(Completely unable to locate that thing I was looking for, I was forced to do this instead. Yes, I should really be working.)
Once upon a time there was a swamp on the edge of the vast and trackless grassland known as the Rootveldt.
The swamp was not vast, nor was it trackless. It was actually a fairly small chunk of swamp where the coastal salt marsh oozed into more conventional wetland, so insignificant that it didn’t show up on most maps. (The one map it did show up on listed it as the Ugbert T. Wamphit Memorial Swamp. There were a surprising number of topographical features with the Wamphit name on them, largely because the Wamphit family was a major subsidizer of the Guild of Cartographers.)
The inhabitants of the Ugbert T. Wamphit Memorial Swamp called it “the swamp,” or occasionally “our swamp,” to differentiate it from any other swamps that might be lurking about the area. (There were several, but it was generally agreed that those swamps were not as nice as our swamp.) They were amphibious in a desultory sort of way, had rudimentary gills, and possessed seventy-three distinct words for mud, although some were archaic and eleven of them were not suitable for mixed company.
The dominant flora of the swamp were mangrove trees and their relatives, but arguably the most interesting were the squee-trees. The squee-trees were lumpy, gnarled, sloppy trees that tended to sprawl along the ground. You got the impression that a squee-tree did not so much grow as wallow. Only the most dedicated and peculiar gardener would attempt to grow a specimen, which is just as well, because the lifecycle of the squee-tree made it nearly impossible to grow outside this particular swamp.
When the squee-nuts ripen and fall the short distance into the muck, the vast majority were picked up and eaten by the swamp-dwellers. A few, however, were carefully placed in the correct variety of mud, namely glorthek, which was a little drier than the usual run of mud and had a distinctive aroma (not to be confused with orblech, which was almost the same consistency but did not possess the correct odor.)
The critical component of glorthek, and the source of the odor, was a fungus present in the soil, which grew on the surface of the squee-nut and softened the leathery outer casing sufficiently for the nut to germinate. Once the squee-seedling began to grow, the fungus helped itself to some of the tasty bits left inside the seed casing, eventually forming a large fruiting body interwoven into the roots of the squee-tree itself.
The peculiar symbiosis between fungus and tree gave rise to the most unusual aspect of the squee-trees–namely their intelligence.
Squee-trees could think, after a fashion. The fungal mass appeared to function as a brain, and the squee-trees were among the smartest members of the vegetable kingdom. The older the tree (and to a greater extent, the more hospitable the soil) the larger the fungal “brain” grew and the smarter the resulting tree.
How exactly the swamp-dwellers learned of the intelligence of the squee-trees is shrouded in mythology, but they mostly agree that the first root-speaker was a female named Crayfish Daughter. From Crayfish Daughter descended the line of root-speakers, a group of shamans and horticulturalists who could commune with the squee-trees, owing to their crude psychic powers (although some people claimed their tendency to eat glorthek had more to do with it.)
After a few centuries, or millennia–or anyway, quite a while, it’s hard to keep good records in a muggy climate–the swamp-dwellers had settled into a comfortable life-style. They took care of the trees and the trees took care of them. The squee-trees had large hollow areas in their trunks anyway, which became homes for the swamp-dwellers, who ate the squee-nuts and the termites and borer beetles that might otherwise trouble the trees, and brought in water in times of drought and lopped off lightning-killed limbs and domesticated the common muckpecker* that lived among the roots of the trees. Their middens fertilized the roots of the squee-trees. Everybody was happy.
A cultural tradition sprang up among the swamp-dwellers–the squee-trees were seen as divine intermediaries between the living world and that of the ancestral spirits. Offerings of fertilizer (mostly fish guts) were left on every major holiday, and the squee-tree was invoked in much the manner of a household saint. The root-speakers relayed the wishes of the tree (generally “More fertilizer” and “Clear out that mangrove blocking my sunlight on the west side,” and “Give the root-speaker a raise.”) Everybody continued to be happy. You could hardly help it–a happy squee-tree put out a cocktail of pleasant chemicals through its bark that acted as a very mild euphoric for people who lived in it. A happy tree was a happy place to live. An unhappy tree got fixed quickly, since the unhappy chemicals tended to attract ants.
