The Lost Tree of Life

 

Chapter 1 - The Flower

 

The high-pitched scream of a front-end loader's diesel engine echo’s off the walls of the pit he is scraping mud from. The frozen muskeg walls have become his second home, while searching for the long-extinct flower. It had grown there thousands of years earlier in the jungles of Alaska, back when the North Country was a subtropical swamp in the summer and cool in the winter. The cave drawings of it were incredibly beautiful, but he had not heard of anyone actually seeing it grow anywhere. It had been a long shot for a bush pilot/botanist to get a research grant from the University of Alaska just to search for it. Its pollen appears to have possessed magnificent healing qualities within Yup’ik legend. The cave drawings show it miraculously healing those who were at deaths door.

A flying buddy at the Alaska Museum of Natural History had lured him into that pit by telling him he had found the remains of another ancient plant there. The lean and tan botanist is sporting a three-day beard as he intensely stares at the mud before him, like he is interrogating a suspect. His eyes narrow revealing his belief that he knows it is there somewhere, but where? The Beaver Village Pit is a place where you can think about things, while you mush through the layers of time within the mud. It is just a hole in the ground for some, but it had attracted a dozen paleontologists and a couple Pale botanists, so they all dig there together every day. They have become somewhat of a family as he spends most of his off-season time there when not flying tourists around on sport fishing trips.

The scaffolding he is standing on moans and creaks as he jockeys for a better position to work from. He takes off the wolf fur Troopers Cap and wipes his forehead as he glances below at the steep wall of frozen mud descending one hundred and twenty feet below to where a front-end loader is busy scooping up great mounds of oozing mud tailings. The pit's cool air seems to amplify the kinking sounds of the picks and spades, while the engine noise and diesel fumes try to drown them out. He is glad he wore the heavy leather coat with its sheep’s wool lining; he would have been cold by now with anything lighter. Digging there for two weeks had only produced a couple of pieces of broken pottery. If it were there, it is certainly doing a good job of hiding.

The scaffolding creaks again as the loader shakes the earth below. He stops scraping with his knife and glances at the wooden support post for a second. Staring at his knife he remembers how many times it has saved him from disaster. It seems to force him to remember that day again—the day when everything changed.

She had agreed to go hiking with him in June, up at the Grewingk Glacier Trail in the Kachemak Bay State Park. Rock climbing was something she really loved to do. He remembered how her long midnight black hair swirled behind her head, as the wind blew in from the open truck window. He couldn’t forget her beautiful hazel eyes sparkling in the sunshine that blue-sky day. Upon reaching Grewingk Creek, she discovers the only way to cross the fast moving creek is to kind of surf across it on a sheet of plywood. There is a tram pulley system on a looped rope, which is strung from one side of the creek to other. He reaches up and begins pulling on the bottom rope, which is looped to the other side of the creek. The rope loop is anchored by large pulleys on each bank and allows a person on either side to pull the sheet of plywood from one side to the other. She stares at the plywood resting at the edge of the water on the other side. She can’t imagine what possible purpose it serves. The leading edge of a sheet is attached to the pulley rope with about a hundred feet of rope. As he hand over hand pulls on the pulley rope the sheet slowly moves off the rocks and skies on the surface toward the center of the fast moving creek.

The plywood sheet moves on top of the water until it noses up to the rocks on their side.

“What are we supposed to do with this?” she asks as she grabs onto its rope and holds the sheet against the rocks.

“We’re going to ride it across the creek,” Kenai responds.

“We are not!” she responds in a disbelieving tone.

“What? Afraid of a little adventure?”

“Adventure’s fine but that’s not adventure, more like suicide,” she adds.

“It’s simple; you just stand on the sheet to hold the plywood on this side, while I pull the other end of its rope to the other side,” Kenai explains as he begins pulling on the overhead looped rope.

“Okay, just stand on it like this?” she asks as she steps onto the plywood.

