The Decimation

January 14, 2020

In this charming fable, the fate of an apple tree and its friends becomes a metaphor for our relationship with the natural world. It is all too easy, perhaps, for ecological fiction to be either despondent or exalting; a cri de cœur or a paean. “The Decimation” is compelling because it is not so easily categorized, creating a world of surprising complexity in an unassuming—though never naive—voice. That its lucent prose mimics the natural world it depicts is one of its most appealing qualities. It is affecting because it is unaffected, leading us by the hand to a place of quiet reverie. Remarkable for its tonal depth and emotional verve, “The Decimation” is one of our two finalists of the Environmental Writing Prize. —Juhea Kim

Barnes is our home. Here, my friends and I enjoy the gentle touch of sunshine, the sweet murmuring of breezes, and the melody of birds. We always thought that we will remain happily ever after in Barnes. But not so, for one morning two men in green shirts arrived. They stared at us, and we stared back at them. The men inspected the land and talked among themselves before leaving.
“Who are they and why did they come? Are they the same men who went to Baliku?” asked Mr. Pine. “Don’t worry Mr. Pine. Nothing of that sort will happen to Barnes,” I assured.

Baliku had once been a green haven, but was turned into an amusement park some years ago. Thousands of trees there had been felled mercilessly to make way for people. Behind every happy face that comes out of the amusement park lies an unhappy face of a fallen tree.

“Hey everybody! How are you all?” screamed Lily as she hopped around us. “Guess what Mummy bought me?” Lily continued. “A box of paint colours, a paint brush, and… a canvas.” She displayed the items before us and we looked at them queerly, for we had not seen such things before. “Now I’m gonna paint my favourite people in the world,” Lily announced excitedly and took out green, blue, brown, white colors.

“Wonderful! I think Lily is going to draw a lion near a river,” remarked Mr. Pine. We all stared at him.

“And what makes you think a lion and a river are her favourite people?” asked Mr. Conifer between bouts of muffled laughter. “Look at the paint colours boy! Use your senses instead of laughing at me,” snorted Mr. Pine. Mr. Conifer laughed at the top of his voice and we too laughed. At this Mr. Pine hit with his branches at Mr. Conifer and he too gave one back to Mr. Pine. The rosy finch couple flew away from Mr. Conifer’s branch. “Now what’s going on here? Stay still. I’m painting you all,” said Lily and resumed painting. We became silent.

“I didn’t know we were her favourite people, good idea Lily!” said Mr. Pine and settled down. “Yeah, better than a lion near a river,” said Mr. Conifer with a laugh. Mr. Pine looked sharply at him, but refrained from another fight as he did not want to disturb Lily. She finished about half the picture before leaving in the afternoon.

By evening, few people came out for a walk. This form of recreation by human beings was a familiar sight for us. Sometimes children would start climbing us, and if they tried Mr. Oak, he was sure to put them down by shaking himself, while they persisted thinking it was their fault that they fell. At times, it would be the parents teaching their children to climb, but the lesson would end in laughter as Mr. Oak was not lenient to parents either.

Most people plucked apples from me, and I was happy to do the service. I think they planted the seeds in their backyard, because a child once happily pointed his finger at me and exclaimed: “Look Daddy, the same tree at home!” We usually tried to figure out what humans speak as they roamed between us, but ended up guessing by their facial expressions. If the face was happy, then they spoke of joyful events; if the face was sad, then they spoke of sorrowful events; and so on. Sometimes, I wished they would also talk to us like Lily. I guess it’s because neither trees can speak human language nor humans can speak our language. Besides, humans have much better things to do than talk to us. But nine-year-old Lily is an exception because she thinks trees can understand human speech. We do now understand most of human language thanks to Lily, who continuously visited with her family or friends.

After four days, the same men came back, measured the land, and scribbled down something on a piece of paper. They were soon accompanied by more people who came in three cars. Everyone was dressed in green shirts, except for Mr. Silva who wore a black suit. He was fidgeting on his phone as he stepped out of his car. Mr. Silva had a pleasant face and curly hair, and wore black sunglasses. He walked around, listening silently and intently to a man who explained the features of the land, and the men looked at every nook and corner. When the group came near me, they stopped and stared at me. The man next to Mr. Silva whispered something to him.

Mr. Silva hit my trunk and said, “Hi.” I greeted him back, though he must have not understood. I felt like he was trying to get friendly with me, but I sensed something fishy. They walked backed to their cars after two hours. Mr. Silva leaned back in his seat, folded his arms over his chest, and lowered his head. He was silent for a few minutes, then raised his head and said, “The land is good; I think it’s the best of all the lands proposed for the house.”

