I’m out feeding the hyena her kibble and chicken backs and doing what I can to clean up after the latest storm when the call comes through. It’s Andrea. Andrea Knowles Cotton Tierwater, my ex-wife, my wife of a thousand years ago, when I was young and vigorous and relentlessly virile, the woman who routinely chained herself to cranes and bulldozers and $700,000 feller-buncher machines back in the time when we thought it mattered, the woman who helped me raise my daughter, the woman who made me crazy. Jesus Christ. If somebody has to come, why couldn’t it be Teo, the son of a bitch who took her away from me. He’d be easier—him I could just kill. Bang-bang. And then Lily would have something more than chicken backs for dinner.
Anyway, there are trees down everywhere and the muck is tugging at my gum boots like a greedy sucking mouth, a mouth that’s going to pull me all the way down eventually, but not yet. I might be 75 years old and my shoulders might feel as if they’re attached at the joint with fishhooks, but the new kidney they grew me is still processing fluids just fine, thank you, and I can still outwork half the spoon-fed cretins on this place. Besides, I have skills, special skills—I’m an animal man and there aren’t many of us left these days, and my boss, Maclovio Pulchris, appreciates that. And I’m not name-dropping here, not necessarily—just stating the facts. I manage the man’s private menagerie, the last surviving one in this part of the world, and it’s an important—scratch that, vital—reservoir for zoo-cloning and the distribution of what’s left of the major mammalian species. And you can say what you will about pop stars or the quality of his music or even the way he looks when he takes his hat and sunglasses off and you can see what a ridiculous little crushed nugget of a head he was born with, but I’ll say this—he’s a friend of the animals.
Of course, there isn’t going to be anything left of the place if the weather doesn’t let up. It’s not even the rainy season—or what we used to qualify as the rainy season, as if we knew anything about it in the first place—but the storms are stacked up out over the Pacific like pool balls on a billiard table and not a pocket in sight. Two days ago the wind came up in the night, ripped the roof off of one of the back pens and slammed it like a giant Frisbee into the Lupine Hill condos across the way. Mac didn’t particularly care about that—nobody’s insured for weather anymore and any and all lawsuits are automatically thrown out of court, so don’t even ask—but what hurt was the fact that the Patagonian fox got loose, and that’s the last native-born individual known to be in existence on this worn-out planet, and we still haven’t found the thing. Not a clue. No tracks, no nothing.
The pangolins, they’re gone too. And less than 50 of them out there in the world. It’s a crime, but what can you do—call up search and rescue? We’ve all been hit hard. Floods, winds, thunder and lightning, even hail. There are plenty of people without roofs over their heads, and right here in Santa Barbara County, not just Los Andiegoles or San Jose Francisco.
So Lily, the hyena, she’s giving me a long steady look out of the egg yolks of her eyes, and I’m lucky to have chicken backs what with the meat situation lately, when the pictaphone rings (think Dick Tracy, because the whole world’s a comic strip now). The sky is black—not gray, black—and it can’t be past three in the afternoon. Everything is still, and I smell it like a gathering cloud, death, the death of everything, hopeless and stinking and wasted, the pigment gone from the paint, the paint gone from the buildings, cars abandoned along the road, and then it starts raining again. I talk to my wrist (no picture, though—the picture button is set firmly and permanently in the off position—why would I want to show this wreck of a face to anybody?). “Yeah?” I shout, and the rain is heavier, wind-driven now, snapping in my face like a wet towel.
The voice is cracked and blistered, like the dirt here when the storms move on to Nevada and Arizona and the sun comes back to pound us with all its unfiltered melanomic might, but I recognize it right away, 20 years notwithstanding. It’s a voice that does something physical to me, that jumps out of the circumambient air and seizes hold of me like a thing that lives off the blood of other things. “Andrea? Andrea Cotton?” Half a beat. “Jesus Christ, it’s you, isn’t it?”
Soft and seductive, the wind rising, Lily fixing me from behind the chicken wire as if I’m the main course: “No picture for me?”
“What do you want, Andrea?”
“I want to see you.”
“Sorry, nobody sees me.”
“I mean in person, face to face. Like before.”
Rain streams from my hat. One of the sorry inbred lions starts coughing its lungs out, a ratcheting, oddly mechanical sound that drifts across the weedlot and ricochets off the monolithic face of the condos. I’m trying to hold back a whole raft of feelings, but they keep bobbing and pitching to the surface, threatening to break loose and shoot the rapids once and for all. “What for?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know—to run down my debit cards? Fuck with my head? Save the planet?”