“Just hold it right there until I can get the other end of the rope to the other side,” he adds as the pulley chirps and squeaks on across the creek and finally butts up against the end block.

“Okay, now we switch; just pull the sheet up on the rocks and come up here and take hold of these ropes so the other end of the line stays on the other side."

“This sounds like a pretty harebrained idea to me,” she mumbles as she pulls the sheet up on the rocks and moves toward him.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” she asks.

“As long as you hold those ropes and keep the other end of the rope on the other side of the creek,” he reassures as he hands her the ropes and then jumps down to the plywood.

He picks up a smaller five foot piece of rope, which is tied to the nose of the plywood sheet and wraps it around his hand as he places his feet over the big red X spray-painted in the middle of the board.

“All ya got to do is stand there and hold onto these ropes so the other end of the rope stays on the other side of the creek. The current will do the rest,” he shouts back as he begins wiggling the sheet out into the fast moving water with his feet.

“Okay, your sure this is going to work, right?” she asks as she tightens her grip on the ropes.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to get on a piece of plywood and ride it across a creek,” she continues mumbling to herself.

“It’s easy, the current is so fast that the sheet will ride right across on top of the water. It’s just like water skiing,” he shouts as the water begins pushing against the plywood.

She is unsure of the safety of the system but is reassured when he leaves the creek bank and begins quickly skiing across on top of the water. The plywood easily sails both itself and him right across the creek. Once on the other side he then waves back at her, while climbing up the creek bank. When he reaches the pulley ropes he begins pulling on them until the sheet skies back across on the surface to her side. She still thinks it’s a pretty haphazard system but figures that if he can do it, she can also. She grabs the sheet and stands on top of it, while he pulls the other end of the rope back to his side of the creek. When he waves at her again she knows everything is ready, so she steps onto the big red X and takes a deep breath to calm herself down.

“You can do this, you can do this. Just don’t look at the water,” she keeps repeating as she wraps the little rope around her hand.

After giving the sheet a little wiggle with her feet, it quickly becomes buoyant as the force of current begins pushing against it and they both begin sliding across the creek. She is mid-creek with a smile on her face when she suddenly loses her balance, moves the position of her feet, and upset the balance of the sheet. The movement causes the board’s nose to instantly descend toward the fast moving water. A couple of small waves slide over the boards nose and then the entire sheet dives into the water. The force of the water seems to pin the sheet to the bottom, while the rope around her hand tightens and the pulley ropes strain to resist the force of the current.

He expects to see her pop up on the surface but it doesn’t happen. She appears to be somehow tangled in the rope. All he can think to do is to cut the main rope so she can float free and swim to shore; at least she would have a chance. He pulls his seventeen-inch Bowie knife from its sheaf behind his back and holds its blade next to the pulley rope for what seems like an eternity. There is no way out, so he finally pulls down hard and slices the rope in half. As he watches the rope fall into the creek he expects to see her come to the surface but only the ropes can be seen drifting down the creek. Then the plywood comes sliding back to the surface.

He becomes frantic while running down the creek bank calling her name; so frantic that he finally dives in and swims over to the floating plywood. Swimming around the sheet he screams her name as the freezing whitewater swallows him up. He fights hard to reach the surface for a quick breath but is quickly dragged back under again and again by its currents. The next thing he knows he is crawling up the rocky creek bank and she is gone. After finally catching his breath he begins calling to her again and searching the creek's banks. There are no traces of her; it is almost like she had just vaporized.

He never heard a scream or even a single word; she just disappeared.

He spends weeks searching the creek and the beaches of the lake it empties into, but finds nothing. Later, the Coast Guard does its search but also finds nothing. She is gone; she had always said there could never be a God because of all the pain and suffering she had seen in the world. He wasn’t convinced at the time, but all that had happened just made her words repeat over and over in his head.

