Why Nothing Grows Under the Beech (or Does It?)

To say that the surface of the world was bleak long ago would be an understatement – though ‘under’ was not an idea people understood very well then. The land was hot and flat and stony. Nothing grew more than the height of a hand above the surface. There were no bushes, no trees, no shade under the sun. The people who lived on the surface – let’s call them Surfs – were roasted and bored in equal measure. They sucked juice from excruciatingly prickly cactus. They nibbled mushrooms as dry as crisps. They banged stones together to relieve the monotony. They had no words for any of these things, and the noises they made were the ooohs and clacks of gloom and frustration.

The two Surfs who were about to change the face of the world – let’s call them Rip and Wave, since they didn’t have names for themselves either – mooned about, picking little threads of parched lichen to give each other. It was the one pretty custom of their miserable lives: they rose up on tiptoe and passed the threads from mouth to mouth. Often they would burrow down into the ground to shelter from the sun, and hold hands below the sand.

What they didn’t know was that, just a few feet below them, other creatures were also holding hands – or maybe we should say tendrils – under the ground. Let’s call them Subs. They were round and truffle-like, and were all joined together as a kind of underground tribe by their tendrils. They nibbled at buried leaves and dead insects, but mainly lived off whatever mites of nourishment the rain washed out of the earth. They were pale and shadowy and ached for the light of the sun.

One day, to pass the time, Rip and Wave began a game of bashing the ground with stones, and mimicking the sounds it made. ‘Blairch,’ mouthed Rip, as he swiped the rocks, and imitated the clatter of the fragments as they scattered like shrapnel. ‘Burp,’ replied Wave, crashing her rock straight down into the sand so that it billowed up as a great puff of air. ‘Belch,’ countered Rip. ‘Bach,’ Wave tried, surprising herself with a delicate rendition of sand crystals tinkling. ‘Bark!’ Rip barked back. Then they dashed their stones down together, deep into the sand. ‘Beeeeeech!’ they yelled.

They were pale and shadowy and ached for the light of the sun.

Rip and Wave’s stones broke down into the world of the Subs, letting light into their dark and gloomy world. Those touched by the light sniffed the air, felt the warmth and shot up towards it as if they’d been yanked by a magnet. As the tendrils rose up, they began to swell, and their skin became grey and smooth. In a short while they were as tall as a Surf, and began to sprout twiggy growths, as if they had turned into a living fountain. Soon the twigs, delirious in the brightness, grew green leafy tips that caught the sunlight, turned it into food and passed it down to the listless Subs left behind.

Rip and Wave’s mouths gaped in amazement at what they had conjured up. ‘Beech’ was the noise that came out. Don’t believe what they say about the word becoming flesh. The word became wood.

Rip and Wave revelled in the shade of the beech. It was cool and airy, and the sun flickering between the leaves made the crown of the tree look like a dark sky full of stars.

Rip and Wave held hands again (above ground this time) and invented many new noises, and scratched their shapes on the soft bark of the beech. Occasionally what they wrote made new things happen, just as when they conjured the beech up from the ground. Once they used their stones to draw pictures of themselves, and as the great tree grew, their pictures fused together. Many ages later, when writing on beeches was common, a wise man made a proverb: ‘As these letters grow, so will our love.’

The remaining Subs were happy too. They received gifts of food from the leaves of the beech tree, and gave back to it the special, stony nourishments they took from the soil. To this day not much grows on the soil beneath a beech tree, and people think of it as a dead, dark space. But, as the wise Surfs understood, this is the view of those who see things only as surfaces, and are blind to the bright thread of life that joins the beings below ground with the beech above, and which stretches right up to the sun itself.