The Paradise Tree: a High-tech Parable

or, What ever happened to IBM?

Copyright 1996 Roger E. Ison. All rights reserved.

Long ago on a tropical island in the South Pacific, there lived a man who loved trees. Every year he explored new paths through the island's mountains and valleys, sampling the fruits of the rain forest and visiting the tribes of little people who lived there. In his language these people were called by a word that means something like "elves", but there was nothing magic about them; they were just small, industrious folk who lived their own lives in the forest.

Whenever he discovered something especially delicious the man who loved trees carried a seedling back to his village, and in this way he collected a marvelous orchard. He became prosperous selling the exotic, tasty fruits of his exploration. Caring for his orchard was hard work, though, because each kind of tree had its own special requirements. Some grew best with cow manure, while for others only dredgings from the pig pen would do. Some blossomed regularly, some just every third or fourth year, and others were completely unpredictable. Some became infested with bugs when they got big, while others could only be pollinated by rare rain forest ants.

Still, the man who loved trees was successful. He married an intelligent woman of considerable beauty, built a comfortable house, and had several fine children. After some years his wife said to him, "We have a lovely home. Our children are healthy and well brought up, and your fruit trees have made us wealthy. I know how much you love trees, but must you leave us every summer and disappear into the rain forests? After all, it's been some years since you found a tree better than those we already have. Why do you keep going back?"

"When I was a boy," he replied, "I met an old sailor. We got to speaking of trees, because there are so many here and so few in his country, and he told me his seafaring people have a legend about a magical plant in our islands that they called the Paradise tree. No one alive has seen this tree, but the rain forest is a mysterious place. After all, I do find new kinds of trees every now and then, and so I keep looking for the Paradise tree."

His wife wanted to know what magical powers this tree possessed.

"According to the sailor's tale every branch produces a different fruit, and new types appear as the tree grows. If I found a Paradise tree, taking care of the orchard would be much simpler. There'd be just one type of tree to care for. We could fill our orchard with Paradise trees, tend and prune them carefully, and learn to grow very big ones. Our sons could all be as wealthy as we are, and their children too. And our island, which is already a wonderful place, would be better still. One day there would be fruits for every taste, and all of them from our orchards."

"That might be a wonderful thing," his wife said doubtfully, "although I never heard of a tree that worked that way. But I can see this legend is very important to you, so maybe you'd best keep searching. I'd rather you stayed home, but our sons are old enough now to manage the orchard when you're away."

Perhaps it was just luck, or maybe he was inspired by his wife's blessing. Who can say? But that year, the man who loved trees went farther into the forest than ever he had before. He slid down moldy, slippery hills into wet valleys. He walked quietly amid cathedrals of giant trees, listening to the birds and insects. Sometimes at night he heard elves chattering in their soft, high-pitched voices, although they were almost always invisible in the forest gloom. One morning, after nine months in the jungle, he climbed high into the canopy of a huge tree and looked out over the forest. And from there he saw, standing majestically in a splash of brilliant sunlight spilling through the clouds, a tree like none he'd ever seen before.

Some of its branches had wide leaves of rich emerald green. Some, thin and tapered, were a pale, delicate shade - a green almost golden. Still others were fine and close together, with a blush of red. And even from his perch above the canopy, he could see the fruits. There were purple clusters like grapes, and heavy, yellow ovals like ripe mangos. There were fruits that seemed to be pear-shaped but were colored red like apples, and shiny pink balls no larger than peaches.

He lowered himself carefully back down to the forest floor. With a resolve born from years of searching, he strode forward until he stood beneath the boughs of the magical tree. Up close, it was even better than he'd dreamed. The air was heavy with the perfume of flowers and ripe fruit, and filled with the musical sounds of bees. The ground was covered with fruit, and each one he tried was more delicious than the ones before.

One thing puzzled him about the Paradise tree, although he didn't let it worry him. Despite all the fruit on the ground, there were no seedlings. No sprouts. No little trees. He looked in every direction to be sure, but no doubt about it: there was just one Paradise tree, and he'd found it. "So much the better," he said to himself. Taking a knife from his belt, he dug into the ground until he uncovered a small root which he cut off, wrapped in wet moss, and put in his pocket. Then he collected some fruit to keep his belly full, and headed home.

In a few short years, the Paradise tree that grew from that root became the wonder of the island. Cared for lavishly by the man who loved trees, it grew steadily taller and bigger. He pruned off branches whose fruit only a few customers liked, and charged dearly for delicacies from the newest branches. Two sons dug irrigation ditches to provide for the tree's enormous water consumption. Another started a pig farm, because pig manure made new branches sprout faster. The daughters picked the fruit and carried it to market, where it was sold in special stalls owned by uncles and cousins. Their father became rich, and each son received a handsome wedding gift: a single root of the Paradise tree, wrapped in damp moss. "Always remember," said the man who loved trees, "that you are part of the family. Other people have fruit trees; we have the Paradise tree that grows from its roots."