It is the very last day of his search; he is returning to the car, which is parked at the Grewingk Glacier public access. It’s the first time he allows the thought to enter his mind.

“You’re not going to find her,” the little voice whispers.

But this time, he doesn't shut the voice out; he knows the voice is probably right, that she probably isn't coming back. Pain is a funny thing for some people. They can lose something of immense value and even while it might hurt, they hide that hurt deep down inside. They let it hide there all by itself, in that lonely little place they reserve for it. Then, every once in a while they let it out, just to see if its as awful as they remember and that’s when it starts clawing at their inners, just to let them know that it’s still there. Kind of like having a red-hot poker jammed inside your guts and stirred around, once in a while, just to make sure that you’re still alive but you don’t scream. You wouldn’t want to scream or let anyone hear you scream. Nobody would even care if you did scream. Most of the time, nobody around you would even have a clue, but sometimes—sometimes, when you're all alone—it can work its way back to the top, like a drowning man swimming for the surface in a monstrous sea of pain.

Suddenly, he emerges alone from the trail, back onto the empty parking lot with a double barrel shotgun limply hanging over his arm. It is unloaded and cocked open as he stops and stands there listening to the scraping sound of a chickadee as it crawls its way around the bark of a dead birch. There are no other sounds, not even a breeze to muffle that sound they all make; that unbelievably loud "Chick-a-dddd, chick-a-dddd, chick-a-dddd." It is making so much noise in that quiet place, its feet grabbing and clawing at the dry bark, while its beak pecks away searching for insects. For some reason, all that noise is really getting to him. He finds himself wishing he could make it go away but on and on it goes.

While staring at the bird, his hands begin feeling for the shells within the inserts of his vest. His fingers finally locate a couple; they slide them out automatically and pop them into the gun's firing chambers without hesitation. With one flip of his arm, he slaps the chambers close. His mind is numb; all he feels is pain as he aims across that very short deadly space. Maybe if he can just make some of the pain go away, maybe then he will be okay. Before he can pull the trigger, it suddenly flies from the noisy birch bark to a quiet little spruce. It even stops making that sound; maybe it senses the danger, maybe it is just bored searching for bugs on the birch. It doesn’t really matter because it is all still there in his head. The blasts come as a surprise along with the heavy punch against his shoulder. All that remains are puffy white feathers and the double echoes of the blasts off the mountains; they float there aimlessly in the still air. Somehow he knew they would be floating there for a very long time.

His thoughts return to the pit as he notices the black and yellow butterfly land on a stick jutting out of the mud wall. The insect remains there as she fans her wings up and down. It is mostly curiosity that makes him approach her as she flutters back into the air.

When he pokes his knife under the stick, a small six-inch crack radiates out into the wall so he stops. Realizing the danger, he withdraws the knife and steps back on the creaking deck as the crack continues expanding. Suddenly, the entire scaffolding gives way, sending both him and the others free-falling down the wall and swimming in a sea of mud and frozen muskeg. While descending, they struggle to stay on top of the flow. The mud finally stops moving and leaves only his face exposed. Looking more dead than alive, he rests there slowly breathing, as the oozing mixture threatens to cover even his mud-stained face.

Unconscious, he lies there dreaming of a little girl sitting on a boat dock. A black and yellow butterfly flutters in front of them as she giggles. She is holding out her arm and it lands on her hand. The insect rests there fanning its wings, while she smiles and stares at it. Their legs dangle above the water as it streams on by just below their feet. The wood on the dock is old and weather stained from years of service. The little girl seems familiar as he gently flips his fly rod back and forth, while trying to get his fly to the other side of the river. She is holding her own little fly rod as she watches his fly settle onto the water.

“Daddy, tell me again,” she whines as he continues swinging his fly rod through the air.

“Please,” she adds as he shoots the fly line out over the water and the dry fly slowly settles onto the water's surface.

“Tell you what?” Kenai asks, while staring at the fly as it floats down the river.

