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At first, we thought it was most similar to a sequoia tree, which is how the species got its misnomer. Experience had already primed us for the complex ways that evolution could be convergent across planets, the same laws of physics creating similar environments leading to life-forms which resemble what we have seen on Earth and elsewhere. But just as two languages can have “false friends” – like the French coin meaning “corner” despite how it appears to an English speaker – so too does evolution. We took the creatures (which eventually agreed to be called Rootforms among humans) to be trees because of the hard, wood- or bark-like tissue on the outside of their overground stalks, which also extended downwards as sheathes around a root structure, which they constantly shed and re-grow to protect their actual bodies from underground predation, as well as due to the apparent seasonality of what we had at first believed were leaves for catching the rays of the planet’s blue sun.

Like a sequoia, these root systems were the bulk of the specimen’s mass. They extended down nearly to the bedrock, growing over hundreds of years through clay and stone and stopping only where the soil’s nutrients did. From a juvenile Rootform’s first root column, which grows straight down from the final, primary spore, the adult Rootform would spread out, not competing with but rather integrating into its nearby siblings, until what arose, and awoke at last into true consciousness, was a single intelligent being – nigh immortal unless actively killed, 1 growing and thinking over a hundred square miles on average. In fact, it was not a tree at all. The root tissue protected by the bark-like shell is actually much more similar to the mycorrhizal network of a fungus. The overground stalks, which we humans took to be the “trunks” of the tree-root system, are actually an ingenious waste-disposal mechanism, where what look like leaves spread the nutrients not used by the root system over the surface to feed the nearby plant life, which then eventually die and decompose into food for the Rootform. Their apparent seasonality was actually an effect of the vegetation they evolved to feed. When the plants are dormant during the planet’s biennial winters, 2 the “leaves” of the Rootform, lacking a purpose, fall off and rot so their nutrients can be recovered. For obvious reasons – and to the confusion of those familiar with the standard terms of biology – we decided to call this waste-disposal process fertilization.

1 The root network, and especially the central nodes, are surrounded (some would say engulfed) by colonies of thousands, sometimes over a million, of small and quite ferocious beetle-like creatures that have come to be called Rootmites. The Rootforms and the Rootmites have, we eventually discovered, been in a “red queen effect” cycle of combative evolution for at least seven million years, the Rootforms developing better and more complex tools of chemical warfare and the Rootmites becoming tougher and better coordinated, having evolved from a crab-like species which hunted alone to a colony-based species which preys on the Rootforms. Though mostly surviving on Rootform “bark,” due to its abundance, they crave the inner, living fungus, which the Rootform protects. The living part of a Rootform is incredibly nutritious and acquiring it usually leads to a spike in local Rootmite populations, sometimes resulting in a lethal cascade. The highly toxic and corrosive chemicals which the Rootform releases when attacked by the Rootmites have, on earth, been used as the basis of several highly potent antibiotics and disinfecting agents, or even, in one historical instance, as a safer and more effective replacement for Botox.

2 Though the planet, like Earth, orbits a single star and has a single moon, that moon is so large as to nearly qualify as a planet itself, which induces a notable wobble in the planet’s orbit and axial tilt. The wobble is, however, stable and predictable, resulting in a seasonality which varies from year to year according to a regular cycle. The tidal forces created by this orbit, though not strong enough to destroy the planet, have given it a definite, albeit slight, oblong shape.

How do you tell a story to such a creature? It is a surprisingly important question, especially for those xenoneurologists interested in how consciousness differs between intelligent species of different evolutionary lineages. Humans use stories in part to make sense of causality: the basic form of a plot being A happens to B because C. Human thinking is tool-like and oriented around objects and their causal relations, and human narratives serve in part as a way of understanding complex or incompletely known causal networks. If A simply happens to B for no reason, then there’s no story. Students often find this assertion confusing. Aren’t there plenty of stories where “nothing happens”? But those stories all happen in the context of a narrative tradition belonging to a particular species wherein it is normal for something to happen for a reason; the “because,” the most important element of the human plot, is supplied by the pattern that the stories defy. An anticlimax is only an anticlimax if one expects a climax, otherwise it’s just a random event. It’s the “because C” that makes “A happens to B” into a story, at least insofar that humans are concerned.            

There is a long road from first contact to the commencement of biological research. Interspecies diplomacy is a staggeringly complex topic which cannot be covered here. It suffices to say that every species capable of scientific research has also recognized that allowing themselves to be studied by other species might be dangerous, despite its rewards, and so a number of treaties and agreements needed to be “signed”[3] before any species is able to learn anything useful about another. What the Rootforms have learned by studying the human specimens we sent over could fill a whole library. Even just allowing one of them to absorb a human corpse into itself as it would any other dead biomatter seemed to have the effect of an epiphany. (The corpse was a heart attack victim who had donated their body to science.[4]) In any case, some of the first studies we were allowed to perform involved communicating,[5] remotely, with a Rootform, exposing it to examples of human art, and gauging its response. These were mainly attempts at calibration, where we showed them something they couldn’t understand so that we could investigate why they didn’t understand it.[6]

[3] As many species lack (to list only a few examples) appendages capable of writing, languages with writing systems, names which can be rendered outside their native languages, a sense of names being important or connected to one’s identity, or indeed names whatsoever, a variety of means of indicating assent have been used in place of the traditional signature. Such arrangements are usually one of the first things to be worked out when diplomacy is initiated, and are commonly referred to as “signatures” as a matter of convenience.

[4] While Rootforms had encountered human corpses before, those had always been damaged by decomposition, scavenging by overland carnivores, or other factors resulting from them having been left behind, so to speak, unwillingly. The corpse we delivered to them was the first time they encountered a fully intact human body deposited in conditions maximally favorable for absorption.

[5] Human-Rootform communication has a long and involved history, but the most successful methods by far have been chemical-electrical. Rootforms communicate with each other through complex chemical chains stored in the body of some dead creature, which upon decomposition are translated into an often highly complex method of bio-electric signalling over the span of the Rootform’s body-brain. These clusters of molecules, each of which can near the size of human DNA, can convey deeply articulated thoughts, including what can best be compared to literature and philosophy (as tenuous as any such comparison is). Humans learned to decode these chemical signatures and then developed systems to automatically read them and turn them into English words. The human-to-Rootform system works in the opposite direction, feeding written instructions to a chemical synthesizer which then releases the “text” in a globe of cultured biomatter. In this way whole books of information can be communicated at once, thought the experience of reading is very different between species. While for humans reading happens over a span of time, scanning one word after another, for Rootforms the chemical, under optimal conditions, is absorbed nearly all at once. Though they always had a concept of time and notions of before and after, teaching Rootforms to think of description and narration in a linear fashion was one of the biggest obstacles to teaching them to write stories in a human-like way. Overcoming the tendency to think in temporal terms was likewise the largest obstacle to teaching humans to write stories in a Rootform-like way.

[6] The Rootforms also conducted experiments like these on selected human volunteers, and the examples of Rootform culture provided to humans were, at first, as baffling to us as our cultural examples were to them. But all culture is an acquired taste, and both species have been at work learning to appreciate each other.

Jeremy Colangelo bio here