Sometimes, especially days the air was easy to breathe, I liked to walk all the way down to Golden Gate Park, wander through the trees, maybe get a taco, watch the waves at Ocean Beach, or the roller skaters down by Fulton. Maybe just sit on the playground swings and listen to the birds and kids. Get reminded there was more to life than my Slack-infested laptop and my fourth-floor view of a vacant Tenderloin lot.
The day I got the seeds, Golden Gate Park was bright and sunny, warm the way it is sometimes in late September, and the air was golden-brown but the quality a decent 65 that day, I guess the smoke was too high up to get to us.
I followed the beat of drums to their circle. Fifteen, maybe twenty people drummed, all sitting in the grass, some with hand drums, some with big guys held between their knees. The beats were like the branches of the trees above, I thought, a branching fractal chaos, a balance between rules and randomness, self-organizing in the sun.
An ambiguously raced and gendered Gen X burner walked up, nodded, tossed a small brown ball to me from an embroidered, well-loved bag. I caught the ball, and looked at it, confused. The burner winked, said two words—seed bomb—and kept walking.
The ball was clay, and speckled, and I didn’t really want it, but the burner was long gone. I felt funny throwing it away, so I put it in my pocket and left the drummers to their drums.
Heading back to my apartment in the Tenderloin, I stopped for boba, looked up seed bomb on my phone. That led me down a rabbit hole to rewilding and solarpunk and anti-civ, and I looked around at all my houseplants and my little grey-brown cat when I got home, and felt a pang I sometimes do remembering the woods I used to play in as a kid.
I thought often of the empty lot across the street. It’d been empty the entire time I’d lived in San Francisco, just a quarter of a block with fucking nothing on it, blocked off by a chain link fence and filled with weeds, while all my neighbours without homes were sleeping in the nooks and crannies of the sidewalk, the lucky few with tents harassed by dudes who worked at Twitter and believed completely that they got there on their own, that anyone could do the same, if they just worked hard, if they only bothered to learn C++.
I’d worked hard. I’d impressed the right startup at the right time.
But I was not a dude and I had once, when I was seventeen, slept on a friend’s sofa for a summer after my dad kicked me out on the sidewalk, a year after his second divorce, screaming at me for being just like every other woman in his life, whatever that meant, and I still remembered my friend’s baby, and how his first word was fuck, and how the man she married at eighteen and was divorcing at nineteen kept coming by wasted with threats, and I don’t know what ever happened to him, but she and I and the baby all turned out OK. It wasn’t a given, though. It was a never a given and the line between close call and tragedy is always just somebody else.
A couple mornings later while the fog was still low and the streets were near their quietest, I walked past the lot full of weeds and I tossed in the little clay ball, hoping no one would see. I worried someone might think I was littering, though the sidewalks were all smeared with shit and a trashcan had thrown up its contents on the next block overnight. I felt I was breaking some kind of law.
It felt kind of good.
And then I felt silly, and walked to the coffee shop but it was too early, so I went home, hugged my cat, and ate almond-milked Raisin Bran, mentally preparing for another day of laptop meetings.
I fell asleep around ten to YouTube explainers on mutual aid, half-heartedly daring the algorithm to radicalize me.
Birds woke me up.
Little song birds, not pigeons or seagulls. They weren’t too rare in the city, especially where big, shady trees made cracks in the sidewalk, but I didn’t hear them often downtown.
The cat and I looked out the window, and the lot across the street was filled with young trees, just barely taller than the chain link fence containing them.
Someone had gone much further than I in the night. Respect.
The next day a hole appeared in the fence, and the trees seemed a little bigger after people started sleeping underneath them. A week later, the whole fence was down and the cops came around, but didn’t seem to give a fuck about the trees or how they got there, they just wanted all the people who’d started camping out between them to go back to the piss-streaked concrete corners they’d been in the week before.
I walked by the lot almost every day, but when the wrecked fence was finally hauled up off the sidewalk it seemed safer, somehow, to go in myself and check it out. There must have been something in the soil there, because the trees were already bigger, fuller than the morning I first saw them. It felt like walking through an orchard, only a little more chaotic, but fruits grew from some of the branches, bright colors speckling the green. A white woman I recognized from my building was filling a canvas bag with avocados she picked up from the leaf litter (how was there leaf litter after only a week?) while her dog waited patiently on its leash. I was sure I remembered her having a shiba, but now it looked more like a mutt, with a long bushy tail.
These avocados are perfect, she said when she saw me. I made guacamole last night with the first two I found and it was so good. There were citrus trees, too, and apples and pomegranates. I think some were oaks and walnuts and chestnuts. And the figs grew soft and plump and sweet and I realized I’d just been standing there moving them from the tree to my mouth for ten minutes before a Black guy in jeans and a brown leather jacket walked by with a flute and I smiled at him and offered a fig, and he took it and nodded, played a high note, and pranced on through the trees.
