M. E. Garber grew up reading about hobbits, space-travel, and dragons, so it’s no wonder that she now enjoys writing speculative fiction and dreams of traveling the world(s). She used to live near the home of Duck Tape, then near the home of Nylabone. Now she lives near the home of Gatorade. You can find her blog at: megarber.wordpress.com
“Putting Down Roots” is a story-in-emails about a woman turning into a tree. It’s both sad and beautiful, and taken as an Alzheimer’s parable I find it pretty profound. It was also only the tip of the iceberg in terms of stories about women turning into trees that came into the submission pile. I spent quite awhile puzzling over this trend, trying to figure out what it meant, if anything, about our collective unconscious. I didn’t get very far. So I’m really looking forward to finding out from the author how this story came to be.
What inspired you to write this piece?
MEG: As is usual for me, there were a number of things that came together in the creation of this story. First came a flash-fiction challenge to write a type of story that I’d never before written. I’d been wanting to try an epistolary form, and the 1,000 words or less requirement suggested that I’d get only one side of the conversation.
Next was some reading about current research on how trees communicate with one another. It was really fascinating to read about the chemical messages they send via roots and rootlets, communicating their stresses and stressors, so that other trees could prepare and survive the coming onslaught, as well as the ways the researchers conducted these studies. While reading, I got the little shivers of delight that told me I’d have to use this in a story sometime, somehow.
Of course, personal experience played a part in this, as well. I’ve moved more than the average person in my adult life, and wherever I go, I like to learn about my new home–the birds, the weather, the soil and trees and all that makes it unique. And yet, I’m always made keenly aware that I’m unusual in this. Even people who’ve lived their whole lives in one place seem unaware of where they actually live, of their natural world in any but the most vague sense. Those rare people who have lived long in one place and know it deeply–I’m envious of them, and I try to absorb all I can of their knowledge while I’m near. I sense the futility of it, of course–I’ll be gone from this amazing place before I amass any amount of knowledge, and there is little chance of it proving necessary to my survival–but I need the grounding that such understanding provides. I feel lost and aimless without it, and yet I know I’m barely scratching the surface.
Finally, sickness. The randomness of who gets sick, with what, and how we and modern medicine cope with that. Who hasn’t known someone who’s spent too many hours waiting in doctors’ offices, only to hear “We don’t know” over and over again?
And so, Anne came to be, writing to her best friend about this terrible thing–losing her mobility and her raging against the wait, her loss–as she gradually comes to accept it, and even enjoy her change. I suppose that makes me an optimist, in the end. Or perhaps, just someone who would like to put down some roots, deeply.
What’s your own relationship to the earth like?
MEG: Like I said, I’ve moved a lot. I’ve seen much of the northern hemisphere’s temperate zone, and I love cities, and how humans can live well there (especially European cities!). But I seem to need a close relationship to nature, as well. Parks–large, wandering, ungroomed and somewhat wild spaces where my mind can stretch out and my eye can see wildlife’s traces–heron prints along the river bank, fishes in the river waters, hawks calling high overhead, and rabbits darting off into tall grasses. Places where I can harvest wild blueberries, or pop open touch-me-not seed pods, startle frogs and deer. Some of my happiest hours are those sitting on a fallen log, watching golden leaves twirl earthward through a dappled lacework of branches against a brilliant blue sky. Or walking through a light misting rain listening to frogs creak and call.
I love walking through a physical space and knowing what birds are singing, what those blooming plants are called, if I can eat those berries or not. I like to know what the dangers are, what I should be wary of and how to avoid injury from those things, as well. So I suppose the earth and I have a pretty good relationship. I garden and gather and love the feelings of plenty those things bring me, while Mother Nature responds with copious growth and abundant wildlife.
And yet, I still hate mosquitos and no-see-ums, and their itching, forever-annoying bites. And I’m currently learning to dislike red ants just as much. Ouch! Not all the “abundance” is good.
What do you think is fiction’s (or poetry’s) role in changing minds, making people think and feel differently? Do writers have a responsibility to engage creatively with humanity’s problems or encourage their readers to do so?
MEG: I think this is one of the main reasons I love reading speculative fiction. It allows me to explore new ideas, to understand things differently without feeling lectured to. It shows consequences, actions and reactions. It asks “What if,” and those what if’s aren’t always answered happily. What if corporations colonize space instead of countries? What if we somehow derail climate change, but instead of reversal, we have to live with some part-way resolution? What if we were forced to slow down and examine our world in minute detail, the way a long-lived tree does?
Good speculative fiction can make me rethink history as well as the future. It allows me to envision other futures, even find good ones in a radically different environment. It allows for hope in situations I might otherwise think would be “hopeless.” Protagonists often find a way through, even if they have to compromise. Such scenarios can also be a warning: “Stop! Go Back! No Exit. Do Not Come This Way.”
Does it have to do these things? No, I suppose not. But if as a writer I can educate as I entertain my reader (even subconsciously), well, why wouldn’t I? Most people like learning things. It’s human nature to learn and grow throughout our lives. If I can make learning something fun, of course I’m going to do it. After all, I am my very first first-reader. If I’m not pleasing myself with my writing, I’m probably pleasing anyone.
Is humanity doomed?
MEG: “Doomed” is such a bleak term. Are we “doomed” if we have to live differently than we have in the past? If we have to adapt to radically changing situations? If many of us on the planet die, while others struggle onwards? I think not, and yet others would argue yes. Then again, as I said earlier, I’m a bit of a closet optimist. Much of human history has been filled with hate and war, anger and strife. And yet we have also amazing works of art that lift our minds and souls from despair, in every place and age. As long as humanity yearns towards beauty and knowledge, I think hope exists for a better future.
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet No. 33, a theme issue about humanity’s relationship with the earth guest edited by me, is available in 30% recycled dead tree form from Small Beer Press and indie bookstores near you. The ebook version is at Weightless Books.