Learning the Tropes with Freya Marske: The Trees Want to Kill You

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In a new interview series for Tor.com, Freya Marske, author of A Marvellous Light, sets out to explore the tropes we love and why we love them. As one of the hosts of the Hugo-nominated “Be the Serpent” podcast, Freya is our resident expert on the intersections of fandom, literature, SFF (and also, kissing stuff). She’ll be speaking with her fellow authors about the joys of indulging in favorite themes, but continuing to reinvent and rediscover them along the way.

Without further ado, we present Learning the Tropes with Freya Marske: Session One, all about murderous plants, deadly trees, and horror fungi.

No, this isn’t a new idea. Speculative fiction has been gazing in narrow-eyed suspicion at the plant kingdom since John Wyndham’s triffids first terrorised the world. And I don’t think any of us has laid eyes on a Venus fly-trap and not thought “that thing would definitely try to have me for dinner—or burst into song and demand to be fed, Seymour—if it were three hundred times larger and able to climb out of its pot”.

But I’ve found myself recently thinking a lot about the hostile plant life of SFF, from the creeping moss and transformative flowers of Annihilation, to the fairytale woods of Uprooted and Spinning Silver, and Tolkien’s Huorns and Ents.

So for the first of these articles digging into some favourite tropes, I decided to do what all smart people do: immediately rope in two even smarter friends to help me with the discussion.

Emily Tesh’s Greenhollow Duology gives us folkloric stories drenched in the atmosphere and danger of the woods, and the Wilderwood in Hannah Whitten’s recent debut For the Wolf takes that dire magical connection between human and forest a step further. I’m indebted to the to both of them for replying with enthusiasm when I leapt into their inboxes yelling about plant murder.

FREYA MARSKE: To start us off in the realms of reality: what’s your favourite wild but absolutely real plant fact?

HANNAH WHITTEN: Trees didn’t exist for a LONG time—they only evolved around 450 million years ago, and before that, there were just gigantic fungi! Can you imagine getting lost in a mushroom forest??? Actually I’m calling dibs on that idea, no one steal it.

EMILY TESH: To add to that—did you know that it’s biologically extremely hard to define a tree? Any sufficiently large plant seems to come up with the idea of ‘tall strong stem, photosynthesis bits at the top’ eventually, meaning lots of trees are only very distantly related to each other. And most attempts to create a more precise definition of tree end up excluding some things which the average person looking at would say ‘yup, that’s a tree’: palm trees, for example, don’t fit the strictest tree criteria, because the trunk doesn’t grow thicker in rings each year. Some attempts to define tree versus shrub rely on height, but then you run into the question of bonsai trees–very tiny! Definitely still trees! So the easiest way to define a tree is actually, probably, by use—a tree is a plant that humans can get lumber from. Which means that strictly speaking… trees are a social construct.

FM: I love this, because my favourite plant is one that is comprised of Many Trees but is technically a single organism. It’s a patch of quaking aspen forest in Utah which is in fact the same aspen tree, each individual stem-clone living and dying and being replaced in situ, and all joined by a giant network of underground roots many thousands of years old. (An asexual king if ever there was one.) It’s called the trembling giant, or—familiarly, one assumes—Pando, which is Latin for ‘I spread’. The entire concept is unbearably science fictional, and I’m glad it exists on the other side of the world to me. I am 100% sure that wandering into Pando is tacitly agreeing to either (1) have your consciousness cross into a nether-dimension, or (2) end up a lifeless husk as your blood becomes fodder for the thirsty roots.

OKAY, TALK TO ME ABOUT THE WOODS. The monsters that hide in them, the fairy tales that take place in them. When do the woods themselves become a source of danger? What about that appeals to us as writers?

HW: Forests are places of transformation, especially in fairy tales—places where the laws of the “real world” didn’t really apply, which is why monsters and witches and faeries and basically everything cool lives there. They’re both a sacred space and somewhere terrifying, and the confluence of those two things is really interesting to me as a writer—when does the horrible become holy, and vice-versa? They’re a great representative of liminal space made literal.

