|The Proud Angiosperms
Author: Qoheleth PM
Why do flowering trees lose their leaves in winter, while most conifers don't? The answer lies in the time of the dinosaurs, when all living things had souls, and their choices shaped the world we know. An adaptation of a Danish folk-tale.Rated: Fiction K - English - Fantasy/Spiritual - Words: 8,980 - Published: 11-16-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2971015
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Once upon a time, there were no plants anywhere in the world that bore flowers. This was in the earliest youth of the world, when strange and wondrous creatures roamed the earth: great monstrous amphibians that could swallow a large fish whole, creatures liked furred lizards that carried elegant sails on their backs, and the earliest of the noble beasts known as dinosaurs. All these lived and played and hunted beneath the wise and kindly gaze of the age's great plants: the cycads, the tree ferns, and the early conifers such as Walchia and Araucaria. And it was to these great vegetables that the animals came for counsel (for you must know that, when the world was young, all living things bore the twin gifts of reason and speech, which in later days were reserved to the human race). It was their judiciousness that soothed the amphibians' resentment at the rise of the pelycosaurs and therapsids; it was their wisdom that enabled the Lystrosauri to survive the World-Burning at the end of the Permian Period; it was their mystic whispering, in the late hours of the Jurassic evening, that gave one young Compsognathus her first intimation of the animal kingdom's high and holy destiny.
Then, one morning in the Early Cretaceous, an old Athrotaxites was raising its needles to the sun when it heard a faint, sleepy voice say, "Good morning." It directed its attention to the ground around the base of its trunk, and saw a small shrub, which it couldn't remember ever noticing before, nestled among its roots.
"Good morning, little one," it said kindly. "Where did you come from?"
The shrub considered for a moment. "I'm not sure," it said. "Do I have to have come from somewhere?"
"Well, most of us did," said the Athrotaxites with a chuckle. "Even I, myself – though most of the younger trees would scarcely credit it – even I was once a seed in my parent's cone, perhaps half a mile to the east of here." Its voice became deeper and richer as it remembered. "Then, in due time, I fell to the ground, and the wind picked me up and brought me to this spot. Many years I spent putting down roots, developing branches and leaves, and waiting on the Almighty's will (as we all must) to learn whether I should become a tree of stature in the forest, or whether the great conflict of life would claim me for its victim. But, in time, it developed that I was among the fortunate ones: no illness struck me down, no taller tree's shadow barred me from the sun, and I was able to follow unhindered the skyward aspirations that God has placed in every tree's soul. And so, for a hundred years and more, I grew and throve and put out cones of my own, and provided for the creatures of the forest as best I could. So it has been for our kind, little one, since life first began; so it shall be till the sun no longer burns."
The shrub sighed dreamily. "It sounds wonderful," it said. "But I don't suppose it will happen to me."
"Well, now," said the Athrotaxites, "you may, indeed, never live to be a hundred years old; few races, even among the Plantae, are made for such longevity. But it is not the length of a life, but its pattern, that is the important thing – and rest assured, my young friend, that your life will bear the pattern that vegetable lives have always borne."
"But it won't," said the shrub, with just a touch of sulkiness. "It hasn't."
The Athrotaxites was puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"You said you were once a seed," said the shrub. "That was the pattern you talked about. From seed to sprout to full-grown herb. Isn't it so?"
"Yes, that is the pattern," said the Athrotaxites. "Except, of course, for ferns and other such ancient types, which begin as spores. For you and I, though, it is as you say."
"Then, if I was never a seed, how can I be a proper plant?"
It was some minutes before the Athrotaxites could reply. "Do you mean to say," it said, "that you did not grow from a seed?"
"If I did, I don't remember it," said the shrub. "I don't remember anything, until I opened my leaves just now and spoke to you."
"But how can this be?" the Athrotaxites murmured. "All plants must grow from the seeds of their parents. Even when Our Lord creates a new race, He causes it to be born from members of some suitable race already made. Special creation is a thing reserved for the rarest and most solemn of occasions, for creatures on whom some special destiny rests."
The shrub hesitated, and its voice trembled when it spoke again. "Well, perhaps I did grow from a seed, then, and just forgot about it," it said. "Is that common?"
"No," said the Athrotaxites.
"Oh," said the shrub. "Well, it must be what happened, anyway. After all, if I were meant for some special destiny, I would know it, wouldn't I?"
The Athrotaxites, rather than replying, examined the shrub much more closely than it had hitherto done. It focused all the attention of its vegetable senses on the tiny life-form at its base, and it perceived something curious about the odorous shoots that budded out from the shrub's fragile limbs.
"Tell me, little one," it said, "have your seed ovules always been wrapped up in those odd little parcels?"
The shrub was momentarily mystified; then it realized, and laughed. "Oh, you mean my flowers?" it said. "I suppose they always have, yes."
"Flowers?" The Athrotaxites repeated the unfamiliar word with curiosity, but also with a sense of satisfaction. Here, perhaps, was the answer it had been seeking.
"Don't you have flowers?" said the shrub, surprised. "I thought all plants did. How do you make seeds, then?"
The Athrotaxites indicated its cones, and the shrub examined them as well as it could from its vantage point so close to the ground. "Oh, I see," it said. "The wind takes the pollen grains from the small cones, and then the large ones catch them in droplets of mucilage and they extend tubes down to the ovule chamber. Is that right?"
"Quite right," said the Athrotaxites.
