The First Tree

Having invented time travel, I underwent a conversion. When I initiated the time project, I had become obsessed with it. I sacrificed my marriage and any hope of a family or accelerated advancement at CalTech in order to create the device that would prove my theories. I thought of nothing else. I cared about nothing else. I was possessed by my sudden understanding of the universe and an overwhelming need to demonstrate it.

Once I succeeded, my obsession evaporated. It departed as quickly as it had come. It left no trace. Gone was my interest in science and mathematics. I no longer cared about cosmology. I did not want to think about anything technical, ever again. I wanted to live. I wanted to feel. I wanted to rejoin the human race.

I found a picture of my ex-wife and sat on the sofa poring over it. I felt as if I had just awakened from a dream. A sense of great loss enveloped me.

What to do next?

First of all, I decided, I would not use my device to venture even one second into the future, ever. I didn’t want to know what the rest of my life might hold, or when I would die, or what would become of the world I lived in. If disaster awaited me, or all of us, so be it.

In fact, now that I had proven that the device worked, I didn’t want to visit the past either. Time travel? I’m no history buff. Is that ironic?

Second of all, I wanted no fame, not for a lifetime, not for five minutes. No celebrity. Rather, I wanted to avoid notoriety at all costs. I wanted the quiet life above all. I dreaded becoming some new Einstein.

Third of all, I wanted to make a fortune off my invention. I wanted to become rich enough to live lavishly for the rest of my life. Lavishly, but as unobtrusively as possible. I wanted to sell my device. I wanted to turn a profit. Let others figure out how to use or misuse it. Not me.

Or, no, did I just want my old life back, the way it was before this madness ran my marriage and my life off the rails?

How to sell the thing without calling attention to myself? The answer, I finally realized, lay close at hand. Or at least down the I10 in Santa Monica.

Dr. Mary Adams. My ex. A world-class archeologist, a full professor at UCLA, and one of the best-known popular-science authors in the nation. She never remarried. She remained childless. She blamed me for ruining men and marriage for her. Other than that, we got along OK.

I stopped by her office in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at lunchtime on a Wednesday.

“What are you doing here?” she said.

“I’ve completed my work. My project. I’ve build the device.”

“Good for you,” she said. “Now scram.”

“I just want you to see it. You won’t regret it.”

Mary wasn’t mad at me anymore. She had regrets, deep regrets, and after coming to my senses, so did I. She was a writer with her ear to the ground. She was an inquisitive scientist. She always knew that I was a genius. She just wanted me around the house a little bit more. She wanted me to care more about her than about the nature of time. Unfortunately, for a long time, I didn’t.

“What do you have in mind?” she said.

“I’ve got the device set up in the Winnebago. Out in visitor parking.”

She stood up.

“This better be worth my lunch hour,” she said.

“It cost us our life together, so I hope it’s more important than a sandwich.”

“Should I be worried about you luring me into the Winnebago?”

“We might want to celebrate after the demonstration. For old time’s sake. I brought champagne.”

“Forget it. But thanks for the offer.”

In the ‘Bago, we sat down in adjoining seats in front of my console.

“We’ll go together,” I said.

“Is this still about that two-dimensional hologram at the edge of the universe?”

“It is indeed.”

“Isn’t the edge of the universe fourteen billion light years away?”

“The universe doesn’t have edges like that, or a center. It’s a self-contained spacetime entity. You’re as close to its edge as anyone or anything else. In the two-dimensional holographic sense, you’re in the edge – you and everything else – now, before, and since.”

“I know you aren’t crazy,” she said, “unless you’ve gotten worse. Is this thing safe?”

“Perfectly safe. The system simply allows you to view any part of the universal hologram that you choose. I’ve embedded the input in a virtual-reality context, or substrate, to allow the human brain to process it. It’s been thoroughly tested. By me. On me. No side effects. Just pick a time and a place.”

Mary rolled her eyes. I couldn’t blame her. In spite of my reputation at CalTech and her protestations to the contrary, I had a hunch that she suspected I was nuts.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Time and place.”

“Well, I’m writing a paper on the first true trees. It’s based on the new Devonian finds in the Canadian arctic and at Red Hill. So let’s say Late Devonian – the Famennian stage – and for place, central Gondwana.”

“Remind me,” I said.

“Three hundred and sixty-five million years ago. On the southern supercontinent.”

I set the coordinates.

“Where are the wires?” she said.

“It’s wireless,” I said.

I picked up the controller and clicked Start and we found ourselves standing on high ground. The feel of land under our feet was an illusion that our minds thoughtfully provided.

Mary turned slowly, taking in the panorama. Marshy land, thick with vegetation, stretched to the horizon in all directions. A wide river crawled through it and small lakes dotted the landscape. The blue of the sky seemed a little off to me, perhaps caused by a serious lack of Los Angeles smog.

“Wow,” Mary said.

She looked down. We were up to our shins in groundcover. Every square inch of land was rank with vegetation. It all had a strange, alien, look to it.

Bushy growth in a thousand shades of green struggled for space. I must have expected the place to be teeming with gnats and mosquitoes, because I reflexively waved a hand in front of my face.

“No flying insects in the Davonian,” Mary said beside me. “Wings haven’t been invented yet… John, I’m speechless. Did you program all this? This is virtual reality? How did you know I’d choose the Davonian, because this is Davonian to a T.”

