds of little lights. Some began to blink faster, rhythmically, hypnotically. Jake moaned.
As Devon zoomed out, the picture blurred and then twisted to one side, showing only the edge of the platform and the night beyond. Jake must have flung the tablet down.
After a few seconds, Jake staggered back into a corner of the screen, moaning. The seething ball of lights followed. Devon felt a sudden blinding pain behind his own eyes and, squinting, watched in horror as Jake simply walked over the edge of the platform as he might step off a curb. The ball of lights drifted up and off-screen. The crashing, thudding, thumping sound of Jake hitting branches on his long trip down became more distant and finally faded.
Devon replayed it twice, despite an increasing headache. Then he stared out into the gathering darkness, clutching the tablet to his chest.
An hour later, Devon stood uncertainly at the base of the tree, one hand on the winch. Calling out to Francis hadn’t broken the guy's rhythmic breathing. Throwing rocks hadn’t worked either and he’d almost beaned himself. He’d scoffed at Poitr’s suggestion of walkie talkies way back when, figuring constant communication with the tree-sitter would be an overwhelmingly intrusion.
He was going to have to climb Big Beauty.
His heart thudded like a bass beat matching his lingering headache. Francis, even dweeby Francis, needed fair warning that aliens were invading. If that’s what the video really meant.
Could Jake have faked the whole thing? He wasn’t a tech whiz. And he wasn’t suicidal either. He had believed in karma and Gaia, in friendship, in keeping a low environmental footprint, in being the change you want to see in the world. All the things Devon thought he believed in too.
He had to climb it.
In the dark.
Without a belay person.
The solar-powered winch had regained enough juice to get him near the lowest branch. He chinned himself and began the long slow climb. Slipping and sliding on the branch stubs in his running shoes, grasping the rope slick with rain, he only puked once, keeping his eyes tightly closed as he heard the spatter hit tree limbs far below. He tried to ignore the falling sensation that shutting his eyes caused, tried to ignore his math brain calculating how high he was, tried to ignore his reptilian brain telling him that heights were unnatural and dangerous.
Francis woke up, sputtering and coughing, as Devon straddled a branch just below the platform. Devon called up reassurances that were mostly grunts.
An endless time later, Devon hauled himself onto the platform. The rope fastenings groaned but held. He lay gasping, breathing in the scents of sap, Francis’ cologne, and the remains of a Hot Eats meal of beans and rice. Devon’s LED headlamp illuminated the plywood sheeting, scrap lumber, and thick ropes that made up the platform. Almost the width of the tree trunk, about the size of a king-size bed. Various tree-sitters had tried to make the space cozy: a rag rug lay on the plywood floor next a metal storage box. Paperbacks, curled and damp, were piled on a roped-on shelf. Jake’s backpack rested against the huge trunk. Francis, his hair wild, sat up on a narrow mattress, his high-tech sleeping bag fallen open to his waist. He held a sleeping mask in one hand and was removing ear plugs with the other.
"We gotta go." Devon crawled over to Francis’ pack and began shoving in random items, panting in his haste. A battery-powered cup warmer, a miniature cappuccino maker, bright yellow spandex shorts.
The treetop rocked gently in the dawn thermals and the platform groaned again. His stomach clenched.
"Hey, man, what’s up?" Francis’s reedy voice was thinner than usual.
Devon plucked a printout of a smiling Jake that hung on a nearby branch, shoved it in the pack, and said, "Let’s go. Grab your stuff. We’ll walk out to base camp. It’s only a couple of hours walk."
"You’re squirrely, man. I’m not going anywhere until daylight."
"Look!" Devon roughly grabbed Francis’ shoulder, squatting beside him. He wrenched Jake’s tablet out of his chest pocket of his jacket and hit Play. Jake’s deep baritone filled the tiny space as Devon turned away and finished filling the pack, as far away as he could get on the cramped platform.
Francis watched in silence. Then he blew out a breath. "Oh, man, he faked it. What, you think there’s aliens out there? Oooooh." Francis made a fake spooky noise and waved his hands loosely.
Devon forced himself to turn and face Francis. Before he could frame a response, a cloud of lights drifted in from the upper branch and twitched next to Francis’ left ear. Devon sat back on his haunches. Too late. He’d waited too long. Story of his life.
"What the hell," Francis cried, swiping at the lights like they were gnats. "Okay, okay, you could be right, man. I’m getting out of here." He pulled on his spiked boots with jerky movements.
The lights pulsed in a pattern on the edge of randomness. Devon could feel his temples ache in response. Should he wait until the aliens wanted to talk? Like he waited through the misery of high school? Like he waited until he was eighteen and free of foster homes? Like he waited at the base of Cathedral Lady until chain saws bit through her trunk?
Francis stood, staring glassy-eyed at the lights. Devon rose and clenched a fist. Better to knock him out than have him fall off the platform. Besides, any action was better than no action. Too late, he remembered that was one of Poitr’s teasing phrases, not a mantra.