"Well, that ought to work well enough, I suppose," said the shrub doubtfully. "But doesn't it take rather a long time for the tubes to reach the ovules? What if the cone were to be broken off – by the wind, perhaps, or by an animal – before the ovule had been fertilized?"
"That does happen, of course," said the Athrotaxites. "But we produce enough megastrobili that we manage to send a fair number of seeds into the world anyway. And, if it comes to questions of practicality, surely it is rather impractical to keep your ovules so carefully concealed? It may – I do not dispute it – make them safer, but there is little value in that if they cannot catch pollen."
The elderly tree was unprepared for the reaction that its comment evoked. The shrub's leaves trembled slightly, as though they were seeking sunlight (which they could not have been, since the shrub happened, at that moment, to be bathed in direct sunlight already), and it whispered softly, "Well, there are ways of getting pollen to them."
This response baffled the Athrotaxites. Not the content of it (though it had never heard of a mode of pollination that didn't involve droplet capture), but the diffident, almost shamefaced tone in which it was delivered. It reminded the Athrotaxites of the way animals behaved, when one asked questions about their own peculiar mode of reproduction – but whoever heard of a plant with such scruples? There was no intimacy involved in making seeds; one simply sent out pollen, lubricated one's ovuliferous scales, and hoped for the best.
It was puzzling – but the Athrotaxites was too well-mannered to pursue a subject that seemed to cause the shrub such distress. It fell silent, and for some time the two plants communed silently, each with its own thoughts, as the morning sun rose ever higher over the Cretaceous landscape.
Then, around noon, a small insect flew into the clearing where the two plants stood. It was a male Cascoplecia, well known to the Athrotaxites and to most of the other trees in the area: a genial, gregarious animal, always ready to regale them with the latest gossip of the forest and offer his unsolicited views on the general state of Nature.
"Well met, Old One!" he exclaimed, settling himself precariously on one of the Athrotaxites's low-hanging needles. "By the splendor of Creation, how fragrant your odor is today! The original forebears of your race, on the day of their first budding, could hardly have been more pleasing to the senses!"
The Athrotaxites chuckled. "You are most complimentary, my aerial friend," it said. "More so, perhaps, than I truly deserve."
"Well, as to that," the Cascoplecia returned, "if I am overly effusive this morning, I have a perfect right to be. A creature ought to be uniquely awake to the beauty around him, when he has just recently escaped from certain death."
"Have you escaped from certain death this morning?" the Athrotaxites enquired, with mild interest.
"Fairly certain," said the Cascoplecia. "I was hovering above a small rivulet, treating myself to a cool drink of water, when a Zhangheotherium burst out from the nearby underbrush and attempted to use me for his breakfast. Had Our Lord not given me a keen eye-horn, I should even now be passing through the beast's digestive tract."
He shook his head. "One must not question Our Lord's wisdom, of course," he said, "but I confess I do sometimes wonder about His purpose in creating the mammals. Every day, there seem to be more of them about; there's no longer any rest for a poor insect in these woods."
"Are you an insect?" said the shrub suddenly.
The Cascoplecia, surprised, extended his head and directed his three horn-mounted eyes toward the base of the Athrotaxites. "Well, now, what's this?" he said. "Found a new friend, have you, Old One?"
"Quite new," said the Athrotaxites.
"My congratulations," said the Cascoplecia. "Yes, my good herb, I am indeed an insect. Indeed, I may perhaps say without undue vanity that the family to which I have the honor to belong represents the next stage in insect evolution; there is, among contemporary dipterans, little doubt that our unique visual apparatus will one day become part of the order's standard prototype. A humbling thought, in many ways, but…"
"Would you like some pollen?" said the shrub.
The Cascoplecia, interrupted in mid-peroration, took a moment to process the question. "Pollen?" he repeated. "You mean to say that you are offering me your pollen? As food?"
"Yes," said the shrub. "Would you like some? It should be quite fresh."
Slowly, the Cascoplecia accustomed itself to this idea. "Well, well," he said. "To think that I had despaired of ever finding a plant who took a mature, reasonable view of us pollinivores. Old One, do you hear? Perhaps, after a few seasons of this admirable young creature's influence, you yourself will cease to think of us as villainous parasites bent on interfering with your reproductive cycle."
The Athrotaxites declined to reply. It did not, in fact, have quite such a negative opinion of pollen-eating animals as the Cascoplecia implied, but it certainly did not believe in offering itself to them, any more than marsh-dwelling dinosaurs believed in inviting leeches to consume their blood. It found the shrub's behavior incomprehensible; it seemed to amount, as far as the Athrotaxites could tell, to deliberately sabotaging one's own efforts at seed production.
The Cascoplecia flew down, alighted on the shrub, and examined its shoots – what it had called its "flowers" – critically. "Well, now, isn't this quaint?" he said. "I can't recall ever seeing this sort of germinative apparatus on a plant before. Some odd, primitive type, no doubt."
"Perhaps," the shrub whispered. The shyness and diffidence that the Athrotaxites had observed before had returned to its voice, mingled, now, with an almost tremulous eagerness.
"The aroma is promising, though," said the Cascoplecia. "Let me see…" He wandered about the shrub for a minute or two, smelling judiciously; then he selected the most fragrant of the flowers, and lowered his proboscis into its pollen-bearing sector.
As the Athrotaxites watched him eat, it noticed several curious things about the shrub's pollen. For one, the spores were dense and compact, with no trace of the air pockets that the Athrotaxites's own pollen bore to help it ride the wind. For another, their exines were curiously rugged; small grooves and barbs covered nearly the whole of each surface. It seemed to the Athrotaxites, on the whole (though it was, of course, no judge of such things), that attempting to eat such pollen would be a laborious and unsatisfactory task.
