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Future Tense: Garden of Life

Garden of Life, illustration

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

The garden of life is complex, way beyond the ken of humankind. Textbooks say science has only stumbled upon around 10% of all existing species of plants and animals. There could be from 10 to 100 million more. Critters, big and small (mostly small), are living and reproducing and dying as they have for eternity ... without a human being ever so much as laying eyes on them.

It's a wide world out there for a taxonomist.

There are more living things hidden in the wilds than we'll ever know. Life likes to break free and spread. And what you can find will surprise you.

I'm on what I call one of my long jaunts. A jaunt is supposed to be short by definition, but I enjoy the paradox. In fact, I enjoy it just about every weekend and holiday. Come Saturday morning, I pull on my hiking boots, tuck my pant legs into them, and lace them up tight. Out here in the mountains, there's a particular area that's all mine to explore. Miles of government land surrounding some kind of research center. Scrubby deer trails meandering through scalp-prickling heat. Tick-infested pine trees and plenty of poison ivy. But every now and then, you'll find a cool hollow. Caves gouged out of sweating granite. Plenty of microclimates are hiding there in the rough country, off the horse trails and far from where idiot four-wheelers scream and churn mud.

Worse it is out here, the better I like it.

Some people get a thrill jumping from a plane. Out on the lake, kids will get those wake boards going faster than I'm comfortable driving my Chevy half-ton on the highway. That's not for me. I get my jollies in the wild, hunting for brand new insect species. I send my specimens to an old buddy at the university's entomology department, then play the waiting game. Sometimes, I hit paydirt ... and then comes the best part—I get to name them.

Gryllus oklahomas was my last find. A field cricket under a piece of rotten bark. Named that little dude in honor of my state and kept on looking for more.

I find the fist-size knot in the base of a dead pine tree. Sort of a cubbyhole in the shape of a stop sign. The little hexagon has too many straight lines to be from nature, so I stoop down on creaking knees and take a look.

The smell of burning wood wafts from the hole. Peering into the thing, I see that it holds what looks like a plastic cube with an ember in it. And around the lip of the hexagonal hole, I see a brownish leg that is moving in precise jerks. It has a claw tip and it's busy scratching ... building something. Staring at it for a second, I realize it's making another little arm, a perfect copy of itself.

"What in the ...," I ask the empty woods.

When I was a kid, I used to find fairy nests near the creek that ran behind my parents' place. Little shacks made of sticks and moss and leaves, placed around a shade tree or in a sun-dappled clearing. In those days kids roamed free, and I spent a whole summer hunting those fairy nests with a kind of magic in my heart. One night at dinner, I finally told my mama about what I'd found. I will always remember the little smile she gave me. All of a sudden I knew exactly where those fairy houses came from.

Thousands of them, the color of dirt and leaves, dragging themselves like a living carpet over the ground. And even though I start out walking at a reasonable pace ... before long I'm running.

I knew, but I never stopped searching.

Something tickles my hand and I give a yelp. In the dirt, I see a handful of marbles. Only they're moving on lots of legs, like pill bugs, or roly-polys, as we once called them. The insects are trundling and falling over a piece of bark, peeling splinters from the wood. The size of thimbles, each one has a raspy spot on its belly. They drag themselves over the wood and shred little pieces off. I watch one pick up a splinter with tiny mandibles and climb right into the hexagonal hole.

He's tending the fire in there. Keeping energy going to his factory.

This is a whole new deal. I climb onto my knees and rifle through my field bag. Pick up one of the little crawlers with tweezers and drop it into a glass specimen jar. I screw the lid on tight and wonder if it really needs air holes. Can't say whether this little dude breathes or not. For the life of me, it looks like the bug is made of some kind of metal.

Government land, you know? Hard to say what the scientists are doing in those fenced-off buildings. Only thing I know is that life likes to break free.

Life likes to spread.

Getting to my feet, I shade my eyes and look deeper into the woods. Now, I notice a lot of the trees are dead. More than usual. And it may just be my old eyes, but I feel like there's a haze over everything. A thin smear of smoke from more of those miniature power plants ... more smoldering factories out there in the sun-baked woods.

I stand still, and the movement of the crawlers seeps into view. Thousands of them, the color of dirt and leaves, dragging themselves like a living carpet over the ground. The hair goes up on the backs of my arms. Somewhere out there, far off, I hear a tree splinter and crack. A shadow sweeps and I hear a hollow thump.

The captured crawler clinks against its jar and I flinch a little bit. Time to get back to the truck. I shrug my pack on tighter and turn around. And even though I start out walking at a reasonable pace ... before long I'm running.

In the truck, I don't take it easy on the accelerator. I'm on a dirt road for a few miles, meandering alongside razor-wire fences. My tires chew the rocks loudly, and I can't see anything but my dust trail in the rear-view, which is fine with me. When I finally stop at the sign to get onto paved road, it gets quiet except for my ragged breathing. I'm gripping the steering wheel, knuckles like mountain ridges.

Then I hear the scratching sound from next to me.

Fingers shaking, I swipe all the trash off the passenger seat. A curled yellow newspaper, a pair of work gloves, and an Auto Trader magazine waterfall onto the floorboard. Underneath, I find more of my friends-with-no-names. Guess I must have left my window open while I was exploring the woods. The crawlers are busy making themselves at home, now pulling strips out of the seat fabric.

In the seat back, they're carving out a neat hexagon.

I take a deep breath and put my foot on the gas. A shaky smile has got onto my face. The garden of life, see ... she's way beyond the ken of humankind. The textbooks say we've barely scratched the surface. At the first exit, I head off toward the university. I'm pretty sure these bugs are made of metal, and I'm pretty sure they were built and not born. But if nature doesn't care, then neither do I.

I'm already thinking of names.

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Daniel H. Wilson is the New York Times bestselling author of Robopocalypse and its sequel Robogenesis. He earned a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. Follow him on Twitter @danielwilsonPDX or visit his website at

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