Surrounding forest

No-one had ever left the town before. All the people knew that the forest was too thick. Once a generation or so, a brave person would strike out into the dense canopy seeking to find another part of the world – literally anything other than the town and the surrounding forest.

Some had returned, turning around when they had under half of their rations left. They returned, but their stories were boring: The forest was the same for as far as they could tell.

Each tree was tall, with beautiful canopies that vied for the sunlight with its neighbor. Children would often climb to the top to see what they could see, but what they found was always that there were more trees as far as the eye could see.

Sarah grew up in the town in the forest.

“Sarah! Are you listening to me?”

Sarah jumped in her seat. She had been flying around the town, preparing her wings for the long journey over the forest.

“I’m sorry Miss,” she said “I got distracted”.

“Thank you for your honesty, Sarah. Okay: So we are talking about the unit circle and tracing points on its edge using radians.”

‘I really like mathematics’ Sarah thought to herself. ‘ I need to remain motivated if I am going to build something to fly over the forest.’

Sarah felt her skin land on her bones when she jumped again, after the teacher caught her daydreaming.

Kevin, in the seat next to her, looked over in sympathy. As their teacher returned to the front of the class, Kevin slipped her a note. Sarah surreptitiously opened it on her lap. It read: “Shall I nudge you if you drift off again?”

Sarah smiled at Kevin. He had a crush on her, she knew, and that made it awkward – she did not want to be too friendly and lead him on – but she did like him as a friend. She nodded her head and smiled some more to convey ‘thank you’. Kevin blushed and smiled back.

As Sarah skipped home from school that afternoon, she watched the sun set over the western trees. The sun moved down, imperceptibly slowly, into the tops of the trees. It then glowed orange as it appeared to set the trees alight, and then as the sun fell further, it extinguished the fire and turned a deep blue color.

When she walked home with friends, they would fill the silence with conspiracy stories about their classmates and their teachers, and about the mayor, and about the vicar. But when she walked alone, she fell into a meditative state. She would sometimes fly over the trees and find small clearings and other towns like her own. She would wonder how previous explorers had failed to find these oases, and how explorers from these oases had not found her town.

When she woke from her reverie, she found herself on her doorstep, and remembered that these other towns were not real. If there was anyone else out there, they would have been found in the explorations of people before her. If there are other towns, they are farther away than can be reached on one set of rations. If there are other towns, there are only three ways of reaching them: Cut down the precious trees faster than they can regrow, live off of the forest and survive beyond carriable rations, or develop technology to fly over the forest.

At home, Sarah climbed the stairs and dropped her backpack on her bed. Then she went back down, found her dad in the kitchen, and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“When will mom be home?” she asked.

“She’s not working late today, I don’t think” her father said. “So, normal time.”

Sarah smiled in acknowledgement, and then went back upstairs, opened her backpack, and reviewed the homework she needed to do for the next day. As she expected, she had already completed all of tomorrow’s homework, and it was already filed in the folder. So she looked to the next day, and then grabbed what she needed from her bookshelf and from her bag, and placed it on the desk.

“Dinner!” her dad’s voice shouted, from downstairs.

She awoke from yet another daydream, and realized she had finished her homework, with a sense of relief. She went down the stairs, carefully placing a foot on each step, worried that she might stop being conscious as she walked back downstairs. She knew it was silly – that these thoughts only happened when she was sat down, or laying down – but she was still nervous regardless.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her nose was suddenly filled with the scent of dinner. The smell, which somehow she had missed when she came home, was unmistakably of stew – stew that had been cooking for hours and hours.

She sat at her usual seat, and her dad indicated that she should move, with a nod of the head that she only recognized because she had been raised here. She stood, and moved to a different seat.

Sarah often wondered why her parents did weird things like that, from time to time. Today she was not allowed to sit in her normal seat.

The next morning, before school officially started, Sarah sought out Kevin.

“You know how I want to find the rest of the world?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I reckon we can cut down trees to make the path easier to cross. If we make a path through the trees, then we can bring more rations on a cart, or something.” Sarah explained.

“Uh huh,” Kevin responded. He wanted to be more supportive, but he was able to do the simple mathematics – cutting down a tree would take several hours, and if the trees go on for as far as anyone has ever seen or traveled, then there were a lot of trees, which meant a lot of hours.

“What?” Sarah demanded, angry at her friend’s lack of enthusiasm.

“Where we live is pretty awesome…. And we know the surrounding forest goes on forever.”

“Help me try…” Sarah implored, losing some of her demeanor in the process.

“Alright. Let’s bring axes this Saturday and we can cut through a couple of trees this weekend.”

Sarah rolled her eyes at Kevin. “That would take forever,” she said, “we need to chop trees every moment we can. Go home at lunch time, and bring an axe, and we can start tonight.”

The bell rang at the end of their last class of the day. Their teacher looked at her watch, annoyed that time had gone faster than expected. “Alright class,” she said, “everyone stand and say your oblations.”