It seemed, however, that the Cascoplecia did not find it so. He lapped up the pollen with great relish, and appeared not to notice that, as he did so, a number of the pollen spores that escaped his tongue wound up hooking themselves onto the small hairs that lined his proboscis. The Athrotaxites stifled a chuckle at the thought of the self-important insect, after he left the shrub, flying about the forest with a thousand tiny pollen grains clinging to his mouthparts.
It seems that I judged my young friend too hastily, the old tree reflected. There is a way for its pollen to traverse the air, after all.
And, with that thought, everything suddenly became clear. That was how the shrub propagated itself: not by letting pollen blow aimlessly through the air, but by drawing insects to itself and persuading them to carry its pollen from plant to plant. The Athrotaxites had never heard of such a thing, but that was hardly surprising: if the shrub had indeed been specially created, then it and its race were a new and vital element in the Divine plan, and such a being might be expected to have characteristics hitherto unknown on Earth.
And, of course, this explained the shrub's bashfulness about its mode of reproduction. There was, after all, a sort of intimacy about the process – not with its fellow shrubs, but with the insects that carried the pollen. –And, recognizing this, the Athrotaxites discreetly turned its attention away from the unique spectacle at its base.
The Cascoplecia's voice, however, could not be so easily overlooked. "Well," it said as it finished eating, "let no-one say that there are no hidden delights left in this world. If I, at my time of life, can discover so excellent a restorative in the very heart of the forest, who knows what other secrets Our Lord may yet choose to reveal?"
"You liked it, then?" said the shrub.
"Most certainly," said the Cascoplecia. "The finest repast I have had in many a day. A pity it must end so soon."
"Well, then," said the shrub, its voice more timidly eager than ever, "perhaps you can find another member of my species to feed off of."
"Another?" said the Cascoplecia, startled. "There are more of you in this forest?"
"Oh, yes," said the shrub. "At least, there ought to be, by now."
The Cascoplecia sighed with something resembling rapture. "Truly, the world is full of wonders," he said. "What did you say your genus was called?"
"I didn't," said the shrub. "But 'Protarchaefructus' ought to do well enough."
"Then I shall keep an eye out for your fellow Protachaefructi," said the Cascoplecia, and the buzzing of his wings informed the Athrotaxites that he had lifted off. "Farewell, my good anachronism. I shall remember this encounter till my dying day."
"As shall I," said the Protarchaefructus.
As the Cascoplecia flew away, a nearby Podocarpus noticed the Athrotaxites concentrating aimlessly on her lower branches. "Well, Old One, and what is this?" she said, with the coyness that was so common to dioecious plants. "I knew my branch structure was a shapely one, but I hardly thought it as entrancing as you seem to find it."
Her banter roused the Athrotaxites from its reverie. "Forgive me, my friend," it said. "My mind was elsewhere."
"Ah," said the Podocarpus. "Not too far away, I hope?"
"I cannot say," said the Athrotaxites slowly. "In one sense, my thoughts had not left this wood, or even this clearing; in another sense, they spanned the Earth. For my reflection," and here it lowered its voice, so as not to disturb the delicate creature at its base with an intolerable freight of conscious election, "was this: that something has occurred in this clearing today that, unless I am much mistaken, will in due time leave no corner of our world unchanged."
The Athrotaxites, of course, did not live to see its prophecy come true. A new taxon's conquest of the world is not accomplished within a single lifetime, no matter how lengthy – and the Athrotaxites, it will be remembered, was already old when an angiosperm first troubled its serenity. During the remainder of its lifetime, it did, indeed, see several new Protarchaefructi spring up in the clearing (many of which had begun to suspect the destiny that lay before them, and were delighted and humbled to have their intuitions confirmed by a creature of the Athrotaxites's age and wisdom), but it was several millennia after its death before the flowering of the globe began in earnest.
When it came, it was like the first youth of the world returning. Not since the Early Cambrian, when the proarticulates had stared in wonder as their children had grown shells and skeletons and segments of every kind, had there been such a revolution in the very pattern of life on Earth. New species of angiosperms seemed to appear every year, and each one was a fresh witness to the energy and ingenuity of its Creator, who seemed never to tire of devising new variations on the theme of stamen and pistil, sepal and petal. There were flowers that produced sweet fluid as a gift for the animals that visited them; there were flowers that wore bright colors, the better to attract an insect's eye; there were flowers designed to trap their hapless pollinators for upwards of an hour, so as to cover them with even greater amounts of pollen; there were a thousand other flowers with other novelties, other beauties of their own. Even the fungi were forced to own themselves impressed by the new division's resource and stamina – and, as has been truly remarked, what impresses a fungus will impress anyone.
Nor were the effects of the floral renaissance confined merely to the vegetable kingdom. New kinds of insects appeared, insects whose whole lifestyle revolved around the pollination of flowers: elegant, diaphanous creatures, with brightly colored wings that made them look like airborne flowers themselves. Certain social insects also grasped the new opportunities; among their foraging castes, whole art forms were developed to communicate the locations of the sweetest flowers. Even among the birds and mammals, two classes that had hitherto been almost exclusively predatory, new species of "nectivores" arose – a sure sign, had any been needed, that a new age for the biosphere had dawned.
