Awakening this morning from uneasy dreams, I realized that I had the whole day to myself, no promises, no obligations, no errands, no dues.
So, like most people with a summer day to burn, I went down to the beach…
…to the banks of the Schuylkill River to catch some rays, a new paperback in hand.
It was a typical day under the Ripe Berry Moon, although a little bit cooler than usual for this time of year, not something I’m complaining about.
The sunshine glared off the muddy shore, lighting up every little pebble, every half-buried rock, every stray two-by-four and soda can washed ashore. The wind was blowing both jasmine and diesel, pulling the waves towards the beach on a string.
And the best part? I was entirely alone.
Unlike most beaches, this was a secluded place away from the noisy masses, a hidden cove.
Next to me, there was a large patch of high plants, no idea what they’re called.
I usually don’t like sitting so close to strangers but, to be honest, they didn’t look very friendly or inviting…
…those puckered mouthpieces inching their way towards me and my summer repose.
Unable to resist, I did grab one of those gaping maws and pulled back the thick lip of leaves…
…only to reveal the cranks and gears of their peculiar engineering.
Such odd parts…but, then again, I’m sure if something ripped open my own fleshy envelope, it would also reveal some odd parts, a strange system of beating sprockets and mammalian machines.
Those tangled stalks dominated half the beach here and seemed to catch the entire spectrum of Philly’s flotsam and jetsam: beer cans, plastic bags, trash and refuse and litter, two car batteries and one dead, bloated fish.
Warning: August is not for the squeamish.
This is Nature’s most efficient season, when it’s at its reddest in tooth and claw, the hunter and the hunted dancing around the arena of Survival, the predator and the prey in high pursuit, life and death around every bend in the trail.
The most dangerous of hunger games.
The Wheel right now is cranking away at a breakneck speed, around and around the lifeless Void that lies at the very center of its heartless hub.
Do or die.
It’s a cold thought for a summer day and I shouldn’t let one patch of unfriendly plants, and one dead fish, ruin my summer day at the beach, or ruin the experience of sinking into the curious novel I found stacked away at a local used book store.
It was love at first sight.
On an alien world, a bizarre and intelligent plant offers more than just companionship…Strange Relations.
It’s got a classic opening, a premise fit for the greatest of adventures.
A mother and son are the only survivors after a meteor crashes into a scientific spaceship, forcing a crash landing on a distant, unexplored planetoid spinning away on the far side of the Horsehead Nebulae.
After burying their dead shipmates, the mother and son set off to find other life, and food, across the alien landscape of lush plants and multi-colored mountains, under a pair of twin red suns.
Their hunt proves unsuccessful so they decide to embark higher into the mountainous ravines.
Half-way up, they stopped to sniff in puzzlement at a gust of some heavy odor coming downwind.
“Smells like a cageful of monkeys,” he said.
“In heat,” she added.
By then, it’s too late. It turns out that the monkey-smell is bait, meant to lure these human primates deeper into the cracks of the canyon, and the son is whisked away by strong tentacles into the very heart of the mountain chain.
And here the novel takes a very interesting and, in the end, a disappointing turn.
Much to my own puzzlement, this is not a love story between a man and a plant.
It turns out that the inside of the mountain is an embryonic chamber that is half-slug-half-rock and, after a long but charming seduction, the son willingly participates in a reproductive process that begets a litter of small, cute space snails.
Calling the process sex doesn’t quite do it justice. The way the author writes the mating chapter, it’s not as intimate as that. It’s much more mechanical, not as much fun.
And, perhaps even more disappointing, it turns out that the Mother Slug speaks English. That seems unfair, a little too convenient, like the author, whose other books I’ve enjoyed in the past, took the easy way out of the woods.
English? Really? That was a big letdown.
In the final analysis, I felt duped. I don’t know why the publisher commissioned that cover art but it’s very misleading.
Based on the cover, I was expecting to read about the love story of a man and a plant, an uninhibited romance between two members of different kingdoms of life, the ultimate taboo.
It wouldn’t have even mattered much that the two beings are alien to each other, that the man is an Earthling and that the plant is a Baulderasian.
What difference would that make? Even here on Spaceship Earth, man and plant are divided by just as many worlds, the ultimate long distance relationship.
I had to ask myself: what did I expect from a love story between a man and a plant?
Well, I guess I wanted the author to explore communication. How does one communicate with a plant?
Or what if, this whole time, the plants have been trying to communicate with me? How do I receive their message?
I have control over this complex machine called a body but, among its many parts, do I have some sort of dormant radar that can actually pick up a signal from a plant?
How could I turn that on?
Language, sounds, howls, yawps and grunts, they would all be useless, although some people claim music is able to span the gulf.
Would gestures work? Acts of kindness, acts of cruelty?
Or would it be all about touch?
And I guess I wanted the author to explore intimacy.