Lily stretches, yawns, shows me the length of her yellow canines and the big crushing molars in back. She should be out on the veldt, cracking up giraffe bones, extracting marrow from the vertebrae, gnawing on hoofs. Except that there is no veldt, not anymore, and no giraffes either. Something unleashed in my brain shouts, IT’S ANDREA! And it is. Andrea’s voice coming back at me. “No, fool,” she says. “For love.”
THE LIONS HAVE HAD THEIR HORSE meat and the giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) are busy with some half-rotted beams full of Formosa termites, lunch enough, I expect, when finally I develop the sense to come in out of the wet. By this time—it must be 4, 4:30—the rain has slackened off a bit and the wind, which always seems to be peaking at Force 10 lately, seems a bit quieter too.
As part of my arrangement with Mac, I occupy a two-room guest house on the far verge of the estate, just under the walls of Rancho Seco, the gated community to the east of us. It was built back in the nineties, with all the modern conveniences, and it’s a cozy-enough place but for the fact that the winds have long since torn off the gutters and three-quarters of the shingles, and the fireplace is bricked up, as per state law. Still, I have a space heater, and it never gets too cold here, not like in the old days—never below 60, anyway. But 60 degrees and wet at my age is like the temperature water turned to ice when I was 39, the year I met Andrea.
The place smells of mold—what else?—and rats. The rats are thriving, multiplying like there’s no tomorrow (but of course there is, as everybody alive now knows all too well and ruefully, and tomorrow is coming for the rats too). They have an underlying smell, a furtive smell, old sweat socks balled up on the floor of the high-school locker room, meat sauce dried onto the plate and then reliquefied with a spray of water. It’s a quiet stink, nothing like the hyena when she’s wet, which is all the time now, and I forgive the rats that much. I’m an environmentalist, after all—or used to be; not much sense in using the term now—and I believe in Live and Let Live, Adat, Deep Ecology, No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth.
Andrea. Oh, yes, Andrea. She burned me in that crucible, with her scorching eyes and her voice of ash, and her body, her beautiful hard backpacker’s body, stalwart legs, womanly hips, and all the rest. She’s on her way to Swenson’s Catfish and Sushi House to meet me. Maybe there already, the sake cup like a thimble in her big female hands, leaning into the bar to show off what she has left, stupefying Shigetoshi Swenson, the bartender, who can’t be more than sixty-four or -five. The thought of that scenario wakes me up, just as surely as it ever did, and the next minute I’m in the bedroom pulling a sweater from the bureau drawer (black turtleneck, to hide the turkey wattles under my chin). I find a semi-clean pair of jeans hanging from a hook in the closet, step into my imitation-leather cowboy boots, and head for the door—but not before I finish off the ensemble with the crowning touch: the red beret she sent me the second time I went to jail. I pull it down low over the eyebrows, like a watch cap. For old times’ sake.
There’s a whole crowd out on the road, storm or no storm, commuters, evening shoppers, repair crews, teenagers jazzed on a world turned to shit. This used to be open country 25 years ago—a place where you’d see bobcat, mule deer, rabbit, quail, fox, before everything was poached and encroached out of existence. Now it’s condos. Gray wet canyons of them. And who’s in those condos? People who know no more about animals—or nature, or the world that used to be—than their computer screens want them to know.
All right. I’ll make this brief. The year is 2025, I’m 75 years old, my name is Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, and I’m half an Irish Catholic and half a Jew. I was born in the richest county in the suburbs of the biggest city in the world, in a time when there were no shortages, at least not in this country, no storms (except the usual), no acid rain, no lack of wild and jungle places to breathe deep in. Right now, I’m on my way to share some pond-raised catfish sushi with my ex-wife Andrea, hoist a few, maybe even get laid for auld lang syne. Or love. Isn’t that what she said? For love?
I SHOULD POINT OUT THAT Swenson’s isn’t the most elegant place—elegance is strictly for the rich, computer repairmen, movie people, pop stars like Mac—but it has its charms. The entryway isn’t one of them. There’s an empty fish tank built into the cement block wall on your immediate right, a coatrack and umbrella stand on the left. Music hits you—oldies, the venerable hoary inescapable hits of the sixties, played at killing volume for benefit of the deaf and toothless like me—and a funk of body heat and the kind of humidity you’d expect from the Black Hole of Calcutta. No air-conditioning, of course, what with electrical restrictions and the sheer killing price per kilowatt hour. The bar is teeming, Shiggy glancing up from the blender with a nod of acknowledgment, some antiquated crap about riding your pony blistering the overworked speakers.