But every spot where an angiosperm set down roots was a spot in which a conifer could not grow. As the Magnoliophyta proliferated throughout the world, and established themselves in every environ from the Antarctic deserts to the equatorial jungles, the older plant division saw its numbers dwindle rapidly, until, after some seventy-seven magnennia, it had begun to appear that reproduction by cone must go the way of the Rhyniophyta.
It is not in the vegetable nature to rail at fate. The conifers would willingly have submitted themselves to the divine decree (as they supposed it was) and ceded the future to the flowering plants, had the latter likewise accepted their success with proper humility and gratitude to the Almighty – but this, sadly, did not happen. As the angiosperms became more certain with every generation that they were nature's favored children, their reverence for their botanical elders gradually gave way, first to veiled condescension, then to poorly concealed contempt, and at last to outright scorn. Such terms as "primitive", "archaic", and "living fossil" became part of their everyday speech, and the flowering trees (who, for obvious reasons, were particularly vulnerable to the temptations of self-exaltation) were known to use them when addressing the conifers themselves.
"The insolence of the creature," said an elderly Pityostrobus to a younger, as the two of them rested in the Laramidian twilight one evening. "Imagine chastising a new-sprouted Juniperus for taking up too much space. Juniperi sprawl; that is their nature. A Juniperus that did not sprawl would be as much of an offense against the order of Creation as an Aetodactylus that did not fly. But all that pestiferous Carpinoxylon could see was a patch of ground going to waste because its own seedlings could no longer take root there. It seemed almost to wish that all plants outside of its own division would go extinct and stop impeding the progress of nature."
The younger Pityostrobus sighed. "The Magnoliophyta can be cruel where their fecundity is concerned," it agreed. "A Celliforma told me the other day that her swarm had intended to build their nest from one of the branches of a Leepierceia, but the Leepierceia had refused permission on the grounds that Celliformae do not pollinate. 'The only insects that shall nest in me,' it said, 'are those that contribute properly to the manifest destiny of the flowering division.'"
"Indeed?" said the elder Pityostrobus, with a note of surprise in its voice. "I hadn't realized that the angiosperms extended their arrogance so far. Despising us is one thing, but to despise animals – to fail to show that generosity that has always been the glory of the plant kingdom – simply because a particular species is not equipped to repay you…" It groaned. "Intolerable that the future should be given to such creatures. Why did Our Lord ordain it so? Why did He create the angiosperms in the first place?"
"Why did He create us?" the younger Pityostrobus replied. "Such questions can have only one answer: because it pleased Him to do so. If there is truth beyond that, it must remain, to us, a mystery."
"An abominable mystery, in this case," the older tree muttered. "I pity the grazing animals of the next era; no doubt the angiosperms will make them swear oaths of fealty before they…"
Its last syllable was cut off by a sudden yelp, in which its companion joined – for the ground beneath the two trees had suddenly given a mighty heave, as the ocean heaves when the earth quakes beneath it. Had they been nearer to the coast, the Pityostrobi would have been uprooted and toppled; as it was, they felt a sickening thrill go through their bodies as their roots were jarred loose from the position they had held since they first left their seeds.
It lasted only a moment, but, after it was over, neither tree felt inclined to speak for some minutes. It was only after their roots had settled down into their new positions, and the first shock of the experience had passed, that the elder Pityostrobus gave tongue. "I would not wish to be profane," it said, "but what in the name of the Triune Ineffable just happened?"
As the younger tree expressed its ignorance, a shadow fell over the few stars that were visible in the southeast. The Pityostrobi raised their attention to the sky, and observed an enormous cloud of dust, of a sickly yellow tinge, billowing up from the same direction as the earth wave and extending itself across the sky. Even the sun, as it dipped below the western horizon, was obscured by the particulate mass.
"Sulfur," said the younger Pityostrobus with distaste, noting the pattern by which the cloud distorted the fading sunlight. "Some other materials, too, but sulfur is the most prominent."
"I will ask again," said the elder Pityostrobus. "What in the name of…"
"I have no idea," said the other, cutting it off before it could abuse the Creator's title again. "But I daresay we will find out in due time. Whatever the event is that has caused all this, it is clearly the sort of event of which the news spreads quickly."
In fact, the explanation arrived the next morning, just as dawn was struggling to break through the sulfurous haze. An immense male Aetodactylus appeared on the horizon; his wings were stiff with fatigue, and his eyes glassy from the pollutants in the air, but he flew steadily on regardless, his manner suggesting that he was carrying out a burdensome but honorable mission laid upon him by the Almighty.
"Woe!" he croaked as he flew over the trees. "Woe! Woe! Woe!"
"What is it, lord of the skies?" the younger Pityostrobus called.
"I was fishing with my mate and young on the Sea of Carib," said the Aetodactylus, "when a great stone plummeted from the sky and struck the ocean floor. A mountainous wave rose up and consumed my mate, and my young were lost in the vast plume of noxious steam that billowed from the sea foam.
"I retreated to a nearby island where cliffside caves formed a shelter against the sudden treachery of the air. There, as I mourned my loss, Our Lord spoke with an audible voice, telling me that what I had just witnessed was the eschaton of our era, by which He would gather many races to Himself and begin the great epic of life anew. He commissioned me to spread this word to all corners of the Earth, that those destined to perish might prepare themselves appropriately, and those destined to remain and thrive might ponder the great price that was paid for their inheritance of the world."
Before either Pityostrobus could form an adequate reply, the Aetodactylus had flown on, his great wingspan soon a mere speck in the discolored sky. "Woe!" his voice echoed among the clouds. "Woe! Woe! Woe!"