“You know, the story about what the fish does when he sees the fly floating on the water,” she reminds him, while gazing up at him.

“You want to hear that again?” he asks, still focusing on his fly.

“Just one more time, please?” she begs, as she brings the butterfly close to her nose, while it gently fans its wings.

“Okay, one more time,” he replies, as he gives in.

“The water has sort of a greenish look as the trout looks up toward the surface. First, he sort of feels the fly land on the water. Kind of like a spider feeling a bug getting all tangled up in his web. That’s the feeling a trout gets when he’s looking for something on the surface.”

Down on the bottom of the river in front of them, a rainbow trout sees the small ripples moving out from his fly floating on the surface. Moving quickly, he moves to approach it near the surface.

“That old trout’s eyes stare blankly as he watches the surface to see any little ripples that might be sent out from an insect struggling. He watches real close for those ripples because he is trying to make sure that it’s something alive and not just a leaf or a piece of floating wood. Then he moves up real close, well at least as close as he thinks he can get without being noticed anyway,” Kenai adds while moving over a little closer to her.

 The rainbow trout is now within inches of his fly floating on the surface as it blankly stares at it.

“And then he attacks!” he shouts as he grabs her shoulder with his free hand and she squeals with delight, while he laughs along with her and they roll around on the deck.

The rainbow trout suddenly rushes his fly, opens its mouth, and explodes the surface of the water as it consumes it. Caught off guard, he reaches for his screaming fly reel, while trying to set the hook.

“There he is!” he shouts as he rears up with his rod and she begins squealing again.

The movement and the noise cause the butterfly to flutter back into the air and then start gliding just over the water in front of her. He flops around on the dock as he struggles to retrieve his fly line. Finally, he reels up his line and dangles the fly in front of them.

“Now that was one smart fish,” he mumbles, while gazing at his fly.

She watches the butterfly flutter in front of them as the seconds tick by and their smiles finally fade away. He again begins slowly swinging his fly rod as the fly cruises back and forth through the air. She turns and looks up at him.

“You always tell such good stories! Please, tell me a fishing story.”

“You want to hear a fishing story, huh? I don’t know if I have any that you haven’t heard.”

“Please, please, please,” she begs as she pulls down on his old gray coat.

He sends the fly sailing back out over the water again and let’s it settle to the surface.

“Well, there is one fish en story I have never told you about. You were so very young that I didn’t know if you would understand it all.”

Her eyes gaze up at him as he glances down at her. With a thoughtful look on his face, he again pulls the line off the water and begins swinging the rod back and forth through the crisp morning air. As the fly settles onto the water, he begins to speak.

“Oh, it was a few years back when I was working as a fish en guide in Alaska. I was doing some side jobs as a botanist for the University of Alaska. You know what a botanist is, don’t you?”

She looks at him and shakes her head from side to side.

“Well, a botanist studies plants and tries to figure out what makes them grow better, or worse,” he explains as he squints one eye.

“Anyway, I was looking for this particular plant, which had not been seen anywhere for a very long time. I believe it was called cannabina.”

His eyelids begin fluttering as he lies there in the mud, struggling back to consciousness. Covered in mud, his arms begin swimming as he emerges from the cold mixture.

“What the heck was that?” he mutters as he flips himself over and begins crawling on his hands and knees.

As he staggers to his feet he begins shaking mud slop off his hands.

“That was pretty good! I have to hand it to ya. You almost got me that time!” he shouts as he glares up at the sky.

“Are you really going to try to kill me, just because I don’t believe in you?” he screams as he stares at the mud on his hands.

The other diggers wiggle around in the mud in a daze; some didn’t even know what had happened. One by one they begin staggering to their feet and trying to wipe the mud off their bodies. He stands their knee deep in mud; makes a move to pull a leg out and then a pathetic look drifts over his face as he falls over backwards into liquid.

