More than a hundred years from now, an arborist fighting to save the last remaining forest on Earth discovers a secret about the trees—one that changes not only her life, but also the fate of our world. Inspired by the real-life “Future Library,” a long-term environmental and literary public art project currently underway in the Norwegian wilderness.
18 August 2125
You wonder what this letter could have to tell you, because you think you already know everything about the Future Library. Who doesn’t? It’s the only story on NewsLens, every day, all the time. They’re making yet another movie, and another virtual reality experience, and even a porn game. You can make anything into porn, I guess. Even forests. You’ve probably even entered the library’s Forever Contest yourself, in the hopes that you’re one of the one hundred who is selected each year, out of billions. One of the one hundred who will become immortal.
I didn’t participate in the official documentary, because the whole thing was a lie. And also because I was in prison on “eco-terrorism” charges at the time. I put this in quotations on purpose. Because of the nature of my crimes, I had no computer access or right to be interviewed during my trial, or after. The Future Library’s lawyers made sure of that.
It was a life sentence, until Gunnar came to see me at Ullersmo Prison.
Nothing is for forever. Not a life sentence, not a forest.
Not even the Forever Contest.
They have hidden so much from you, but no longer.
My name is Ingrid Hagen, and I’m the one who discovered that the trees can talk.
I’m not good at telling stories. I started out as an arborist, not a librarian. Leaves, sure, and roots, but words were never really my thing. Well, until they were.
I have to start at the beginning, so you’ll understand.
I grew up in Oslo, in the Grønland area just north of the central train station. My mother went into labor early in the summer of 2050, when half of the Americas and a good portion of southern Europe were on fire. All the drought, and so much heat, they said. The icebergs had melted too much, the transportation industry was still using too many fossil fuels, and so on. It was being called the “Red Summer” then, because no one could know at that point that it wouldn’t burn out before the end of that summer. That it never really would burn out, per se. It would just eventually run out of trees to devour. But it was still grey and wet in Norway in those days, and even cold some of the time. Some of my earliest memories are of begging to borrow my mother’s iScreen so I could watch Operation Green’s joint international effort to protect the rainforests.
I didn’t understand the politics of climate collapse, being a child, but I liked the clips. The rousing speeches, the big tractors building protective fences around the land, the water drums being hauled from the cloud-seeding factories in China, where they could grow rain. And the arborists, most of all. They looked so adventurous, in their scuffed boots and sweat-stained neck gaiters, climbing spikes and ropes dangling from their utility belts. I would watch them shimmy up and down the trees for hours, until my mother demanded I go eat dinner or do homework.
By the time I got to university, arboriculture was a dying art. Earth’s remaining trees were precious, but there were just too few of them to need many arborists. I had to go all the way to the University of Tennessee, in the United States. After graduation, I ended up in Brazil with the rest of our dwindling industry, trying to stop the mass extinction process there in the Amazon. But it was like trying to save a car crash victim with a Band-Aid. I have never felt wind so hot and sweltering as there, with sun that could sear your flesh through clothes—even in muggy Tennessee. I felt more like I was swimming than walking through the Amazon. Like everything was underwater, if the water was boiling.
We tried and tried, until Operation Green started laying us off, too. All funding was being diverted toward stopping the CHA7-MRSA superbug that was decimating urban populations, and then toward the global air pollution crisis. We lost the rainforest.
Ten months later, I was in a grocery store back in Oslo—no, let’s be honest about it all, if we’re going to be honest about any of it—I was in the discount aisle of a Vinmonopolet, spending the dregs of my pitiful bank account on enough liquor to erase at least a full week from my existence, when I first saw Claire Nakamura.
“Champagne,” I noted, mostly because it had been so long since I’d had anything to celebrate in my own life. Operation Green had promised that as soon as they resecured funding they would hire us all back, but I knew the day they sent us home that they never would. The rainforest, the trees I had loved, were gone.
“Is this bottle good?” she asked me in English. She sounded a little like Awhina, one of the arborists I had worked with in Brazil, who was from New Zealand. Claire was already incredibly famous by that time, a renowned novelist from Auckland, but like I said, words were never my thing. I didn’t recognize her. I only knew that she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “If the occasion is good enough, it always tastes good.”
That made her smile. “I’ve just inherited a forest,” she told me.
“That’s incredible,” I said. It had been so long since I’d heard that word spoken aloud. Just the sound of it made my heart stir.
“That’s not the reaction most people have,” Claire laughed. “No one, in fact.”
“I’m an arborist.”
The skin on my hand burned with white-hot fire where she took hold of it—surprised, giddy. I can still feel exactly where her fingers first touched me if I concentrate. She smelled like salt, and the rain from outside the door, and ink.
“Do you believe in fate?” she asked me. She was joking but not really, I could tell. Later I learned it was that way with writers, that everything seemed like fate or magic to them, and it was always totally normal.
“I believe in champagne,” I said.
It was a terrible joke, but it worked. Or at least, it didn’t ruin my chance.
She bit her lip, suddenly a little shy, as if working up the courage to say something. Finally, she held up the bottle. “I was going to drink this alone because my friends are all still in Auckland,” she said. Her eyes were deep, deep green, like a juniper in spring. “Do you want to come see my forest?”
I did. But to be honest, in that moment, even with the prospect of a forest, I really just wanted to see her. The entire train ride from Sentralstasjon, I held the fancy bottle for her, heart racing, my fingers gripping the neck of it so tightly I thought it might shatter.
“So, it’s a forest, but it’s so much more than that,” Claire was explaining, breathless with excitement.
That’s how I ended up working at the Future Library.
It might be hard to believe, because the Future Library is all anyone talks about these days, but back then, I’d never heard of it. This was some thirty-plus years before it would officially become a library, after all. The trees were still growing then. Just little saplings.
Claire had inherited custodianship of the Future Library from its founder, Katie Paterson, who had just passed away of old age. Katie started the project decades ago, back in 2014, nearly half a century before Claire or I was even born. Back when the world’s forests were beginning to die, but there were still plenty. Claire had learned of the library herself because she’d been asked to write a novel for it. She’d come to Norway because she’d wanted to choose her tree.
