by Rose Blackthorn
First of all, welcome to the Preserve. Here are your room keys and a map of our little settlement. You can see there’s an all-night café right next door, and we have an enclosed walkway between here and there, so you don’t even have to go outside. One of the services we offer is a little oral introduction to the Preserve presented by yours truly. Some people don’t seem all that interested, but I’d like to tell my story anyway, and if you don’t mind, I’ll get to it right now.
My opinion? It all started with global warming. No one really believed it; I mean c’mon, the planet heating up until it started an ice age? That just makes no sense at all! But regardless of any of that, the winters were getting drier, at least around here. Not nearly as cold or long as they’d been when I was a kid. We didn’t get as much snow in the winter. Used to be three or four feet of snow on the ground, sometimes more, from October on through April. Temperatures used to dip into the negatives and stay there for weeks at a time. Then, in the winter of ’12, it never dropped below freezing. Still had a couple good snowstorms, but nothing like usual. The winter of ’13 was so mild, most folks didn’t even call it winter. We never had more than two inches of snow on the lawn all season. Clear on into April, all the grass was dead, kind of a dried-up beige color lying flat against the soil and not much rain either, so even the bulbs were late coming up.
The County sent out surveyors to see what could be done, when it was clear the reservoirs were likely as full as they were going to get. There was some snow in the mountains, but not enough to make up for what never fell in the valleys. This was farming country around here, despite what you might think driving through on the state highway. A shortage of water was going to make life hard on everyone.
So those folks from the County (politicians every one of them, even those that had been born and bred in the county) decided the only thing to do was find a way to contain what water there was to be had. There were lots of canals and ditches, taking the water downhill from the mountains and foothills into the flat lands below. Some people still watered the old-fashioned way; they irrigated their land by blocking the ditches so the water would flood their fields. Some had invested in pumps and wheel-lines, and they’d just siphon the water out of the canals and spray it over the fields. Either way worked just fine. But the powers-that-be in the County seat decided that too much water was going to waste, traveling along those miles of canals and ditches. Water was seeping into the ground on its way elsewhere. Never mind the fact that it was just going back into the ground supply.
There was a bit of a boom that year for construction workers. Every able man or woman who wanted a job had one, as crews headed out to lay concrete pipe where every open ditch had been. Enclose the water, those politicians said, so it can’t seep into the ground and can’t evaporate into the air. There might not even be a water shortage at all, with this kind of conservation!
Just one thing they kind of forgot about. This is pretty good farm land around here, but it’s dry. High-mountain desert is what I’ve heard it described as. From a high vantage point, you could tell where there was water by the trees. There’s sagebrush, pinyon pine and scrub-oak all over the place, but the only place you’ll see full-grown by-God trees is where there’s water. Ponds, lakes, reservoirs, streams, and rivers are all lined with lush growths of trees. Most of the canal banks are kept clear of growth, but there were too many ditches crisscrossing the landscape, and they developed their own stands of bushes, saplings, and even mature trees.
So what happened when all those waterways were enclosed? It took a full year to pipe every waterway the surveyors could map. The winter of ’14 was as dry and relatively warm as the previous one, but those politicians were smug.
The trees, however? They had a bit of a water-shortage crisis of their own.
Y’know, it’s funny. For probably thousands of years, people have taken trees for granted. They give shade on a hot day, block the wind when it gets to howling, and according to the scientists, they actually make oxygen for us mobile creatures to breathe. You can burn their wood for warmth or to cook your dinner or even to ward off some ornery critter that might want to take a bite of you. You can build your house from them, put a roof over your head, and fill your home with beautiful carved furniture made from them. And for a long time, I’m pretty sure if you made an effort to remove their regular water supply, they would just eventually die, fall, and then rot.
But this here high mountain desert with the good farmland isn’t like anywhere else. We got one other thing going for us, and that’s dead dinosaurs. You just about can’t throw a rock around here without hitting an oil derrick or a natural gas drilling rig. Now the oil and the natural gas, that doesn’t really figure into anything, except for this: when those companies started looking for better, more efficient and more cost effective ways of getting these resources out of the ground, they kind of caused an unforeseen side effect.
Now, I never worked in the oil fields, so I’m just telling you what I been told; but they used this stuff they called “mud,” made from water mixed with different chemicals. They would pump that mud down into their wells to help with the drilling or to force pockets of natural gas to come up. That’s all fine and good, but what it really meant was that a lot of that chemical soup ended up in the ground water. Since all the surface water in the county was enclosed so it couldn’t seep down into the aquifer, the ground water began to get a bit…well, I won’t say toxic. There were all kinds of government agencies supposedly keeping an eye on the water, what with us running short, to make sure it was safe for human and animal consumption. As for me and my family, we used filtration systems and bought purified bottled water for culinary uses. Because seeing that deepening red stain in every toilet, sink, and bathtub made us none too interested in what might happen to our insides.
