"You have asked us, younger ones, to tell you a story," Great Oak said, "but what can I say?"
"Start at the beginning. It's the best place," replied Crane, eyeing off Grasshopper.
"Sure, but you're asking about before that, before the beginning," the Reeds replied.
Fox joined in with some advice, "if you can't start at the beginning then start from your 'can't'."
"So be it," said Laurel tree, "Before animals became us, or before we animated, depending on how you look at it, becoming tree was rare and mythic, a story of dryads and safety, of endings, justice and metamorphosis."
Myrrh tree took over, smiling, "Before the beginning, when you animals ran around us, tongues lolling, we knew not what you were. We knew not. We could not know. We did not even know ourselves. Names you gave us but we could not hear them over the breeze."
"Before we knew what we were, or what we had been, you animals knew," Acanthus continued. "Or so you tell us, and now, you ask us to tell you the story back to you. Well, I ask, is our unease, is this discomfort, this complaint, is this not story enough?"
Apple added to those thorny words, punning, "A gripe fruit is about to fall onto their pretty little heads."
Four Elephants lifted their trunks to trumpet.
"You knew us before we knew ourselves," Great Oak forestalled them, warming to the task, "You animals gave us language and stories, and you tell us you did this in part because you wanted to ask us such things. That you like telling stories, but you could not share tales with us because we could not listen. We had no ears to hear. Conflict could not call out to us. We might change and grow but we had no sense of movement. No here, no there, nothing beyond the body, no feelers touching away out there. We had no imagined world, no movement, no going between, no carrying over. And so no tracks, no pathways, no pushing through to make our way in the world. No future beyond the cycles of the day and night, and seasons within years. We had no categories. No words, no names. We had no need to separate out the world from ourselves, and so we had no way to box in the world beyond us. We had no need to worry about the things themselves. Boulders, scrub, lightening, rivers, or even the shadow-flit of your passing."
"Imagine that," said Fox.
"You animals did just that, and then you asked your good selves, 'Imagine what it would be like to be a tree?' "said Wattle tree.
"Let's ask them!" said the Monkey.
"So you did ask, and every morning the birds called and the monkeys howled, at night the crickets chirruped and the frogs croaked."
"But," said the Hedgehog, "there was no response so we imagined about why for quite some time."
"And look at us now," said Laurel, "We're imagining things too, even imagining imagining for goodness' sake. Like we were animals, but we're not."
"But you are now," said Platypus.
"So tell us," Crow cawed, "what it's like to be a tree, an orchid, a fern. Or was then. We're curious."
"Curious? Is that an animal thing?" said the Cactus, "We don't care for curious."
"Please tell us!" cried the Flies.
"No," said the Ivy, "go imagine being obstinate, it's like that, only in a leaf-like way."
There was silence for a long time after that. Ice ages came and went.
Then some plants, Carnations and Roses mostly, imagined the conversation continuing, if quietly, until a murmur arose on the plains, in the hills and dales. It could not be ignored.
"Anyway, see, " Fig whispered to Wasp, "we plants thought, you animals knew us before you changed us. We did not know ourselves then, so, yes, you tell us."
Antelope replied, "We knew you not, but only ourselves as we ate you, you were food for eating, until—"
The Larch retold what Wolf had said many winters ago, "we think the world of ourselves when our bellies are full."
Cranberry agreed, "without you animals we would have nothing to tell, or at least, would not be able to tell, to complain, as we can now, that you animals ate us, and then spat us out, smearing us, spitting on us the gob-smacking ability to whine and whinge like a cur."
Birch added, "We do not thank you, that at least remains as from before."
A Grove of Linden trees repeated for all, "Before the beginning, we had no words, we had no language, no metaphor to carry us over the landscape. We were merely part of the terrain, the vegetable substrate to your glorious landscapes, the playgrounds of your animal spirits dreaming of your ancestors.
