About Fencepost and Tree

Julia Rios has published my paired drabbles, Fencepost and Tree–as bookends of the August 2022 issue of Worlds of Possibility. Worlds is initially distributed to their Patreon subscribers and the stories will appear in a subsequent Worlds of Possibility anthology.

I’d like to take a moment here to talk a bit about the development of each of the stories.

Fencepost

The region where I live in North Alabama has been a mix of farms, pasture, hills, and woods for decades. The portion of my property where my house lies was a cleared pasture eighty years ago, then overgrown, then cleared again about forty years ago for pasture and the house built by the previous owner, and now is partly regrown since I bought it twenty years ago (the pasture is now the front yard).

Raising cattle around here requires clearing pasture land, and then fencing it in. Fence posts are driven into the ground and barbed wire run. With the ebb and flow between pasture and woods here over the years though, sometimes when an area is cleared for pasture the cattle farmer saves themselves the effort of putting in a fence post by attaching the barbed wire strands directly to an adjacent tree. While the cattle may eventually go away, the wire fences often remain.

As the tree grows, it eventually grows over and envelopes the wire fence strands within itself. Once that’s happened, it’s going to stay there until the tree eventually dies. Trees can live for a long time like this–a constant reminder that it was once considered merely a convenient post for fencing in cattle.

Once it’s fully embedded, attempting to remove the wire will certainly do more harm than good. The best once can do is cut the strands to relieve a bit of the strain imposed on it by tautly drawn wire.

If only, I thought, something could burrow in and “feed” on that iron, breaking it down to rust. Carefully and professionally applied to just where it was needed so as not to get out of control. What a relief that would be for the trees that had to suffer this indignity! Keeping in mind that the crumbling of the strand would leave holes leading directly into the heartwood, leaving the tree vulnerable to insects or fungal infections. One should do more than just seal the holes, perhaps apply a healing salve to repair the damage? I think a tree would like that.

Shortly after submitting “Fencepost” to Julia Rios‘ call for submissions to their Worlds of Possibility project, it turned out that they liked this idea as well and accepted the story.

But that wasn’t all, as it turned out. Julia contacted me to ask if I’d consider writing a companion piece–from the tree’s point-of-view. Ohhhhh-kay. What is a tree’s POV? I thought about it for a couple days, kicked some ideas around, and then told them I’d take a crack at it.

Tree

The easy decision was that this story, another drabble, would mirror the narrative of Fencepost.

The less easy part is…how does one tell the story from a tree’s POV? How does a tree POV even manifest? One can go full–if very deliberate–sentience, like the Ents of Lord of the Rings. Or very detached, describing what’s happening to a tree from a wholly external perspective–but to me, that’s not really the POV of the tree. So I tried to find something in between. Deliberative and oblivious to the ‘fast-paced’ events happening beyond its bark; certainly not the least bit aware of technology, and also very likely unaware that something like people even exist.

One thing I wanted to try was have the visual structure, not just the narrative, of Tree also mirror that of Fencepost. So while the order of events is one-to-one, visual mirroring occurs when the oak experiences the cutting of the barbed wire strands:

Art by Andrew Turok

Snip, snap. Snip, snap.
Snip, snap. Snip, snap.
Again.
Again.

Four wire strands. Left side and right. The initial cut and the snap-off of each strand.

Then the oak undergoes experiencing the application of the FerroPhage™ nanobots and the bio-repair paste. An oak tree, as I envisioned its self-awareness, is not constituted to discern what is happening to it, it only knows what it feels within the context of…being a tree. While writing this I did some research about tree injuries, looking for additional opportunities for healing and restoration that the oak will experience, but which is not visible to us fast-paced individuals scurrying around it.

With only (and exactly) one hundred words to play with, every single word counts–typically meaning an inordinate amount of time is spent on getting exactly the right words in every sentence.

It took quite a while to get that final sentence right (all eight words of it), to be the internal complement of the externally manifested relief of the oak as it’s finally freed from sixty years of suffering.

I’m grateful to Julia Rios for their acceptance of the initially submitted drabble, Fencepost, into Worlds of Possibility and then for the suggestion to write a complementary, tree-centered, piece. It proved a nice pairing.

Also many thanks to Andrew Turok for the evocative illustrations.

Art by Andrew Turok