For years the squee-trees were ignored as a minor phenomenon of minor interest. A few anthropological monographs were written, but as the natives were not terribly interesting, even in photos, and their semi-arboreal-cities looked more like a product of the dry heaves than any sort of charming tree-house idyll, the swamp-dwellers were left to their own devices. The actual intelligence of the squee-tree was never determined to anyone’s satisfaction, since it’s difficult to give an IQ test to a tree, and attempts to administer them via the root-speakers generally failed, as the trees apparently had no concept of numbers and could not complete a sequence or solve for X. The root-speakers read the anthropological monographs politely and occasionally offered a few corrections on the proper translations of mud, but otherwise, things pretty much kept on keepin’ on.
And then one day Lord Thrumbold Fleetingsworth, that great despoiler of culinary culture, arrived on the scene.
Had he merely been passing through, perhaps stopping to sample a muckpecker egg omelet or eat a few of the improbably beautiful stained-glass crayfish, (which became improbably tasty with hot butter) there would have been no great problem, but unfortunately, Thrumbold arrived on the last leg of his quest for edible mushrooms, chronicled in Alone Among The Chantrelles vol 1-16, and came with an entourage.
Somehow, one of them located the fungal brain of an immature squee-tree, dug it up, and pronounced it delicious.
The squee-tree brain became a culinary hotbed, possessing a flavor as refined as white truffles, but a good deal easier to locate. Once you found a squee-tree, after all, you knew it had a brain somewhere nearby. Industry descended upon the Ugbert T. Wamphit Memorial Swamp, armed with blind, ravenous trufflehawks**, their laconic handlers, borers to dig the brains and guards to fend off the outraged natives. The choicest tree-brains were sold by the pound, but the vast majority were pressed into oil, which was much preferred to truffle oil as having a more complex, earthy taste.
There were two results of this.
One was that the producers of squee-tree oil*** got very, very rich, and poured a lot of money into making sure that nobody found out or got outraged about what was happening in the Ugbert T. Wamphit Memorial Swamp.
The second was that it was discovered that a squee-tree apparently did not die without its brain. Unfortunately, it went quite, quite mad. About half the time it took the root-speaker along with it. A maddened squee-tree was impossible to live in, and became a haunt of insects, wild animals and deranged root-speakers. Bad things happened to anything that lived in an insane squee-tree. They got aggressive and unpredictable and poured chemicals into the air and the water that filled the other trees with dread.
Nobody was happy any more, except for the crocodiles, who were ecstatic.
The culture of the swamp collapsed, as one might expect. A lot of tribes, forced out of their tree-homes, were reduced to a lifestyle as nomadic fishers, leading to even more meals for the crocodiles and to a one-sided diet light on fiber and hard on the bowels. A messianic movement started among among the more impressionable of the coastal swamp-dwellers, praying for the Coming of the Great Plover, a giant shorebird with eyes of flame who would smite his enemies with iron talons. For those not content to read omens in the tracks of sacred sandpipers, guerrilla movements formed, often led by the surviving root-speakers, who attacked the fungus harvesters. These attacks were usually repelled by heavily armed guards who possessed the sorts of technology never before seen in the swamp. Root-speakers who survived the madness of their tree were often never right in the head after that, and many were reduced to lives as beggars and pariahs.
It was clear that something had to be done.
(What? When I figure out what has to be done, I’ll let you know!)
*A relative of the northern flicker woodpecker, the muckpecker is semi-aquatic and prefers to hammer on roots that are underwater, which kicks up a great deal of sediment. The muckpecker seems to enjoy this, occasionally pulling various leggy wiggly things out of the surrounding slime. The resulting underwater holes make extensive habitat for small fish and crustaceans. Muckpeckers are very nearsighted, poor fliers, and prefer to walk whenever possible.
The ebony-billed muckpecker, a massive creature the size of a walrus, capable of knocking a hole in an underwater concrete wall, is believed to be extinct, although occasional vast, soggy tracks are still found, for which there is no ready explanation.
**The trufflehawk is a type of flightless bird, distantly related to the hoatzin. It possesses an extraordinary sense of smell and no eyes. The trufflehawk is “hooded” with nose-plugs dipped in camphor. When released, the trufflehawk lets out its wild gabbling call–“EEEEoooWOOOOHAAAAHAHAH!”—and lunges from the handler’s wrist, only to faceplant in the dirt over the truffle, giggling hysterically. This process takes about thirty seconds, for which the trufflehawk’s handler collects an exorbitant fee and then goes back to this tent and drinks heavily, wondering why he went into this line of work and when is he getting out of this damn swamp and is that allergies or just the malaria again?
***Did I write this entire thing JUST to make this rather weak pun? Would I do a thing like that?