Sentience is something you don't think about very much. You have it or you do not. People have it, trees do not. But I am (how curious that I can even consider the concept of "I am!") a tree, and I feel. I perceive. I am aware. As a tree standing on damp earth, with my roots ever seeking more water, more nourishment, I became aware that if the water dried up, I could not go somewhere else to find more. Animals and birds constantly moved around me, seeking the things they needed to keep them alive, but I had to stand in one place and wait. And hope. That, I realized, was not an enviable situation. I did not enjoy it.
What? Oh, yes, I am capable of enjoyment. That is how I first learned I was aware. All my life I had responded with pleasure to the sun as it summoned my sap to rise and triggered the photosynthesis making my existence possible. Light reacted upon me in ways I enjoyed without thinking, for thought did not seem necessary. Then a new pleasure came to me. A human female began sitting beneath me almost every day when the sun was highest. Often she leaned against my trunk and read poetry, sometimes aloud.
I cannot say when I discovered I was actually listening to her and trying to make sense of the patterns of sound she made. But I looked forward to her arrival each day. Something about the vibrations of her voice sank through my bark and set up answering vibrations within my core. In time, I understood her language.
From things she said, I perceived she was unhappy because she was lonely. The nature of humans, it seems, is to want to be in pairs, and this human female did not have another of her own kind to pair with.
Neither did I, I realized. So I must have been lonely—until the human female came to be, like sun or rain, and began providing something I had needed without knowing it.
In time, she talked to me as her kind talk to one another. She spoke of what she called her troubles. She was not pretty, she said. She was only clever. The young males copied her papers in class but took other girls to dances. I did not understand what pretty and clever meant, or what classes and dances were, but by listening I learned. I learned that I stood upon a college campus at the far end of an athletic field, and the female who came to me every day at her lunch hour was studying science.
How she perceived I was interested I cannot tell, but she began reading aloud from her textbooks. Perhaps she did it to clarify her thought processes, but in this way I learned about sentience, photosynthesis, and a galaxy of concepts I had never concerned myself with before.
The school year passed. I lost my leaves and should have slept, but as long as the weather was not too cold my human female still came to me, so I forced myself to stay at least partially awake, listening to her. Her presence rescued me from the loneliness I had not known I was suffering. She became very precious to me, like sun and rain.
How could I communicate with her and tell her these things? My whole existence was changed by her, yet she did not know. She began a new class, one on something called theosophy. I listened to her muse aloud on questions of divinity, seeking spiritual insight rather than empirical knowledge. She spoke of souls, destiny, heaven and hell, and I stretched myself like a young sapling in an effort to keep up with her leaping thoughts.
Then her mood turned darker. In her class was a young man more passionate about spirituality than she and from her words I learned he was a devotee of an organized religion. His was a sect obsessed with sin and his zealotry was beginning to have an influence on her. She began to worry aloud about the condition of her own soul.
I was forced to consider the question, then, of whether a tree could have a soul. Was sentience proof of the possession of one? Then I remembered some poetry she had once read, a phrase about the soul being love's vessel.
I loved, surely. I loved her, for the same reasons as I loved sun and rain; she had become necessary to me. She had expanded my existence and without her I would shrink back into a darkness I had not recognized as darkness. I loved; I had a soul.
That human male, he was dragging her into a darkness. I could sense it. I could feel the flagging of her bright spirit. With his talk of sins and hell fire he was crushing her. Was he telling her the truth?
If there were souls, they must have been created; the girl and I agreed on that point. So there was a creative principle in the universe—and there must be a destructive principle as well, dark for light. The Devil, Prince of Hell. He surely had power; I saw evidence of evil every day in the way human beings treated each other. So the devil had power over physical actions.
The human male made my girl cry. I stood helplessly over her and suffered with her, this girl who read poetry and studied the sciences and searched for answers. I raised my branches and tried praying with all my might to our creator, begging that I might be allowed to help her.
Nothing happened. Her eyes were frequently red-rimmed and she was growing thinner as the periods of daylight lengthened again. She had, in her loneliness, tried to pair with the human male in her class, the one who was obsessed with the notion of sin. Her desires for procreation, which seemed perfectly natural to any tree, had been rejected by him as sinful. He had rejected her.
I hated him. Hatred was another new feeling for me.
The next day I saw her walking on the campus. The human male was with her, at her elbow, yammering at her. I could tell from the way her shoulders slumped that he was making her miserable with his fanaticism. She moved closer to him as if to warm his cold heart with her own young warmth, but he pulled away from her.
He pulled away from a creature as pliant as a willow tree, with skin as white as a sycamore. I would not have pulled away from her. I felt myself shifting towards her, yearning to comfort her—and my roots tore free from the earth. They moved beneath me, shaping themselves into clawed feet capable of supporting me. At first I was too shocked to move, but I realized my offer had been accepted and the bargain was sealed. And I was glad. Glad!
I set off across campus toward my girl and the human male. My weight crushed the grass and gouged the earth and I swayed unsteadily, for such movement was strange to me. But I was not thinking of myself. I thought only of the girl, of getting to her and comforting her. I thought of stopping the human male from hurting her anymore.
He saw me first, over her shoulder. His face contorted and he took a step backward, but I was gaining better control of myself by then. I got to him while he was too astonished to run and slammed him across the throat with one of my branches, being careful not to let it hit her. I am an oak tree. It took little effort to smash his neck, for humans are flimsy things. He fell into a heap onto the earth, his body already surrendering its heat, ready to furnish nutrients to the waiting soil.
The girl screamed. I had not expected her to be frightened of me, for we were friends. We were more than friends. I leaned toward her, trying to reassure her, and I heard myself making sounds. The sounds I made surprised, then horrified me. Unfortunately, I did not have a human voice, any more than my roots were human feet. I had an oak tree's voice, huge and deep and echoing with an oak tree's approximation of human words.
The girl's eyes dilated with terror. She ran from me, faster than I, with all my weight, could follow. The other humans within sight of me were running too, racing toward the nearest building. Doors slammed. Then some men came out of that building, shouting and gesturing in my direction. One of them dragged a metal canister with a hose and a valve. When he touched the valve, a tongue of flame licked the air. Without a glance backward, my girl fled from me and hid herself in the man-made caverns of brick and stone. She rejected me and everything I was, as the human male had rejected what she was.
Too late, I understood heaven.
Heaven was sun and rain and the lazy tenderness of new leaves unfolding in the spring.
With no reason to try to save myself, I stood on the damp earth and watched the men come cautiously toward me with their canister of bottled flame. They would burn me into a pillar of fire. If she watched from a window, the girl would see it; she would be able to hear my roar of agony.
I stood on the damp earth and waited for hell.