You’ve read it already, of course. The Song of Leaves. The first book the Future Library released.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Katie Paterson originally created the Future Library as a literary and environmental public art project, before the board twisted it into what it is now. After receiving approval from the Norwegian government, she came from Fife to purchase several acres of land in Nordmarka forest, a few hours north of Oslo. There, she planted one thousand Norwegian spruce trees—Picea abies, known and harvested for their quality wood, for obvious reasons—in addition to continuing to care for the thousands of juvenile birch, Betula pubescens, and pine, Pinus sylvestris, already flourishing in the area. Then she began inviting the authors.
The idea, Claire had said that night as we walked between the dark trees, our only light the moon and the tiny beams from our phones, was to convince one hundred authors to each write one new work, to remain unpublished and unread, and held in trust by the Future Library for a hundred years. At the end of those one hundred years, in the Spring of 2114, long after the authors and Katie Paterson herself would have passed away, the new custodians of the Future Library would cut down one hundred of the thousand trees she had planted, and print these one hundred books on the paper made from their wood for future generations to read.
The authors were free to write whatever they wanted, with “a thematic emphasis on imagination and time,” Claire explained as she popped the cork off the champagne, her smile so beautiful. She was the fifty-seventh author invited to write for the Future Library—one of the last ones Katie Paterson had selected before she died in the early 2070s—but she was the first one to ask to come to the forest to choose the tree that would become her book. By the end of Claire’s short trip, the aging and ailing Katie had already decided to hand over custodianship of the Future Library to her.
Claire went home to pack up her life into a suitcase and apply for a Norwegian residency visa. It wasn’t but a few more months before the Future Library’s secretary Ikká called her with the news that Katie had passed away in her sleep.
Even with the partial travel bans due to the canine-avian-equine influenza outbreak from Greece, Claire could not be stopped. She made it back to Oslo after a forty-hour, six-transfer journey and a twelve-hour wait at the border, plus two temperature tests, three blood draws, four nasal swabs, and a ten-day wrist tracker in lieu of a quarantine. Her first stop, after not having slept for nearly two full days, was that Vinmonopolet.
There was no sign on Claire’s tree, the one that would be for her book—nothing to mark it out from the others in the grove—but I burned its shape into my mind after that first night. It was one of the newer Norwegian spruce saplings, one of the many planted by Katie, in a particularly sunny clearing. Good sun exposure through the canopy, excellent root spread, and ample shelter from the wind, even being as deep into the north of the forest as it was.
“What do you think?” Claire asked, leaning back against the bark of its trunk and grinning up at me. Dawn was breaking, just enough that we could see each other in the muted glow of the sunrise without our phones anymore.
I wanted to ask her to marry me. Instead, I asked her for a job.
“Trunk measurements, leaf samples, soil pH, all of it requires very precise knowledge and experience,” I bragged desperately. “I would check every sapling every single day, from root to tip.”
I tried to make it all sound as serious as possible, but it was sort of a lie. The trees in Nordmarka were exceptionally healthy, even with the Amazon already dead ash, and forests in Earth’s subtropical and temperate zones withering. But I worried if I told her that I already wanted to be with her for the rest of our lives, it would have spooked her. We’d known each other all of eight hours.
Then again, maybe not. She was the one who believed in magic, and fate.
She was the one who kissed me first.
We were never apart from each other after that. We took the train back to Oslo the next day so I could pack my clothes and give up my apartment, and then I moved into the library’s modest residential cabins just outside the forest, into the one beside Claire’s. Three months later, I moved into hers, and six months after that we married, right there among the trees, with her favorite librarian, Gunnar, officiating.
For three decades I had her as my wife, and I had the forest as its head arborist. During the days, Claire would be wrapped up in a cardigan in her office, she and her librarians nearly hidden by their piles of books and papers and stacked mugs of tea, and I would be outside with the other arborists, covered in mud, climbing up and down our trees. At night, we would sit together in front of the fire, and she would tell me everything about her side of the library’s work, about words and stories and books, and I would tell her everything about mine, about roots and rain and leaves.
It was perfect.
Sometimes I can’t believe how quickly it went, and sometimes I can’t believe I was ever allowed to have been so happy for so long.
I’m sorry. It’s just that when I think of Claire, even now, it’s hard to think of anything else.
If you go back into the news archives to look for mentions, mostly no one cared about the Future Library project in the beginning. It was something that no one alive in 2014 would still be around to see. But by the late 2090s, when the Future Library was only about twenty-five years away from maturing, suddenly a quarter of a century didn’t seem so long. Visits to the forest ticked up, and literary outlets began to run culture articles. Someone even created a countdown people could keep running in the corners of their NewsLens devices. I did not, because it bothered my view when climbing, but Claire did. She would tell me the count first thing every morning even though we both had it memorized, giggling gleefully as she snatched her NewsLens off the nightstand to peer through it at me.
“Are you sure you can do it?” she asked me, exactly one year before the Future Library was to officially open. Her voice had grown so weak by then, it was barely more than a breath.
Earlier that afternoon, I had taken the train from Frognerseteren station back to Oslo, to buy the same champagne from the same Vinmonopolet where we’d met half a lifetime ago and bring it back. At this time next spring, my arborists would begin to fell the trees of the first authors, and prepare the logs to be processed into paper, so their words could be printed.
And Claire would not be there to see it.
“I promise,” I assured her.
Before, I had meant it. The library was her dream. I could have allowed them to cut down the one hundred trees destined for their books and been at peace tending to the rest of the forest that remained. I could have done it together with her.
Claire tried to take the tiniest sip from her glass, and gave up.
I could tell she didn’t believe me, either. She had watched me care for the trees every day for three decades, as closely as a mother might care for her children. And she knew how even more precious those trees had become. By that point, early 2113, Nordmarka was the last forest remaining in the world, and had been for some time. The Valdivian Rainforest in Argentina and Chile, the Miombo Woodlands in central Africa, Arashiyama Grove in Japan, all gone. We’d heard that in the hermetically sealed biovaults in the New Tsimshian Collective in former western Canada, there were a handful of lab-grown saplings struggling to put down roots in the synthetically enhanced soil substitute the Tsimshian botanists were trying to perfect, but they always curled inward and died a few years after germination. Outside their vaults, the last scattered wild specimens that had survived whatever killed their forests had also slowly weakened and shriveled to husks, despite the UNEP’s best efforts to save them. Every so often there would be a report of a living tree, but it always turned out to be a mistake, or a hoax. The ground was just too poisoned, the rain nonexistent, the sun too corrupting.