When he was no longer perceptible, the elder Pityostrobus addressed the younger grimly. "Well," it said. "Now we know."
The younger Pityostrobus did not immediately reply. Its mind was occupied with prayers for the Aetodactylus's family, and for all the other creatures whose lives would be cut short by this reckoning from beyond the sky. (It did not reflect, until some days later, that it might have thereby been praying for itself.)
"Yes," it said at length, when it had finished. "Now we know."
The next few years were a difficult period for life on Earth. Not only was the sun obscured and the air poisoned: the heat of the falling stone had also kindled forest fires throughout the world. Whole tracts of ancient woodland were destroyed in a matter of days, and the animals that dwelt therein were lucky if they survived with no more than a burnt-off limb. Nor were the forests that avoided this fate much better off; with only the most minimal sunlight to nourish them, all but the hardiest plants began to wither, and the trees' sap dried up within them.
Nor was this all. As the plants of the world weakened and died, the animals that fed on them, and the animals that fed on those animals, died as well. Whole classes of life-forms perished from the face of the earth, even as the prophetic Aetodactylus had foretold. (Indeed, one of these classes was the Aetodactylus's own: when the sun rose again on an undefiled Earth, the majestic Pterosauria were no more.) And, in the resulting panoply of decay, new strains of bacteria – those strange life-forms who lived on and yet apart from the other organisms, separated from them by a sheer disparity of scale – arose and throve, and through their merciless hunger introduced their more complex brethren to new forms of deathly agony.
The two Pityostrobi were among the fortunate ones who survived the first year. In the summer of the second year, however, the younger Pityostrobus fell victim to one of the new sicknesses; weakened by sunlight deprivation, it wilted rapidly, and by the autumnal equinox both trees knew that it was unlikely to survive the winter. And it was on the morning of the equinox that the Avisaurus arrived.
It was a dreary morning even by the standards of that dreary time: the clouds covering the sun were at their thickest and most sickly, and the hazy, yellowed sunlight that resulted gave everything that it touched the impression of being even weaker and more woebegone than it actually was. The younger Pityostrobus's bare, withered lower limbs and increasingly brown-tipped needles were already painful for its companion to contemplate; under such light, it seemed positively obscene to dwell on the spectacle it presented a moment longer than necessary. The elder Pityostrobus, accordingly, turned its attention in the opposite direction, and saw, to its surprise, a small, bedraggled enantiornithere dragging itself along the ground.
Here was another pitiable sight. A fragment of bone jutted from the bird's left wing, and most of its feathers on that side were either singed or burnt utterly. Evidently it had been caught in a forest fire or some such event; the Pityostrobus seemed to remember feeling the ground tremble, a few days before, in a fashion that had suggested a stampede about three miles to the west.
"Well met, sky-child," it said in a voice of bitter irony. "Have you come to join in our equinoctial festivities?"
The Avisaurus – a female, by the plumage – raised her head at the sound of the tree's voice, and let out a weary caw. "Is this the equinox?" she said. "I had lost track of the days. One seems so much like another, lately."
Her voice, in turn, caused the younger Pityostrobus to stir from the dreamlike state in which it now spent so much of its time. "Who's there?" it murmured, and focused as best it could on the spot where the Avisaurus stood.
"Oh," it said, with vague wonder in its tone. "A bird. How strange. I had thought there were no birds left."
"We have not prospered lately," the Avisaurus admitted. "I suppose that, when the dust settles again, our class will have met the same fate as so many others seem destined for – unless perhaps a few neornitheres should survive. They seem to be hardy creatures."
"Your own subclass is not?" said the elder Pityostrobus.
The Avisaurus sighed. "I thought we were, at one time," she said. "The claws on our wings, the teeth in our beaks: they seemed, quite apart from their obvious utility, to mark us as Aves's favored lineage. We were the birds that most closely resembled dinosaurs – and dinosaurs, after all, were the natural rulers of the world." She laughed ruefully. "But it seems that Our Lord had other ideas. Whatever else He may have intended this eschaton for, the rebuke that it has served to the proud of the Earth can scarcely have been accidental."
"Hardly all the proud of the Earth," the elder Pityostrobus returned. "I see no evidence that the angiosperms have felt themselves much rebuked by it."
The Avisaurus fell suddenly silent, and closed her eyes as though reliving some severe pain. "No," she said, when some half a minute had elapsed. "No, perhaps not."
Her reaction alarmed the elder Pityostrobus, who did not like to think that it might have added to the poor creature's sufferings. "Did I speak out of turn?" it asked. "If so, forgive me. I meant no harm, but I have never been a creature of delicate speech; my companion can attest to that."
The Avisaurus shook her head. "No, Provident One, you did not offend me," she said. "But I have, to my way of thinking, good cause to be distressed at the mention of the angiosperms. The story is rather a long one, but, if you have the leisure…?"
"I should say," said the elder Pityostrobus dryly, "that leisure was the one thing we certainly did not lack."
"I like stories," the younger Pityostrobus murmured.
The Avisaurus made a gesture of acquiescence. "Know, then," she said, "that I have dwelt, from my earliest youth, in a great forest that lay to the northwest of here, perhaps a day's flight away. It was there that I was hatched, raised, and fledged; it was there that I courted, nested, and bore my young; it was there that I jested with Thescelosauri, prayed with Purgatorii, and knew the kindness of trees both coniferous and flowering." Her voice became wistful as she spoke, which hardly surprised the two Pityostrobi; they were both well acquainted with the love that forest creatures bore for their native ecosystems.