“I didn’t program anything. I couldn’t. This is all real. Look at the detail.”

She crouched down.

“These plants are clearly vascular,” she said. “My lord, this is a bed of some type of barinophyton. All we have in the lab are its strobili. I can see three species of stauropteridales right here. Extinct early ferns. Look at them. Can we take a picture somehow?”

“Sorry. This is all in your head.”

She reached out to touch the bushes and her hand passed through them.

“Hologram,” I said.

I adjusted my controller and a sudden breeze caused the vegetation to stir.

“We were paused. Now we’re advancing in time at a normal rate,” I said.

Mary stood up. Something buzzed by.

“No wings?” I said.

“The Davonian fossil record is short on insects. There was a recent find that hinted at flight… It’s unbelievable. I’m actually standing in Gondwana in the Davonian era.”

“You are.”

“Imagine,” she said. “The planet covered with vegetation like this for millions upon millions of years. Too bad humans came along.”

“Paradise?” I said.

“Well, all these plants are sucking up CO2 and manufacturing oxygen. A major extinction event is coming up. Reverse greenhouse. So not totally paradise.”

“Does this help you with your tree work?” I said.

“Do you see that stand down there. The trees that look like peculiar conifers? Those are archaeopteris. We used to think archaeopteris was the first true tree. They can grow to fifty meters. Live fifty years. Develop a deep root system. Their wood is like that of a conifer.”

She scanned the area at the foot of the slope.

“Those skinny ones that look a little like palm trees?” she said. “That’s wattieza. They’re our current candidate for first tree. They evolved twenty-five million years earlier than archaeopteris. Still looking perky, though.”

She turned and stepped up the slope to a smaller tree, which looked like an overgrown fern.

“This one,” she said, “is new. I’ve found an early tree that has never been seen before. More primitive than wattieza. I give you our new First Tree.”

She walked up to it and studied it.

“See,” she said, pointing up at its top. “It uses only its axial growth tip to grow.”

I laughed. Professor Adams. She passed a hand through the tree.

“Stick your head into the trunk and you can see what the wood looks like,” I said.

She did. When she pulled her head back out, I hit the Stop button and we were back in the ‘Bago.

“What!” Mary said. “No!”

“We have to talk.”

“About what? Take me back there!”

“We need to decide the next step.”

She started to speak but then just looked at me.

“You didn’t come over here for old time’s sake,” she said. “What have you got in mind? Publicity? My connections in science writing?”

“Far from it. The last thing I want is publicity.”

“What, then? I should have known you didn’t come over here just to see me.”

I didn’t argue with her about that, although I wanted to.

“I want you to file the patents,” I said. “I want you to own them.”

She stared at me.

“Listen,” I said. “Yes, I do want you to quietly use your connections, to license the system’s use around the world. Go to Apple or Sony or Motorola or all of them. It’s easy hardware to assemble. Everyone in the world will be using it in no time. When that happens, nobody is going to care who invented it. I’ll be left in peace.”

We sat in silence for a while.

“If I do what you say,” Mary said, “I’ll end up with billions. Hundreds of billions.”


“Huh,” she said. ” I don’t know about that… Take me back to my tree.”

I clicked Start. We were standing in front of the tree again.

“You’ve got a whole little city of organisms calling this tree home,” Mary said. “See this early arachnid? No spinnerettes. Like wings, or so I thought, they haven’t been invented yet. We don’t know much about Davonian insects. Even as they spread out and take possession of the land.”

She turned and looked out over the sea of green.

“Tens of thousands of square miles of life, growing day after day for millions of years. The biomass is unimaginable.”

“Are there any animals out there?” I said.

“Besides the insects? This is really the age of the fishes, but the first arthropods are crawling around in the mud. Four-legged chordates. They can’t get their bellies off the ground yet. We’ll take a walk later. Right now, I want to do a quick census of the life on this tree.”

I stood back and waited while she worked. Finally, she came over to me.

“Scholars will go back and watch the lost Greek plays,” she said. “They’ll read lost Roman literature over citizens’ shoulders in the ancient libraries. This is going to change the way we think about the world. But…”

“But what?”

“What about the future?”

I tapped Stop on my controller and we returned to the Winnebago.

“Searching the past seems wonderful,” Mary said, “but I’m not so sure about doing the same in the future. Suppose that you see yourself dying in an accident. Wouldn’t you come back and try to prevent it? What happens then?”

“Whatever you see in the future is what happens. Has already happened, in a sense. Of course you can try to change it, but whatever you do will turn out to cause the very future you’re trying to prevent. There are no paradoxes in spacetime.”

“Can you disable the future part of the system?”

“I can, but somebody else will just figure out how to restore it. This isn’t rocket science, you know… Well, it is, but still…”

“I just worry about the effects on society,” Mary said. “What’s going to happen if everyone knows how and when they’re going to die?”

“Maybe something good,” I said.

“Or maybe not. What if I don’t file your patents for you? What if I don’t shop your device around? What will you do then?”

“I’m giving you the plans,” I said. “The issues you raise are beyond me. You decide what’s best to do.”

“Why don’t you come over tonight?” Mary said. “We’ll make dinner together and share a bottle of wine.”

“We might not be able to settle this in one evening,” I said.

“Bring a toothbrush,” Mary said.