Nordmarka was truly all that was left. Every tree that remained in the world lived in the Future Library.
“It’s all a cycle,” I finally said. Gunnar, whom Claire had chosen to take over management of the library for her, set the syringes and IV bundle down on the table beside us, and kissed her on the forehead before withdrawing to wait with the physician outside the room.
Her lung cancer had become so bad that she could no longer bear it. Not for even one more night, let alone one more year. The Crackles, they were now calling it, because of the sound. Without the rest of the world’s forests to help Nordmarka clean the air, the PM2.5 particles were so dense that even with respirator masks, which were at a shortage anyway, the Crackles had become an international epidemic.
“All things must grow, and then die, so that new things can grow. No tree can live forever, just as no person can,” I told her, taking her hand.
“But a book could, my love,” she whispered desperately.
I knew what Claire was hoping. She was hoping that a year from then, when her tree fell and they turned it into her book, that when I finally held a copy of it in my hands I would feel that I had the last piece of her, after she’d gone.
But I already had the last piece of her, in her tree.
It was not that I loved the forest more than I loved her. It was that to me, they were one and the same.
“For Claire,” Gunnar said to me a year later, the day of the Future Library’s opening, as we stood in the early morning light on a makeshift stage. The audience clapped while my arborists waited beside us, handsaws politely clutched behind their backs. Gunnar and the librarians had decided we would start with her tree, to pay respects to her. Her book would be the first one the library would publish.
“For Claire,” I echoed.
I had walked us to the far shady corner of the Future Library’s grove at dawn that morning, where the roots ran close together and the branches of the sibling spruce brushed against each other in the breeze. I had pointed out the tree they would cut, and Gunnar tied a little gold ribbon around one of the low branches, so they could find it again with all the press watching.
They did not know this forest like I do.
“You’re sure you’re all right?” he asked again.
“I am,” I said, as the saws began.
I was crying, and he squeezed my hand, and I saw that his eyes were shimmering, too.
“You’ll get the first copy,” he told me as the trunk began to bend.
It wasn’t until that first tree toppled, and we saw the exposed rings of its inner wood, that everything fell apart.
Here is the first thing they have hidden from you: the idea to plant the authors’ remains in the dirt under each tree was mine.
The official Future Library website gives credit to Claire. Which is fine. She was the one who did the work to make the whole thing happen. We’d been together a few years by that time, and even though she’d just been diagnosed with her Crackles, she was busier than ever finishing her list of the remaining authors to ask to write a book for the Future Library, looking for new and interesting voices, and I was busy caring for the saplings. At first, I’d thought that one hundred books sounded like an impossible amount—I don’t think I’ve read even ten books in my life, let alone a hundred—but the longer I was with Claire, the more she opened my eyes. I began to understand that one hundred isn’t that big of a number at all, even for books, just the same way that she came to realize that a thousand trees is also hardly a large number. We were both tending to such small, precious things.
“I wish there was some way they could come meet their trees too, like I did,” she sighed one evening as we sat on the porch after dinner, overlooking the forest as it grew dark and shadowed in the sunset. The last oil wars were at their peak then, and the aviation industry was completely grounded. Our staff who rode the train back and forth from Oslo had said a flight could take weeks to get, and cost more than a down payment on a small apartment somewhere in the outer exurban zones.
I tried to muster a reply, and failed. Even though Claire’s Crackles was only Stage I and she was responding well to treatment, I was still reeling from her diagnosis.
But Claire could always draw me out of a mood, no matter how dark. To comfort me, she started talking about books and immortality, about how she felt that an author and their art were one and the same. That an author’s works were not like children, but more like incarnations. They were their authors. And that as long as people continued to read them, they would live on. “When writers die, they become books,” one of her favorite authors was famously attributed as having said, she told me. Jorge Luis Borges had died far too long ago to be asked to be part of the Future Library, but it didn’t stop her from wishing she somehow could invite his ghost to write another novel for her.
That was when I’d gotten the idea.
“Maybe they could still visit their trees, in a way,” I said.
Claire loved the symbolism of it. She set to work at once, calling the still-living authors who had submitted their work to the Future Library and the families of the ones who had already passed away. We already knew everyone was either planning to be cremated after death, or had already been cremated, because burial had been too expensive for decades. Ashes essentially last forever in their urns, and the authors and their families were surprisingly touched by the request. It wasn’t hard to convince them to send a small portion of each person’s remains to us, or promise to, once they passed away.
In their undiluted state, human ash is incredibly harsh on plant life, even in small doses. Too much sodium, too high a pH level. I figured out how to mix it with a special soil blend of my own creation to neutralize the sodium and bring the acidic levels to base.
After each little urn arrived and I combined it with our blend, Claire and I had gone to each chosen tree, where I dug a hole at the base of the trunks, careful not to damage the root systems or disrupt the ground cover too much. We “planted” the authors beneath them, and then smoothed the earth back out.
“Now they will get to meet their trees,” I told her after we finished the first one, holding her close. It takes only a few months for a tree to leech such a small amount of nutrients from the dirt. In forest time, that was practically no time at all.
She kissed me. “You have to do it for me too, when I’m gone,” she said. “I want my ashes to be buried beneath my tree.”
I wanted to argue that it would be years, hopefully decades, before we had to consider that, but it wasn’t the time. “I will,” I replied, and kissed her back.
As we stood there embracing, I thought about the cremation and soil mixture fading into the warm, moist darkness below, but I know Claire was imagining something spectacular, like the remains turning into letters as they decayed and then creeping in tendril sentences around the roots, absorbing into the trees.
“Clear!” my deputy head arborist shouted, jolting me back to the moment. The creaking gave way to a rumble, then a whoosh, and the sky brightened and the world shook with a boom as the Future Library’s very first spruce fell to the earth.