“Yes sir. Barnes is one of the best areas in Kiliku. It was owned by the deceased man whose relative we met a week ago. Since no one in his family cares about the farm, the people took it as public property, and now the Mayor is…”
“The Mayor?”
“Yes sir, the Mayor wishes to extend the avenue from the city to the countryside, and since this farm is at the suitable location, he…”
“Yes, yes, I now understand.”
Mr. Silva paused as if deep in thought.
‘I’m buying this land and I’ll talk to the Mayor if necessary. Anyway, the papers will be signed within two days. Did you understand?” He said at last.

“Yes sir.”
“Very well then, the work begins next week.”
A spark of fear went from my trunk to the branches. The trees were in an uproar. “Is he going to chop us?” asked Mr. Oak.
‘Yes, that is what Mr. Silva said,’ I answered.
“Uh-huh! This is unacceptable, he cannot do that. Seriously, who is this fellow?” asked Mrs. Cherry.
“Why can’t he build his house in a desert? There is plenty of land there,” said Mr. Pine.
“Due to lack of water and trees, no one likes to live in a desert,” replied Mr. Conifer instead of making fun at him.
“What are you saying boy, humans cut down trees and they cannot survive without trees! What is this?” asked Mr. Pine.
“Humans only read and study about us, but they don’t care about us, and yet we have to keep our duty. This is not fair,” said Mrs. Cherry.
“We don’t get to decide what’s best for us,” I said. “Humans need houses to live, we don’t. Humans need sports equipment, we don’t. Humans need paintings, we don’t. Humans need construction material, we don’t. Humans need fuel, we don’t. Humans need furniture, we don’t. Humans need utensils, we…”
“Mr. Apple, don’t you dare speak one more sentence supporting humans in front of me,” shouted Mr. Pine.
I kept mum. All I could do was to hear every complaint. Readers, tell me is there anything a tree could do when it is to be cut down without its permission? What do you do when you see a person kill someone for no reason? You are the educated and rational creatures who are about to convert other planets in the universe into your home. I do not know whether you will plant trees there, since you do not care for trees on Earth. Where do you find meaning in turning Earth into wasteland and racking your brains to turn an uninhabitable planet into Earth? So tell me.

Days passed very quickly but each second was for us heavy with sorrow. We did not speak, laugh or look at people who came for walks. Did they sense our sadness? I don’t know. I wondered where they would go after Mr. Silva’s house was built. Would they give up walking or find another place? I wondered if there was another place like Barnes.

The light was advancing, but was still a blur, and I found it difficult to comprehend exactly what it was. I thought to myself, My God, is the farm on fire? Suddenly, the light exploded and all the trees in the farm were burning. Out of the flames, many ugly creatures with axes in their hands emerged and started to swirl around me. The creatures’ faces looked human, but were distorted. Who are you? I asked. They did not answer. The heat and the sight of the swirling creatures made me faint and I was crying out in agony when the flapping of wings woke me up. I was shivering, and it had woken up the family of snow buntings. After making sure that I had stopped shivering, they settled in their nest and fell fast asleep. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I loved the snow bunting family. Mrs. Snow Bunting would carefully divide the food for her naughty little snow buntings, which were born in this nest and were just fledglings. I wondered where the family would go when the trees were cut down. They might find another tree but wouldn’t they miss me, or maybe they will forget me…

Until Mr. Barnes’s death, the farm was full of life. There were many animals, trees, plants, ponds and a big Barnes family. I do not remember all of them, only the trees before me would be able to recollect, for I know only old Mr. Barnes and his manservant Chris. Mr. Barnes looked after the farm with Chris’s help. He allowed others to enter the farm, so apart from the people who came to spend their leisure time, I rarely saw any other humans in the farm except the two and Chris’s wife who visited at times. He loved us, and we loved him back. Mr. Barnes too believed like Lily that trees understood human language, and used to spend his evenings talking to us, sometimes till late. Since Mr. Barnes was alone in the night he found solace with us.

He would always start his conversation with the same line: “God created nature for human’s benefit, but He didn’t create humans to destroy nature.” The elder trees never stopped listening to him, but I never bothered to pay much attention to the old man so that I can recollect only his last words to us: “Farewell, my friends and listeners. I don’t live longer like you.” After a few weeks, he passed away and the farm was left unattended. The house was brought down and the animals were sold by his relatives. I do not know how many trees were there before Mr. Barnes’s death, but today there are only twenty-five apple trees, seven cherry trees, forty oaks, eleven pines and thirty-four conifers altogether. So, only a small portion of fifteen acres has been able to sustain trees, the rest are left like that, and no one ventures beyond the last row of trees.

So, the work is quite easy for Mr. Silva. The inhabitants of Kiliku have been able to keep only the sign board of the farm out of nostalgia. I sighed.