In super early drafts of For the Wolf, the Wilderwood was actually called the Limoreha, which was a play on the word “liminal,” and though the name changed, the idea of the forest as a place outside of time, a sort of cauldron that transforms everything within it, definitely remained.
I also wanted to poke at the idea of the woods as a place for monsters to hide—in Wolf, the woods instead hide in a monster (by the strictest definition, since Eammon is a Very Soft monster).

FM: Yes! All woods are complex ecosystems where the cycles of change are a natural part of their existence: the leaf litter provides shelter for small creatures, who are prey to the birds, and the leaves eventually rot and enrich the soil of the trees. On a narrative level, then, I subscribe to the Sondheim Into the Woods theory of woods as the setting that catalyses your adventure, or your character growth, or both. The version of you that comes out of the wood will be different to the version that went in. You might have lost or sacrificed some pieces of yourself, but you might have found something, too. That inherent eeriness of coming back changed can be either satisfying or horrifying. Or both!

ET: When I wrote Silver in the Wood, I was specifically interested in writing about loneliness—the main character, Tobias, is horrifically lonely, and has been for a very long time. The space of the wood, in English folklore especially, is the space outside of human society and human civilisation. Robin Hood lives in the wood, and so do the fairies, and so do the wolves. Therefore when I wanted to write a character who felt totally alone, it made sense to put him in the woods; it’s a place for the beings who don’t belong in the human world.

FM: On the other hand: how do we feel about plants that are cultivated, or directly weaponised, in SFF?

HW: I’m FASCINATED by poison flowers. I love when things that are really pretty are also deadly—it’s something I’m digging into quite a lot in my next series. And in SFF, you can take that and really run with it, making semi-sentient plants that defend themselves and others almost like humans might. There’s something really appealing about nature defending itself, about people who manage to connect with it enough for it to defend them, too.

I also think weaponized plants are interesting because a plant doesn’t have any concept of morality. It can’t be good or bad, it just is. In For the Wolf, Eammon and Red have an antagonistic relationship with the Wilderwood for the majority of the book, but it’s not a villain. It’s just doing what it has to in order to survive.

FM: I’m just a simple girl who saw Uma Thurman in a green body suit at an impressionable age and has nourished a wistful desire to be Poison Ivy, directing vines to strangle my enemies, ever since. The scenes in A Marvellous Light featuring the homicidal hedge maze can probably be traced back to that; but because it’s a book that has a lot to do with personal responsibility, I enjoyed playing with the idea that you can’t just rock up to a hedge or a rose garden and weaponise it at once. You have to cultivate it from the ground up, with magic and time and care. You have to prove that you deserve its allyship. THEN it’ll strangle your enemies.

There’s a trend for plant-based body horror—my favourite recent example being the vegetative ‘rot’ of Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne. What’s so compelling about the plant attacking us from the inside?

HW: I think that with climate change being such a huge crisis, how we interact with the natural world is something that’s on everyone’s mind. The idea that nature would fight back against us from within seems to rise pretty organically from that. But also, it kinda goes back to the ideas of the forest as liminal space, as something both scary and sacred—there’s something beautiful about bones blooming with flowers, even if it kills you. Being attacked by a plant from inside also brings up interesting things to think about in terms of the body itself as liminal space, and the interconnectedness of living things as a whole.

ET: I had some fun with this in the second Greenhollow book, Drowned Country—there is a scene where the protagonist grows an apple tree straight up through the middle of an attacking beast. I wrote this because I thought the image was cool as hell! I think we do all have a consciousness of the power and potential of the plant world; anyone who has ever seen the roots of a tree slowly tearing up concrete knows that over time the trees could demolish us all. I like to think that if humanity disappeared from the world tomorrow, the forests would take back our cities, and this thought strikes me as both frightening and beautiful.

FM: Handily, we have here a representative sample of Australian, American and English. How do you think your experience growing up with your particular kind of Nature informs how you write malevolent nature?

