The Tree

I was getting ready to swim at the city pool, when I noticed a little girl in a stroller. She was parked next to her grandmother who was sitting on a bench. The girl’s sister was in the pool practicing with a swim team. It was a perfectly normal setting, with one exception—what she was doing with her hands. She was tapping, scrolling, swiping, and expanding the screen of an iPad.

Or perhaps this was normal—the new normal. I can remember when cell phones first hit the market, and how astonished we were when learning someone had bought an iPhone for their 8th grader. Seriously!!!?? And now, twelve years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a 6th grader who doesn’t have one.

I was amazed by this little girl in the stroller—her fingers nimbly operating the iPad.

“How old is she?” I said to the grandmother.

“She’s—”

The girl beat her to the answer by quickly punching two fingers into the air. I had to chuckle at this inaudible interjection, as I was fascinated by the immediacy of her emphatic sign language. There was almost something mature about her action.

“You’re two years old?”

She looked up at me with a smile and said, “Yep!” Not just a two-year-old yep, but a confident yep—a confidence that showed in the way she adeptly worked the iPad. And as unbelievable as it may seem, she displayed something that comes with the air of confidence: the telltale signs of impatience when the iPad’s internet connection responded slowly to her touch.

Two years old. How quickly they learn. How quickly they master. And so easily distracted. She should be watching their sisters swim. There was an engagement that was missing. The well-crafted lure of technology had stolen her attention. The spray of water from the swimmers’ flip turns that occasionally hit her bare feet, and the coach’s raised voice giving instructions to the busy swim lanes did not grab her attention in the least. At two years of age, she made me wonder about the future….

*        *        *

“Mommy…what’s wrong with it?” said the five-year-old girl, pointing upwards at a large tree. “It doesn’t do anything.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t do anything?” Replied the mother, kneeling next to her.

“I swiped it. Nothing happened.”

“Oh, that’s because this is a real tree. Out here in the park things are different. This tree not only provides shade, but it’s a place for animals and insects to live.”

“The trees in our backyard don’t have bugs or animals?”

“No,” said the mother, putting her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Our trees are iTrees. They’re different. They’re interactive smart trees. You can learn everything about nature from an iTree’s trunk touch screens.”

“But no bugs or animals?”

“On the trunk screens, yes.”

The girl looked at her mom with a perplexed face. “But no real ones, right?”

The mother paused for just a moment, then said, “Yes, that’s right.”

“But why?”

Turning her daughter so they were face to face, the mother put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, then said, “Because iTrees use the latest technology. Nothing provides as much information. And nothing entertains you like an iTree.”

She went on to tell her daughter about the iTree’s Labyrinth Limb System, a technological breakthrough that bore edible, imitation hybrid fruits. LLS did this through a conversion process whereby 3D imagery became 3D Sculpt—the quantum next step beyond virtual reality. “In fact,” said the mother, “we’ll have our first non-pollinated fruit soon, after ArborTech installs our apple iTree next week.”

As her mom continued, speaking far beyond her daughter’s grasp, the girl’s attention waned when she spotted a blue jay flying overhead, then disappearing inside the tree’s canopy. “Our iTrees don’t have birds,” she said.

“That’s true,” replied her mother. “But they’re working on that. It’s only a matter of time until they figure out the necessary technology to attract them. Let’s be thankful the trunk touch screens can tell us anything and everything about birds.”

The mother stood up and took her daughter’s hand, telling her it was time they headed back home. But there was a slight resistance as the daughter pulled back. “Look, mommy! Look!” A second blue jay flew into the canopy, and moments later the two birds could be seen, appearing to dance in flight as they sprang in and out of the tree.

“They’re playing. Possibly courting,” said the mother.

“Courting?”

“Yes, like they’ve found each other. Like love.”

“Ha!” The girl laughed. “Like love birds!”

The girl slipped from her mother’s grasp, and walked up to the tree, where she reached out and let her small fingers travel along the rugged crevices of the tree’s bark. Her nails skimmed through and collected fragments of small patches of soft, verdant moss protruding from the wood. Traveling up along the trunk, she saw two ants, a beetle, and three ladybugs. “Mom, where are these bugs going?”

Her mom walked up next to her. “I’m not sure. I suppose looking for food. Let’s go home and ask the iTree.”

She grabbed her daughter’s hand, but she resisted again, then slipped free. “Honey, we should really be getting home. It’ll be dark soon. And you know how pretty the iTrees glow at night.”

“Mom, do you think they’ll marry?”

“Will who marry?”

“Them.” Her daughter pointed at the two blue jays continuing their flight dance.

“Silly. You know birds don’t marry.”

“Do the iTrees know it?”

“I seriously doubt there’s any information about birds getting married.”

“So iTrees don’t know everything. They don’t tell you about birds in love either, do they?”

“Well….no, you’re right.” The mother looked up into the tree’s canopy, as a small cluster of leaves fell towards her. She extended her arms, then cupping her hands in hopes to catch one, and caught two. She sandwiched the leaves together and gently massaged them between her thumb and index finger. They were textured and firm; fresh off the vine, so to speak. Above her, the blue jays chirped in their playful chase.

Her daughter took her other hand and placed it on the tree’s trunk. “Mommy, feel how rough the tree is.” The girl pressed her nose against the bark and took a deep whiff. “Smell it, mommy…it smells nice.”

Her mother did just that, closing her eyes as she inhaled—the aroma of a moist forest. When was the last time she had smelled this? When was the last time she had roamed in the woods? Years? Decades? Yet how quickly her memory recalled the tree’s scent. Experience, she thought. It was everything. The iTree was smart, but could not relate to experience. It couldn’t evoke the feeling a child gets watching two birds dancing in love. It couldn’t capture the essence of this moment.

She looked down at her daughter who was watching a ladybug crawl on the tip of her finger, her eyes full of fascination. “Honey,” she said, “my mother once told me about a time when I was a little girl. She said I was about two years old when I was at my sister’s swim practice.”

“Aunt Jessie was a swimmer?”

“Yes she was. And a good one at that.”

“That must’ve been neat watching her swim.”

“Well that’s the point of my story. For so long, I really never watched her much. My mother said I was always playing games on my iPad, which was a big clunky computer-like device they had back then. Anyway, she said one day she took it out of my hands and said ‘No more!’ She said I needed to watch my sister swim, and that I wasn’t the one to blame, but rather it was she who gave me the iPad to keep me occupied. She said it was a big mistake on her part, that I wasn’t noticing what matters.”

With slightly squinted eyes, her daughter tilted her head and asked, “What matters?”

There was a brief pause as she looked at her daughter whose attention was back on the ladybug, watching it now crawl up her arm. Her mother cracked a smile and said, “What matters…is this tree.”

“But mom, you said it’s getting late. Shouldn’t we go now?”

Her mother’s smile widened a bit more. “No,” she said. “I think we’re perfectly fine right here.”

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

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