Most of the other diggers slosh around for a while as they try to find some dry ground. When he finally stands up again his eyes are drawn to that same butterfly as it flutters in front of him and then lands on an object sticking partly out of the mud. After sloshing over to it, he reaches down just in time to watch it flutter away again. He kneels down and touches it, then he begins pushing and pulling the mud away. It looks like the end of a tree limb but it has a strange look about it. Great hunks of mud and dirt are tightly packed around it. Having lost most of his tools, he begins digging it out with his hands. While focusing on the digging, he doesn’t even notice the others as they gather behind him.

“Looks like the tip of a Mammuthus primigenius tusk,” Alex comments as he kneels down in the mud beside him.

“It would have taken weeks to move that much mud; who would have known,” Kenai says as they all begins pulling mud away from it.

Soon, a fur-covered head begins to emerge.

“It looks like it’s still frozen,” Kenai adds as he takes a rag from his pocket and wipes off the end of a tusk, revealing dirty white and yellow ivory.

Soon, everyone working in the pit is busy helping either straining mud or unearthing the beast. Within a few hours, they have exposed the head and belly areas, proving that it is a perfectly preserved and very frozen wooly mammoth. He doesn’t know how long it had taken him to notice it, but it is just kind of frozen there in the mud on the corner of the great beast's mouth. It had remained there for thousands of years but he just noticed it. It is beautiful, like it had just been plucked from a grassy meadow a few days ago, rather than 15,000 years. He begins wondering if it could be the flower he had seen painted on the cave walls. It even has the same double stem in each clump, with a single long blossom and even the eight little petals. It looks a lot like the plant painted on those walls. Trying to just remove it from its mouth didn’t work because it is frozen there. Sliding a pair of tweezers from his pocket he begins gently poking and prying around it until it finally dislodges. Holding it up to the light, he gazes at it. Quickly, he sloshes over to what is left of the scaffolding and reaches inside his backpack, which is still hanging from the rail. Pulling out a small black box, he twists one of its knobs and it begins sending out clicking sounds. Picking up a small cylinder with an attached wire, he begins moving it over the plant as he stares at his wristwatch. He counts the number of clicks per minute coming from the device. The little black box is clicking one click every ten seconds. Sitting down on what is left of the scaffolding he begins writing in his little brown notebook as he tries to estimate its age.

“Sixteen clicks, living plants, eight clicks, 11,460 years, six clicks, 17,190, estimating age 17,190,” he mumbles to himself as he notes at the bottom of the page.

A big smile spreads across his face as he pulls a glass vial from his backpack still on the rail and drops the sample into it. He stands there holding it up to the sunlight, just staring at it. The sounds of the others digging fades, which make him turn and look at them. They are watching him look at it.

“I should probably get this up to the lab,” he says as he begins walking out of the pit to run some tests on it.

Approaching the little white tent up on the rim of the pit, he can hear the high-pitched sound of a small engine running overhead. It sounds like a small model airplane engine. Suddenly, a small model of a flying pterosaur dinosaur comes flying from his right and crashes into the side of the tent. A sawed-off runt of a man wearing a fly fishing vest over a white lab coat comes running toward the toy and picks it up. The man is carrying a remote control black box and has a sandwich hanging out of his mouth.

“I hope you guys are having lots of fun up here playing with your toys.”

William Benson turns to him still holding the toy and remote control, while trying to chew on the sandwich. He opens his mouth slightly and the sandwich falls on top of the remote control he is carrying. Benson is their local science geek; he comes there each season with his little white tent. Then he pretends to be conducting research, while playing with his toy dinosaurs.

“Hey, if you moles would just learn to relax a little more, you might actually have a life and a whole lot better attitude,” Benson mumbles through a mouthful of the sandwich.

“My attitude is just fine and, oh, and by the way, I need you to run some tests on something I just found.”

“Sure, your wish is my command, oh great one! What’s in it for me?”

