An Internet of Fungal Threads
EXT. BALCONY – DAY
In a perfect world, Simon’s face and foppish Hugh Grant hair would have been in the pile of headshots on my desk. I would have cast him as Sensible Love Interest: a face that audiences would understand our female lead dumping very early on, maybe even in the opening scene, in order to seek broader horizons.
His face indicated – what we call it in the industry – a potato personality. Square-jawed and attractive in a familiar sense, but bland and unresponsive upon prodding.
Instead of on my desk, though, he would be downstairs in the shared courtyard of our building, locking his bike noisily to the metal gate that runs around the pool. He did that so loud and fast, every night, as if in a mild panic, like he was desperate to pee. I was sure the excessive clanking was for me, so that I could emerge like a thirsty Pavlov’s dog to a bell, hose in hand, all bare shoulders and wine glass, to water the plants on my balcony. I turned the hose up to full power and hastily overflowed my pots, so when he was still struggling with his key in the door underneath me, I could lean over say, ‘Oops, don’t want you getting wet down there.’
And he would always respond like such a potato, smiling nervously and doubling down on his efforts to get into his apartment as quickly as possible.
I could have climbed that man like a tree.
My colleague Len prefered it when I left the subject of Downstairs Neighbour I Want to Bone right alone. He just told me to get back to Bank Teller #2 and Shocked Passerby #3. In our low-ceilinged beige office we sat, the stems of two decorative palm trees visible out the window. The palm trees meant I didn’t have to make eye contact with men on their breaks, sitting in the driver’s seat of their cars in the strip-mall parking lot, quietly unwrapping greasy burgers like a daily practice of reverse origami. When lunchtime came, I walked past the rows of solitary people eating in their cars, unwrapping their white bread bundles, looking at their phones. Starved of something and trying to get fed.
On our screens, we flipped through face after digital face, pose after pose. My favourites were hand on hip sultry and over the shoulder sincerity. I simply wouldn’t abide a humorous shrug of the shoulders, or any wacky-eyebrowed impresarios.
‘You’ve never even had a conversation with the guy Lou.’
‘But I know faces Len.’
‘You do know faces.’
‘That’s a face I could look at. For a long time. He’s even a little exotic, like British or something.’
I decided not to mention his Hugh Grant hair to Len. Len has the hair of a professional video game player.
‘Maybe I could cast him as the lead in my project.’
‘You don’t have a project.’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘You’re writing a script about the tree internet.’ Len’s voice tightened.
‘Technically you are wrong, because I am not writing it yet, I’m still in the research phase. But we already have a working title: An Internet of Fungal Threads.’
‘Who is ‘we’?’
Len looked at me the same way he always looked at me when I talked about my film, like it was unrealistically ambitious for someone who casts extras to pitch a project to Hollywood execs about the way that trees communicate underground, silently and invisibly, via a giant interconnected web of fungus.
‘Just me.’ I responded quietly.
I had discovered this idea on the human internet, in a viral video that appeared in my feed. I liked it so much I shared it again on my own feed, and as I clicked the button I imagined sending the images and words forth like fungal spores, to germinate and prosper.
This is how the trees worked: their roots go down into the earth and then connect to tiny fungal threads that stretch on for miles and miles. They send messages to each other, they know when one is sick and send each other nutrients. When one dies, they can share what health they have left with other plants. When a new sapling comes up in a place without the sunlight it needs, the older trees can help it survive. When one is attacked by enemy aphids, it sends messages to its neighbours, tells them what is killing it, warning them to produce chemicals to protect them from the same fate.
They are always talking even if they seem mute to us. They are not alone even if they seem lonely to us. I drank this idea up.
‘It’s a feel good story about the benevolence of trees Len, what’s not to love? I already got one call about it, when it was still called Tree Story.’
‘Was it because they thought it has something to do with Toy Story?’
Len could shut up. Fuck Len.
INT. BEDROOM – MORNING
I don’t know why I kept fucking Len.
I woke to the sun on my closed eyelids, my vision pink, embryonic and veiny, watching throbbing organisms of something float across the surface of my eyeballs. Before opening my eyes, I felt a wetness between my thighs of a familiar texture. I stretched my legs and surprised myself with my own nakedness, and remembered the foreign body in my orbit that needed monitoring, Len.
I rolled over to take in the scene, the wrong person in my bed, his hair out of its usual pony, cascading over shoulders shaped by the desk-to-sofa life he led. I needed my decorative tree trunk to prevent eye contact. He was already awake and watching me, looking like he knew something that I didn’t.
He searched my eyes and looked happy, smug. He wanted to be invited in for a long meaningful stare. This was not my face, this could not be my face.