I was late to a meeting when I got back to my laptop. One of the bros in the call was waxing poetic about meritocracy, and I said something sarcastic but I was on mute, just as well, so I sighed and leaned back and admired my bowl of persimmons grown right over there. My cat sniffed at them cutely on the kitchenette counter.
My window was open and through the traffic and yelling and sirens and condo construction on Leavenworth, I could still hear the songbirds.
A week later the forest towered as tall as the buildings that bordered two sides of it. One of the buildings sprang some kind of leak, and water cascaded down the once-muraled brick. At just the right time of day, the sun splashed the water, throwing patterns of light on my kitchenette wall. Algae stained the brick green and ferns grew in the cracks between bricks. Down on the floor of the forest, a pool formed and from there the water made a small stream, under the sidewalk and into the storm drain, presumably out to the Bay. The water was clear and sometimes I saw my street-dwelling neighbours washing their clothes in the pool, bathing under the moon in the glittering leak.
Some of the trees grew wide over time, and by November when rain finally came, there were holes in their trunks the right size for a person to sleep. And as each one appeared, someone moved in. I’d see folks curled up in their holes, reading a book or peeling an orange, cozy with blankets they’d washed in the stream and dried in the sun.
The cops came back sometimes but whenever it looked like they came there to bully the tree dwellers out, they just ended up chatting, and smiling, and pointing out birds. Down the street where the tents were still blocking the boarded-up storefronts, the cops were still dicks, but right here, in the lot, there was something, the smell of the loam, the moss on the trees, that kept them at peace.
I picked up an app, there were so many birds. I spent afternoons looking them up—scrub jays and Steller’s, house finches, juncos, red-masked conures, tiny brown wrens, spotted towhees, and even an oriole, bright orange and shy.
One foggy morning, with coffee, I saw a deer through the trees, antlers and all, and he saw me, too. We stared at each other for one frozen moment, then I sipped my coffee and he chewed a twig and we went on with our days.
By the time it was cold—San Francisco cold, like mid-40s—the holes in the widest trees were as big as a tent on the inside and someone had donated makeshift doors to each one, old floral sheets or brown plastic tarps, a beaded curtain or two. Inside at night you could see the soft glow of each denizen’s tablet or phone through the beads and the sheets and the leaves and I began to feel jealous, almost, that I didn’t live in a tree.
By spring the whole corner housed three hundred people, in tree-trunk apartments connected by branches as wide as the sidewalk and burls that spiralled like stairs around trunks, up into the canopy, over the roofs of the rest of the block. It was no-income housing, and a park that grew food, all at the same time, and the people who lived there didn’t need money, just tended the forest, kept the trails clear, minded their business like anyone else. I found it hard to imagine they’d once slept on the street—until I went down a few blocks, where nothing had changed.
And I walked past more empty lots every couple of days, and I wondered …
I went back to the drum circle often, hoping to find the old burner, but they never showed up. I even looked up magic seed bombs and GMO trees, and didn’t find shit. I asked someone at work if he’d heard of anything like it, and his only reply was a recommendation for naming the place Airtreentree.
I began to assume the whole thing was a fluke. It made it more special, somehow, but sad, too. Every lot I walked by was depressing before, but now I saw what it could be. If only.
• • •
One day I heard reggae down in the forest and decided to finish my work in the shade. I followed the sound to the stream, and spotted my neighbour with her shiba-turned-grey-fox, kneeling next to a boom box, hands in the mud, with a few other people who lived in the trees. Children splashed in the water and laughed just downstream. My neighbour waved me toward her, and I knelt on her blanket and opened my backpack to pull out my laptop.
It wasn’t inside. It was still on my desk. Maybe I should’ve gone back, but instead I breathed in the scent of the stream and looked up at the sun-backlit leaves.
What are you up to?
Take a handful of clay, she grinned, mix it with these.
A woman with skin like the shade of an oak, who I’d once seen shooting up down on Jones Street, passed me a bowl full of seeds. I smiled and she smiled back and some of her teeth were still gone but she looked so content and well-hydrated now. I realized I knew nothing about her even though I’d walked past her hundreds of times, so I said, I’m Magenta. She said, Call me Jan, and I took a handful of seeds and mixed them with clay from the ground by the stream, and rolled them around in my palms. Little brown globes, little worlds in waiting. Each one a child of hundreds of trees, a forest that once was a lot full of weeds.
Copyright © 2023 T. K. Rex
T. K. Rex
T. K. Rex (she/they) is a science fiction and fantasy author whose stories have appeared in Asimov's, Gizmodo, Reckoning, and many other places. She's a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association, the Writers Grotto, and the infamous Clarion Ghost Class of 2020/21/22. T. K. grew up in Northern California and New Mexico with Wiccan parents of mostly British and Ashkenazi descent, and spends her free time gaming, hiking around the Bay Area, and photographing street art in her San Francisco neighborhood, where she lives with her artist/musician partner and their two enormous tuxedo cats.