A work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.
The eldest boys of the Weaver family, Clan Cohasset, stood outside their wigwam, slates in hand, awaiting their tutor, a crusty, white-bearded and white-haired (where not bald) old man with a bent back, who insisted on the curious and difficult name of Sisyphus and would accept no other, nor would he explain where the name came from or what it meant.
The two boys, thirteen-year-old Jerry (Jeremiah, at formal clan ceremonies) and eleven-year-old Zeke (Ezekiel), were fair-skinned, mostly very white from the long winter just ending but with touches of sunburn red where the traitor spring sun had had its way with them. Their hair was brownish (Zeke’s was a lighter shade), and their eyes were hazel. Both were lean and strong from outdoor living, and handsome as befit young men who would likely soon be among the leaders of the clan. But both were hungry, and their teeth ached. Their breakfast had been flatbread, leftover from the baking of the previous day, garnished with wild greens. After lessons, the boys would check the snares that they had set out before dawn in the hope of catching small game for dinner, while the younger boys were already out fishing. All the clan waited anxiously for the first of the summer fruits.
Both boys wore wool togas, spun and woven by the women of the Weaver household. They were heavy and they itched, but the boys and their siblings said nothing about this, lest they have to make do with loincloths and skins like the less-favored of their clanmates, even in winter. The preservation, and closely-kept secret, of the arts of spinning and weaving afforded the Weavers special status, including the wherewithal to keep a tutor for the children in their household. It was hoped that the tutor’s knowledge, coupled with warrior training, would help them keep peace with, or if necessary, conquer, their neighbors. The Nahants, to their north, the Mashpees, to their south. To the west, worrying rumors of a growing and aggressive Nayasett Confederacy had reached them. To the east, the Great Water, and the canoe-borne raiders that could rush out of its fogs and melt back into them.
Finally, Sisyphus emerged from his wigwam, carrying a slate and wearing a toga like his pupils. With a grandiose gesture, he swept the grass outside his lodging with his left hand (the right hand held the slate). Satisfied that the morning dew had dried, he beckoned the boys to follow, imperiously, and they followed. Sisyphus spoke only when he wished to, and this was, by now, a long-established drill.
He led them to a copse of dead trees, one of many that dominated Clan Cohasset’s territory. He picked a tree that was sturdier than most, and had intact bark (so that bark flakes coming off the tree would not stick in his toga), and sat down with his back to it. He stretched out his left hand to indicate that he was referring to the entire copse, and said, “What do you observe?”
“Dead trees”, Zeke replied. At which Sisyphus angled his head, as if expecting more.
Jerry took up the challenge. “Two summers ago, we sat under the shade of these trees and learned their names, and the names of all the living things that grew or sheltered under them, and the uses of the useful things, and the dangers of those not useful. Last summer, the trees did not come into their full leaf, and this year, most of them are dead. What has happened? There has been no fire. The grass is growing well, as are the trees that do not lose their leaves during winter, so the soil is not poisoned. The bark of the trees is not nibbled off, so deer have not killed them – and the tale of the hunters is that there are no deer to do any nibbling in these days. I observe a mystery.”
At this, Sisyphus nodded. He then reached out, pulled off a twig from a sapling that was still struggling for life, inspected it, then held it out to the boys for them to see.
The twig was completely covered with small, round, brown shield-like objects. They were hard to the touch and could not easily be moved or pulled off, but with sufficient pressure, they squished, revealing a beige-ish liquid.
“Learn the larger lesson”, Sisyphus lectured. “When the cause of a thing cannot be seen, look for things that are not easy to see.”
“They are indeed hard to see”, Jerry complained. “They are …?”
“Scale insects. Draw them, learn their names, so that hand and eye can remember.” The boys obeyed; the task took a few minutes, as they passed the twig among themselves, drew, and then presented the drawings to Sisyphus, who compared them to his own and insisted on details that the boys had originally omitted. When the initial drawings had been completed to the tutor’s satisfaction, the boys erased and then recreated their drawings, as was their common practice during lessons. When the repetitions matched their model, without corrections, Sisyphus declared that it was good, and moved on. “What has happened?”, he asked the boys.
“I dunno”, Zeke responded, to a glare from Sisyphus.
Jerry, again, responded in more detail. By the next moon, the elder brother would be training with the warriors, and the younger would lose his shelter and have to do his own reasoning. Which would be hard on both child and tutor. But, such it always was with younger brothers, Sisyphus sighed, unless the elders were dolts – and sometimes, even when they were.