His wife, elegant and thoughtful in middle age, was happy with their life and fond of her husband and children. Occasionally, though, she gazed in the mirror and mused over their good fortune. "Trees just really don't work this way," she said to herself. "Of course, this is a magical tree. But do we really understand it? My husband spends all his time nourishing the tree and harvesting its fruits. He has no time to think of anything else, but I wonder what else these magical trees can do?" So she determined to visit all her children and examine their trees carefully. That is how she discovered some very surprising things.

First she visited her eldest son. "Most of my customers," he told her, "prefer the apricot-flavored fruits that look like melons. So I pick more of those than anything else." When she looked in the orchard, the mother saw that the branch producing those fruits was much bigger than all the other branches of the eldest son's Paradise tree. "Yes," he confirmed, "It seems that the more we pick from that branch, the bigger it gets even though I prune it regularly. It's a very unusual tree, isn't it. But the fruit is magnificent!"

Her second-eldest son had customers who preferred mangos. "See these two branches?" he said. "At first, they both produced fruit that looked like mangos, but the branches tasted a little different. Some customers liked the left-hand mangos, but more liked the right side. So I picked more and more from the right, and a very strange thing began to happen. The right branch got bigger, and its fruit began to taste a bit like the left and a bit like the right. Now look at it! The limbs have grown together, and the left one seems to be disappearing, almost as if it were being absorbed by the other. It's all right though. Most people seem to find the mixture an improvement."

His mother climbed a ladder to pick a hybrid mango. "How remarkable," she said when she tasted it. "This one fruit has two distinct tastes! One branch is doing what used to require two. And I see this branch has grown much more sturdy, since you pick more from it."

Her third son lived quite far away at the edge of the rain forest, so she hadn't visited him in the years since his marriage. She arrived at his house early one evening, after a long journey. "Well, son! You must be doing very well indeed. I've seen your brothers recently, and they're doing nicely, but you look positively prosperous. What a grand house! It's practically a palace."

"Thank you," he replied. "We're very happy with it. It has twenty-two rooms, even more than yours. Please don't mention it to Father, though. I don't want him to think me prideful. Anyway," he added, "I had help." The wise mother sensed a peculiar tenor in her son's voice, but she let it pass.

Walking through the house, they came to a room that looked out onto her third son's Paradise tree. She peered into the dusk, then stepped back from the window in surprise. "Whatever has happened to your tree?" she exclaimed. It was positively enormous, much bigger than any of the family's other trees. But instead of reaching high into the sky, its branches had grown very long and low, spreading to cover acre after acre. Branches bent to the ground to support their own weight and the fruit they bore, and where they touched down, they'd taken root.

Her son opened the window without answering. "Listen," he said softly. At first she heard nothing, but after a moment she noticed a low chattering of small, high-pitched voices. It was hard to discern in the gathering darkness, but there seemed to be little people climbing and jumping through the tree.

"Not long after we planted the tree," he continued in the same soft voice, "the elves moved in."

"Elves? From the rain forest? Your father used to mention them, but I've never seen one before." She studied the tree more closely.

"You can hear them talking just now. They came on their own. At first we didn't even notice; they came at night, when everyone was asleep. Then I saw that the branches of my tree were getting very long, and as I lay awake one night wondering about it, I heard them talking. I crept out very quietly, and in the moonlight I could see what they were doing. They were rubbing the branches. And as they rubbed, the branches seemed to flex and reach. The more rubbing, the longer the branches get. As they get longer, they bear more fruit. And more elves arrive. There must be hundreds now."

"In the beginning," he continued after a moment, "I was annoyed. But we live near the forest so there are a lot of elves. I couldn't see how to get rid of them, so we struck a deal. It wasn't easy negotiating - elves are an independent lot, to say it politely. But now they do some picking for me. As the tree got bigger, it was becoming hard to collect everything.

"Who decides which branches to rub?" the mother asked, thinking of the conversations with her other sons.

"In a way, I decide. I harvest a lot, and the tree seems to grow what I harvest. But the elves also rub where it suits them, and they take some of the fruit. Not much."

"And what do they do with what they take?"

"For elves, they're rather bold; they sell it. They sell to people who don't buy at our family stall in the market. I hear they go door to door. What they take is from distant branches, away from the middle of the tree. They don't take the best, it isn't as good as our produce. But we haven't the time to go door to door in the poor parts of town, where people can only afford second-quality. Anyway, it wouldn't pay for us. We do much better selling top quality. You see how big our house is. I'm sure we're doing the right thing, letting the elves do some of the work. Better than just letting them steal from us outright, isn't it."