So that’s what led up to it, in my opinion. The spring of ’15 was just about bone dry. The temperatures of winter were cool but not cold, and we got barely any precipitation throughout the whole season. Everything was dying off, even in people’s yards, because we were on a strict schedule for watering. All the trees in the area—the wild ones, I mean, that grew along those old defunct waterways—they were looking pretty sad. I wasn’t the only one that shook my head and mourned the greenery of my youth. So when trees started disappearing, no one paid much mind. Unless you were to make your way over and verify that a tree had fallen, you’d just assume that’s what’d happened.
It was around that time when ranchers in the area started filing complaints about missing livestock. Mostly it was larger, mature animals like adult cattle or sheep. The average number of deer and elk that always ended up road-kill declined dramatically. But again, that just could have been because they’d migrated elsewhere, what with there being little feed for them even in the higher pastures.
But then we started finding carcasses. They were left where the ditches and canals used to run open to the sky. Cows, goats, even dogs were found like they’d been mummified without the linen wrappings. Every bit of moisture had been sucked out of them, but not a mouthful of meat removed. Not even any teeth marks left behind to identify what had attacked them. The only mark on any of them was a few puncture wounds. Some were maybe the size of a number two pencil, but some were so small you couldn’t see them with the naked eye. More and more animals came up missing, only to be found as dry, desiccated husks a few days later. Those County politicians were in an uproar calling the government for help. But it was already too late.
When a group of teenagers on a weekend camping trip never returned home, the powers-that-be called in the FBI. Their campsite was found, with their vehicles and all their supplies still ready for a campout. A week later, all six high school seniors were found at the bottom of a dry well behind an abandoned cabin twenty miles from their camp. Every one of them was sucked as dry as a fly in a spider’s web.
The National Guard came in. There was a curfew. There were town meetings. No one knew what to do, because no one knew where the danger originated. Surprising to some people but not to me, it was Old Man Boggess who had the right idea.
“I had a stand of cottonwoods,” he said when he stood in the meeting at the high school. “Back behind my place about a hundred yards. They grew up along a little stream that trickled there since I was a boy. They ain’t there no more. I don’t mean they lost their rooting due to the drought and toppled over. I mean they’re gone.”
A lot of people gave each other uneasy looks, and some outright laughed, but me and a few others just nodded.
“I went out there a few days ago at noon,” he continued, leaning somewhat precariously on a gnarled varnished cane that he’d carried for as long as I could remember. “Those cottonwoods are gone. Judging by the state of the ground, I’d say they fairly yanked their roots out of that dry packed earth and went looking for more hospitable surroundings.”
There was an uproar, angry people yelling and scared people crying, and the County Assessor banging her little wooden gavel on the table while she called for order. When the meeting was over, nothing was decided, and people were still scared and angry. But me and some other folks that lived in the same stretch as Old Man Boggess pulled him aside to find out if he knew any more.
“I found the start of a trail,” he told us, pausing a moment to place a dip of chew inside his bottom lip. The man had never smoked a day in his life, but was proud to brag he’d been chewing tobacco since the age of five. “Ground’s packed so hard, it might as well be rock, so I can’t say where it was heading. But I believe those trees took off northward, maybe headin’ toward the foothills.”
“Trees don’t move, lest they’re blowin’ in a wind,” Dan Parker said with conviction. But there was a wild look in his eyes, as though he didn’t believe his own self.
Gus Boggess just shrugged, then motioned with his head. “You’ve seen those trees on my property since you were a baby, Dan. You come on by and take a look for yourself. Tell me what you think happened.”
“Even if you’re right, what do we do about it?” Doris Nelson asked, fluttering fingers rubbing across her lips in a nervous habit that had left them red and chapped.
Gus rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and the sound of his gnarled fingers moving across the stubble of beard rasped in the quiet evening air like some kind of unseen insect. “I haven’t seen anything moving during daylight that shouldn’t be,” he mused, then turned his head and spat a line of brown saliva onto the ground. “So I figure, they got to be moving at night. I don’t go out after sundown, folks. Keep my dogs in the house with me, instead of letting ’em sleep in the lean-to like I always done. Lost my wife, and my kids all moved out of state. Those dogs are all I’ve got for company. I’ll be damned if I find them sucked dry at the bottom of that old stream bed.”