Devon’s fist hit Francis’ cheek with a resounding thwack. Francis staggered, something crunched, and Francis fell, hitting the metal storage box on edge. Devon winced and dropped back on his hands and knees. He crawled the scant two feet necessary to check that Francis was still breathing, a trickle of blood running from his head into his long black hair. Nothing like the dark ooze that had poured from Jake’s cracked skull yesterday.
"Ok, you dumbass aliens, talk to me!" Devon shouted at the lights which had now formed a sloppy rectangle. He clambered to his feet, clenching his hands.
We’re listening, human. The lights scrolled across the makeshift screen, now a precise rectangle. Will the logging stop?
"Why do you want our trees? What is your interest in our planet?" He may not have many social skills but he was a pro at deflecting a question with a question.
Genetic diversity, genome tracking, reasons beyond your scope, the aliens spelled out. Maybe he could keep them talking until Poitr came and then Poitr could handle it. He made a tight fist with his battered hand. No! Enough waiting.
"What if…" Devon thought furiously. He needed to save Majestic Grove and he needed the aliens to stop harming humans. Two birds with one stone. Now that was an aphorism.
"What if," he started again, "You became the stewards of this ecosystem? What if I gave it to you?" He could vaguely remember a social worker telling him about using ‘assumed authority’ in bullying situations.
"Take it home," he continued, words coming to him for once, "Take the trees, the shrubs, the birds, the insects, the layers of duff, dirt and clay. The, uh, mycorrhizas, you know, the fungi…," he trailed off. He realized he was standing on the edge of the platform clutching a wavering branch smaller than the thickness of his wrist and took a quick step back.
We have no precedent for such interference. The lights scrolled slower than before. But it is an interesting concept. And we are bored.
"Hey, drastic times, drastic measures." He let go of the branch and waved both hands enthusiastically. "There’s a human concept called ‘saving us from ourselves’. And another human concept: the living museum. Well, I guess it’s human, because I just thought of it. Listen up."
Devon stood at the edge of the giant pit that was now Majestic Grove. Poitr raved beside him, pushing for an explanation that Devon was unable to give.
"Damn it, Devon, talk to me!"
Devon shrugged. There was no proof. Francis had stepped on Jake’s tablet when Devon had slugged him and the rain-sodden components couldn’t be resurrected. After Francis had woken up, their long walk out to the next valley where a cell phone signal was possible and the even longer walk to the Enviro-Pact main camp had cleared Francis' head to the point where he’d convinced himself that Jake had faked the video and Devon was certifiably insane. A chartered helicopter had taken Francis to Vancouver that morning where he'd catch a commercial flight back to Calgary. Devon doubted they’d hear from him again.
He was beginning to feel some pride at how he’d handled things. Face it, no matter how much activism and tree-sitting Enviro-Pact could accomplish, the death of the grove over the next fifty years in this location had been pretty much inevitable. Having it stewarded by some anonymous aliens that he may never see again may not be a perfect solution but he’d taken action, damn it. Majestic Grove was now safe from humankind, if nothing else.
No need to tell Poitr that he'd phoned the local press as soon as he’d reached the main camp. By noon, pictures of the newly-formed pit next to the logged land had made all the news services.
The reporters broke away from the police and headed their way. Poitr squared his ball cap on his head. He took a step towards them, then glanced back at Devon.
"Okay. Okay, buddy. I’ll explain something to the media. I always do."
Devon threw his small knapsack into the back of Poitr’s pickup and jumped in the passenger seat. The reporters had scattered a few days ago after no new developments had occurred.
"We’ll be in Victoria in a couple of hours if the rain holds off," Poitr commented as he steered the truck through the main Enviro-Pact camp, past the canvas tents and some activists standing in line for a meal.
"Thanks for the lift, man." Devon was getting better at this sort of social interchange. He just had to pay attention, basically. He’d always known this stuff was the grease that kept society’s wheels turning but now, he guessed his old social worker would say that now he’d internalized it. "Thanks for the help, and your mom, and… everything." He frowned. Still not very articulate, though. Gotta work on that.
Poitr waggled his toothpick. "No problem, buddy. My mom needs a tenant in her basement anyway if she’s going to continue to afford Victoria’s property taxes. And the university is lucky to have you."
Acceptance to the University of Victoria’s Ecological Studies program had taken some string-pulling by Poitr, and it would be four long years before Devon graduated but it was a pull forward: momentum at last. No more waiting for life to begin. He was ready.
Poitr pulled onto the main highway and sped up. "Buddy, good news. I’ve got two hundred volunteers lined up next Saturday. Our good friends, Master Pulp, agreed to backfill the hole and also donated a few thousand seedlings. It won’t be the same forest for two hundred years but we can wait, eh?"
"Yeah, we can," Devon settled back into his seat. Waiting did have its place.
"Oh, and one more thing," Poitr said, pulling a tablet off the dashboard. He tapped the screen and some words appeared. "Here’s the mock-up of the sign that will be on the new version of Majestic Grove." He handed the tablet to Devon.
"The Jake Tremblay Memorial Forest," Devon read. "Solid." He grinned, clapping his hand on Poitr’s shoulder. "Just make sure the paint is soy-based."