You Can Grow Everything Back Again
Who stops for trees?
I normally wouldn’t. I live surrounded by forest in a vast province where forestry remains the largest manufacturing sector of the economy. Every tree is different, the environment imposing its will on genetics to create 3,000,000,000,000 unique individuals. But it’s not like they jump out at us normally.
Our predator eyes are attuned to movement, always looking for something lame or weak or sick to chase off a cliff. Trees melt into the background unless something makes them stand out.
This one did.
A century ago, grizzled men came to these forests and cut down thousand-year-old trees with hand tools. You can still see the stumps they left behind today. Telltale notches cut into ancient bark so the loggers could insert platforms to stand on while they worked giant saws back and forth through the thick trunk. The productive wood was hauled away by mule team and steam train to build houses and railway ties and ships and rifles. The stumps were left behind to rot.
Now, other trees grow out of the same stumps. The rich rot of the old is the perfect nursery for the seeds of the new. That’s how forests work. It’s a metaphor that’s impossible to miss, any time you visit.
But this tree was different. Different enough that I stopped my car to take a photo. A birch had taken root in the scarred stump of a cedar. Nourished by rot and rain, it grew, its roots spreading and coiling down through gaps in the cedar’s rotten trunk. Until finally, the new tree split the old one apart completely, life bursting out of death and shattering the sarcophagus as it turned sunlight into cellulose.
Forests are old. Especially around here. They know more than we do. And they’ll tell it all to you if you learn the language. If you can set your own words aside long enough to listen.
Some things don’t heal
For social insects like ants, the cruel calculus of eusociality means that healing isn’t worth the energy expenditure. Easier just to make another ant. If an ant breaks a leg or sprains an antenna, it stays that way until it dies.
Cockroaches, on the other hand, can not only heal themselves. They can regenerate. They can regrow severed legs and broken antennae and damaged eyes. It’s an ability they share with lizards and earthworms and even a certain species of mouse. Xiao Qiang, they call cockroaches in China. The little mighty one.
Except it never grows back quite the same, does it? The cockroach’s new leg is shorter than the rest. The lizard’s tail is misshapen. The greatest singers in the world can’t produce the same note the same way on two different nights, not quite. Flawless consistency has no place in nature. It belongs only in the grim world of soulless machines.
As though we can only love the imperfect. As though it’s the imperfections and the scars and stretchmarks that we really love. Even tigers have to earn their stripes.
I hissed as the metal tweezers scraped against glass
The wound had been there for months. When I tumbled to the sticky floor of the nightclub in a shower of broken glass, I had been far too drunk to notice the warm trickle of blood from my hand.
I was a teenager, as hale and healthy as a cockroach emerging wet and bright white from its latest molt. I didn’t worry about the cut on my hand, content to let my bifurcating cells replicate and make me whole again. After all, I was a late teenager, practically a man, and young men don’t stop for scratches.
But after the best part of a year, the wound still hadn’t quite closed. I found out why when I went digging around in there with the tweezers and drew out a sword-shaped sliver of glass in an eruption of rich royal blood.
The tree grew right by the road
More accurately, the road grew beside the tree. After all, the forest was there first. The forest was there to meet the first dark eyes that found it back when the continents were connected by a bridge of ice. And the shattered stump might have been a sapling when my nameless ancestors were adapting to new rulers from overseas, the old squabbles for the position of High King of Ireland rendered suddenly irrelevant by overwhelming foreign force.
Is it still the same forest when every tree in it is different? A forest of ancient stumps supporting young trees, slender century-old trunks like pinwheels on top of tombstones, lightweight and ephemeral and stupidly, incongruously cheerful.
Don’t they know the world is dying? Don’t they know how unhappy we are? Maybe no one told them. They don’t speak our language any better than we speak theirs.
One hundred years ago, there was no road, and this patch of woodland was a waste of mud and sled tracks and bright stumps fresh as wounds. But now silver-skinned birches have colonized what used to be a gloomy and lightless grove of cedar. And there’s been time enough since the felling of the cedars for the birches to pass away too. Forests change through time, oscillating between evergreen and deciduous, as marshes become meadows and seas become lakes.
Everything grows back, but never quite the same. And in time, our scars become precious to us. Ragged bolts that pin us to the past with a thread we can follow around our own rusted core.
Ants have no use for pain
It would only slow them down. From the point of view of the colony — the only point of view there is in the world of ants — an individual ant is a reproductive cul-de-sac anyway. They’re all sterile. They won’t reproduce, so what does it matter whether they live or die?
Pain exists to teach us what to avoid, just as pleasure exists to teach us what to chase. But ants don’t flee or pursue. They do what the colony needs and die too quickly to make pain and healing worthwhile. Because after all, you can’t have one without the other.
I used to make my living killing carpenter ants, among other things. The queens live in rotten tree stumps, growing fat on rot and rain in the forest’s humid heart. You don’t need to find the queen to kill the nest. But sometimes you do it anyway.
Sometimes she’ll emerge from the wet wood you just soaked in poison, mandibles clashing together, threadlike legs flailing as she writhes in what looks very much like pain, no matter what scientists tell us.
She doesn’t look that much different to her children. Except on the bulky back of a queen, you can see dark scars from where she used to have wings.
I grew up
I regenerated. The wounds closed over and became scars, miscolored stories to tell about the parts of me that don’t match. I stopped going to nightclubs. I stopped drinking so much I could no longer see.
I moved 4600 miles away from everything I knew and picked up some new scars to harmonize with the old ones. The organization of the cells in your skin is just too complicated to replicate exactly. You can make more collagen, but it won’t look the same, any more than a wall painted yesterday looks the same as one painted ten years ago. As different as a birch is from a cedar. As an ant is from a cockroach.
When I left home for the last time, it was still legal to smoke in pubs. Sitting around a table with my childhood friends, I made an overenthusiastic hand gesture. The bright red cherry at the tip of my friend’s cigarette burned my hand, creating a stink of singed hair to merge with the merciless laughter of the young men we used to be.
Weeks later, terminally alone in a city thousands of miles from anyone who knew me, I saw that the scab left by my friend’s cigarette was starting to fade. So I bought a packet from a corner store with windows covered by wire mesh. I lit up, puffed hard for a while to get the cigarette glowing hot, and crushed it out on the fading wound I had carried across the world.
Then I did it again. A wound that will never heal, a pale blot shaped like a fuzzy Africa on the web between finger and thumb.
It all grows back. But never quite the same. And why would we want it to? Keep the scars. The tangled story of conflict on the bouncer Herbert Truczinski’s back in Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, or the jagged streak a boar left on Odysseus’ leg that let Eurycleia recognize him when he finally came home.
This is what makes us who we are. Our ability to regenerate, but never quite the same. The ancient stump split apart by the tree it gave birth to. Our severed legs and damaged eyes and hearts stapled together, one misfiring valve at a time.
Our holy wounds are the best parts of us. Them, and our capacity to transcend them.
© Ryan Frawley 2020.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.