You can tell the age of a tree by the number of rings it has in its wood. Every year it grows another, an infinitesimal widening of its trunk. A tree could sort of be read not unlike a book, it occurred to me then as I watched it crash downward. Which years had drought. Which had fire. When water was plenty. When the sun was strong. The rings on this first tree were perfect. Impossible symmetry and grace. Love is not something that happens to a person, but something a person does for another person, every day, every moment. A labor, not a feeling. These rings were a record of my deeds.
I went forward as soon as the ground stopped shaking, to put a hand on the tree. The smooth, round shape of the inside of its trunk looked back at me. Its rings circling and circling, one hundred times, a dizzying, mesmerizing spiral.
Those arcing lines in the wood were not rings, I realized then.
“What in God’s name…” Gunnar whispered.
They were words.
Next, I was sitting in a chair in Claire’s old office, somehow. There was a mug of tea on the armrest, its tail of steam long dissipated. Gunnar was not with me, nor my deputy head arborist. Only Hsiu was there, our most junior arborist, nervously twisting their neck gaiter in their hands as they watched me. They were new, our last hire, just five years on the job.
“Where is everyone?” I finally asked.
“Outside, with the reporters,” Hsiu answered. “The prime minister is on her way up from Oslo to see.”
To see what? I almost asked, but I already knew.
“Do you believe in fate?” I could hear Claire’s voice in my mind, as crystal clear as it was the first day I’d met her, in that old, crumbling Vinmonopolet on the corner of Nordre gate and Markveien.
“I need,” I said to Hsiu. I was trying to stand up. “I need.”
“I know,” they said. They eased me back into the chair and went to the desk. On it was a perfect disc the size of a giant serving platter. A slice of peach-golden wood encircled by dark brown bark. “Gunnar had them cut a piece for you before they were swarmed by the crowd.”
It was a cross section of the trunk of the tree we had just felled.
“Claire’s tree,” Hsiu said. They held it out. “Her book.”
The Song of Leaves, the title along the outermost ring read.
I looked at Hsiu. “It’s not,” I tried to say. “It can’t be.” I couldn’t finish.
Hsiu was still staring at the disc, eyes full of wonder. “I guess we don’t need to print and bind it as a book anymore. It’s already…it’s already done.”
Over the rest of the day, Gunnar supervised the felling of four more of the authors’ spruce as I tried to collect myself, and all four were the same. Instead of mere growth rings inside the trees, there were words, impossibly small yet somehow still legible, in one long, spiraling trail from the center out to the very edge where the bark began. Poetry and shorter novels were large enough to read with the naked eye by squinting, such as The Song of the Leaves. Longer works required a magnifying glass. They were in all languages—Norwegian, Korean, Portuguese, Arabic—some changed midway through, the way that a ring might warp due to drought or flood. Some told stories so long, minor branches also had to be cut off the main trunk and sliced into discs themselves to reach the end.
How was this possible? What did it mean? The media went wild with investigative articles, opinion pieces, personal essays. We let the same photographers we’d cleared for the opening ceremony continue to photograph the new trees, and they licensed some of their lesser shots to the open market. NewsLens was flooded with them. They were so ubiquitous, so inescapable, that I stopped using my device altogether. Put it in the drawer of Claire’s lonely nightstand and never got it out again.
That first week, there were so many meetings. Meetings with the prime minister and the king, meetings with Operation Green—revived again at last, and with WWF, EDF, UNEP, every acronym possible. Gunnar went over and over the daily operation of the Future Library from the administrative side, and I detailed endlessly the care I and my arborists had provided to the trees. I gave them our logbooks, our weather records, our rainfall charts, everything. They grilled me about the planted cremated remains, made me explain our exact method again and again. The world had been charmed by the sentimentality of what we’d done with the ashes when Claire had put out the original press release, but now, they were obsessed with the plantings. Consumed.
But there was no magic to it, I insisted. Just Claire and me, the night, some nutrient-dense soil mixture, and a little too much wine. It was romance, nothing more. Whatever had happened, it had not been because of us.
They said they agreed with me. I believed them.
The project continued forward, and the library still released the novels, but the entire process had to change. Instead of felling the trees and pulping their wood into paper to print the books, we simply took each trunk and cut it into thin discs, and sold each disc as the book. We made each disc about 1.25 cm thick, and thus could create approximately 1,500 to 2,000 copies of a book from each tree.
Within a month, every one of the one hundred novels in the Future Library had been “published,” and sold for thousands of kroner. Millions even, sometimes.
They were beautiful, I have to admit. I’ve never been one to particularly think books were beautiful, but these books were. Buyers hung them on their walls like art, and would sit or stand in front of them for hours with magnifying glasses, reading the stories. People felt connected to nature again. To trees. There were ShareLife videos of readers talking about how every time they passed by their book, they would touch the wood with their fingers, feel the words therein. There was something magical about them, they said. It reminded them of their closeness to the Earth.
I don’t have my copy of The Song of Leaves anymore. It was confiscated from me when I was arrested. I don’t know what happened to it, but I’m sure the temptation to resell it was simply too great. I was languishing in purgatory, the courts too busy with Crackles lawsuits and climate refugee resettlement appeals to hear my case. And even if they had, I already knew I would be convicted. I would never see the light of day again. I imagine there was a quiet auction somewhere, a sum I wouldn’t even be able to comprehend for all the zeroes, and that was that. It was gone.
It doesn’t matter. We’re almost to the part where I tell you why.
The day of my arrest—the day I tried to expose everything—was at the end of that first month. We’d just cut down the final, hundredth tree, and my arborists were hard at work measuring and dividing its trunk to produce its books. After this, there would be no more. That was what I foolishly believed. After all, Katie and Claire had only ever intended there to be one hundred books in the Future Library, and had only invited exactly that many authors.
But could that really be it? NewsLens asked, constantly and through every device and screen and portal, impervious to all ad-blocks. The world was poised, breathless for what might happen next.
“Technically, one thousand trees were planted in Nordmarka at the start of the Future Library project. But only one hundred actually were cut down,” Klima-og Miljøvernministeren Kristoffer Berg, the minister of climate and the environment, said to the rest of the room, leaning forward on the conference table so he could reach his microphone. Daily briefings had gone from being just the librarians and the arborists in Claire’s modest office to extremely formal things in a hulking, hideous temporary structure the government had assembled. They had created an official board to oversee us, full of their own people.