No Andrea. My elbows find the bar, cheap sake (tastes of machine oil, brewed locally) finds me, and I scan the faces to be sure. But what is this I feel on the back of my neck? Dampness. Water. Ubiquitous water. I’m looking up, the ceiling tiles giving off a gentle ooze, and then down at the plastic bucket between my feet—I’m practically standing in it—when I feel a pressure on my arm. It’s her hand, Andrea’s hand, the feel of it round my biceps as binding as history. “Hello, Ty,” she says, the bucket gently sloshing, the solid air rent by the blast of the speakers, the crowd gabbling, her unflinching eyes locked on mine. “Nice hat,” she says.
I don’t want to sound too cynical here, because time goes on and she’s looking good, very good, eight or nine on a scale of ten, all things considered. Her mouth settles into a basket of grooves and lines when the smile fades, and her eyes are paler and duller than I remembered—and ever so slightly exophthalmic—but who’s to quibble? She was a beauty then and she’s a beauty still. She’s wearing a print dress, low-cut of course, frilly sleeves, a quarter-inch of makeup, and her hair—dyed midnight black—bunches at her shoulders. She fixes on my eyes with that half-spacey, half-calculating wide-eyed look I know so well—or used to know. “Is there someplace we can talk?”
Two minutes later, we’re in the back room, ordering up our tilapia sushi dinner—and talking. “Do you remember that girl, April Wind—she was about Sierra’s age?” Andrea is watching my face, looking for the crack into which she can drive the first piton and begin her ascent to my poor quivering brain. I give her nothing. Nothing at all. My eyes are glass. My face a sculpture by Oldenburg, monumental, impenetrable. Sierra—the famous Sierra Tierwater—is my daughter. Was my daughter. April Wind I’ve never heard of. Or at least I hope I haven’t.
“You remember her,” Andrea insists, picking at her food with an absent squeeze of her chopsticks. Patting at her lips with the napkin, pausing to take a doleful sip of faintly greasy sake, the best the house has to offer. (Have I mentioned that grapes are a thing of the past? Napa-Sonoma is all rice paddies now, the Loire and Rhine Valleys so wet they’d be better off trying to grow pineapples—though on the plus side I hear the Norwegians are planting California rootstock in the Oslo suburbs.) “She came straight to us from Teo’s Action Camp? Tiny, she couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds? Asian. Or half Asian? She swore the trees talked to her, remember?”
The mention of Teo shoots a flaming brand into my gut where it ignites the wasabe lurking there in a gurry of carp roe and partially digested tilapia. “What about Teo?” I say, just as the wind comes up in a blast that shakes the place as if it were made of straw. “Is he still in the picture or what?”
“He’s dead,” Andrea says into the silence.
I feel expansive suddenly. I want details. Did he suffer?
Her smallest voice: “It was quick. I don’t want to talk about it, because that’s not why I—he was killed by a meteor, all right? He was making a soft-boiled egg. In the kitchen. He never knew what hit him.”
I’m in awe. A soft-boiled egg! The world is a lonely place.
“Ty? Listen. The thing that got me here, the reason I had to see you, is April Wind. She wants to do a book. On Sierra.”
I REMEMBER THERE WASN’T much sun the winter Sierra climbed into her tree. El Niño really took it out on us that year, one storm chasing another down the coast, the rivers flooding and the roads washed out, mud slides, rogue waves, windshield-wiper fatigue, drip, drip, drip, everybody as depressed as Swedes. Nobody liked it—except maybe the surfers. And Coast Lumber. Coast Lumber loved it. Coast Lumber couldn’t have been more pleased if they’d ordered up the weather themselves. A tree-hugger by the name of Sierra Tierwater, 21 years old and a complete unknown—nobody’s daughter, certainly—was trespassing in one of their grand old cathedral redwoods and the press was waiting for them to send a couple of their goons up to haul her down, as brutally as possible. But they weren’t about to do that. Why bother? All they had to do was sit back in their paneled offices and let the weather take care of her. And then, quietly, while the eco-freaks and fossil-lovers were hunkered in their apartments watching the rain drool across the windows, they could take that tree down, and all the rest like it, and put an end to the protests once and for all.