"Then," the Avisaurus continued, "around noon some days ago, a storm blew up from the east, and lightning blazed about the forest. Several of the trees were struck, among them the ancient Mulleroxylon whose branches had sheltered fifteen generations of my kind, and within minutes the whole forest was…" She paused, swallowed deeply, and finished, "…was ablaze."
The elder Pityostrobus groaned in sympathetic anguish. "A terrible fate," it said.
The Avisaurus nodded. "I don't suppose I shall ever forget the screams of the trees as the flames consumed them," she said. "Nor, for that matter, the cries of the animals – myself among them – as we attempted to flee the conflagration. Some of us succeeded; some of us failed, and were killed in the flames – and then there was me."
She glanced grimly at her mangled wing. "I had almost made it out of the forest," she said, "when a fire-weakened Brachyphyllum toppled to the ground just as I was flying past. I thought it had missed me, but then one of its outer branches struck my wing, and, the next thing I knew, a fire was blazing among my pinions."
Both trees gasped, and the Avisaurus nodded. "Clearly, I could not remain aloft a minute longer," she said. "Nor was a graceful landing truly possible. My only hope was to let myself fall to the ground, gliding somewhat as I went, and pray that I landed in one of the sand-pits at the edge of the forest, where the fire would be unable to reach.
"My prayer was granted," she continued, "and my life was saved. But that salvation came at a cost, for, as I struck the ground, I felt my radius snap in two. I realized that I could no longer fly – but, under the circumstances, that might not be such a hardship. After all, I was on the outskirts of a fire-decimated forest, where dozens of corpses lay roasted on the ground; surely, I could scavenge for a while until my wing was healed.
"But I had forgotten that it was the time of the equinox. Our forest was home, among other things, to a large population of Didelphodons, whose burrows lay deep enough that they had generally managed to survive the fire – and Didelphodons, as I daresay you know, invariably bear their young at the very end of summer. Thus, I, wounded and weakened as I was, was attempting to compete for food with a woodful of very healthy, very experienced, and very hungry scavengers.
"Needless to say, I did not fare well. Indeed, the only reason I survived at all was because the first Didelphodon I met was a relatively kind-hearted creature; as she scurried off with the dead Contogenys that I had hoped to eat myself, she warned me that many of her co-racialists would consider me a meal only slightly more challenging than the carrion, and advised me to leave the forest before nightfall."
The Avisaurus spoke calmly, as though there was nothing exceptionable in the attitude attributed to the Didelphodons, and the elder Pityostrobus could barely suppress an internal shudder. Never, if it lived a hundred years (which seemed less likely with every passing day), would it grow accustomed to the ruthless self-interest that seemed to be a fundamental attribute of even the noblest of animals.
"I took her advice," said the Avisaurus. "I left behind me the only home I had ever known, and lit out into the open country. For two days I dragged myself across the landscape, subsisting on the slower-moving types of insects and isopods, and wondering when some roving pack of Troödons would find and devour me.
"But no such easy death awaited me. My true fate was revealed at yesterday's sunrise, when I awoke parched with thirst and dizzy with fever. The wound in my wing had allowed some virulent bacterial strain to gain entrance into my body, and I was doomed to die by inches at its hands.
"My only thought now was to find some hospitable tree, in whose branches I might await my fate – for it is a grievous thing, for a forest bird, not to die in a tree. I looked around, and saw the silhouette of a Carpinoxylon on the horizon; I turned towards it and struggled my way along the rough ground, thinking to find the same welcome that I had known in my youth from the forest trees."
At this, the elder Pityostrobus became unsettled. There was only one Carpinoxylon anywhere nearby that could have made such a silhouette; it was the same Carpinoxylon of which it had been speaking to the younger Pityostrobus when the meteor fell – the one that had complained of the Juniperus for sprawling. An uncomfortable suspicion arose in the old tree's mind, but it dispelled it at once; surely no tree, even an angiosperm, could be so callous.
"I arrived at its base around noon," said the Avisaurus, "and began cawing plaintively, hoping to attract its attention. It was perhaps a minute before the Carpinoxylon noticed me; when it did, I was surprised by the coldness of its voice. 'So an enantiornithere craves my attention,' it said. 'Well, little archaism, what is it you want?'
"I explained my plight, and begged the hospitality of its limbs for the few days it would take my life to ebb away. Conceive of my surprise when it laughed – not sympathetically, but with unconcerned scorn. 'You wish to roost in me?' it said. 'You wish to climb into my branches, spend two or three days strewing infection all over me, and then retire to the next life, leaving a stinking corpse lying among my blossoms? Most assuredly I shall agree to no such thing.'
"I thought I must be delirious. Never had I known a tree to respond so to an appeal for shelter; the immemorial Code of the Forest made such a thing all but unimaginable. Could traditions really be so different in the open country?
"'I… I don't understand,' I stammered.
"'I would have thought that I had spoken plainly enough,' said the Carpinoxylon. 'If you wish to die surrounded by leaves, they will have to be someone else's. I am a magnoliophyte; in my stamens rests the future of the Plantae. I cannot compromise my chances of pollination merely to provide a few hours' comfort for a creature with no future whatsoever.'
"And it would say no more. I had no choice but to drag myself away, and continue my search elsewhere. That was yesterday at noon; I traveled all the rest of the day and most of the night to arrive here, and I feel my end approaching swiftly. If I can't… if I…"
Abruptly, the little bird's voice gave out, and she collapsed wearily onto the ground; the exertion of telling her story had evidently taken its toll. The Pityostrobi looked down at her tenderly. "Poor creature," the younger whispered. "I do think the Carpinoxylon might have been a bit more generous."
