Thursday, November 15, 2007

Compass Trees

I spent all day trying to find the Illegible Library, walking from one end of Sconth to the other, and had no success whatsoever. I'm exhausted. I don't feel up to writing much of anything tonight, especially not in the fifteen minutes left in this day, so here's something I wrote a few months ago instead. I thought it might be interesting. Most people who don't travel much aren't familiar with compass trees.

A piece of wood from a compass tree is always attracted to the tree, like iron to a magnet, and can be used to pull a compass needle in its direction. This is a great way to find a place; tree compasses work much better than magnetic ones, which only tell you which way is North. Really, what use is that? You can tell which way is North any time you can see the sun, and there's no telling what happens to be in that direction at any given time. Magnetic compasses are generally little more than harmless toys for mapmakers.

Tree compasses are much more useful. You can use them to find any place where there's a compass tree. You can only find one place per compass, though, and it only works as long as the tree is alive.

That isn't as simple as it sounds. Compass trees are extremely delicate. They have to have exactly the right temperature, the right nutrients, and the right amount of sun and water. They only like to live on top of hills. They have no defenses against insects. They can't compete with any plant bigger than a tuft of grass. They weren't always that way, but after centuries of being pampered by compass-makers, they've gotten spoiled. All but a very few compass trees look like bonsai trees; any conditions short of absolute perfection are as hard on them as a desert or a mountaintop would be to another tree. They grow extremely slowly. Tree compasses are extremely expensive, as a sliver of wood for a compass needle can take weeks or months to grow back. Only the most successful compass makers can afford to buy whole twigs.

Compass tree caretakers make a very good living, but only because they work so hard. They generally grow the trees in greenhouses, so that they have absolute control of the temperature, sunlight, and humidity. Mirrors direct extra sunlight onto the trees in the Winter; many caretakers import sea ice in the Summer. Most greenhouses are reinforced with steel bars to discourage thieves.

Compass trees also, for reasons known only to them, refuse to grow within twelve miles of each other. This further limits the places they can grow and makes reproduction extremely difficult. Every caretaker opens a few tiny holes in the greenhouse each Spring, not enough to let in any chills or aphids, in the hopes that a stray speck of pollen will manage to make it across the countless miles from another compass tree that happens to feel like blooming that year. In the incredibly rare instance that pollen is blown that far, and meets the receiving compass tree's standards, the tree will grow a seed. Just one. Compass tree seeds are about the size of poppy seeds and exactly the same color as their bark. Any caretaker lucky enough to get a flower on their tree will search with a magnifying glass for months afterward, hoping to find the little brown speck that will give them the slight chance of growing another tree. It's a good thing the seeds grow where the flowers do; otherwise, the caretakers would never find them. If a compass tree's seed isn't found in the week or two after it grows, it falls off onto the ground, where it dies. Compass tree seeds need three years immersed in constantly moist earth with an exact combination of nutrients before they'll even start to consider growing into a tree. Most caretakers simply sell the seeds for exorbitant prices, as they're too busy and too sensible to try to raise them themselves.

Despite all this, compass trees have not yet gone extinct. There are actually several hundred of them on Hamjamser, if not more, though no one has ever managed to count them. Nearly every town has one somewhere nearby. Caretakers in swamps and deserts go to great lengths to keep their trees alive.

A few of the richest travelers in Hamjamser have assembled compasses with many needles, each one pointing to a different tree in a different town. They're incredibly expensive and require updating whenever a tree dies, but they're almost as good as a Wayfinder guide when they work properly.

It has become a custom among travelers-by-compass to visit the tree their compass points to whenever they reach its home. It's brought them all the way there, after all; they might as well follow the needle a few extra miles and visit it. Most of them bring some sort of present for the tree or, more often, for its caretaker.

No matter what they're given, though, none of the caretakers ever let anyone else inside their greenhouses. You can never tell who might try to break off a priceless twig when you're not looking.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Stats Tracked by StatCounter