“Exactly,” I said. “The other nine hundred weren’t meant to be additional inventory for the library. They were meant to make up for the one hundred we knew we would lose to this project. Nordmarka has the only trees remaining in the entire world.”
“I’m not calling for a culling of the entire forest,” Minister Berg argued.
“Any allowance is too much. The Future Library was not just supposed to publish a hundred books a century later, but also to protect the forest in which those books were grown,” I replied.
“Just one more,” Director Pak suggested. “As an experiment.”
I shook my head. “If we cut down the one-hundred-and-first tree, what’s to stop us from cutting down the one-hundred-and-second? The third? We’ve already destroyed every other forest on the planet. When will we stop?”
They all said noncommittal things. That’s when I knew it would never stop. That this was not the completion of the Future Library, but rather, the beginning. The beginning of the end of our last forest in the world. Even if they were to plant a hundred more tomorrow in exchange for each one they cut down today, trees grow so slowly that we would never catch up to ourselves. The forest would be gone within our lifetimes.
I had to do something. I had to show them.
I had to tell the truth.
Because I’d kept something from all of them, a secret, because I hadn’t known it would matter so much.
That night, I took Claire’s keys from her nightstand drawer and let myself into her darkened, silent office, and then into the small, even darker, even more silent room at the end of it.
Each book submitted by the one hundred authors of the Future Library was stored on an encrypted server somewhere for safekeeping until the project came to fruition, but originally, the plan also had been to print and display the manuscripts in an exhibit in the Deichman Library in downtown Oslo, until the trees were cut down and pulped into paper. The manuscripts were set into boxes and locked, so visitors could pick them up and hear their pages clack against the sides of their containers, but not read them. To enhance the mystery, Claire had told me with a wink. The outer layer of the boxes was made of wood, in keeping with the theme of the project, but Katie Paterson had possessed the foresight to line the inside of each of them with stainless steel. When closed, the boxes were watertight and airtight, so the manuscripts would never decay—at least not for a very, very long time. Long enough that visitors to the Deichman Library could handle them and spread the word about the project, anyway. It was a very clever publicity tactic.
But after the power shortages in the early 2100s, the Deichman Library was turned into a homeless shelter, and the manuscripts cast aside, the exhibit scrapped. Their boxes were moved back here to our offices. The only place left for them.
With all the surprise and the awe at the trees, it seemed that everyone had forgotten those original manuscripts were still here. Tucked away in a dank little closet that no one had opened for decades, and now no longer had any need to.
I counted fifty-seven boxes and slid the slim wooden shape out from its place in the middle of the collection. Claire’s book was slight, perhaps just two hundred pages or so. Trembling, I inserted the smallest gold key from her keyring into the lock, and turned. The lid eased open with a tired creak to reveal her manuscript inside. The book she had written decades ago—the story that was meant for her tree. My eyes were so blurry from the tears, I could hardly read the title across the yellowing, slightly faded cover page, but it didn’t matter.
I already knew what it would say.
Or rather, what it would not.
Here is the second thing they have hidden from you: The Song of Leaves is not Claire’s book.
I know this because the day the Future Library opened, when Gunnar and the rest of the staff told me they’d decided to honor Claire by publishing her book first, I made a choice. Perhaps it was the wrong one, but it was the only one I could have made. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to protect the last thing I had of her.
The tree I took them to that morning—the tree we cut down and found those impossible words inside—was not the one I had marked in my mind as special, not the one I had tended to every single day with more care than I have ever tended anything else. That tree’s branches reached for the sky, its gnarled roots crept through the darkness below, with nothing but sun and rain and earth to sustain it. No cremated ashes, no Claire, had been planted there.
Because it was not her tree.
The next day at the morning meeting, I raised my hand to speak before Prime Minister Sjur or Vice-Director Oliveira could begin with the minutes. I needed to tell them the whole story. To tell them the truth, before they destroyed the forest attempting to discover it.
But before I could start, Minister Berg leaned forward to his table microphone, cutting me off. “I’d like to talk about symbols,” he said slowly.
“Symbols?” I asked, surprised.
Minister Berg cleared his throat and smiled.
Suddenly, I could tell that whatever he was about to say next had been rehearsed. That the other officials already knew. There was some sort of plan, and they had already all agreed on it.
“Of hope. Of the future. That a human’s life might continue even after their body is gone.”
“But—” I paused, tried to remain collected. I looked at Gunnar beside me, but he was looking at Minister Berg, not me. “That’s not what’s happening here, with the ashes and the words. It’s not the truth—”
“Truth for truth’s sake is academic, at best. But we live in the world. The most noble purpose of truth is to benefit the greater good,” Minister Berg continued, voice echoing through the ugly grey room. “I think, with the right balance between environmental protection and humanitarian considerations, the Future Library might be able to do even more for the forest—and mankind—than we’d previously hoped.”
“I have evidence,” I tried to say, but I was already panicking. “I can show you.”
Evidence of what? I expected him to ask, but he said, “A proposal, for the board’s consideration,” instead. He was facing the rest of the table now, not me. As if I hadn’t spoken at all.
I looked desperately at Gunnar again as Minister Berg began to describe his idea for the Forever Contest. Of holding an annual call for cremated remains from the global public, and a drawing to decide which to “plant.” Of allowing just a few of these last trees to be cut down each year, so we could read the words written inside their wood—the last words of the planted person. Words from beyond death, words that meant that a person was never really gone.
They already knew it would become the single greatest event in human history. You could see it in their eyes. Earth was spiraling toward death, and people were terrified. There wasn’t a person still alive who would be able to resist entering.
I tried to argue, but it was useless. What politicians can do with words seems like a kind of magic Claire might have invented in one of her novels.
“The funding would continue indefinitely this way,” Minister Berg was saying, and the rest of them were nodding. “Each tree in Nordmarka is certainly precious, but we still have thousands of them. If we’re careful, if we create a strict annual maximum number…”
Gunnar still would not look at me. “Gunnar, please,” I said to him as the minister continued his speech. I touched his arm to force him to pay attention. “This is important.” The words were hot and sharp in my throat. “It’s about Claire’s book.”
“I’m sorry, Ingrid,” he sighed. His voice was so soft.