The first night, the night I drove up there to rescue her from the storm, her very first night in the tree, I was so disoriented I couldn’t have found her if she were standing behind the cash register of a 7-Eleven lit up under the leaves. I stumbled around through the graveyard of the trees while the wind screamed and the branches fell. It was a relief when I finally found my way back to the car and wrapped myself up in Andrea’s mummy bag. The morning wasn’t much different from the night that had preceded it. Rain fell without reason or rancor, an invisible creek blustered somewhere nearby, the car settled into the mud. I pulled on cold wet socks, wet jeans, wet boots, and a wet T-shirt, sweater, and windbreaker, and went off to find my daughter. This time I walked straight to her tree.
There were eight redwoods in her grove, two conjoined at the base and blackened by the ancient fire that had scarred the trunk of her tree, and the forest of cedar, fir, ponderosa, and other pines was a maze of trunks radiating out across the hillsides from there. Except to the west, where the skin of the earth showed through and there was nothing but debris and stumps as far as you could see. This grove was scheduled next, and my daughter—if she was alive still and not a bag of lacerated skin and fragmented bone flung out of the treetops like a water balloon—was determined to stop the desecration. I was proud of her for that, but wary too. And afraid. I leaned into the wet, dark trunk and peered up into the sky—her platform, the shadowy slab of plywood lashed across two massive branches with nylon cord, was still there. I pushed back from the tree to get a better angle, blinking my eyes against the fall of the rain, and saw the bright aniline-orange flash of her tent trembling in the wind like a wave riding an angry sea. She was there. She was alive. “Sierra!” I shouted, cupping my hands.
A gust shook the treetops, and Sierra’s tree quaked till I could feel the recoil of it in my feet. I looked up and there she was, her face a distant, drawn-down splash of white in a welter of rocketing green needles. And then her voice, buffeted by the winds and assaulted by the rain, came drifting down like a leaf: “Dad!” she called. “Dad!”
My heart was breaking, but she was smiling, actually smiling, if I was seeing right—and even in those days my eyes were nothing to brag about. “Sierra!” I called, feeling as if I’d been turned inside out. I didn’t want her up there. I wanted to be up there with her. I wanted to bomb Coast Lumber, neutralize their heavy machinery, throttle their stockholders. “Honey,” I shouted, and my voice broke, “do you want to come down?”
It seemed as if it took an hour for her answer to drift all the way back to me, the tree quaking, the rain thrashing, my heart like a steel disc in the back of my throat, but her answer was no. “No!” she cried, cupping her thin white hands round her mouth to make it emphatic. “No!” And the message fell with the rain.
I was her father. I knew what she was like, heard the determination in her voice, the fanaticism: She wasn’t coming down, not today, and there was no use arguing. “Tomorrow maybe?” I shouted, my neck already strained from flinging my head back to gape up at her. “Till the storm stops, anyway? You can always go back up—when the weather clears!”
Again the answer drifted down, this time in a long-drawn-out bleat of protest: “Nooooo!”
All right. But did she need anything? “Do you need anything?” I shouted.
In time, she would need all sorts of things: a chemical toilet, books, magazines, art supplies, a cell phone, fuel for her camp stove, a special harness so she could descend to 30 feet like a big pale spider and conduct the endless press interviews her crusade would generate. But now, on the first morning of her life as an arboreal creature, an evolutionary oddity, a female Homo sapiens of breeding age whose feet never touched the ground and whose biological imperative would have to wait, she needed nothing. Except a favor. “Can you do me a favor?” she called out of the drifting white flag of her face.
“Yeah!” I shouted, digging at the back of my neck and pushing away from the tree for a less inflammatory angle. “Sure! Anything!”
“Take these,” she called, and suddenly two objects, oblong, pale gray and streaking white, came sailing down out of the tree. It took me a minute to identify them, even after they landed separately in the duff not more than two feet from me. Thump, came the first of them, and then the second, slapping down beside me with the sound of finality. They were her shoes. Her shoes. Her running shoes, walking shoes, walking, breathing, and living shoes, the very things that connected her to the earth. But she flung them down to me on that first morning, because she wouldn’t be needing them, not anymore.
MEXICO CITY, SÃO PAULO, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Tokyo, Dhaka, Cairo, Calcutta, Reykjavík, Caracas, Lagos, Guadalajara, Greater Nome, Sakhalinsky, Nanking, Helsinki—all bigger than New York now. Forty-six million in Mexico City. Forty in São Paulo. New York doesn’t even rank in the top 20. The correction is under way—has been under way for some time now. Let’s eat each other, that’s what I propose—my arm tonight and yours tomorrow—because there’s precious little of anything else left. Ecology. What a joke.