The elder Pityostrobus suppressed several choice remarks about the Carpinoxylon capacity for generosity. "Well," it said, "if being the vanguard of destiny keeps one from performing the smaller charities, we may be grateful to Our Lord for giving us no such burden. Shall I take the creature in, or shall you?"
"I should like to, I think," said the younger Pityostrobus. "It would be pleasant to have a bird in my limbs again."
"Very well," said the elder. "As soon as she rises again… ah, here we are."
For the Avisaurus, hearing the conversation of the two trees, had raised her head, her eyes gleaming with sudden happiness. She rose to her feet again, and hurried forward to where the younger Pityostrobus stood; using the claws of her feet and right wing, she managed to climb up its trunk to the lowest-hanging of its branches, where she settled into as near an approach to a roosting position as she could manage, shut her eyes, and whispered, "Thank you."
"The pleasure is ours," said the elder Pityostrobus, as its companion seemed disinclined to speak. "Rest well, sky-child, and may the Gatherer of Souls be gentle with you."
The Avisaurus murmured her thanks again and drifted off to sleep. Soon thereafter, her heart ceased to beat, and the story, for her and for the Pityostrobi, was over.
But Almighty God, whose eye is on the least of His creatures, saw all these things, and His heart was stirred. For the mandate of Heaven is not immutable, but the lightest word, the smallest deed left undone, can alter the course of all Creation. The spite of an insect can snuff out a star; the faith of a mustard-grain can move a mountain. So now, as the sinful pride of the Magnoliophyta was made manifest in the woes of a Laramidian hen-bird, Our Lord spoke a word, and His angels rushed to obey.
During the autumn of that year, the drama of the wounded Avisaurus was replayed thirty-six times, in every continent on Earth. Small, grievously injured birds approached flowering trees, and begged for the hospitality of their branches. All were rebuffed, and all continued painfully onward to the nearest conifers, who, in most cases, welcomed them with all due kindness.
There was one exception. In eastern Appalachia, a Cynocauda that had sought shelter from a Holkopollenites in vain approached a Taxodium, and found himself rebuffed again. "Leave me be, sky-child," the Taxodium groaned. "I have no wish to feel claws against my bark again – no wish for anything but stillness and quiet. Why does the world not end, when life has become so wearisome?" And the Cynocauda was forced to travel on yet further, and eventually to perish ignominiously in the marshlands of the delta.
But this exception was truly exceptional. In all other instances, the conifers were quite ready to provide the shelter that the angiosperms had withheld, for no other reason than that an animal in need had asked it of them. And the Lord in His holy habitation saw and noted all these things.
On the morning of the winter solstice, all the trees of the Lord heard a great voice, like the thunder of a mighty waterfall. "Come," it said, and the trees were caught up in ecstasy to the throne of the Most High, where He stood like a great Calamites among the seven ever-burning flames. About His base stood the six governing angels of the six biological kingdoms, bearing their proper forms as mighty spirits, since there was no longer any need for them to appear as wounded birds.
And the Lord addressed Himself to the trees. "At the dawn of this age," He said, "I placed in the east a new kind of herb, one fertile, pleasing to the senses, and good for food. And I proclaimed before all the angels of Heaven that the descendants of this herb should thrive and fill the earth, and that from its cotyledons should spring the tree that bears My life in its limbs, which shall share the Earthly Paradise with the animal that bears My image. And all the angels of Heaven cried, 'Amen!'"
The flowering trees were filled with pride at these words. But the Lord continued: "For seventy-seven magnennia I multiplied the numbers of this blessed lineage, looking towards the day when I should gather their fellows to myself along with the dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and the forests of Earth should be composed only of flowering trees. But as they throve, the children of the Magnoliophyta grew proud, forgetting that their prevalence was due not to their own interior virtue, but to My favor. They despised the more ancient vegetable races, thinking themselves better because they were younger, and toward the animals of Earth they lost all compassion; though some still followed the traditions that I instituted when the first tree bloomed, in their pith they loved none save those that spread their pollen.
"I therefore determined to try their hearts, and sent My angels among them in the forms of wounded birds, seeking shelter among the trees of the Earth. None of those who bore flowers would let My sons rest in them; the only refuge they found was among certain of the coniferous trees. Then was my heart filled with wrath toward the Magnoliophyta; yet, for the sake of the vow that I swore before the hosts of Heaven, I did not withdraw the blessing that I had lain upon them, but resolved only to remind them of their frailty, and to exalt the conifers before them.
"Hear therefore the word of the Lord to the Coniferophyta: In the era to come, you surely shall not perish from the face of the Earth, but shall remain, as abundant as you are today, till all things be ended. Furthermore, when Nature is wounded in the last age, and the tree that bears My life has passed out of mortal ken, I shall raise up a second Tree from among your stock, through which all of Creation shall know the boundlessness of My mercy. All this shall come to pass, because you have served well those whom I have given to you to serve.
"And to the Magnoliophyta, this I say: Every year henceforward, you shall feel My chastisement when the cold winds of autumn touch your wood. Then your leaves shall lose their chlorophyll and fall to the ground, and your limbs stand bare against the sky, while the conifers (save for the Taxodia and their kindred) shall remain lush and green throughout the year. And when the animals ask you why this is so, you shall tell them how you scorned My little ones in this autumn of testing, that it may be a warning to them to keep their hearts free from pride. So it shall be, each year, until Nature draws to an end; I, the Lord, have said it."