HW: I grew up in huge, dense deciduous forests that felt very much like a fairy tale setting. I’m from the Appalachian region of the southern US, and there’s lots of stuff we grow up with that seems like common sense until you talk to someone else about it and realize it’s extremely creepy—if you hear something that sounds like a person in the woods, don’t follow the sound. Don’t make eye contact with any wild animals. Watch out for random old gravesites along most hiking trails, and make sure not to touch anything left on the stones. So the idea of a forest as both scary and familiar has been pretty ingrained in me from the jump.

ET: I have to admit that I sometimes feel like I am speaking a completely different language to the rest of the world when I talk about ‘the woods’. There was a time when the British Isles were almost completely covered in primaeval forest, untouched by human beings—but that time was thousands of years ago, and the truly wild wood was doomed about the time humans figured out that bronze made good axes. For all the cultural sense of wildness and danger, every English woodland is in fact a carefully cultivated human space, and has been for centuries. Our ancient woodlands are the same woods which kings and aristocrats maintained for hunting. They were coppiced and pollarded and replanted year upon year for timber. In these woods, for hundreds of years, ordinary people poached deer and rabbits, foraged for mushrooms and berries, and turned their pigs loose to look for truffles.

I was interested, in the Greenhollow books, in exploring that contradiction. The woods are a place of terrible loneliness, outside civilisation, older than humanity; and yet the woods are also a totally human landscape where we have left our mark, a landscape where we belong.

I think different parts of the world can have very different concepts of what ‘wild’ means. Hannah points out ‘don’t make eye contact with wild animals’—but also, in the US it is slightly more likely that the wild animal you are avoiding eye contact with is a goddamn bear. There are no large predators in an English wood. There have been no wild wolves here since around the 14th century. The most dangerous thing you are likely to encounter is a mischievous fairy, the Sheriff of Nottingham, or more realistically an annoyed groundskeeper informing you that this is private land. I think as well we often forget that the fairytale wood we are all familiar with—the wood where Hansel and Gretel get lost, or where Red Riding Hood meets the wolf—is not, in fact, an English woodland; the modern versions of those fairytales go back to the Brothers Grimm, who were German! And the great forests of northern Europe are very different landscapes to England’s ancient woods; bigger, wilder, fiercer, with a rather higher chance of wolves.

I was chatting to the brilliant A.K. Larkwood about this and she pointed out that even the earliest works of literature in English are more interested in the wilderness as a space where social norms are suspended, rather than actual man versus nature stuff—in Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain fights a couple of wild boar in passing, but actually even though the Green Knight is a kind of genius loci and lives in a magical enchanted valley, 100% of the main plot is about human relationships, all hospitality rules and oath-swearing—very ‘lots of people on this small island’, even in the 1300s! Beowulf does have some man versus nature business going on—but then, Beowulf is explicitly set on the continent and not in the British Isles.

FM: That tension between wilderness and cultivation that Emily mentioned rings true for me; it’s as much of a mistake to think of the Australian bush—our version of the woods, I suppose—as entirely wild and uncultivated as it is to assume that the continent was terra nullius when colonisers arrived. Indigenous Australians have been caretakers from the very beginning.

My childhood home backed onto a nature reserve and I spent a lot of time clambering up gum trees and peeling amber-gum off wattle branches. (There was also a deeply traumatising nine-day hiking/camping/weeping combination that my school considered to be a healthy character-building experience for young ladies, but we don’t talk about that.) A healthy level of respect and wariness for the bush is pretty ingrained in the national character. So MUCH of the country is bushland. It will kill you with size, and with your own folly. It doesn’t need snakes and spiders—or even the occasional spontaneously combusting eucalypt—to do it.

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And that’s it, folks! Comments are open for recommended depictions in SFF of plants which may or may not want to kill you, and also for anyone wanting to squabble over whether fungus counts. (Personally, I think we should let it count if it wants to. You do not fuck with fungi.)

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