It took me a long time to believe it. That they had swayed him, too. Gunnar had been a part of the Future Library project for nearly all his professional life, the same as Claire and I had. I thought of anyone, he’d understand time like we did.
But I guess even one hundred years is not very long, compared to the ages of the elder trees in the Future Library forest for which I’d also cared.
We held a vote. A sham of a formality. I was the only dissenter. The library would announce the Forever Contest the next day, and begin taking submissions immediately. Every year, the remains of one hundred winners would be planted, and then the year after, their trees would be cut down, so we could read their immortal words. And sell them.
I ran back to the storage closet, to take as many of the manuscripts as I could carry. I had to go public. I had to tell the truth. I threw open the door to the room so quickly the wall rattled.
But the manuscripts, and their little wooden boxes, were gone. The space was as bare as the day it had been built, just an empty square.
I turned around. Gunnar was standing there in Claire’s office, hands in his pockets. He still could not look at me.
I was arrested.
I realize now that the board already knew what I’d been trying to tell them. That at some point, amid all their excitement, someone on staff must have remembered that according to procedure, our off-site server with the electronic copies of the manuscripts would automatically unlock that first week, to allow for printing. Perhaps Gunnar had gotten a system-generated email about it. They must have checked the trees against the files. They must have known since nearly the beginning.
Initially, my charges were listed as something to do with business fraud. But then someone convinced the other arborists to gossip, and stories were exaggerated, idle chatter inflated, until the accusation was not that I simply had complained about how the newly formed board was handling the administration of the Future Library, but rather that I had outright threatened its members. Suspicious tools and materials—saws, knives, fertilizer mix, batteries for my head lamp—never mind that all arborists use such things in the daily undertaking of their profession, were found in my room.
Eco-terrorism had a much more serious ring to it.
The library’s lawyers likely figured I would use my chance on the stand to expose the Forever Contest rather than defend myself, so they never let me near the courtroom. A safety concern petition had been filed. I watched the proceedings from prison at Ullersmo, in cell 144. My roommate was serving a seventy-year term for double homicide, ten years into her sentence. Even she had heard of the Future Library, from inside there.
“So, anyone can enter the contest?” she asked, leaning over from her top bunk to look down at me.
“Yes,” I said. There wasn’t any point in trying to convince her of what I knew. That it didn’t matter. That no one was winning anything, even the winners. “But how would you even enter your name, from here?”
“There’s a whole computer room in the education wing,” she said. “Everyone gets one hour of internet access a day. Haven’t they taken you to see it yet?”
Of course they hadn’t. And they never would.
“Why did you try to kill them? The Future Library board?” she asked. “For the trees?”
I shrugged. For truth, I should have said. “For love,” I did instead.
She smiled crookedly. “Me, too.”
I was sentenced to life without parole.
I had nothing but time to watch what happened to the Future Library, and the forest, after that.
The board kept cutting down trees, our precious Nordmarka dwindling as the earth became even more polluted, the droughts even worse. More pandemics, more wars. Sometimes, inside Ullersmo, it would get so hot that even with the fans spinning as fast as they could go, prisoners would just drop to the floor, their eyes rolling back in their heads, their withered bodies so overheated they could no longer function. It was like being back in the dying Amazon again. Struggling to breathe, sweating so much but that sweat making no difference, because the air was so hot and humid that your sweat simply clung to you like a curtain of steam, making you even sicker.
And still, every spring, the Future Library felled one hundred more trees for the Future Contest.
Whenever my roommate went to the education wing for her hour on the computers, she let me give her a few questions to look up, as long as it didn’t take more than fifteen minutes of her allotted time. There had been some conservation attempts in response to feeble complaints from independent environmental bodies, she told me. The board apparently once tried to send seeds from Nordmarka to the biovaults in the New Tsimshian Collective, but the spruce wouldn’t grow there. They also tried cutting and examining smaller plants under a microscope, Vaccinium myrtillus and Hylocomium splendens and Oxalis acetosella, to see if other flora might also be capable of producing words, but it seems that only the trees can do it.
And they’ve noticed style differences between the species, as well. Picea abies tend to hold sad stories, and Pinus sylvestris grow sweeter, happier ones. Betula pubescens often reveal poetry, or sometimes even music, the notes floating between the rings as they go round and round, flats and sharps, halfs and wholes, as though the lines are composition staffs. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra performs them all in a concert every autumn. I’ve heard their recordings playing in the mess hall during dinner hours, crooning softly over the intercom system—a benevolent gift to us from the wardens on days when our already meager rations are exceptionally low.
The songs are so beautiful, it’s hard for anyone to do anything else while they play. Cutlery and conversation still, and we all just sit in silence for hours, lost. I have never felt such a profound ache as when I listen to those songs. The loneliness suffuses every cell of me even more than it did my first night without Claire. It’s like the birch understand even better than us what it’s like to grieve something precious. Maybe they do. After all, I’m only seventy-five years old. We’ve been destroying their forests for millennia.
All of this art is passed off as being thanks to us humans, of course. Our remains, our lives after death, sent to this sham Forever Contest. The board has already lied about so much, it’s not that hard for them to lie about this, too. How would anyone prove it? The “winners” are all dead before they even win.
The day of the Future Library’s opening, I truly had no idea that there would already be words inside the spruce tree I had pretended was Claire’s. No one did. Who could have? I thought it would be pure, plain, untouched wood, just the same as the wood in her actual tree—if wood was wood, what difference would it make? I’d thought. All I’d been doing was trying to save the tree I loved like I had loved her. To let another one be made into paper for her book. Readers would still be able to have her words, her pages. And I would still have her tree.
But when they cut into it, when we saw the words, that was when I understood what we were doing.
Here is the last thing they have hidden from you, which by now, if you believe that what I’ve told you about Claire’s tree is true, I think you can no longer deny.
The Future Library doesn’t plant our remains. Or even if they do, it doesn’t matter. The stories they cut down and release each year aren’t our stories.
The truth is that all of this has nothing to do with people, or with hope, or immortality.
The truth is that the Forever Contest is meaningless. Because every single tree in Nordmarka already has words inside of its wood.
We are not writing them.
The trees are.