‘Oh, fuck,’ I cried and rolled back over, feigning sleepiness and cursing myself for being there with him, again. With every shake of my head no, no, no, I felt the scrape and clink of last nights empty wine bottles rolling around on the dirty tiled floor of my brain.
‘Oh, Lou,’ he sighed, clasping his hands behind his head. ‘Why do you think we keep ending up like this?’
I had no one to warn me on the fungal superhighway.
‘Could it be that we are perfectly suited to one another?’ he said.
My roots are just dangling around in mid air. Not plugged into anything. Somehow I’ve gone offline and no one can reach me.
‘It’s like I knew when I saw you that you were mine,’ he continued, speaking in the general direction of the ceiling.
I wonder if they were trying, the trees, trying to send a message through the ground, tell me I am so much better than this.
‘The sooner you realize it the better.’
Maybe they were sending me a little message like: You are not that alone. You’re just a thirsty girl right now. Maybe they were trying to send me the nutrients I need to raise my guard and destroy the enemy aphid, the little bug who was clinging onto my waist and trying to suck the life out of me.
‘We’re only getting older’ He reached around and tucked some of my curly mop behind my ear and whispered tenderly, ‘You’ll dry up soon.’
I spun around at this, finally at my capacity of entertaining Len’s absurd and offensive love for me, with the intention to destroy it once and for all.
Before I could seek and destroy, chains jangled on the wrought-iron pool fence outside, and I sat up suddenly to put my bathrobe on and regard my reflection. More of last night’s drinks found equilibrium in my brain.
Len laid back, exasperated. ‘Who even rides a fucking bike in this city?’
As I wiped mascara crumbs from my lower lash line in the mirror, I made eye contact with myself and thought: you are ripe and fecund. I told him I was interested to hear why he thought he loved me. He opened his mouth and I told him not now. Go home immediately and put it in an email. For now I had a balcony to swan on.
Len left and I prepared my hose and décolletage. Simon loitered outside the pool for longer than usual today, chattering away to Mrs. Goldstein, who was sunning herself by the pool.
When I emerged as casually as one could, to check on my green little friends, I saw something entirely unexpected. To my horror, Len was making a beeline to Simon from the foot of the staircase.
INT. MY INNER LOGIC – SOME FRIDAY EVENINGS
Fucking Len was an anthropological exercise, I told myself, and usually came about after some close consultation with my two best friends: refrigerated bottle of white wine from the office mini fridge, and, lack of better options. There was also my animal thirst to be reminded I was alive and my body was good for something that didn’t involve pressing my fingers onto buttons on a plastic keyboard, or my foot onto a gas and brake pedal.
The fact that the something my body was good for was fucking Len, I decided to shove deep into a hollow tree trunk in my mind, hoping it would never poke its ugly head back out to chirp at me like an incessant cuckoo clock, come to pecker away at my self-esteem.
You’re cuckoo. You’re cuckoo.
Last night began like all the other nights with Len. He threw the passenger side door of his Sedan open for me, wiped a week’s worth of lunch wrappers off the seat, and like little paper chrysalises, they fell delicately to the floor of the car. They crunched as I flattened them with my size 9 Converses.
I buckled up, and we headed to the next place to keep drinking.
My back against the wall, I was looking over his shoulder for better options, and he was looking straight at me. There was nothing much to lose with Len, another low-risk low-reward night. I could go home alone, I told the cuckoo clock, or I could continue my character study on Len. Then, in the event I should be asked to cast for Moderate Men’s Rights Activist on Reddit #2, I would be well prepared.
Eventually in the sappy amber light of the bar, Len gave me one of his usual compliments like ‘you’re actually quite pretty’ or ‘your hair looks extra brown today’. And me, with my eyes half-closed, my head in my hands, my hot drunk cheek mashing against my smudgy eyelashes, I conceded. Otherwise my hands would be manicured for no one, my extra brown hair would smell good for no one, my weekend that stretched out in front of me would consist of nothing and no one. I would wake up in the morning feeling physically well, and would have no good reason at all not to open a new file on my computer, stare at the white page, wait for inspiration to come, then write. Then I would simply have to go ahead and write the (convention-defying, brilliant, simple, fantastic, sparse, deeply impossible) opening words to An Internet.