“Mummy, when will you be back?”
“As soon as I get food, sweetheart. Now stay here, all right? Don’t go anywhere. I’ll come very soon.”
The two little cubs hopped merrily into the cave, but one cub stopped and turned back before Mrs. Tiger left.
“What is it, sweetheart?” asked Mrs. Tiger.
“What will you bring, Mummy?” inquired the cub.
“It’s a surprise, now go into the cave.”
“Ok Mummy.”

Mrs. Tiger went out to hunt after making sure that the cubs were safe inside the cave. She passed through the grassland and stealthily walked to the plains. A zeal of zebras was under her close surveillance. She knew she had to be extra careful as she advanced toward them. She lurked slowly with patience. Just then, a clan of hyenas ran toward the zeal, and the zebras took flight with the hyenas chasing them. Mrs. Tiger punched her paw at the ground. It was already dusk, but she did not give up and decided to try the pond, where she was sure to catch a deer. And she was right; an unsuspecting deer was quenching its thirst there. Mrs. Tiger replayed the same moves with precision, for this time she had to catch the deer otherwise her cubs and she had to go hungry. When it was time to attack, she jumped with a growl from her hiding place to pounce on the deer. At that very moment, a net sprang from the ground and enveloped her. Mrs. Tiger fell to the ground with a thud, and desperately tried to free herself from the net. Her movements looked like a beating heart. But the more she tried, the more she entangled herself. The deer was put back in the cage.

“O no! The deer was bait. I need to get out. My children…” Mrs. Tiger blacked out as the sedation from the dart started to produce effect.
“Why is Mummy not coming?”
“I don’t know…She’ll come.”
“But she was never this late.”
“Maybe she found something big to eat, and is finding it difficult to bring it quickly.”
“Then let’s go help her,” said the cub, getting up. The other cub yanked his sister down. “Don’t go outside the cave, remember what Mummy told us.” The cub nodded and sat close to her sibling. After a few hours they fell asleep. The rustling of leaves woke them up in the middle of the night, and they mistook it for the trampling sound produced when their mother arrived. The cubs joyfully ran out of the cave, but only the pitch darkness welcomed them.
“Mummy, where are you?”
“Why did you take so long?”
“Mummy…”
The twin voices faded away with the wind that was blowing that night.

I looked at Mr. Oak. He was sad and his head was lowered. He was the oldest among us, and it was him that I saw when I sprang as a sapling from the depth of the earth. The crossbills were about to get ready to start the day. They opened their wings and flapped over the trees in search of food.

Lily arrived one afternoon. She looked sad and had something rolled in her hand. “You’re all going away, right? Do you know that? I got photos of you all, even then I…I’m…I’ll miss you all…” Lily then unrolled her painting and raised it above her head for us to see. It was beautiful. There were Mr. Conifer, Mr. Pine, Mr. Oak, Mrs. Cherry and me standing in a row with a girl sitting between Mr. Pine and Mr. Cherry. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she hugged each one of us, and took some leaves from each groove. If we too had tears, we too could have cried with her. Before she left, I shook myself to let the apples fall. So did Mrs. Cherry. Lily picked them up, for she understood why we shook.

We’d known Lily since two years ago. She first came frequently to the farm for a walk with her mother, and asked her mother to take photos of herself posing in front of us. Later on she came to read and play with her friends. She used to read out the stories loudly so that we could hear. We never understood everything in the story, but we were surprised by the love she showed us. We used to look forward to her arrival. The sight of Lily and her friends playing made us happy. Once, she narrated the incident that made her love trees: Lily’s favorite game was chess. She especially liked the pawn, for it was tiny. Her mother too loved chess, as it sharpened her aging brain. A game of chess was their daily routine. Another unchanged weekly routine was a visit to the park, where she would ask her mother to take photos of her in front of a rose shrub. On one such visit, they found the rose shrub uprooted, and Lily was extremely sad and cried for days. After that she sometimes refused to visit the park, but the game of chess continued.

One day Lily’s mother was at the point of losing in a chess game, and she managed to defend the king with the pawn. Lily walked off from the game saying her mother played foul. That day as Lily’s mother prepared dinner, she pondered over the newspaper’s conclusion that the world will never recover from the aftermath of nature’s exploitation. Just then a thought struck her: Nature was viewed as tiny and weak by man like the pawn among other chess pieces. But here was nature revealing her strength, and trying to convince mankind that if they go on this way, the results would be devastating. Nature would surely defend herself from the atrocities of man. This was akin to that day’s defence by a pawn in the game of chess. During dinner Lily’s mother announced: “From now on the winner of the chess game has to plant a seed in the kitchen garden.”

“Roses too…” said seven-year-old Lily. From that day on Lily didn’t care who won the game, for she was happy to see lots of saplings in her backyard. Her mother also decided to shift from the park to the farm for the weekly walk. I’m grateful to Lily’s mother for fostering her love for nature.