Even as used to time on an unfathomable scale as I am—the time of trees and forests, where one of our lifetimes is but a blink compared to theirs—I thought the relentless monotony of my incarceration would never end. I longed for death at times, mostly just to stop the boredom. The unchangingness of every day. Of having to live without being able to save my trees.
Then, finally, one day last year, I woke up to my roommate hovering over my bunk, gently shaking my shoulder.
“Ingrid,” she whispered. It was very early. Her brow was furrowed with concern. “That noise you’re making.”
I drew another strained breath, and listened. That familiar sound, like tiny bubbles or wrinkling paper.
I will never know exactly how Gunnar managed to secure my compassionate release. Even with things as bad as they were outside, part of me still can’t believe he managed to circumvent the need for the board’s approval without them noticing, and then hide it from them until it was too late. But perhaps they truly were so distracted, he barely had to try at all.
My heart swelled with surprise and tenderness when I saw it was him waiting for me in the visitation room, clutching his hat. Even after everything that had happened, I couldn’t help it. He’d been like a brother to Claire and me for so many years before it had all gone bad. And our discovery had been so incredible, so beyond the realm of possibility, that no one could have comprehended it.
“You look terrible,” I said, after we pulled back from the embrace and wiped our eyes.
Gunnar laughed, more of a snort, and shrugged. He was so gaunt, his hair so white and thin, mere wisps. “Food shortages.”
We always had food shortages inside Ullersmo. I’d had no way of knowing if it was the same outside, or simply that we were the last priority. “So bad?”
He nodded. He looked at me and gave a long, tired sigh. That’s when I heard it, in his lungs. The Crackles had gotten him, too.
“It was all the time you spent going into the city,” I said sadly. In that last decade before the Future Library’s opening, Gunnar had been so dedicated to ensuring our licenses and permits stayed current, he’d traveled down to Oslo to file our paperwork even during the rioting that had released ancient, burning asbestos from damaged historical buildings, and during the water contamination crises, when none of it was safe to drink.
But Gunnar just shrugged again. He said it could have been anything. Everyone was getting the Crackles these days. The scientists had modeled it out, how much more quickly things were going to get worse now that we’d been without any trees except those in Nordmarka for almost fifty years. What it would be like at eighty years, at one hundred. The models didn’t really go beyond that, he said.
“Why did you come?” I asked, not unkindly. “Why now?”
“Truth,” he said.
The board had been cutting trees for years now. But lately, he said, the stories had become more and more strange. They were having a harder time finding ones that sounded like they were written by humans, and having to cut more and more trees every year in order to hide their lies.
“What do you mean, more strange?” I asked. How could anything be even more strange than it already was?
Gunnar looked uneasy. “I finally realized something about their stories,” he said.
It took him time to figure it out, because the Future Library did not necessarily cut down the trees in the same order in which they’d been planted by Katie Paterson or had seeded themselves naturally by wind and rain centuries before. The board was mostly doing it by health—cull the weaker ones in the grove first, let the strong ones keep growing longer.
But enough years had passed that Gunnar was able to start putting it together. He knew nothing about trees, remember, but he knew all about words. He was a professor of literature at the University of Oslo, before it was defunded under national emergency measures and he’d come to the Future Library at Claire’s urging. And Hsiu knows just as little about words as I do, but they know the trees very well indeed, after all this time. Hsiu had been his head arborist for five years now, Gunnar told me. Most of the others I knew had already died from the Crackles.
Together, poring over the wooden discs of each tree’s book in the library, and the pages and pages of logs from the arborists, stretching all the way back to when Katie’s original team planted them in the forest in 2014, Gunnar and Hsiu noticed a pattern.
“It’s all one story,” he told me. “Each one of them, each tree, contains just a tiny piece. What we have is obviously incomplete—but they’ve cut down enough now that we can see the pattern.” He reached for my hand. “It’s all part of The Song of Leaves. All of it. Every tree that’s ever lived. They’ve always been telling this story, in every language. It’s only recently they’ve started learning ours.”
I stared at him in amazement. It was not the Crackles this time, why I could not catch my breath.
I could feel the ghost of my trees again. The way their needles used to delicately brush my shoulders as I walked between them, and the knotty turns in the ground beneath my boots where the roots peeked through. I could hear the wind rush through their branches.
“Have you read them?” Gunnar asked. “The pieces that have come out since you’ve been here?”
I shook my head. “They don’t let me use the computer.”
“The board believes…” he trailed off. “The board believes that the trees are trying to tell us something, about Earth. Things we can’t tell with our instruments. Things about the air, the water. They’re so much older than we are. They believe…”
I was gripping his hands so tightly it was hurting us both. “Tell me.”
He looked down. “They believe that if they can read the complete story, in order, that the trees can tell us how to fix things, before we all die.”
I could not bear it.
“Gunnar,” I tried to say.
“I know,” he said. “I know. I tried to tell them. But they’re obsessed with the idea. And Minister Berg says that even if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter anyway. Even if Nordmarka was still its original size, in its peak centuries ago, it wouldn’t be enough anyway. As far as the scientists can tell, humanity is almost doomed to go extinct in the next fifty to one hundred years no matter what.”
It was hard to see him through the tears in my eyes.
“They’re going to cut them all down. This summer. In the hopes of learning the end of the story.” Again, Gunnar could not look at me. His voice shook. “There is nothing I can do to make up for the damage I’ve already done. The terrible choice I made. But they can’t be allowed to destroy the forest.”
A round of terrible coughs broke him off for a moment. He reached for his handkerchief, and it came away from his lips speckled with red.
“Yesterday evening, they just cut down another,” he finally continued. “One of the youngest so far. Possibly a natural seeding, according to Hsiu. A recent offspring of the trees Katie originally planted. I read its rings late last night, before the board would see it today. There’s a line in its part of the story…” he paused. “It asks for you.”
I stared, spellbound. “For me?”
Gunnar nodded. “The trees know your name.”
We sat in silence for a long time, too amazed to speak. I tried to picture the forest instead.
Slowly, I became aware that Gunnar was trembling. I put my hand on his back, then touched his face. He was crying, I realized.
“I’m sorry the only thing I can do to help stop the board is petition for your parole, given your diagnosis. I’m a director now, my signature will work for that. For at least a week, anyway. It’ll take them that long to even get to the paperwork to see what I’ve done.” His shoulders hiccupped. “It’s not enough.”
