by Timothy Hollinger
In the days before the trees’ mass exodus, life had gone on much as it always had.
Allen walked over a puzzle of shadows. He had taken the weekend for himself and had driven out of the city and into the mountains. He had planned a long hike that wound through some of the last old growth woods in the area.
As Allen hiked, he felt as if he had traveled back in time. The trees were mammoths — tall and looming like a king’s personal guards. They had grown so old that the wrinkles of time were chased into their ancient wood.
Craning his neck to see the masses of green leaves that brushed the heavens, Allen wondered why mankind had the privilege of sharing the land with such humble, yet grandiose things. He marveled at the trees’ resilience as mankind had treated them so poorly.
Navigating the trail’s switchbacks, he grew accustomed to the gentle giants that flanked the path like pillars in a grand palace. As he gained altitude, the trees began to shrink, beaten down by harsh weather. The forest became thick and tangled. Trees that had been growing for eons leaned on one another; their branches had grown up twisted, bent at odd angles, all in an elusive search for sunlight. They looked as if they belonged in a witch’s garden. Great bunches of lichen and moss hung from each tree.
The sun was setting. It was late August, and the air was starting to feel cool. Allen heard the faint babbling of a brook and turned off the path. He decided he should set up camp. He had trouble climbing through the thick woods; gnarled old branches seemed to be intentionally blocking his way.
The area was a labyrinth of wood, yet Allen was able to find his way to a small patch where nearly all the trees were dead. An old stag stood in the clearing. Upon seeing the man, it bounded off into the thick fauna.
Allen set about clearing the space, piling all the dead wood for a fire. After pulling away all the lifeless snags, there remained one tree.
It was a sad looking tree. Its branches unfurled into a fork, and although its scarred bark made it look like a fossil, no lichen grew on its time-tested branches.
Little did Allen know it was the belly of the fabled world tree, Yggdrasil. It was the same ash from which Odin had hung eons ago. Its form was now stunted. It had lost much of its bulk. Years of mankind’s abuse and neglect had taken their toll on the old relic.
The prehistoric tree was quite small for what it was; the base of its trunk was about the size of an old man’s arm. Its finger-like branches writhed towards the sky’s filtered light.
Allen, unaware of the tree’s significance, had to remove it to make room for his tent. He put his hands in between the two branches and braced himself on the ground with a wide stance. He leaned forward and then jerked back. The tree followed his motion; Allen was surprised by the ash’s resilience. He gave it another shot, repeating the same movement, this time trying to pull it farther back. The tree emitted a whining creak.
Twilight was upon the woods. A raven swooped down over Allen’s head and settled in the trees overlooking the scene of carnage.
Allen was determined. He fetched a fat-bladed hunting knife from his backpack. He flipped it open and slashed the tree. The blade made a faint mark that was soon lost in the craggy bark. He hacked at the wood, and, after some time, a crude cut appeared in the trunk. Slightly marred by the tool, the tree still stood.
Allen was bristling with frustration. It was now late, and the tree still wasn’t down. He tugged at it in vain, pushed it and pulled it. Finally, in desperation, he kicked the ancient specimen. The tree bent. The roots on the side closest to Allen, loosened from all the motion, snapped with a quick chorus of dull thuds. Encouraged by the latest developments, Allen attacked the tree with greater fervor.
The raven squawked and fluttered into the air. At last, the tree came free. Allen smiled at what he thought was a job well done. He dragged the tree to his pile of firewood. He decided to save the old tree for last as it had burdened him so.
* * *
A plume of smoke rose out of the forest in a thin coil; it arched up and out into the starry ether. After eating, Allen burned most of the wood he had gathered. The utter darkness of the forest wrapped around him. He felt quite safe. The dead wood was there for him to burn. As the night progressed, strange horse-like shudders came from the ancient trees around him. He shivered as he stoked his glowing fire.
In time the wood was gone save for one old piece. Its bark was twisted, void of lichen. Allen took it and laid it over the flickering fire. He watched as the copper flames devoured the old tree’s hard flesh.
The trees around the clearing moaned louder, out into the wind. Part of Yggdrasil, their old, tired king, weakened in the realm of man, was slowly cremated. The tips of their tender leaves turned black.
The raven, who had observed Allen cut down the tree, sped towards the heavens. Yggdrasil was dead. Odin would want to know.
Back in the forest, the blackness that had frosted the tips of the leaves moved down over the trees. It left only dead plant matter in place of twigs and branches. The death seeped into the timber, reaching the heartwood of the trees and robbing them of what life they had.
Allen lay in his tent, oblivious to the blackening canopy overhead. The trees’ plague rapidly spread throughout the forest around him. As he drifted into a thick sleep, he heard a raven caw. He smiled and wondered what natural beauties tomorrow would hold.
The raven, Munin, perched on Odin’s mammoth shoulder, was amazed by the god’s solid countenance. Below them, chaos reigned. Mankind’s forests were all dying. Munin remembered his fond time spent about Yggdrasil and felt regret. He could only observe and report. Sadly, he could not act.
They watched as the blight seeped across the earth, infecting and destroying all the trees.
The two observed the human reaction to the death. First, mankind was puzzled; scientists searched for an insect, disease, or fungi to blame. People resorted to drastic measures; all failed. Humans soon became scared. Companies quickly bought up wood and tree by-products. Paper and fruit soon became prized commodities. As the last trees died, people became angry. There were riots. Wars were fought over the dead forests. As the smoke cleared there came regret. Man was left alone.
Odin looked away from the earth, his brow slightly furrowed. He exclaimed, “To think, after all the years that Yggdrasil was sick from global abuses, the great tree dies at the hand of one man.”
The bird launched himself from Odin’s shoulder and flew to face the one-eyed god. With boldness born of frustration, he tenaciously asked, “Why didn’t you intervene? These people died, and you just stood by, watching.”
Odin looked at his heavy hands before speaking glumly, “They have been so bound to their culture that what matters is lost to them. Even if their section of Yggrasil was returned, they’d destroy it, in some way, all over again.”
The bird, realizing the gravity of the statement, looked to earth. Below, as people were wondering what had caused the catastrophe, humanity was struck by further consequences of the world tree’s death. At first they were hardly noticeable; however, the small events began to add up.
In a flashy cocktail bar, patrons started to complain that the toothpicks holding their drinks’ garnish were turning black and dissolving.
A fisherman in the Pacific watched as the floorboards of his boat were overtaken by a creeping blackness that quickly gave way to churning water.
A guard in a library blinked back amazement as the books in his care began to crumble into a fine black dust.
In the heavens, the bird was shocked, and once again found the courage to address the forgotten god, “Will you stop this now? All that was made of the great tree’s kin is disintegrating. These people will die at the hands of this!”
Odin liked Munin, he had been a fine servant. “My dear bird, this is Yggdrasil’s work, not mine. Had these humans paid attention to the way they were living their lives, the world tree would never have been weakened. This never would have happened.”
Below Odin, boxes disintegrated, paper crumbled, furniture fell apart, and houses collapsed in upon themselves. An inky blackness crept across all that was once of great timber. The world tree was gone. Mankind was quiet.
Copyright © 2007 by Timothy Hollinger