“The scale insects are small, but they are many”, Jerry said. “I can only guess that they drink the life force of the tree, and the tree is overwhelmed and dies.”
Sisyphus smiled – a rare blessing – and nodded, then picked up his slate, wiped off the scale insect drawing, and began to draw a line, a curved line that started low in the lower left corner of the slate and quickly ascended to near its top.
“When the trees first came to this place, they found good ground, good light, and nothing to prevent their growth. So they grew, and they seeded more trees, and they grew more. At first, they were well spaced and healthy, but as they added more and more, they crowded each other out, each one the weaker for lack of light, lack of soil, lack of space. And still they sowed more seed, grew more trees.
“At last”, and he started to draw a second curve underneath the first, “the scale insects found them, found plenty of food and nothing to prevent their growth. So they grew, and laid eggs, and grew more. Until the trees could take no more, and died.” The first curve came crashing down to the bottom of the slate. “And when the trees died, the insects, starving, died out as well.” The second curve joined the first at the bottom of the slate.
“Why did the insects not move to other trees, such as the ones that do not lose their leaves in winter?”, Jerry asked.
“We do not know”, Sisyphus responded. “We may be grateful for this, for otherwise, after we had harvested all the dead wood or watched it rot, we would have none for wigwams or canoes or weapons or even fire.” Jerry and Zeke nodded, slowly and solemnly, accepting the information and its implied consequences. They copied the diagram that Sisyphus had made on their own slates.
Sisyphus returned to his slate, continued the first curve from the bottom back to the top. “If any trees survive, then they grow, and do just as they had done before, until,” he added to the second curve, “the scale insects, if any survive, catch up. And the cycle repeats. If the scale insects die out, the trees grow until some other pest comes to claim them, or they die in a fire made possible by their own deadwood. If the trees die out, some other tree comes in to replace them. Which will grow until its own scale insect finds it.
“Learn the larger lesson”, Sisyphus concluded. “Some summers, there are many rabbits for eating, but no foxes for skins; in others, the rabbits are few and there are many foxes. You have mentioned that the hunt has found no deer, but you will have heard many more howls of wolves than usual. It is with the rabbits and foxes, and with the deer and the wolves, the same way as for the trees and the scale insects. The wise leader will see the trends and prepare the clan for a time of plenty or a time of famine.”
“If …”, Zeke started, hesitant, “if we could do something to stop the scale insects, … we could have saved the trees!” Then, with greater energy, “And if we could do something to slow down the foxes, then we would save the rabbits, we would no longer have famines, and the clan would prosper, and its leaders would win the clan’s everlasting thanks!”
The tutor’s heavy-lidded, cynical eyes popped wide open in astonishment. Then, with a bound, Sisyphus sprang to his feet, his face a mixture of anger, sadness … and respect. The younger brother could reason, and reason well! But in a direction that had to be snuffed out. Now. He strode off, leaving the slate behind, out of the copse of dead trees, along a path that none could perceive but himself. Impatiently, he beckoned the brothers to follow.
“But, but, we’re not allowed …” stammered Zeke.
“It is time”, Sisyphus growled. “Come.”
The trio plowed through waist-high grasses and head-high saplings that nevertheless were shorter along the way that Sisyphus led them than immediately nearby, and through the matted vegetation on the ground there peeked through hard, black stones, sometimes in unbroken slabs that, when they were present, eased their walking for a time. When they started on their journey, it had been mid-morning, their shadows were about as tall as themselves. Their shadows were far shorter, noonday short, when they emerged from a low hill that overlooked the shoreline.
And Jerry and Zeke got their first look at Cohasset Onenya, “Forbidden Cohasset”. The territory that no clan member was permitted to enter, on pain of death … for those who survived.
Cohasset Onenya was a harbor attached to the Great Water, around which was a jumble of more or less boxy structures like giant wigwams. Except in blackened places where the boxes had been destroyed by fire. Many of the boxes were half-immersed in water, as if they had been built when the shoreline was at least three heights of men lower. The boxes, where they hadn’t burned down, lined the entire shoreline, and climbed up the hills on all sides, an immense presence. Among the boxes, there were poles and towers of strange appearance, many of them at crazy angles to the ground. From some of them, threads that looked something like, and something not like, threads of spun woolen yarn hung. There were also trees, some great and gnarled, others saplings straight and tall. Some of the latter poked through the boxes.
“Are … are we going in?” Jerry asked, worriedly.
“We are not“, Sisyphus replied firmly. “There are traps and poisons and contagions in Onenya that neither I nor my fellow tutors now understand, and all is now so decayed that even places that contain none of these things still may kill by falling on you or collapsing under you. It is enough to see for yourselves what my tale will tell, and to heed its warnings lest you, and the clan with you, perish.”