“What are you saying?” Dan asked, and there was a tone to his voice you don’t often hear from men who’ve spent their whole life farming in a desert. Men like that don’t have the imagination to get scared of things they can’t see, because all they believe in is what they can see. “You think your missing trees have something to do with all the dead animals?”
Gus shrugged and spat again. “I’m an old man, Dan. In two years, I’ll see my century. And in my 98 years, I have seen things you wouldn’t believe, and I’m not takin’ the time to tell you about them. But everything I’ve witnessed in my life, no matter how strange or confusing, in the end, makes a kind of sense. The sense I’m gettin’ from this is simple. We took away the water, and the trees went lookin’ for it. Maybe by accident and maybe on purpose, one of ’em stuck a root into a napping steer and tapped into blood instead of water. In my mind, I have to wonder if they didn’t get a liking for the taste.”
After that revelation, no one seemed to have much more to say. Dan Parker left pretty quickly, looking a little green around the mouth. Doris Nelson went to find her kids and drive them home. I offered a ride to Gus, but he just gestured with his cane to the old ’54 GMC he’d driven. Ninety-eight years old and still driving himself. His dogs, a blue healer named Tick and an Aussie cattle-dog named Flea were standing in the bed watching us. That old man had a funny sense of humor.
People talked about what they heard that night, and the rumors eventually made it back to the County seat. There was a lot of scoffing and derisive laughter that anyone would believe such a fairy tale, but apparently, someone must have put some credence to it. When the National Guard rolled into town with a flatbed load of freshly cut trees, there was a crowd on hand to watch. The reactions to the blood-red sap weeping from the trunks convinced most folks. The scientists brought in were disbelieving, then bewildered, and then alternately frightened or excited. Old Man Boggess had been right: the trees having lost their water supply and metabolizing the chemical soup in the ground water had become mobile. And when new water supplies hadn’t been easily found, they’d tapped into the next best thing.
Our trees had become vampires.
There were plans made for destroying the trees, burning them or hiring men to come in and free-clear whatever stands were found. That’s when we found out the trees would fight back. It’s bad enough dodging swinging branches or evading thirsty taproots, but you do not want to go up against a pissed off Russian olive or honey locust. The thorns on their branches grow in excess of three inches long and are needle sharp. Russian olives have always thrived in this area, and they became the infantry of the tree army.
So, that’s pretty much the story. Eventually, it just became too expensive to keep on. The government offered a settlement to every landowner in the area, with additional funds to aid in relocating. Pretty much the whole county has been added to the Preserve. They went through and opened up all the ditches and canals again, letting the water flow open to the sky. Some of the trees went back to the old ways, but a lot of them didn’t. They move in herds through the daylight hours, picking off small mammals and reptiles, even birds. Deer, elk, and antelope don’t trust the shade anymore, for good reason; they sleep sheltered in the rocks now or stay up in the hills where the trees never mutated. Most people are gone now, taking advantage of the government buy-out. Some died, Old Man Boggess among them. He never did see his century; Tick and Flea were out in his back pasture when they were cornered by a couple of globe willows and a Russian olive. By the time he made it out there, cane in one hand and thirty-ought-six in the other, it was too late. No one will ever know for sure, but I think he just decided he wasn’t willing to go on alone anymore. The trees may have sucked him dry, too but not before he blew the back of his own head off.
Now, me and a few other folks hang around. We run these little border motels so the tourists can come check out the Carnivorous Tree Preserve in safety. We run short little tours through the ghost town that used to be the County Seat. We point out the places where the National Guard had outright battles with one hundred foot tall poplars and ground-sweeping weeping willows. The cottonwoods with their sucker-roots devastated one group of soldiers, and the Russian olives and honey locusts finished them off. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, because we’ve surrendered the field. But that’s not to say that it’s safe. Oh no. And we still keep a curfew. There’s no wandering around inside the Preserve after sundown, and no one goes in there alone even in daylight.
So, here’s my patented warning. Please make yourself to home. We’ve got cable T.V. and the little café right next door that’s open 24 hours. Enjoy your night, get some rest, and in the morning, we’ll take that tour into the Preserve. I know that you’re young and full of vinegar by the looks of it, but I’ll say it one more time: Do not go out tonight, not even to peek through the gate. Because the trees are still restless, and they still get thirsty for something fresh that doesn’t move on four legs. And there’ve been reports of a herd of Russian olives trolling the fence line.
You don’t want to run into a gang of Russians in the dark.