His mother slept that night with her window open, listening to the delicate conversation of nimble elves at work. Unquiet dreams disturbed her sleep, and she arose early in the dewy morning to walk through and around the tangled Paradise tree. Far from the main trunk, beyond where the limbs first touched the ground, she discovered branches growing together in a way that brought to mind her second son's tree. It was odd, though - the branching habit seemed reversed. Several branches came together, forming what seemed like a second trunk that touched the ground and took root. And from there, it was beginning to grow - upward, like a proper tree again!

She picked a plum from this spot and took it back to her third son, who pronounced it small, but very tasty.

Returning to her husband, she opened the bedroom window each night. When she began to hear little people chattering outside, she knew she must tell him about their third son's tree.

The man who loved trees was enraged by his wife's tale. She advised him to negotiate with the elves, and he tried, but he was challenged and angry, and it felt awkward. "They're elves," he said. "Our third son is a fool. You can't trust elves; it's like dealing with the Devil. Perhaps we can make a few arrangements, but they're undependable creatures and they'll gobble up our profits. Anyway, elves may live in forests, but I know trees. I've studied them all my life. I'm going to bring in more water and manure, and grow new branches with better fruits." Always a hard worker, he now redoubled his efforts, pruning and watering and fertilizing, and chasing away any elves caught near his tree.

He also sent a letter reminding the third son where his Paradise tree had come from. "Return to the family," he commanded. "Sell only top quality produce. Sell from the family stalls, through our uncles, cousins and good friends. And get rid of those elves!" The third son apologized, replying that he'd do his best; but he mentioned pointedly that his brothers were also having elf trouble now. Unfortunately this was true, so the father wrote admonishing letters to them as well.

The following summer, the third son wrote to his mother. "You must visit again and see what's going on," he entreated. "I can barely make ends meet. We're working harder and harder here, and we sell only the very best fruit. But though we sell many more baskets than we used to, the elves seem to be making most of the profit."

Her husband insisted the whole family work at summer harvest, so she was unable to visit before the rainy season. She arrived in a mid-afternoon downpour to find her son with a distracted air about him, and the grand house ill-kept. Several rooms were shut, the furniture covered. "We couldn't afford to keep cleaning them," he explained. "We may even have to tear down a wing of the house, to reduce our taxes. You can't imagine how fast things have changed here. Come see my tree." Bundled up against the rain, they went outside.

The Paradise tree had grown bigger than ever. Twenty minutes' walk brought them to the edge of the third son's property, but they were not yet halfway round the tree, which now extended well past his boundary fence. The weather was distinctly lightening, and at the far side, in broad daylight, thirty elves were hard at work around a rooted portion of the tree that had become a substantial trunk. Beyond them another crew jumped and climbed about another trunk. The Paradise tree reached across the fence, but the connecting limbs were thinning. "From here," the mother observed, "who could say where the tree originally grew? I would wonder myself, if I didn't already know the fact of the matter."

The elves spoke their usual rapid patter; but now the two humans could understand them quite well, for these elves talked the language of people. One, a bit taller than his fellows, approached them. "Ah madam, please will you try my apples?" he offered, doffing his pointed little hat and bowing repeatedly.

"Have you only apples this afternoon?" she inquired.

"Apples, madam. My tree makes only apples. But they are very good ones. Big apples, small ones, red and yellow and green. All kinds very tasty, yes, very crisp and tasty indeed!"

"I hoped for some plums."

"Plums, ah indeed. There are plums on the next tree, madam. So very sorry that I have no plums. But on the next tree are most excellent plums, yes indeed." The elf nodded and bobbed his head. "Please be patient one moment, I will go get my friend." He darted away, returning quickly with a rotund, cheerful elf carrying a basket.

"Plums madam! Try my plums," said this one, bouncing his head up and down as he proffered the basket. "Big and small, some red, some very purple. Here are some very delicate ones with no stones, if you prefer, no stones at all, and not too expensive. Any kind of plum you like, all very sweet and ripe today. Please try one, madam."

"You see my problem, Mother," said the third son as they walked back to the house. "My tree produces plums, and apples, and everything else. I follow all the methods of tree husbandry Father taught us, and my fruit is very good. Often it's better than what the elves grow. But an elf who sells plums and nothing else! Think of it! He rubs his tree like crazy, and it produces nothing but plums. His whole elf family picks plums like crazy, so the tree produces even more. Every time I get a new variety, in a few months they have something almost as good, cheaper, and more abundant. If it were just plums, maybe I could live with it. But another elf family grows apples, a third mangos. I'm afraid no amount of fertilizer can compete with them.

"My beautiful tree now seems to be just branches, while the elves' branches have grown into trees. Father just doesn't understand how the fruit business has turned upside down. What on earth shall we do?"