Microbes traveled to Earth from Mars. This we know. There are rocks on Earth that came from Mars. So many, in fact, the volume is measured in millions of tonnes. Inside and on those rocks, we found microbes. Microbes which could survive the radiation of the solar wind as they travelled between planetary neighbors, the heat as they entered Earth’s atmosphere, and the collision with Earth’s crust. There is a school of thought that believes life on Earth was seeded by the life from Mars.
Microbes travel to Mars from Earth. This we know. We may not wish it were true when the flu makes its rounds among the orchard workers, but it is. These microbes have it easy. They get to float with the solar wind instead of against it. They get to hitch rides on our equipment, on our skin, or in the comfort of our warm, cushioned intestines.
My name is Antonio. I’m nearing my fifth year here. Each day, we get up and muster up the courage to face the cold and to try to make the Sillett-Antoine Orchard more than a scattering of vertical sticks.
On the Earth I remember, ants managed their elaborate colonies with organization. They had an area for eggs and, on the opposite end of the lifecycle, an area for corpses. When an ant dies, its body releases a pheromone to tell the other ants that it is dead. Its brethren promptly pick it up and escort it to a pile of dead ants. They have a designated graveyard.
We have a graveyard as well. When a seedling in the orchard dies, it gets noted in our system. A worker goes out, pulls it out of the regolith and escorts it over to a pile of dead sticks. We can’t even call the scrawny things trunks. The pile grows every day. Every single day.
Who decided where that first stick should be placed? I do not know, but I do hold that person in the highest disdain. They established our tree graveyard right next to the entrance of the orchard. That means there are no less than two certainties as your workday commences:
1. It’s going to be damn cold.
2. You are going to be reminded of failures so substantial, they span years.
Some days when I see our growing pile of shame I think, “Why bother?!?”
Lately when I come to work, I see the sticks and I think, “Where the hell are you, microbes?!?”
I’ve only been here five years. I have more wrinkles, more grey hairs and less gum around my teeth. There are sticks in that pile that were here long before I arrived. They look exactly the same. No rot, no decay, no mold. They remain as is, showcasing our shortcomings.
It was actually like this on Earth at one time. Plant matter evolved and at first there was nothing to break it back down once it died. Every plant organism that ever lived remained preserved exactly how it perished over millions of years. Then one day, an organism appeared that could break down cellulose. It had quite a feast before it. It produced babies with the same palate. Those babies joined in on the feast and produced babies of their own, all with the same inclination to munch on cellulose. Only then did the trees and plants disintegrate and return their nutrients to the ground.
I lead a team of planters. They sign up for three years and arrive wide-eyed and ready for adventure. I suspect most wish they could go home after a few months. I think if it was plausible, most would go home early. But they are stuck and they know they are stuck. It’s in my best interest to keep their spirits up. It’s in my best interest to make them believe that one day we will be better at growing trees. Some days are more challenging than others, but even on good days I’m fighting the image they saw as they approached work.
I was asked once by my supervisor on Earth what measures they could take to improve morale up here.
“Brown rot fungus…. Or maybe some basidiomycetes,” I said.
I don’t think that was the answer she was looking for.
One particularly dismal morning I arrived in our oxygenated office and took off my mask.
My co-workers greeted me with the usual “Good Mornings” and I resisted the urge to question their choice in adjectives.
“Hey great news, Tony!” my assistant Samuel announced, “They sent us football!”
A number of the fellows in the office started cheering.
“Football… or American football?” I am not sure why I even asked. Either option was going to be equally uninviting.
“American. They sent us all of the College Playoffs!”
I was vaguely aware of some murmuring about the antiquated “BCS ratings”, but I was focused on another strike to my demeanor. He had said “playoffs”…plural.
I wasn’t alone in my distaste. We have a Soil Scientist on our staff by the name of Don. “So you guys are going to openly celebrate concussions and brain injuries? Shouldn’t we be more a little more civilized than that by now?”
“Civilized?!?” said one of the planters, who for the purposes of this tale I think it is best to keep anonymous, “The other day I had to wipe my ass with my bare hand.”
Don looked like he wanted to gag. “You are just asking for dysentery.”
This sparked some follow-up conversation as we do have perfectly good privies here at the office. It turns out the planter was along the far-side of the orchard and experienced what he called “intestinal distress”. He was lucky we only need oxygen. If we had to have the pressurized suits the poor folks on the moon have to wear, he would have had himself quite the predicament.
Samuel asked me if he could be in charge of planning the playoff viewings.
“Be my guest,” I said.