With his right arm, Sisyphus grabbed Zeke, not gently, and pulled him to his side. With his left, the tutor gestured at Onenya, including the entire vista within his sweep. “The clan that built this”, he rumbled, “had the same thought that you did. That if they could control any part of nature that troubled them, they would prosper, and the leaders who accomplished this would win the eternal gratitude of their clans.
“They accepted this idea. Worked to accomplish it. Indeed they built their entire society around it. They built religions that sanctified it, by defining people as images of gods, above nature and commanded to bend nature to their purposes. They converted clans to it, and destroyed those that they could not convert, until all the societies in the world subscribed to it.
“And they prospered. Just like the trees that the scale insects killed. Just like the rabbits eaten by the foxes. If there was a predator, they wiped it out. If there was a disease, they found a cure for it. If there was a shortage of food or water, they found ways to end the shortages and prevent them from recurring. Some of those ways involved poisons that they professed to have learned how to control, that will now kill anyone who encounters them in the wreckage they left behind. But they believed in their idea, and believed that they could make it last forever. There were even those who professed not to accept the religions that they made to excuse and justify this work. They lied to themselves and to the world. For as long as they placed humans above nature, they were, not the enemies of the religions, but their greatest and most influential devotees.
“And like the trees and the rabbits, their numbers increased. Unlike the trees and the rabbits, humans had the means to prevent that increase, and had warnings about what would happen if they did not take the appropriate steps. The steps were not taken, and even those that were were reversed. The human population grew, threatened to squeeze all other living things off to make room for itself.
“And nature responded. For the trees, it was scale insects. For rabbits, foxes. For us, viruses. To be sure, humanity thrashed mightily to keep them at bay, and keep the dream of human superiority over nature alive. But the work got harder and harder, and took more and more resources, concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, trusted by fewer and fewer citizens. And those citizens stopped supporting the efforts, denying them behavioral and, eventually, financial support. And the work finally fell short of what was needed.
“The name of the virus that breached the walls, demonstrated humanity’s folly at trying to overcome nature, has come down to us. Fittingly, it is “Omega”. The last letter of the ancient Greek alphabet, the last toll of the bell signaling the collapse of human culture based on its belief in superiority over nature. Like the trees you have seen that fell to the scale insects, humanity died of Omega. Quickly, and nearly totally. We, in our scattered clans, are the last remnants of a population that once numbered far more than the stars in the clear night sky.
“And the fall came just in time. You see how the water in the harbor has covered so many of the wigwams that people used to live in? Had the culture that produced them survived just another 50 summers, the water now would cover all of them. And Clan Cohasset would not exist. Our land would be too hot, even in winter, for us to survive. That was the cost to the planet, to us, of the belief that humans could win over nature.
“Learn the larger lesson. Our lives are hard. And then we die. We die of famine, we die of disease, we die from injuries on the hunt or in fighting with other clans, we die and we don’t know how, or why. Too many of our women die in childbirth, too many children die before they can argue with their elders. But the clan survives. It survives in balance with our neighbors, it survives in balance with the nature that surrounds us, of which we are a part. Nature that is master of us, not we of it.
“We cannot try to gain mastery over nature, we cannot be trusted to try. We will only destroy ourselves by trying. The evidence is before you. Heed it. Onenya is full of poisons, poisonous things and the wreckage of poisonous ideas. Do not be the one to bring poisons to the clan. In Onenya, Omega still lurks. Do not be the one who bears Omega to the clan.” At this, he bodily lifted Zeke, turned him so that their faces met, yelled up his nose. “And any who presume to attempt any of these things will be exterminated! Do you hear?”
“I .. I hear”, Zeke stammered.
Sisyphus dropped Zeke, whipped around, turned to Jerry. “And you?” Jerry gulped, nodded.
The tutor sighed. The passion drained from his body, and his shoulders slumped. In a much quieter, more respectful tone, he addressed the two boys. “You are not alone”, he said. “All who are likely to be clan leaders have come here, have heard these words. Yours is a shared burden of knowledge, and of duty, and of silence. Look long upon this place, look until you have had your fill. Look until your memories are sure, until there is no doubt in your minds what this place is and what it means to us. Take the time you need now, for you will not return, on pain of death.”
Their shadows were far longer than they were tall when, first Jerry and then Zeke signaled that their meditations on Cohasset Onenya were completed. They retraced their steps back to the copse of dead trees, from which they recovered their slates, and then to their wigwams, in silence.