Tuesday, August 27, 2013


I got a bad feeling about this.

I was climbing down the rocky slopes towards the Catfish Creek when I caught sight of this brown pod…

…attached to a branch of that scrub chestnut oak.

It just plucked off, right into my hand, a snap of the fingers.

It had almost no weight to it.  I carried it in a loose fist towards the beach…

…and laid it out on the big rock for a little alien autopsy.

I’m not at all qualified to do this.

My first instinct?  This must be some sort of fungus or mold, not the most intelligent of life-forms but one that fills a very important niche here in the forest biome.

Fungus is actually how the trees communicate with each other.

It’s true.

Alerted to pests or diseases, even bad weather or fire, the trees will pump out chemicals into the ground, signals to other trees.

The fungus is able to pick up these messages and send them through their wires to the next tree…

…an underground and undercover communication grid that connects root to root, the fungus playing the role of the long-distance operator.

It’s happening right below my boots and yet I can’t see it, can’t hear it, can’t feel it no matter how hard I try.

I have to admit I was a little jealous.

So the trees can talk to each other?  They just won’t talk to me.

Is it too much to ask for a simple hello?  After all we’ve been through together?

The answer, for the time being, is no.

But maybe inside this pod…

…I can catch some sort of signal, some sort of contact.  Maybe there is some message, once intercepted, that can crack the code.

The Rosetta Stone of tree-talk.  It could be right there under my knife, a discovery that would secure Jon Spruce’s place in the pantheon of champion tree-hunters.

First man to talk tree.

But, like I said, I got a bad feeling about this.

I hate it when I’m right.


In a classic science fiction short story, written by Terry Bisson, two aliens argue about the recent discovery of Earthlings.

“There’s no doubt about it.  We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through.  They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible.  What about the radio signals?  The messages to the stars?”

“They use radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them.  The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines?  That’s who we want to contact.”

“They made the machines.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous.  How can meat make a machine?  You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

Funny, I don’t feel like meat.

And yet, here under the gluttonous tides of the Ripe Berry Moon, I am surrounded by meat.

These are the dog days of summer and that heartless Wheel is out of control, berserk, spinning around its savage hub, ringing the dinner bell…

…and some things aren’t going to make it.

If I look closely, if I can peer past the shimmering fa├žade, I can see the Wheel itself…

…maybe catch some of its leftover scraps.

Ah, summer.

Eat or be eaten.

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.  These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”

“Maybe they’re like the orfolei.  You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”

“Nope.  They’re born meat and they die meat.”

And, if you’re not being eaten alive by something else alive, chewed up and digested, broken down and refused, then you’re being eaten by something far more heartless, far more savage.

You’re being weathered.

Ah, summer.

It’s a hungry world…

…only getting hungrier.

“Omigod.  So what does this meat have in mind?”

“First it wants to talk to us.  Then I imagine it wants to explore the universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information.  The usual.”

“We’re supposed to talk to meat?”

“That’s the idea.  That’s the message they’re sending out by radio.  ‘Hello.  Anybody there.  Anyone home.’  That sort of thing.

Maybe this is why I feel so out of place.

Maybe this is the source of my alienation.

Here on the beach, I can’t be eaten and I don’t eat what’s on this menu.

I don’t go here anymore.  It’s too popular.

Here in the woods, I’m the bum looking through the restaurant window…

…watching the platters of food circle from the hot kitchen to the candlelit table.

It’s like I’m not even there.

I’m way too removed from this hunger game.  I’ve tapped out a long time ago.

I win the game by not playing at all.

What do I play?  It’s a hunger game more suited for my people.

We like it when the stakes aren’t so high.

And, as much as I enjoy watching that other hunger game from afar, I have to admit: I don’t miss the food chain at all.

Except for one thing.  There’s one level to that game that I miss a lot.


We never take the time to molt anymore.

Shape-shifting is a game of the past.  Only a few people left can even remember the rules.  Metamorphosis?  So primitive.  Shedding skin?  So messy.

Although costumes are big for us.  Masks too.  But doing it honestly?  Playing fair?

That’s for suckers.

I’ve moved on to the next level.  I’m wrestling with the gods.

Instead of battling for the quick meat, I’m on the long quest for contact…

…combing the overcrowded universe for one hello.

Compared to the Wheel, this game’s a cinch.  The biggest enemies on this level?

It’s nothing to worry about.

A little bit of loneliness, a little bit of boredom, some dreams deferred, a few bad Mondays.

What we like to call the blahs.

Well, what did you expect from a meathead?


Next to me on the beach, the Catfish Creek rolled on and on.

Feeling lucky, I reached into the cool waters and pulled out a rock.

Not the most intelligent of life…

…but life nonetheless.

I was careful…

…one wrong move and this whole meeting of the minds could end in disaster.

I’ve known about worms my whole life.  Somewhere, deep in the stacks, there are whole books about the worm.

Its life is at my fingertips.

And yet, it might know nothing about my people.

This is the biggest moment in the history of blobs.

Such a lucky worm.

Where did it even come from?

It’s hard to tell.  Such a soft life leaves few fossils.  It’s either a snake that gave up its bones or a mollusk that gave up its shell.

I watched the worm.

It moved in waves, sliding up the sleek blade.  Its tail tightened and rattled in the air.  It curled around an invisible axis.

