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Fiction

The Journal Tree (a scientific fable)

From the LabLit short story series

Julia Richards 26 March 2012

www.lablit.com/article/712

Again, they waited many weeks, and again, the crumpled paper fell to the ground

Once there was a young man who went to study with a wise old man. This wise old man lived beneath a large tree with many branches. He taught the young man many things about the plants and animals that lived around them. And when the young man had studied for many years, the old man handed him a box. In it were two mice, and the old man said, “Go and watch these two mice. One is fat and one is thin. Watch them and see what you can learn.”

So the young man studied the mice for almost two years. He watched what they ate and when they slept and how they moved about the box. At the end of almost two years, he killed the mice and studied the inside of their bodies. He returned to the old man beneath the large tree and told him all he had learned.

“Young man,” the old man said, “Write down what you have seen and we will send it to the very top of this tree.” The young man was confused and asked why they would send a paper to the top of this tree. The old man simply replied, “It is a great honor to be at the highest branch. We will send it to the very top of this tree, to Nature itself.”

“To Nature itself? That is an odd way of putting it,” replied the young man.

Still the young man went away and wrote and wrote. He was no longer young after studying and watching the mice and writing for so many years. When he was finally done, he took the paper to the old man and the old man told him to make many changes. And the no-longer young man went away and revised and revised. When he had made all the changes, the old man folded up the paper into the shape of a crane. He blew on it and it flew to the highest branch of the tree.

The no-longer young man and the old man waited and waited for many weeks. Then one day the paper, which was now unfolded and wrinkled, came floating to the ground. “The tree has rejected the paper,” the old man said. “You must write it again and we will send it to the second highest branch, to Cell.”

“A cell of what?” asked the no-longer young man, mystified.

“Never mind,” said the old man, “Just write the paper again but you must use different handwriting and leave bigger spaces on the page. You must write more and make it sound more exciting. And the pictures you drew of the mice must be drawn differently to fit the standards of Cell.”

So the no-longer young man went away and did as the old man had asked. When he brought him the paper again, the old man folded it into a crane, blew on it, and it flew to the second highest branch. Again, they waited many weeks, and again, the crumpled paper fell to the ground. The old man was not discouraged.

“We have many other options for this paper. It can be in Development or Molecular Cell or Cancer Research. Write the paper again and make many, many changes to both the content and the formatting,” the old man said. “Sometimes the paper must hit many branches on its way down the Journal Tree.”

“The what tree?” the no-longer young man, who was becoming almost a middle-aged man, asked.

“Never mind,” the old man said, “any branch of the tree is a great honor. I think some branches would be better for this paper anyway. More people could see it on the lower branches.”

So the almost middle-aged man wrote the paper again and again, and many times, it fell back down. The last time, the old man folded it into a crane, blew on it, and it flew to one of the middle branches of the tree. This time the paper landed on the branch and stayed there. The old man and the almost middle-aged man embraced and celebrated.

Once they were done celebrating, the old man took out another box. In it were two mice, and the old man said, “Go and watch these two mice. One runs in circles and the other moves normally. Watch them and see what you can learn.”

The increasingly middle-aged man looked in the box and looked up into the high branches of the tree. The highest branch was so high it could hardly be seen. Instead of taking the box from the old man, he turned his back and walked away.

He walked down the road out of the woods and into the town. There were many jobs in this town, working in the shops or teaching in the schools. He walked and walked and never looked back.