I’m not preaching. I’m not going to preach. It’s too late for that, and besides which, preaching never did anybody any good anyway. Let me say this, though, for the record—for the better part of my life I was a criminal. Just like you. I lived in the suburbs in a 3,000- square-foot house with redwood siding and oak floors and an oil burner the size of Texas, drove a classic 1966 Mustang for sport and a Jeep Laredo (red, black leather interior) to take me up to the Adirondacks so I could heft my $320 backpack and commune with the squirrels, muskrats, and fishers. I went to the gym. Drank in fern bars. Bought shoes, jackets, sweaters, and hair-care products. I guess I was dimly aware—way out there on the periphery of my consciousness—of what I was doing to the poor abused corpus of old Mother Earth, and I did recycle (when I got around to it, which was maybe twice a year), and I thought a lot about packaging. I wore a sweater in the house in winter to conserve energy and turn the flame down on global warming, and still I burned fuel and more fuel, and the trash I generated plugged its own hole in the landfill like a permanent filling in a rotten tooth.
Worse, I accumulated things. They seemed to stick to me, like filings to a magnet, a whole polarized fur of objects radiating from my fingertips in slavish attraction. Paper clips, pins, ancient amplifiers, rusted-out cooking grills. Clothes, books, records, CDs. Cookware, Ginzu knives, food processors, popcorn poppers, coffeemakers.
I drove fast, always in a hurry. I parented. Cooked. Cleaned. Managed my dead father’s crumbling empire—you’ve heard of him, Sy Tierwater, developer of tract homes in Westchester and Dutchess Counties?—and paid bills and collected rents and squeezed down the window of my car to add my share of Kleenex, ice-cream sticks, and cigarette wrappers to the debris along the streaming sides of the blacktop roads.
Want more? I drank wine, spent money, spoiled my daughter, and watched her accumulate things in her turn. And just like you—if you live in the Western world, and I have to assume you do, or how else would you be reading this?—I caused approximately 250 times the damage to the environment of this tattered, bleeding planet as a Bangladeshi or Balinese, and they do their share, believe me. Or did. But I don’t want to get into that.
Let’s just say I saw the light—with the help of a good nudge from Andrea, Teo (may he rot in hell or interplanetary space or wherever), and all the other hard chargers down at Earth Forever! Forces were put in motion, gears began to grind. I sold the house, the cars, the decrepit shopping center my father left me, my windsurfer and Adirondack chair and my complete set of bootleg Dylan tapes, all the detritus left behind by the slow-rolling glacier of my old life, my criminal life, the life I led before I became a friend of the earth. Friendship. That’s what got me into the movement and that’s what pushed me way out there on the naked edge of nothing, beyond sense or reason, or even hope. Friendship for the earth. For the trees and shrubs and the native grasses and the antelope on the plain and the kangaroo rats in the desert and everything else that lives and breathes under the sun.
Except people, that is. Because to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people.
But now—now Andrea’s ensconced in my house like a badger in its den, and April Wind has blown in the door. And there she is, sunk deep in the dog-stinking couch I inherited with this place ten years ago.
“You remember April, Ty,” Andrea says, and she’s not making a question of it. I watch her as she pulls one of the mold-spattered kitchen chairs across the room and perches girlishly on the edge of it, her bare feet splayed over the rungs. The way she does it, the way she maneuvers the chair and settles herself—and more, the tone of her voice, the smell of her—plumbs some deep inversion layer in the unstirred lake of my memory. But that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Memory? In Memoriam Sierra Tierwater, 1976–2001. Requiescat in Pace. Fat chance.
SIERRA GAVE UP EVERYTHING for an ideal, and if that isn’t the very definition of heroism I don’t know what is. Once she was up in her tree, that was it, her life was over. She never had children, never had a house, a pet, an apartment even, she never again went shopping, bought something on impulse, watched TV or a movie, never had a friend or a lover. She was separated from her father by 613 horizontal miles and 180 vertical feet, and she might as well have been in prison too. For three years, through the refrigerated winter and the kiln that was summer, she never bathed. Her clothes stank, her skin burned, she ate rice and vegetables six days a week and lentil soup on Sundays. Her fingers and toes felt as if they were going to fall off, her back ached worse than her father’s, she had a cavity in one of her upper molars and it threatened to bore right through her head. She never went to Paris. Never went to grad school. Never stretched out on a couch in front of a fire and listened to the rain on the roof.