I laid down in the backseat of the Uber and my head began to spin – I closed my eyes and slurred at the driver to roll down the windows, to ‘let in that California evening breeze.’ Dizzy and horizontal, I tried to fight the warm embrace of sleep, pressed my feet into Len’s thigh, raised my eyes up to the sky, watched the underside of the flat palm trees whiz by, illuminated flashes of trees up in golden yellow lights, spaced my breaths to the passing of each one, each two, each three. I let myself close my eyes a little longer each time, slipping further away from myself, until I was sure the lights from the street were flashing red, filling the interior of our car like police sirens at an accident, wrapping around me like a wet hot cocoon. The red palm fronds were lowering themselves to me, reaching through the windows to me in alarm, coming closer and closer. The car bumped along to the same rhythm, driving us relentlessly onwards, closer and closer to my soft cream-carpeted habitat.
In my bed, the ick and goo of it reminded me always of a just alive organism, frothing away like a salted slug, madly foaming in the last throes of life.
Len rose and cleaned himself meticulously with one of my makeup wipes. I thought about warning him about the sting of the perfumed acetone, but I rolled over and finally let sleep take me.
EXT. MY INNER COURTYARD – DAY
Len continued his beeline to Simon. I anxiously ran my fingers through the leaves of my begonia like I was running them through some foppish hair. I watched on in nightmarish paralysis as Len strode over to Simon and placed a gentle hand on the back of his army green t-shirt.
Then they smacked each other in that way men do when they want to reassure each other that neither of them is a danger to the other. They exchanged words I couldn’t hear, and Len smacked Simons back with a flat palm. Simon patted Len’s back a few times in quick succession like you do with an old dog.
I blinked and I was walking through a giant oak forest, hundred-year-old trees towering above me, blowing loudly in the wind, making a sound like water steaming in a small kitchen. It was a place I had never been or seen before.
And then I was back. I looked down to find my hands and wrists crumbed in dark, wet soil, gripping onto a thick vine which ran over the edge of my balcony, running down a lattice and all the way down to the ground, where its roots reached through to the soil in a gap between the blue slate ground of the courtyard.
Len and Simon exchanged cards. I thought of my own cards that sat untouched in my desk drawer. Printed in forest green serif font, on a backdrop of Monstera Deliciosa against pastel green, featuring an earlier working title we had, it read:
Wood Wide Web
As Len exited the courtyard, he spun the card into the garden, like an angry man impotently throwing a frisbee into heavy wind. Later, on my hands and knees, the ferns guided me wordlessly to the card which lay discarded at their feet.
Gardens Communication Officer
Descanso Gardens, Los Angeles
I imagined a more truthful card I could give him in response.
This Apartment Complex, Los Angeles
INT. THIS APARTMENT COMPLEX – NIGHT
I had been watching a lot of videos of plants on YouTube. They were the type you see in nature documentaries, time-lapse fast motion clips of plants from the beginning of their life to the end.
First we see the soil, then within seconds the sprout has burst through and has grown inches towards the light. Shade and sunlight flicker incessantly over the image, lashings of fast-forwarded rain sprinkle over our sapling as it pushes upwards. Halfway through the clip our little plant has reached the pinnacle of its growth and beauty, then before we realize that we have witnessed its peak, our little life begins to fall and wilt. It spurts forth and spews decay over itself, time accelerating impossibly fast now. All that was plumping is now sallowing, the moist and fruitful stem loses colour fast and dries out. The vibrant green fades and starts to brown, the juiciness dissipates and the stem starts to wrinkle. What was going upwards now shrinks downwards, and our little sapling is curling up into a reverse fetal position, arching wildly at the end of its life, browning, and then laying face down in the dirt.
I got up and drove to work every day, spent time with Len because he happened to sit next to me, drove home and then the day was gone. I gave love to whoever was there, and in moments of reflection, I looked back on myself fucking all these ill-fitting men, saw my ripe ass and juicy thighs spasming and decaying over the man’s body in a horrific time lapse video that played over and over in my mind’s eye.
I would repeat this over and over until bigger and bigger chunks of time were gone. I would say my life was falling through my fingers like fistfuls of soil, but I’d never really had a hold on it in the first place. At this point, I was just watching it play out, not knowing when the peak of my glory would come, or if it had already passed me. This was not my life, this could not be my life.
My escape from the time lapse video was my project, my script. When I thought about the trees and how they connected to each other, I felt I could slow down things and experience myself in real time. I felt happy in this cocoon, imagining that the project would take off any day, the door to my new life would at some point pop open, and I would emerge through it, my old life slipping off me like a coat of slime. And when that happened, I would be happy for the slime, and for all the time I spent curled up in its juices, which had given me the nutrients, the saltiness, and the flavor that audiences would come to know and love.