The class stood, and muttered things to themselves. When the whole class had returned to silence, the teacher allowed them to leave.

Kevin and Sarah walked together out of the classroom, and headed to a patch of surrounding forest that they had agreed was the best place to start.

After two solid hours of chopping with their axes, they had made a large gash in the side of one tree.

They congratulated each other on the efforts they had made, and headed to their respective homes. Walking alone, Sarah dreamed of a path through the forest, one tree wide and so long that its end diminished to a point near the horizon.

The next day, after school was done, Kevin and Sarah returned to the tree to continue their work.

The tree had regrown.

Worse, the place where the gash had been was now replaced with a more wood than had been there before.

Kevin looked at Sarah’s face with sympathy. “Maybe cutting the trees is not the answer.” he proferred.

“Maybe…” Sarah said. “Maybe… You know; I bet we are not the first people to realize that trees grow too quickly to be cut down in a couple of hours.”

“That’s why we have never seen even a single tree cut down, then.” Kevin said. His shoulders had more curve in than normal, as if his back had lost some of its rigidity.

Fifteen years later, Sarah closed the clasp on her backpack. It was packed. Nothing more could fit in, and no further planning was necessary.

She carried the heavy pack down stairs and into the living room where her parents were sitting reading.

“Is it time?” her mom asked, anxiously.

“It is time.” Sarah confirmed. Her hair had been cut short, and she was dressed in the most efficient clothing she could buy. She was a foot taller than her mother. Her height was not what differentiated them, though: While her mother was an accomplished woman, Sarah was shaped with a different mold.

Sarah kissed each of her parents on the cheek and then left before her parents’ worries could affect her resolve. She knew they would follow, but the goodbyes had been done.

She walked to the point in the surrounding forest that she had decided was the right way to go. There was a large crowd huddled around the point of egress. As she walked through the crowd, she pulled the magnetic compass out of her jacket. She knew which way she was going to head, but she felt the ritual would help her remember if, at some later point, she was panicked.

As she placed the compass back in her pocket, the crowd started to clap, first gently, and then more and more vociferously.

To the sound of clapping, Sarah started her journey, climbing between trunks, over large roots, under low boughs. She swung a machete at the first shrub that blocked her path, and was soon not visible to the crowd.

As she continued, the sound of the crowd’s applause started to fade, and before long there was nothing except the sound of her large boot landing on the ground, or on bits of plant life.

‘I have been training for this’ she said to herself. She knew it was true. She had started running around the town to improve her stamina. Once she could run around the entire circumference of the town, she had started making short journeys into the woods after doing one loop. Over time her journeys into the surrounding forest had gotten longer and longer until she was now sure she could travel over this merciless terrain for six hours without a break.

As the six hour mark started to approach, she could feel the familiar feeling in the soles of her feet. She looked up at the leaves above. She loved the sight of the backlit leaves casting a green glow over everything below.

When she found the combination of branches she was looking for, she climbed the tree. At the top, she poked her head out through the top-most level of leaves and looked out across an unending expanse of leaves. She could see, at the very limit of her eyesight, the spire of the tallest building in the town. But aside from that, the view in all directions was uniform.

She lowered herself down a little, and then moved from the current branch to another that she had already scoped out. There she tied one end of her hammock. When she’d attached the other end, she laid down and placed the backpack on her stomach. She ate a ration, and then closed her eyes.

Sarah woke to the cool of an early morning, packed up her hammock, and carefully descended to ground level. An injury here, she knew, could be deadly.

After reviewing the compass, she continued on her journey. Occasionally the trees’ trunks were so close to each other that she was forced on a detour, other times there were fewer trees so that she could spread her arms without touching one on either side. Most of the time she was squeezing between trunks, shrubs, and ancient gnarled roots.

She had never been apart from people this long. As she continued to walk, her mind started to consider her life, and she thought about her friends, her family, and her friends’ families. Soon, though, those thoughts started to feel redundant. Those people were miles behind her, through interminable forest that few had ever travelled through. In the last century, she was reasonably confident, no-one had stepped where she was stepping now.

Maybe no-one had ever stepped where she was stepping now.

Every hour or so, Sarah had to convince herself not to climb the nearest tree to see what was around. Eventually, though, curiosity won out, and she scaled the first tree she came across that looked scalable.

Once again, the view was of a green ocean of leaves that stretched out in all directions. The difference: Her town was no longer visible. The spire had shrunk to nothing, and the gap in the trees – important as it was in her life – was now placed into perspective by the expanse of trees that showed no signs of having other edges.

Now, she knew, there was no point climbing to look out over the forest for at least six hours, probably twelve, as the view had little hope of changing after so little progress.

She clambered on, between the bent and crooked arms of witches, and the vicious claws of wooden bear claws. She scraped past sandpaper-like trunks, and branches that had been worn smooth by unseen animals.

She wondered if there were other creatures in these forests – creatures that never came near to the town. Perhaps there was a hairy human-like creature as told in stories designed to scare children? Perhaps there were pigs that walked on only two legs, and had hands instead of trotters? Perhaps that black patch was not a shadow, but was actually the face of a flying animal with razor sharp teeth.

