Living with Trees was published by Daily Science Fiction on Feb. 25, 2013.
This is a great little story that taps into a feeling I can only describe as preemptive nostalgia.
The narrator, a cadet in some sort of exploratory corps, lands on a planet named Bharini. Struck by Bharini’s pristine beauty, he neglects to send his report right away — apparently not for the first time — and while exploring the colorful mysteries of the planet, the narrator is surprised when a spore, or something like a spore, bursts above him. He becomes sick, but after a few days finds he is able to communicate with the Bharini’s Gravaar trees. He feels their peace, and they feel his experiences of war and terror. The narrator eventually submits his report, and the trees become fearful of the coming onslaught, despite the narrator’s pleas that humans have changed.
Dighe’s use of color to depict the emotions of the trees, as they are felt-seen by the narrator, are just about perfect: blue-rapture, purple-gloom, saffron-righteousness, grey-distress, pleading-brown, black-lingering fear. (It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which Lucy says Ramandu’s island has a “dim, purple kind of smell.”) The augmentation of the narrator’s senses isn’t merely a trick that allows the narrator to commune with the forest. Rather, it works as a symbiotic version of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. We don’t know how often Gravaar spores burst, but that one bursts immediately over the narrator’s head suggests a cause and effect. Did the narrator inadvertently burst it, or did the tree-organism burst it purposefully in response to the narrator’s presence? Either way, curiosity leads to explanation and understanding.
Sometimes in relationships one party can see their partner’s needs and motives much better than the partner can. The psychic link gives the trees an insight into the human propensity for ruin that the narrator insists is no longer there: “We’ve learned, we’ve changed,” he insists, but the trees intuit a maxim of human action that defies the narrator’s assertions, that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Whether that maxim is true doesn’t matter; in time its accuracy will be verified.
I already mentioned C. S. Lewis, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that “Life with Trees” also has a very Tolkienian feel. In his notes on the story, Dighe tells about a Banyan tree that is cut down in his village to make room for a temple that never is built. Likewise, in writing about “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien tells a story about a poplar tree, seen from his window, which is first mutilated and then cut down for a reason unknown to him. “I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners, except myself and a pair of owls,” he says, and we get the sense that the same would be true of the Gravaar trees in Dighe’s story — without the owls.
As I said, I can’t help but get a feeling of preemptive nostalgia reading this story. The planet is still pristine, the trees still alive. But there’s a sense of inevitability, the same as in Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed,” in which the point-of-view character Janet narrates, “When one culture has the big guns and the other has none, there is a certain predictability about the outcome.” The only thing we can hope is that the trees are wrong.