Every time I sat down to work on my script, which was in its infancy, I felt like I was digging myself deeper into this delusion, each shovel of soil that I threw over my shoulder only getting me one moment closer to the inevitable clunk against something metal, a loud clanging sound, which would stop me from proceeding any further. I didn’t want to hit this bottom note because I wasn’t ready to truly contemplate the improbability of it all. This film was my plant baby, and I didn’t want my plant baby to die. So I stopped digging.
INT. BEDROOM – DAY
I ordered a salad on the internet. I knew I was too hungry for just a salad, but I was getting used to the idea that I would never be satiated. Over the next days I lounged around my soft beige bubble of an apartment, ordering food in, watering my plants, contemplating Simon and his slim fit army green t-shirt, those short little sleeves that stopped at the top of his best arm muscle. And when I thought about Simon, I thought about the conversation he and Len had by the pool, what they might have said to each other while I was getting my messages from the plants. And then I thought of Len, and the things he said to me about my life, and how much I wanted him to be wrong.
My vanity table was vintage, with a circular mirror that reached a few feet up my bedroom wall. I had painted it beige to match everything else in my life. I had a few small friends here – a collection of philodendrons and aspidistras. I sat in front of the mirror and tightened my pink silk robe around my waist. I contemplated my beauty.
Fine lines had started to appear around my eyes and my smile lines. There was something under my jaw which didn’t used to be there, an extra presence, but seeing it in the mirror was like trying to catch my shadow, I could only see it when I span around quickly at an awkward angle, like a frightened cat, or when I opened the camera on my phone and forgot it was facing towards me.
Simon’s business card was there too, tucked into the wooden frame of my vanity.
INT. OFFICE – DAY
‘I guess I know him better than you do now,’ Len said. ‘You know, on account of the fact that we’ve had one conversation.’
I continued to press my fingers into my plastic ergonomic keyboard.
‘Real interesting guy. I can see why you like him. Or, I can see why you would like him if you had ever spoken to him. Like I have.’
I pressed some more buttons and stared out the window at the palm trees. It was pilot season, but on my screen were not hopeful faces waiting to be cast, but the Descenso Gardens website – they were looking for volunteers to get involved on the weekends.
‘I can see myself getting involved with him more. On the weekends,’ I said.
On my screen were images of smiling people in work aprons, holding trowels and tiny plants, next to allotment boxes of soil.
‘That’s not how you spent last weekend,’ Len said. Without turning, I could hear his face in his voice: greasy. I remembered another morning of waking up next to him in a darkened room, my ripe body rotting in a horrific time lapse over his.
I looked at photos of the gardens. There was a Japanese garden with maple trees and a red lacquered bridge. The leaves were yellow and orange. It seemed Simon worked at the only place in LA that had seasons.
I kept flipping through the images on the site, until I came to an image of the giant oak forest. The pixels matched a place in my mind, a place I had never been before.
EXT. GARDENS – DAY
‘Hello, it’s Louise, isn’t it?’
I looked up to see Simon. Sadly he was in a long-sleeved button up, not a tee. He looked concerned. ‘I had a meeting scheduled. I didn’t realize it was you, that Louise, my neighbour!’ he laughed at the coincidence, still thinking it was one.
I was sitting on a park bench, at the base of a giant oak tree, leaning over to grasp some shrubbery. I released my fistful of leaves to fish into the pocket of my uncomfortably tight jeans for my card, and I handed it to him. Wordlessly, for maximum effect. Then I lent down to the shrubbery again.
As I ran my hands through it I felt a familiar warmth rush through my fingertips and then through my whole body. It was the same drunken heat that had reached in through the windows of my Uber the other night, the red flashing lights and palm fronds reaching out towards me. I had thought I was asleep. That I dreamt this.
The heat was like new air running into my lungs, which I appreciated especially because of my tight jeans and consequently limited oxygen intake. It was the joy of impending connection, an opening of possibilities and new places to feed and nourish myself.
‘Simon,’ I said, deciding to go out on a limb, ‘You’re the Communications Manager here. Do you ever feel like the plants are trying to communicate with you? Like, they are looking out for you and sending you messages?’
Simon cocked his head and looked around us, at the empty forest.
‘I didn’t explain that very well,’ I said. ‘I’m referring to the tree internet, of course.’
He looked at me directly then, and I took this to be assent. He knew of it.
‘Recently I’ve been thinking that I’ve been able to plug into this interweb – that the trees have accepted me as part of their network. That’s the basis for my project that I want to film here.’ I patted the space next to me as I spoke, he sat.
A rush of wind picked up the leaves of the giant trees, which continued their steaming sound like they might soon bubble over the rim of the sky and be too big for this world. I cleared my throat and began to explain my idea.
‘All the loneliness in the world could be solved by invisible threads of connection. An Internet. ’