“It is,” I said.
“It’s not. Not by far.”
I kissed his wasted cheek. “Gunnar.” The skin there was as cold and grey as mine. “It is.”
Finally, finally, he looked at me. “I understand now, Ingrid. What you were trying to get us all to see, all those years ago. This story is not ours. They are not telling it for us. They are telling it for each other.”
At last, we come to now.
Today is 18 August 2125. The second day of my freedom.
I have returned from Nordmarka to my little hovel of a flat outside Kløfta just this morning, before dawn. Gunnar rented it in secret for me, as his last act. Then he went back to Oslo, where they’ve moved the board meetings, and has likely already emptied the syringes from his euthanasia package into his veins. He is gone. They can do nothing to him now, and neither can the Crackles.
The dirt of the forest is still under my fingernails, and in the treads of my boots. It was a long hike, difficult in the darkness, but I’ve done it many times before. The first time while carrying a champagne bottle, the second while carrying a bunch of little urns of ash with Claire, and struggling with the shovel as she laughed. The third, with the shovel again, and only her remains. And the fourth, the night before I was arrested. I was all alone, and carrying only one thing that time.
No, not all alone.
I had the trees.
I will bet that even after learning all of this, you still don’t want to believe me. Not about the cremated remains being worthless, not about the stories inside the wood not belonging to the people you think made them. Not about it being the trees having done it, all along.
But I can prove it.
Because I still have Claire’s manuscript. Her book.
Not the one that everyone thinks is hers, the words inside the first felled tree—but rather, the one she truly wrote. The one she gave to Katie Paterson so many decades ago, that was sealed in the wooden box for display at the Deichman Library, and then forgotten in the storage closet of her office until the board destroyed the rest of the boxes to protect their secrets.
The night I went into that closet to read the manuscripts, I should have known better and taken them all then, but at least I did one thing right. I did take Claire’s with me. I went straight out from that room into the darkness. No coat, no flashlight, no shovel. I walked the way I had walked the first night she brought me to Nordmarka, by feel of the gnarls of wood poking through the undergrowth beneath my feet and the touch of the rough bark of branches around me, by the rush of the wind as it whispered around the trunks.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Claire had said, even though we could hardly see anything under the dim moon. She had meant the library, the idea of it.
“Yes,” I’d agreed. I had meant her, and the trees. The sound of her voice and the sound of their leaves, blending together.
Alone, in darkness, as the board was closing in around me, I dug a hole with my hands and planted Claire’s box beneath her tree. Her real tree. The tree she showed me that first night, she nearly breathless with excitement as she tried to tell me everything about the library, me clutching the champagne bottle so hard my knuckles were white, so nervous to be so close to her that I could hardly hear her words over the waterfall rush in my ears. The tree I loved as deeply as I loved her, for just as long.
I knew they’d never find it amid all the others, tucked into a distant corner of the grove, because they would have to know which tree was really hers first out of the thousands and thousands. And none of them know the forest like I do.
“Do you ever wonder what they would say?” Claire asked me, just before the medication put her into an endless sleep. “If the trees could tell stories like us?”
“Yes,” I’d said. I had spent my whole life wondering that.
She laid her head back on the pillow, and grimaced at the needle in her vein. I touched her cheek. “It seems impossible that we’re the only species who can.”
“Do you think anyone would really listen, if it were true?” I’d asked. I did not have faith in humans the way Claire did.
I will never forget that last smile she gave me, before her eyes closed. “You would, Ingrid.”
Tomorrow, I will release this letter, and then Claire’s book. You will finally be able to read it, the way the Future Library always intended.
It’s a love story. A slim, bittersweet thing. It’s about a marriage, a husband who loves his wife very much and a wife who loves him back, but is disappointed he’s not more romantic. She finds their quiet newlywed life boring, and wishes for grand surprises and cinematic moments, but he doesn’t know how to give them. His love is in the little things, every day, too small for her to notice. She is a fire, burning fast and bright, and he is an ocean, slow and long. Or perhaps, a forest.
Some years after they wed, the husband becomes sick, and dies. The wife is bereft, mourning his quiet, everyday love that she will never feel again.
But a week later, a letter arrives in the mailbox. It was written by the husband long ago, on the day they found out he was sick. He reminds her that at their wedding, he promised to love her every day, for her whole life. Not his, but hers. The letter tells her that he will write more—many, many more, and will save them to be sent after his death—that this way, he can still love her for her whole life.
In the moment, each letter by itself will seem small, just a little thing. But all of them together will fill a room, he swears. That the longer she waits, the more she will finally be able to see the truth, that his love has always been very big indeed.
Did Claire know even then, somehow, in some way, I wonder? She was always so full of magic.
I am finally, finally starting to believe.
Within instants, Claire’s work will infiltrate every corner of the networks, embedded in everyone’s NewsLens and EyeScan. I will let the media organize a lab sample when they inevitably come rushing to me, so they can test the paper and the ink and date it to the year that Claire submitted the pages to Katie Paterson, as the fifty-seventh author of the Future Library. But even before those results are released, you will already believe. Scholars will comb through her bibliography, and compare her style with her previous works. Claire’s words will shine through.
You all will know this book is truly hers—not the one in the first tree we cut down. Because those words were there all along. This will prove it.
And then, you all will believe me when I reveal to you Gunnar and Hsiu’s list. He told me the order of the trees, the order of The Song of Leaves, over and over, until I memorized it. When you read their story so far in sequence, you won’t be able to deny it.
You will finally understand who is writing The Song of Leaves, and what it is about.
You will understand that cutting the forest down to have every piece doesn’t make the story go on—it makes it end. That we will only know the rest of it by watching the trees grow.
That the story will only save us if we let them keep telling it.
Claire’s box is on the table beside me, mud-stained, its outer wood gone soft and grey. But the steel inner case peeking out between the warps in its seams is still strong. This is the closing of my story, and of Claire’s, but only the beginning of the trees’. This is what I will leave behind. Her words, and mine, as well. I wish the forest could read them.
Who would have guessed that at the end of my life, words would become the most important thing?
“The Future Library” copyright © 2021 by Peng Shepherd, LLC
Art copyright © 2021 by Mark Smith