Samuel made everyone vow that if they heard a result from home, they wouldn’t share. He set up a series of viewings in chronological order. I managed to miss most of them. Then one evening I came into the office to retrieve a sample I forgot and found everyone convened, ready to watch the next game.
“Check it out, Tony, we’re tailgating on Mars!” someone announced before offering me beef jerky.
“Yeah, this is soooo special,” Don chimed in. “I wonder who is going to win—- the team in the shiny colorful uniforms or the other team in the shiny colorful uniforms?”
“I’m surprised you are even here,” I said to Don.
He shrugged, “It’s Mars. What else have I got to do?”
The men prodded for me to stay and watch some of the game. I finally acquiesced and stripped off my layers.
There was a great deal of fanfare. Musicians and cheerleaders and a display of fireworks. And this all happened before the game even began! Suddenly the vibe of the stadium changed. The national anthem was sung, war planes flew over and a bunch of stuffed animals wearing T-shirts with corporate logos parachuted down into the crowd. It was time for the teams to arrive.
More music was played and the camera focused on the players in a hallway waiting to run out onto the field. Don was right. They were wearing shiny colorful uniforms. Somehow the players knew their cue and raced out of their holding area.
Have you ever seen brown pelicans fly over the ocean? They fly in a single file line and when one dips they all will dip in succession as they pass the same spot. As those football players ran out, the first one jumped at the doorway before heading to the field. The next one did the same and so did the next one. When I looked a little closer, they were all smacking something above the doorway.
I didn’t want to tip my hand that I was actually watching, but curiosity did get the better of me. “What are they doing?” I asked.
“It’s a piece of limestone from their original stadium,” Samuel explained, “Every game the players hit it for good luck.”
“I thought it was to remember their roots,” A planter, Mark, said. He’s a know-it-all in the field, too.
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s for luck,” someone else added.
“Ugh,” Don grimaced. We have all been locked up with him long enough to know he was thinking about all the germs the players were spreading.
“They’re wearing gloves,” Mark said.
“Not all of them!” Don fired back.
Samuel looked at me briefly with a twinkle in his eye and then volunteered, “You know, I bet they’re probably wearing gloves to keep the spit off of their hands.”
“Spit? Where would they get spit?!?”
Mark smirked and picked up where Samuel left off. “Watch the quarterback, Don. Sometimes he licks his hands right before he touches the ball.”
Don looked thoroughly disgusted, but wouldn’t you know it? He kept those eyes of his affixed to the screen.
At some point, I think maybe mid-first quarter, I looked around. The men were laughing and cheering. They were no longer lonely. They were no longer cold. They were no longer men in a thankless job. They were buddies and comrades pulled together by the promise of touchdowns. They were men in good spirits. She may be all the way back on Earth, but somehow my supervisor knew what these men needed better than I.
It was in the middle of the third quarter when my attention waned and I was ready to move on. I bid the fellows good night and prepared my body to go back out into the cold carbon dioxide. I reassembled my layers, zipped up my coat and affixed my oxygen mask. Once all the operations that require nimble digits are done, you do one last thing. You put on your gloves.
I paused for a moment. Every time anyone is working in the orchard, he is wearing gloves. Well, apparently there is an exception for “intestinal distress”. But other than that, you are gloved up. When a tree dies and you, the haploid pallbearer, carry it to the pile, you are wearing gloves. Gloves that boast “MicroBan 3 Technology”.
I thought about how distressed Don was last time the flu circulated our staff.
“Don’t touch your hands to your face!!!” he demanded, “What are you doing?!? That’s how germs get around— your hands!”
Mars has its widespread indigenous bacteria, but they were never presented with a smorgasbord of plant matter. They never needed to develop an appetite for cellulose. They are of no use.
But perhaps, just perhaps, the microbes and spores we need from Earth are already here. Perhaps, just perhaps, they haven’t navigated their way from our habs, from our ships, from our rovers across the vast emptiness to our stick pile.
The next morning when I arrived at the entrance to our orchard, instead of cursing the stick pile or trying to avert my eyes, I took off my right glove. I reached out my hand and brushed the nearest stick as I passed.
I did it the next day and the next day and the day after that. Inevitably someone asked what I doing. I explained, and before long everyone started doing it. New arrivals were ferried over immediately, before orientation even, to share their fresh batch of germs. It’s our tradition now and we perform it as dutifully as any football player would. Even Don participates… when there isn’t a flu going around.
One day, the right hitchhiker is going to have impeccable timing.
“Capita a fagiolo,” my grandfather would say.
One day, that wood will rot.