Sarah admonished herself for the wild thoughts. Her daydreams had, for so long, been about finding something else, that her brain felt untethered now that she was on her quest.

She had packed enough food for twenty-seven days of travel. This was as much as she felt she could carry, without making the pack too heavy. She could not carry twenty-seven days of water, though, so she captured transpired water from the leaves of the tree she slept in, each night.

She hoped that at some point she would come across a stream, or a river like the one in the town, but she was not going to rely on that. She had worked out that she needed about one and a half pounds of food per day, and if she could find berries or trap an animal on her travels, she could extend that further.

But one thing she knew: She was not going to turn back when she reached the half-way point of her rations.

On the third day, Sarah found some berries. Her horticulturalist friend had told her how to test berries. “If it is not one that you know from eating here in town, eat one only, and see if you’re okay the next day. If you are, eat two, and keep ramping it up.”

Sarah had followed this advice for two different berries she found, and now felt confident she could keep walking for as long as she was not injured.

On the fifteenth day of her journey, Sarah climbed a tree again to take a look around. The tree she had selected had a few branches on the lower trunk, that allowed her to climb it like a ladder, but the branches got much thicker in the crown. She found some berries in the canopy and ate those. When she climbed to the top of the tallest branch that could hold her weight, her head did not reach the leaves.

Annoyed, she climbed back down, faster than she should, and then found another tree to climb. At the top, she found a view that did not surprise. The leaves rose and fell like ocean waves over the whole world. There were leaves on the horizon in every direction.

On the twenty-seventh day of walking, climbing, scrambling, and macheting, Sarah noted that she still had about a third of her food rations. She also noted that the view from the top of the trees was unchanged. Now, though, she knew that she was at least twenty-seven days away from the town.

Sarah wondered if she could be more than twenty-seven days away from another town. Perhaps she was less than twenty-seven days away, but not in the direction she was heading. Perhaps she had missed a town already, by being just out of sight of it when she passed by. But what if she changed direction to check, and then missed the town she would otherwise have found?

She resolved to carry on, in the same straight line direction, and hope that at some point she came across something, anything, that was not a sea of infinite trees.

Forty days. Forty days of no company, of a limited diet, of crazy thoughts, of odd-tasting water. Forty days, give or take, of seeing nothing but trees in all directions.

In her hammock that evening, Sarah removed her shoes and inspected them. The soles were holding up reasonably well, despite the brutal test they were being subjected to. The rest of the boots looked fine too. She inspected her own foot, as well, holding it to resist her leg muscles’ preference for being stretched out. They looked perfectly healthy.

The next morning, after a deep, dreamless sleep, she woke up peacefully. After detaching the hammock, she climbed up to the top of the tree to witness the sunrise as she had done several times before.

In the far east, she could see the sun, more orange than at midday, appearing to ignite the forest. Her imagination made her see a slight browning of the trees on the far horizon. Maybe there were fewer trees there?

Dismissing the thought, she climbed back down the tree, and compass in hand, continued her journey. Her foot kicked a small plant and as it did so, the plant leaned slightly out of the ground exposing a large tuber. Sarah pulled the plant out of the ground and brushed the dark soil off of the fat, white root.

She tipped a little of her precious water over the end of the root to clear it of the remaining earth, and then bit a piece of the plant’s meat. It had a mildly nutty taste. Not unpleasant at all, and a nice change from berries. She washed off the rest, using as little of her water as possible, and then ate the rest of the root.

About half an hour later, Sarah felt light headed, as if she had drunk beer.

Five minutes after that, she looked at her hand, confused about how it felt, and realized that it was rippling as though she was looking at it through the surface of a wavy pond.

Without thinking about what she was doing, she sat where she was, and crossed her legs.

The quality of the light had changed when she woke up. She was still sat, legs crossed in the lotus position. She felt calm, but that dissipated quickly when she realized that she had had some weird reaction to the tuber.

Sarah looked up at the canopy above, and the bright green hue that was cast before, was now a dark blue. Alarmed, she climbed the tree, and confirmed that it was already dusk.

The next morning she woke feeling as fresh as any other day. No more whole tubers, she decided – just small bites to sustain.

She continued on her journey. After seven hours of walking, climbing, and shimmying, Sarah decided to climb a tree and look out again. She knew it used a lot of energy to keep climbing trees, but she also knew that missing a town would undermine the whole point of the efforts and sacrifices she had made so far.

As her head passed the top of the trees, she realized that things were different. The trees directly ahead were thinner, more straggly, and less healthy-looking. Rather than being green in all directions, the view was green in all directions, except that straight ahead the trees got more brown. The brown trees, though, continued to the horizon.

Carefully lowering herself down, Sarah wondered what she had come across. Her heart skipped slightly at the prospect of some difference. But it was tinged with concern – concern that perhaps this was the sum total of the variance in the forest and that, actually, there really was nothing else except differing trees.

May be continued…

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