I could see a faint heartbeat, thumping under the soft pink flesh, and I watched it roll all the way up to its inquisitive head.

It was fast, for a worm, and eager to return to earth, darting for the thin edge of the knife.

Was it worried about the fall?

Or was it so terrified that the fall didn’t matter?

I turned the knife, keeping the worm on the razor’s edge.

It was important to me to follow the rules of contact.

First, show no harm.

I come in peace.

And then?

Then, we’re supposed to share some sort of contact.

We must react to each other.

So I twisted the blade…

…and watched it follow the harmony between my mind and my muscle…

…slithering back and forth to the safest angle, tripling in size, reading my thoughts, trusting my intentions.

The next step to contact?

I’m supposed to offer it advice.

Since I’m the bigger man.

I’d try to tell it to enjoy this moment, this contact, that probably not many worms get to meet the top of the food chain, face to face, and live to tell the tale.

I’d tell the worm that, after this encounter, your whole life could change.  And the life of your other worms.

This is a gift that my people are craving for: proof positive that there is something bigger, something smarter, something more advanced than anything you’ll ever find in your microscopic, meaningless little worm-world.

This is the kind of news that shakes a civilization.  Your civilization, worm.  Tales of this encounter will be told, or transmitted, for generations to come.

Worm, I’d say, I am worlds beyond you.  I’m light-years ahead but I see you.  Isn’t this what you always wanted to hear?

You are not alone.

But, in the end, this has always been the problem with worms.

No manners.

The polite thing would be to say you’re welcome.


Summer days aren’t meant to last forever.

So I packed up my gear and erased my footprints…

…then leaned against the big rock and stuffed my wet feet into my sandy boots.

My socks?  They go in my pocket.

I climbed back the way I came, through the groves of umbrella magnolias, to the top of the trail.

I stopped in the shadows of the cherries and the chestnut oaks.  It was cooler standing next to the rocks...

…and it was time to steal one final glimpse of the Catfish.

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched?

I hobbled after it, around and around the tree.  When it stopped, I stopped.  It hopped at right angles and, when it landed, it turned to stone, alert and frantic but completely still.

I let it flank me, thinking that it got away, foolish frog.

Then I jumped past it, landing on my fingertips and toes, spread eagle in order to appear larger and more menacing, and gotcha, scooped it right up in my old tomato jar.

I told you I’d be back, you overgrown tadpole.

It kept absolutely still.  Playing possum?  I can play this waiting game too.

It clutched the sides of the inside of the jar…

…ready to run.

I lifted the jar, holding it upright, and the frog fell to the bottom.

It couldn’t stop blinking.

I raised it higher.

It’s smart enough to know the danger.  It’s just big enough to know it’s not big enough.

I could see its heart hammering.

I held it higher.  It pivoted in circles, flashing his ass to me.  I jiggled the jar until it finally turned to meet its captor, face to face…

…and we held the gaze.

The thick glass kept him blurry and smoky but, from what I know about frogs, I was just a shadow, a discoloration of blue and green.

I wonder if he can tell that I have eyes too.

I tried my hardest to think like a frog. 

I had to unlearn.

If I could forget, for one moment, that I am this person, then I’ll be able to see through the eyes of another…

…if I could only hold the gaze.

If I could only step back into the Wheel.

This is the Earth of which we have heard, Thoreau once wrote, made of Chaos and Old Night.

He wrote that when he was on top of Mount Katahdin, highest point in Maine.

It’s the greatest science fiction story ever.

There, on the top of the world, he leaves Earth, transcends the planet and enters some sort of higher astral plane.

He sees the entire planet as an unhandselled globe.

Unhandselled?  It means never been tooled, unripe, maiden, untamed, not even touched.
It’s his most daunting adventure. 

Thoreau was a champion woods-watcher and, yet, the top of the mountain was uncharted territory, the final frontier.

The wilds.

It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites --  to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to the wild animals than we.

These moments aren’t meant to last forever.

I knew that going in.

I tilted the jar, with its mouth to the moss, and I pounded the bottom until the frog hopped out and disappeared into the woods.

You’re welcome.

I stand in awe of my body, Thoreau wrote on the top of the mountain, this matter to which I am bound seems so strange to me.

Talk of mysteries.

I walked back through the trail with his epiphany running through my head.

How did he do it?  How did he escape?

How did he get inside the jar?

I think of our life in Nature – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it.

…rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!  the solid earth!

…the actual world!  the common sense!


Contact!  Who are we?  Where are we?


The search for contact is a lonely enterprise.

It was a strange feeling, driving home, like I was sitting in the passenger seat of my own car, but I made record time weaving through the traffic.  Nothing got in my way.

The coast was clear.

Ragged and dirty, I arrived home to a pleasant surprise.

A gift from Farmer Gina.

Was it the Harvest Moon already?

Where does the time go?

I’ll have to call her and thank her.

Thanks to her, I get one more free ride through the hunger games.

But better yet, I’ll just clean up and walk the few blocks to her gate and express my gratitude in person.

After all, this doesn’t happen often.

Message received.

Ten-four, good buddy.

Ah, summer.

One long afternoon on the beach, the dog days of August, and it turns out that science fiction’s most frequently asked question has one easy answer.


A big, fat no.

We are not alone.

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