What’s in it for you? Well, how about I tell you about the plan to pull all the stakes out of your tent tonight?”

“You’re just making that up, aren’t you?” Benson asks.

“Or maybe the part where they plan to jump on your collapsed tent, while growling like a bear?”

“They wouldn’t be that stupid!” Benson adds.

“Oh, yes, they would! I’ve seen them do stuff a lot dumber than that!‘“

“What if I was to start blasting away at the bear with my gun?”

“Oh, I think they all pretty much know that you don’t like guns.”

“I wonder who would have told them that?” Benson asks.

“Now, Bill, I never told them about when you blasted that hole through the side of the tent.”

“I’ll just bet.”

“How’s about a nice steak dinner?” Kenai offers as he holds out the glass vial.

“Are you serious?” Benson asks.

“I just found a ten-ton Mammuthus primigenius down there and it’s still frozen solid.”

“Really? Mammoth burgers, mmm sounds yummy. So nobody would mind if I slab off a couple of steaks?”

“Well, the rest of them might, but I could be persuaded to look the other way.”

“Okay, what do you want?”

“Just run some tests on it and tell me if it has late Pleistocene pollen from an Athaea,” he replies, while holding out the vial.

“That’s it?

“That’s it.”

“Give me thirty minutes,” he mumbles as he drops his dinosaur into a lawn chair, jams the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, and takes the glass vial from him.

He is sitting in one of the flimsy aluminum lawn chairs in front of the tent, while waiting for his test results. Benson removes a small bit of ancient pollen from the plant and places it under the microscope. As he stares into the instrument he quickly glances at a book, back and forth, back and forth. Then he pulls out three test tubes, injects some clear fluid into each with a syringe, and then mixes fragments of the pollen into all three. He then begins heating them all on a gas burner. When each tube turns a light blue he stands up and walks out of the tent.

“I think you’re right about it being late Pleistocene, what do you think?” Benson asks as he motions for him to take a look.

Kenai walks into the tent and sits down in front of the microscope. After staring at the pollen, he then glances down at the magnified pictures in the book of other Pleistocene pollens from that era.

“That sure looks like it’s genus is Althaea to me,” Kenai says with a nervous stare at the floor.

“That’s what it looks like to me, too, so I ran some pheromone mimicry tests to see where it lands in the specie. I’m thinking it’s somewhere between cannabina and hirsuta. If you can find out its precise carbon date, we’ll know which,” Benson adds as he sits down into one of the aluminum chairs.

“I geigered it at close to three half-lives. That’s got to put it close to 17,000,” Kenai explains.

“If it's less than 17,000 it would have to be hirsuta; more and it’s probably cannabina. The only way you’re going to know for sure is if you can get it over to Allen’s Camp and have them run a carbon test,” Benson adds as he taps his fingers on the back of his ball cap.

“Yeah, but we don’t want to do that because we both know what he will do if it’s cannabina,” he announces as he squints up his eyes at Benson.

“You don’t know for sure that he stole it.”

“Don’t know for sure? What do you need? We drop off an Althaea ludwigii and get back an Althaea narbonensis, and then he suddenly, out of nowhere, he goes public with an Althaea ludwigii?”

“Yeah, that did look kind of bad didn’t it?” Benson mumbles to himself.

“There’s got to be another lab around here that can run the test?” Kenai asks.

“There’s one up north in Dead Horse. Guy named Charles Michaels runs it but that’s three hundred miles. How you going to get up there?” Benson asks.

“I know a pilot, if you know where to get a plane.”

“What do you mean we? I’m not going anywhere,” Benson adds with a laugh as he crosses his arms..

“You know that life around here has been getting way too boring in this little white tent,” he adds as he slaps him on the back with a smile.

Benson can only stare at the floor of his tent for the moment, while trying to think. “Well, I do know of a little air field a few miles south of here that has a couple of planes on it.”

“See what I mean, we got a plan already,” Kenai responds.

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