And the six angels about the throne cried, "Amen!"
All transpired as the Lord had said. Throughout the Cenozoic, the Coniferophyta survived and flourished, and hundreds of species are alive today. The Tree of Life no longer grows at the mouth of the Euphrates, but the second Tree – sometimes called the True Cross – is honored throughout the Earth; numerous small fragments of it have been preserved, and a certain scholar, studying these, has attested that they came from the conifer called Pinus. And, every year, in every land where autumn's winds blow chill, the falling of the angiosperms' leaves accompanies the shortening of the days, and only the conifers are ever green.
It is in such a land that I live – I, who have been privileged to relate this story to you. As I write these words, I look out my window at the snow-covered landscape, at a bare-limbed Acer and a green Pinus thicket beyond it, and I remember the words with which I now end my story – words spoken, long ago, by Him who hung on the coniferophyte Tree.
"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."
March 15, 2011
GLOSSARY OF GENERA
Walchia: One of the earliest conifers, known from the Paleozoic of Europe and North America.
Araucaria: One of the most enduring of Earthly tree genera. The oldest known specimens have left their sign in Early-Jurassic strata; the youngest are alive today, mostly in New Caledonia. (The famous "monkey-puzzle tree" of India also belongs to this genus.)
Lystrosaurus: An herbivorous therapsid (something like a reptile, something like a mammal) about the size of a small dog. It is noteworthy for being one of the few species to survive the Permian Extinction, an event arguably more devastating than the Cretaceous extinction that is one of the subjects of this story.
Compsognathus: A small coelurosaur from the Jurassic Period, one of the best-known and most studied of the small theropods.
Athrotaxites: An Early-Cretaceous conifer from eastern Asia.
Cascoplecia: A unique species of prehistoric fly, which bore three extra eyes on a protuberance atop its head, enabling it to see in all directions at once. No other fly with a similar eye structure has ever been discovered, inspiring some paleontologists to dub it an "evolutionary dead-end".
Zhangheotherium: A small, carnivorous mammal, one of the many animals known to science from its beautifully preserved remains in China's I-hsien Formation.
Protarchaefructus: The name used, in this story, for the world's very first flowering plant, on the supposition that this plant is unlikely to have been discovered yet. The oldest known angiosperm, as of this writing, is the Archaefructus of Early-Cretaceous China.
Podocarpus: The generic name of the yellowwood tree, a very ancient conifer found in tropical regions throughout the world. Unlike most plants, which have both male and female characteristics, a yellowwood is either male or female, but not both.
Pityostrobus: A fairly common and widespread conifer of the Late Cretaceous.
Juniperus: The juniper – a distinguished and very diverse conifer genus, including both bushes and full-fledged trees. The reference in the story assumes a species similar to Juniperus communis, the common juniper, a single specimen of which can comprise a small hedgerow all by itself.
Aetodactylus: One of the last and most enormous of the pterosaurs, the winged, reptile-like creatures that ruled the skies during the Mesozoic Era.
Carpinoxylon, Mulleroxylon: Two species of flowering tree (the former related to the birch, the latter to the magnolia) discovered in a formation in California.
Celliforma: The name given to the hypothetical wasp genus responsible for a fossilized wasp's nest found in Utah.
Leepierceia: A magnoliophyte tree from the famous Hell Creek Formation of eastern Montana.
Avisaurus: A genus known only from two partial fossils of leg bones; originally believed to be a dinosaur (hence its name), it is now thought more likely to be a dinosaur-like bird of a type common in the Cretaceous.
Thescelosaurus: One of the last of the ornithopod dinosaurs, a distant relative of Iguanodon and the duckbills.
Purgatorius: A small, arboreal mammal, probably something like a lemur and something like a squirrel. It is the only primate (if it was a primate) known to have coexisted with dinosaurs.
Brachyphyllum: A conifer related to Araucaria.
Didelphodon: A common Late-Cretaceous marsupial, immortalized in the final segment of the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs.
Contogenys: A skink-like lizard from the Hell Creek Formation.
Troödon: A well-known kind of predatory dinosaur, which would seem to have played the hyena to Tyrannosaurus's lion during the Late Cretaceous.
Cynocauda: Means "dog tail". A reference to Abraham Lincoln's famous comment, "If I call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?"
Holkopollenites: A kind of Cretaceous plant, known (like many Cretaceous plants) only from microfossils of its pollen. To call it a tree, as in this story, is thus pure conjecture, but it would seem to have been definitely an angiosperm of some kind.
Taxodium: Better known today as the bald cypress, this is one of the few conifers that drop their leaves in the autumn, along with several of its relatives (hence the Lord's reference to "the Taxodia and their kindred) and Larix, the tamaracks. (The latter did not exist in the Cretaceous Period; how they fell under the angiosperms' curse is a matter for another story entirely.)
Calamites: The dominant tree genus in the Carboniferous Period of the Paleozoic Era; most modern-day coal comes from its fossilized remains. It was neither a conifer nor an angiosperm; its closest modern relatives are the tiny plants known as horsetails.
Pinus: Not surprisingly, this is the pine tree – probably the most familiar conifer in the world today. The archeologist who showed the True Cross to have been made from its wood was Charles Rohault de Fleury, also famed as an architect.
Acer: The well-known maple tree, famous for the beauty it brings to the world as its leaves change and fall in the autumn. For the curses of God are kinder than the blessings of men.
Note: Special thanks to the University of Florida for providing the cover image.