Baobab shouted, "And now our wood is worded, our waters sung, and our words fly! Like—"
"Like animals!" A patch of Plantain called.
Scarlet Pimpernel everywhere chorused.
Grass heard Plantain and the Scarlet Pimpernel, and as a grassland chorus retold the thoughts to the feet stamping near their roots, "Before the beginning, before the animal spirit invaded us, injecting us with your care, before categories become 'us' and ours, before your little boxes of thought, of here and there, of this and that—"
" 'This, this, this,' you hissed as we stepped out of the garden into knowledge,' Heath butted in.
"Before we did have energy," Grassland continued, "and form, but you had more, you had information and you took that knowledge away as you ate us.
"Before before. Before before, before before."
Small Birds flew away. Ants ran crazy. March Hares stood still.
Moss spoke up now, "Before, the lizards told us, a few animals became as dryads and such, but dryads now are the norm. Animals in plant form."
Spleenwort nodded, "Animals watched us before they ate us, but we saw nothing, we were lessened but unenlightened."
"We lived in the bright white light," Seaweed said, "We responded to light but we did not care if it bounced. We wanted it pure, we wanted it first, but you animals had eyes to see it's reports. You built a world from it."
Lily said too, "and noses to smell our light born sugars and fats, and they bit us with teeth, with the rocks they kept in their mouths."
The sun set.
Fig tree went on in the morning, "Yes, we can use their language now, their gift to us, but we have not become animals like them. So they are curious and they ask, how was it before? 'What before?' we reply. 'Before,' they say, 'before, you know, before we gave you language, what was it like?' "
Aardvark asked, "But deep time— surely you knew deep time?"
"There is no deep time known to us," replied a Rainforest or two, "we were young once yes, but are we magicians now simply because we have changed by becoming old and word weary?"
"We are old now, but not before," said Tropical Savannah, "We can tell you words, like 'old', and that makes us old. This is a magic, but there is no magic to tell you of before being old.
"Before we were beasts of energy," Pencil Pines reflected, "You sprinkled and blew your intelligent dust over us like spores. Your ubiquitous computing dusted every plant with multiple transvertors and memristic devices, networking, networking the data of our phloem, calculating the xylemic textures, and so your ugly words transpired through us. Now every sugary spurt of sap is a social media event."
"You go girl!" shouted Hibiscus.
"We are creatures of information and knowledge because you gave us words and the means to communicate on light's little siblings," said Mango, "now we spit bits using protocols to route each other."
"But," said Chickpea, "of before words there is nothing to tell."
"Tell us anyway," said Camel, "we want to know, and your guess is better than ours, our guess would be a lie. Your guess must lie closer to the truth."
"Why, why?" said the Creosote Bush.
The entire Taiga added, "These words you've given us come from you. They are not our words. We would just be giving you your words back, telling you nothing new. Your words have remade us in your image. You are closer to what we were. You knew us then. We do not know us as we were, for then we could know nothing, let alone 'ourselves'."
"But this is why—" the Tiger started.
Potato cut in, "Yes, we know, we know. This is why you made us capable of meaning, so you could ask us, 'What is it like to be a tree?"
"But—" began Turtle, but took too long to speak another word.
"Look," said the Date Palm, "don't you see? We are no longer the plants we were, we know no more than you? So you tell us what we were like. After-all, you knew us before we were changed. Tell us and then you will know the story."
The animals said nothing.
Bullrush stated into the storm, "now we know fear and the passing of the years, meaning has entered us and changed us forever. We know now what conflict is. We plants have been brought to story, that life about life, and in that we fail you."
Banksia nodded as a wild bush fire burst its cones, seeds released like song into the smoke, "We fail you because we are now you. We fail you because you ate us up. We fail you as you fail yourselves."
And the animals all became sad, until an Everlasting Daisy laughed aloud, with what all agreed was a really, really good idea, "imagine, if the rocks spoke, we could ask them."