Our final days were approaching. Soon after Mr. Silva bought the land, the supervisor from Paradise Constructions arrived, accompanied by his men. His actions were funny; he looked into a piece of paper and waved his hand in all directions while talking to the men. Then two more men came, and he did the same actions. I grabbed bits of their conversation.
“Inspect the land and see what all tools and how many men you need. As of now pull down all trees. I’ll contact you if there is any change in the plan. Is it clear Jack?”
“Yes sir.”
“Good! The work starts next week,” said the supervisor, walking to his car. Then the group left, leaving just two men behind. They inspected the farm as if they were here before.

“I wonder if I can get those apples,” said Jack, staring at me.
“What’s the matter? Sally has got an apple forest in the backyard and yet she craves more?” joked his friend, whose name I gathered was Roger.
“No. Sally said she planted an apple tree here years back.”
“Oh! so she’s been doing this for years.”
Both laughed. I allowed Jack to pluck as much as he wanted. Anyway they will be wasted after they cut me down. Jack filled till his pockets were about to burst.
“Sally is sure to be very happy,” remarked Roger.
Jack caught hold of my trunk and stood smiling. “I wonder if you are that tree.”

The two men retraced their steps to their truck. Later that day, Mr. Oak reported that one of them said it’s a shame to lose such a peaceful place to a house.
Finally, our last day arrived. The sun rose brilliantly that morning and everything was normal for everyone except us. We waited for death’s approach. The branches and the leaves were dropped, and so pale that a painter would find it difficult to capture our emotions. The vehicles poured in like rain. There were all types of vehicles and the meanest looking tools—hatchet, two-man crosscut saw, bow saw and tree loppers. Jack gave instructions to his men, and very soon they began their cruel act. Meanwhile, one of the lumbermen helped himself to a bunch of cherries. The sound of the chainsaw echoed through the farm like death knell and trees started to fall one by one. Nests also fell to the ground, and the confused birds made such a ruckus that they culminated as a unified voice of protest, but lumbermen paid no heed. Then they came near Mr. Oak, who shook violently such that the lumbermen found it difficult to cut him. Though they found it strange, Mr. Oak had to give into their persistence. Once the chainsaw hit his trunk there was nothing more to do and he fell. Next went Mr. Conifer, Mr. Pine, and finally Mrs. Cherry. I saw them cut into half and uprooted from their birthplace. But before the fall, they looked at me one last time with the most piteous look. I will never forget their expression. At every sound of the fall I was literally groaning and shouting at the top of my voice to stop, but it fell on deaf ears. One by one, the trees went down fading away from my world. “All right boys, that looks good enough for now. It’s lunch time,” shouted Jack.

In just four days, they completely wiped out all the trees except two oaks and me. Mr. Silva and the supervisor came on the third day to check the progress; I guess they were happy beyond measure while I choked with grief. I heard Mr. Silva say: “The boys have done a pretty good job.” The architect arrived after two days and set about his work. So, I saw the house being built and the four-member family moving in.

When the construction was finished, Mr. Silva hosted a party at his new house and invited everyone from the neighborhood. The sound of laughter from the house reminded me of Baliku Amusement Park. There were light illuminations, music and plenty of food. But something problematic happened at the party, for at night Mr. Silva and his wife discussed a serious matter sitting in their backyard. I inferred that there were some environmentalists among guests and the family was unaware of it, until those environmentalists walked out of the house upon seeing a tigress skin displayed in the drawing room, and accused Mr. Silva of poaching.

“I didn’t know this place was infested with environment maniacs, God! The tigress skin was brought from Indonesia, and I paid a great amount on it,” said Mr. Silva.
“Listen to me, bury it,” said his wife.
“What, are you mad? Did you forget how much I paid for it?”
“That amount and even more money will be nothing once you end up in jail.”
“Amy! This is all your fault.”
“My fault! Who loved to see the skin in the drawing room, me or you? And how was I supposed to know that they were environmentalists? We had to invite everyone in the neighborhood for the party…”
That night the couple buried the tigress skin near my groove. The work was perfect such that the ground seemed never dug. The tigress was now completely left behind and forgotten. I felt sad for the tigress, but what is the use? Be it an animal or a tree, humans decide whether they live or not. I don’t know how they handled the environmentalists and the police who showed up the next day; anyway, no one came to the backyard.

As for the rest of my life, apples grew on me and the family feasted on them. One day, Dan and Jane, the Silvas’ children, sowed an apple seed beside me. It didn’t grow. They tried a second time, and again it didn’t grow. However, the third time they sowed a seed, they succeeded. They were as happy as I was when the sapling had progress. If Dan and Jane could have understood my language, they could never get a better appreciation from me. I guess I’ll have an apple tree for company, but I dearly miss the farm. I believe that even after my death, my friends and I will remain immortal in Lily’s painting, but how many more exist only in memories?

The Decimation

Illustration by Claire Wilson

 

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