If I love a certain plant, how would I know it loves me back? If, for some reason, I find myself alone in the universe…
…and if I am bold enough to cast away society’s taboo and actually embrace a plant…
…will it hug me back?
And, finally, I guess I wanted the author to explore beyond communication and intimacy. I wanted him to take the story to the next logical level.
If a man and a plant were actually able to requite each other’s love, I wanted to read about their ecstasy.
Well, that wasn’t what the book was about.
I felt like the book…well, really, just the cover of the book…had raised all these questions and promises and, now, I was left unfulfilled.
So that’s exactly what I did. I stood up, packed up my camping chair and walked away from the Schuylkill shore, back into the car and back on the road, on my way to another Philly beach.
I would embark on my own adventure, a summer trek, like the shipwrecked mother and son, out into the great beyond, to the wild frontier that runs like a green vein through the city map…
…to the beaches of the Catfish Creek, the main tributary of the Schuylkill River, and into the rocky, mossy woods we call the Wissahickon.
Open the pod bay doors, HAL, and set the phasers to stun, this is a diplomatic mission, Jon Spruce and the search for intelligent life.
“TO EXPLORE NEW STRANGE WORLDS, TO SEEK OUT NEW LIFE…”
The Wissahickon is an old and storied woods.
The creek and the surrounding forest are part of the Piedmont Province, that rising stretch of land between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains, formed from the stretching and banging of tectonic plates four to five million years ago…
…an epic battle of water and rock, when the land tried to wrestle its way to higher ground, the war between ocean and continent.
Here, you can still see signs of that violent upheaval in the exposed boulders…
…you can still see the battle scars, writ in waves on the stonescapes.
This is home to Philadelphia’s oldest rocks and probably some of Philadelphia’s oldest trees.
Here, high above the Catfish Creek on a trail that begins right near the Henry Avenue Bridge, roots grow side by side next to rocks…
…and, in some places, it’s hard to distinguish where tree ends and rock begins.
You might think these are the kinds of trees with such monumental names as hickory or hemlock or pine but, no, these are cherries.
As I climbed down from the high trail towards the banks of the Catfish Creek, I saw groves of the umbrella magnolia…
…distinct for those dog-faced knobs swelling from its smooth gray bark…
…and for its umbrella-like fountain of large leaves…
…each one averaging eighteen inches.
If, at first glance, your instinct is to call this a tropical plant, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark, although it’d be more accurate to call this tree prehistoric. If it shares some characteristics of a tropical tree, especially those large leaves, then that’s because it comes from a world that was much hotter, full of tempestuous weather and violent monsters.
As I approached the creek, I could feel the ground under my boots changing its composition.
Higher up in the rocky bluffs, the surface of the planet was craggy and mossy, jagged with unearthed boulders and roots…
…but, on the descent, the ground was slippery with a layer of wet leaves, bark, twigs, fallen trees and the occasional fern.
Closer to the creek, the ground turns to sand…
…and, hidden right underneath the sand, I found the sunken bodies of mollusks and clams.
Now how in the world would you even begin to communicate with a clam?
A clam has no eyes but it does have a heart, a kidney, a mouth and, one of the most important characteristics of an animal, an anus. It begins life the size of a grain of sand and, much like a tree, there is a way to tell the age of a clam by counting the number of rings in its shell.
Even closer to the creek, I found a puddle of water floating in the smooth pocket of a giant rock…
…and I took the time to catch the reflection of the high trees and the bright sky…
…Jon Spruce and Water, eyeball to eyeball.
My favorite science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, wrote his most successful novel about water.
It’s called Solaris and it’s one of the most thought-provoking and evocative stories ever written about first contact with an alien. It takes place on a space station high above a large planet in a faraway galaxy. The whole planet is just one giant ocean.
Spoiler alert: that’s the alien, the ocean itself, one large organism, its waves the equivalent of muscle contractions.
Now how are you supposed to communicate with that kind of alien? How do you talk to an ocean?
The novel ends on a beguiling question: what if the alien is so alien that we will never be able to communicate with it, understand it, learn from it, begin a relationship?
We think that the discovery of an alien species would help the human race shake off its galactic loneliness but, in the case of Solaris, it only makes us feel even more stranded, even more alone.
We go in quest of a planet, Lem writes, but we are only seeking man…we have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.
I poured the water back into the puddle and scrambled over the rock, landing on my second beach of the day...
...and here my search for intelligent life took a most interesting, strange and dangerous turn.
To be continued…stay tuned for Episode Two of Beech Readings…the thrilling adventures of Jon Spruce in the deep space of the Wissahickon Woods, surviving against all odds in the Hunger Games, through the Wormhole, face to face with Close Encounters of the Animal Kind, then the long voyage back home to Spaceship Earth…spoiler alert, I’ve been on the planet of the apes the whole time…coming soon to an internet near you!