Coast Lumber tried to ignore her at first, but after El Niño failed to dislodge her, she became an embarrassment—and worse, a liability. Because the longer she held out, the more people began to take notice. No one had been up a tree more than 20 days before Sierra climbed up into Artemis, and as she reached the one-month mark the press started to converge on her dwindling grove in the Headwaters Forest. Andrea gave her a cell phone too, and by the end of the second month she was spending two or three hours a day on it, chatting with her father and stepmother sometimes, sure, but mainly giving interviews, educating the public, throwing down a gauntlet in the duff.
The other two tree-sitters—a skinny girl with a buzz cut and a sad-eyed, bearded 19-year-old known only as Leaf, each perched in a neighboring grove—had given up after the first week of unappeasable rain and 50-mile-per-hour gusts, and Coast Lumber, I’m sure, felt vindicated. Sit on your hands, that was their policy. Avoid force. Squelch bad press before it can poke its ugly head out of its hole and bite you in the foot. But my daughter was something they hadn’t reckoned with. She wasn’t your ordinary body-piercing neo-hippie college kid chanting slogans and chaining herself to the bumpers of corporate town cars on her summer vacation, she was immovable, unshakable, Joan of Arc leading her troops into battle, with nothing to lose but the bones of her flesh. They had to get rid of her. They had no choice.
Pick a morning, midway through the second month. Seven a.m.A light rain falling with the slow, shifting rhythm of the infinite, the serried trees, the sky so close it seems illuminated from within. Sierra is asleep. The forest breathes in and out. A marbled murrelet perches on a branch 50 feet below her. She’s dreaming of flying. Not of falling—that’s a dream she refuses to entertain up here in a bed this high above the earth, even in her unconscious—but of sprouting wings and diving off the platform to swoop low over the lumber mill and then rise up aloft until the forest falls away and then the hills and even the ocean, higher and higher until she’s dodging satellites in the glittering metallic bands of their orbits and can gaze down on the earth unobstructed.
Suddenly, the platform shudders. She wakes. Looks through the aperture at the south end of her tent. And sees a hand, a human hand, tensed there on the corner of the platform like a bird-eating spider hatched in the forests of the Amazon. There’s a grunt, and then another hand appears—and in the next instant a head pops into view, presumptive eyes, the sliver of a mouth, a face framed in a beard the color of used coffee grounds.
He’s got a knee on the platform now, and his eyes have never left hers, no diffidence here, no higher feelings about slipping into a girl’s bedroom while she sleeps. And the thing is, he’s not bad-looking: every hair in place, the beard neatly clipped, the sliver of a mouth widening in a smile, the eyes friendly now and warm. “Good morning, Sierra,” he says, and she likes his voice too, wondering if he isn’t one of the new support people from EF! or maybe a truly intrepid journalist, but then, in the same moment, she’s annoyed. They know she doesn’t give interviews this early. Her hair is a disaster. She claps a knit cap over it, sits up, and kicks her legs out of the sleeping bag. And the climber? He’s crouched at the end of her platform in his spiked shoes—six-by-eight, that’s all she’s got here, two sheets of plywood, and he’s halving her space. “You know who I am?”
He’s wearing a flannel shirt, wet with sweat or the rain or a combination of the two, jeans, a thermal T-shirt the color of dried blood visible at his open collar, some sort of elaborate tech-pro watch, and suspenders—red suspenders. “My name’s Deke,” he says, “Climber Deke is what they call me, actually,” and his smile has become a grin, as if this were the world’s richest joke. She knows who he is. Now she knows. The suspenders would have told her if he hadn’t. “I’m here to bring you down. And we can do it the easy way—the civilized way—or we can get rough, if that’s how you want it. But you’re coming down out of this tree, little lady, and you’re coming down now.” He pauses to shift his weight to his knees and the platform trembles. “And I’m afraid I had to dismantle your lower platform, the one with all the food and your camp stove? Yeah, honey, you’d just starve up here anyways, so why don’t you just dump what you want to take over the side here and we’ll be on our way.”
“OK,” she says—that’s what my daughter says, “OK”—and her voice is so soft he can barely hear her. But he nods—she really hasn’t got any choice, she’s breaking the law up here and he’d strap her to his back if it came to that, and handcuff her too—and settles down on his flanks to give her time to bring down the tent and roll up her sleeping bag and get rid of the damned New Age hippie mural of a butterfly she’s painted on a piece of canvas as if this were a walkup on Ashbury or something. Sierra crawls out of the tent—six by eight—and rises to her feet so that she’s standing over him and makes as if to loosen the cord at this end of the tent.
Makes as if. In a single motion, she grips the branch above her and flips herself up like an acrobat, and then, her feet gripping the slick, corrugated bark, she climbs high up into the crown of the tree, even as he struggles up after her, and there are no safety lines here, not for her or for him. “Come back here, you little bitch!” he shouts, digging his spikes in, thrusting upward. His reward is a faceful of redwood bark, threads and splinters kicked up by her feet and sifting down into his eyes, his nostrils, his mouth.
Climber Deke is a lumberman. A timber person. He’s agile and muscular and cocksure. If she wants to play, he’ll play. But he doesn’t know my daughter. She finds a limb and she goes out on it. And when he gets to that limb and he’s facing her over a gap of maybe ten feet or so, he stops. The limb Sierra is crouched on won’t support two people—in fact, from Climber Deke’s perspective, it doesn’t look as if it’ll support one much longer. Far below them a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) flits through layers of light, its wings extended and then drawn down and up again with an audible snap of its crisp black feathers. The rain has picked up now. The moisture flattens Climber Deke’s hair, clings in droplets to the pelage of his face. He curses, his voice flat and hard.
“I’d rather die up here than have some pathetic gutless bastard like you even touch me,” my daughter spits.
“Then die,” he says. “Die. Because we’re going to cut this tree whether you’re in it or not.”
AND THEN, LONG after April Wind has had her way and Mac has passed on and we’re on our way out of all this, we find ourselves in another restaurant. Menus. Waitresses. Noise. Andrea orders the catfish enchilada and a sake margarita, and after vacillating between the catfish fajitas and the Bagre al carbón before finally settling on the former, I lift my glass of sake on the rocks and click it against the frosted rim of her margarita. “To us,” I offer.
“Yes,” she says, a quiet smile pressed to her lips, and I’m thinking about that, about our life together as it stretches out before me, a pale wind-torn sun in the windows, voices roaring around us, and I can’t help wondering just what it’s going to be like. We could live another 25 or 50 years even. The thought depresses me. What’s going to be left by then?
“You’re not eating,” she says. A dozen kids—children, babies—run bawling down the aisle, ducking under the upraised arms of as many waiters. They are infinite, I am thinking, all these hungry, grasping people chasing after the new and improved, the super and imperishable, and I stand alone against them—but that’s the kind of thinking that led me astray all those years ago. Better not to think. Better not to act. Just wave the futilitarian banner and bury your nose in a glass of sake. “Mine’s good,” Andrea says, proffering a forkful of pus-yellow catfish basted in salsa. “Want a bite?” I just shake my head. I want to cry. Catfish.
Her voice is soft, very low, so low I can barely hear her in the din: “You know”—and she’s digging through her purse now, a purse the size of a steamer trunk suspended from two black leather straps—”I have something for you. I thought you’d want it.”
What do I show her in response? Two dog’s eyes, full and wet and pathetic. There is nothing I want, except the world the way it was, my daughter restored to me, my parents, all the doomed and extinguished wildlife of America—the white-faced ibis, the Indiana bat, the margay, the Perdido Key beach mouse, the California grizzly, and the Chittenango ovate amber snail—put back in their places. I don’t want to live in this time. I want to live in the past. The distant past.
The rustle of paper. It’s a manuscript. A book. And the title, suddenly revealed, stares out at me from beneath the cellophane wrapper of the cover:
MARTYR TO THE TREES:
THE SIERRA TIERWATER STORY
BY APRIL F. WIND
I already know how it ends.
Sierra set the record. Set it anew each day, like Kafka’s hunger artist, but, unlike the deluded artist, she had an audience. A real and ever-growing audience, an audience that made pilgrimages to the shrine of her tree, sent her as many as a thousand letters a week, erected statues to her, composed poems and song lyrics, locked arms and marched in her name. In all, she spent just over three years aloft, above the fray, the birds her companions, as secure in her environment as a snail in its shell or a goby in the smooth, sculpted jacket of its hole.
In the beginning—in the weeks and months after Climber Deke’s frustrated effort to dislodge her—the timber company initiated a campaign of harassment designed either to bring her down or to drive her mad, or both. They logged the trees on all sides of her, the screech of the saws annihilating the dawn and continuing unabated till dark, and all around her loggers cupping their hands over their mouths and shouting abuse. At night they set up a wall of speakers at the base of the tree and blared polkas, show tunes, and Senate testimony into the vault of the sky till the woods echoed like some chamber of doom. They brought in helicopters, the big workhorses they used for wrestling hundred-foot logs off of remote hilltops, and the helicopters hovered there beside her tree, beating up a hurricane with the wash of their props.
They tried starvation too. The hired goons established a perimeter around the grove and refused to let her support team in. For three nights running, in the company of a loping, rangy kid named Starlight who haltingly confessed that he was in love with my daughter and wanted to marry her as soon as she came down from her tree, I lugged supplies in to her, and for many more nights than that I wandered the dark woods with a baseball bat, just praying that one of those foul-mouthed sons of bitches would try to make good on his threats. Sierra was unfazed. They couldn’t intimidate her. “Don’t worry, Dad,” she whispered one night as she descended as low as she dared to collect the provisions we’d brought her (Starlight straining against gravity from the top rung of an aluminum ladder while I braced him from below). Her face glowed palely against the black vacancy that was her tree. “They’re scared, that’s all.”
Finally Coast Lumber backed off and the support team returned, more determined than ever. By this point, Sierra had begun to take on the trappings of the mad saint, the anchorite in her cell. She became airier, more distant. She’d been studying the teachings of Lao-tzu and the Buddha, she told me. She was one with Artemis, one with the squirrels and chickadees that were her companions. There was no need to come down to earth, not then, not ever. She didn’t care—or didn’t notice—that she was the idol of thousands, didn’t care that she was incrementally extending the record for consecutive days aloft till no one could hope to exceed it, and she barely mentioned Coast Lumber anymore. Toward the end, I think, she’d forgotten what she was doing up there in that tree to begin with.
The end, that’s right—this is about the end of all that.
Can I tell you this? I was there—her father was there—when it happened. Four, five, even six days a week, I’d hike out to her tree and chat with her if she wasn’t busy with interviews or her journal. Sometimes she’d come down in her harness and float there above me, the soles of her feet as black as if they’d been tarred; other times we’d chat on the cell phone, sometimes for hours, just drifting through subjects and memories in a long, unhurried dream of an afternoon or evening, her voice so intimate right there in my ear, so close, it was as if she’d come down to earth again.
We had a celebration to commemorate her third anniversary aloft—her support team, a dozen journalists, a crowd of the EF! rank and file. I got her a cake that was meant, I think, for somebody’s wedding—four tiers, layered frosting, the lonely plastic figurine of a groomless bride set on top. I was trying to tell my daughter something with that forlorn bride: It was time to come down. Time to get on with life. Go to graduate school, get married, have children, take a shower, for Christ’s sake.
A week later. Forty-eight degrees, a light rain falling. Those trees, that grove, were more familiar to me than the sitting room in my apartment or the house I grew up in. There was a smell of wood smoke on the air, the muted sounds of the forest sinking into evening, a shrouded ray of sunlight cutting a luminous band into her tree just above the lower platform—which was unoccupied, I saw, when I came up the hill and into the grove, already punching her number into the phone. It was 4:15. I’d just got out of work. I was calling my arboreal daughter.
Her voice came over the line, hushed and breathy, the most serene voice in the world, just as I reached the base of the tree. “Hi, Dad,” she whispered, that little catch of familiarity and closeness in her voice, ready to talk and open up, as glad to hear my voice as I was glad to hear hers, “What’s up?” I was about to tell her something, an amusing little story about work and one of the loggers—timber persons—when her voice erupted in my ear.
She cried out in surprise—”Oh!” she cried, or maybe it was “Oh, shit!”—because after all those years and all the sure, prehensile grip of her bare, hardened toes, she’d lost her balance. The phone came down first, a black hurtling missile that was like a fragment dislodged from the lowering black sky, and it made its own distinctive sound, a thump, yes, but a kind of mechanical squawk too, as if it were alive, as if it were some small, tree-dwelling thing that had made the slightest miscalculation in springing from one branch to another. And that was all right, everything was all right—she’d only lost her phone, I’d get her a new one, and hadn’t I seen an ad in the paper just the other day and thought of her?
But then the larger form came down—much larger, a dark, streaking ball so huge and imminent the sky could never have contained it. There was a sound—sudden, roaring, wet—and then the forest was silent.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of 12 works of fiction, including The Tortilla Curtain and Riven Rock. This story is adapted from his new novel A Friend of the Earth, which will be published by Viking in September.