In the Shade of a Ginkgo Tree

A park.  A hot summer afternoon. An astronomer is sitting on a bench reading a newspaper. On another bench, a few metres away, there sits a writer, with a notebook on his lap and a pencil in his hand. He moves the pencil towards the notebook, in which a few lines have already been written, but then immediately pulls his hand back. He thinks for a while, with a frown on his face, and then smiles and quickly writes a few more lines. He lifts the notebook towards his face and reads what he has written. Having done this, he gives a satisfied smile and nods his head.

At that moment a football flies in from the side and knocks the notebook out of his hand. Both he and the astronomer look with surprise at a boy who is running after the ball.

BOY: I’m so sorry. (He picks up the ball with one hand and with the other the notebook, which he hands to the writer.) I didn’t mean to, honestly.

WRITER (takes the notebook): It’s quite all right. I know you didn’t do it on purpose. (The Astronomer continues to read the newspaper.) Although you did make me jump. I can see you’ve got a good kick. I expect you’re training to be a footballer, eh?

BOY: Not yet. But I’ll start in the autumn. I’m just off to kick a ball around with my mates, on the other side of the park. But I want to be a footballer when I grow up.

WRITER: Just keep practising and you’ll succeed. I trained football once.

BOY:  Really?

WRITER: But later I gave it up.

BOY: Why?

WRITER: Well, I suddenly found I liked books. And when I had some spare time, instead of playing football I’d read books. And so I never became a footballer.

A biologist goes up to the tree in whose shadow the two benches stand. He takes no notice of the people on the benches, just inspecting the tree closely and feeling it.

BOY (continuing the conversation): So what did you become?

WRITER: A writer.

BOY: A writer? Super. I love stories. Do you have one there in your notebook?

WRITER: I do happen to have one, yes. It’s been going round and round in my head all day, but now I’ve managed to finish it.

BOY: Do you think I could hear it?

WRITER: Of course. I’ll willingly read it to you. But haven’t you come here to play football?

BOY: Yes, I have. But the others won’t be here for twenty minutes. I came a bit early on purpose – to warm up first.

WRITER:  In that case, get ready for a story. (The astronomer looks up from the newspaper and looks at them with interest. The biologist still notices nothing except his tree.) Well, here goes…


Once upon a time the Earth and the Moon loved each other and remained together non-stop in a close embrace.

But then the Earth fell in love with the Sun.

The Moon knew that the Sun loved no one but itself, that it would not get any closer to Earth in order to offer it the amount of love light that it needed, and that the Earth would die of grief.

But the Moon also knew that the Earth did not love it any longer, and that it would die even sooner if it remained close to it against its will.

So the Moon moved further away.

However, it remained close enough to be able to reflect the amount of the Sun’s love light that the Earth was missing.

This is how life appeared on Earth.

A short pause. The astronomer continues to look at the boy and the writer, while the biologist continues to stroke the trunk of the tree.

WRITER: So? How do you like this story?

BOY:  It’s super. It’s a bit like those – what are they called? – Fairy stories. Now I’m glad my ball hit you, because otherwise I shouldn’t have heard it.

WRITER:  I’m glad you like it.

BOY:  But is it true?

WRITER:  What?

BOY: I mean, did life really appear on Earth like that?

WRITER:  Well… In a way, I think you could say it did.

BIOLOGIST (suddenly turns towards them and shouts, still stroking the bark of the tree): You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Telling him that it’s true! Filling the boy’s head with such nonsense! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!

BOY: Who are you?

BIOLOGIST: I am the one you ought to be asking how life appeared on Earth, and not this charlatan! I’m a biologist.

BOY: Why are you continually touching that tree?

BIOLOGIST: Because some ruffian of your age carved his name on it. And this isn’t any old tree. This is a Ginkgo biloba, the oldest living flowering tree. It comes from China and is very rare in these parts. That’s why I get furious when I see vandals destroying it.

BOY: So it manages to live so far away from home? I mean, from China?

BIOLOGIST: Yes. The Ginkgo is well-known for being able to survive in difficult conditions. For example in places where the air is very polluted and where there is very little light. (He removes his hand from the tree and turns round to face the boy and the writer. He continues in a gentler tone of voice.) I’m pleased to see that you’re interested in science, my lad. You shouldn’t allow ignoramuses like this one to tell you anything. If you’re really interested to know how life appeared on Earth, I’ll tell you. It all started with minute bacteria, nearly four billion years ago. You could say that it is precisely these, and not some “love light”, that are responsible for life as we know it, because they emitted oxygen into the air. Then the first animals with protective covering or bones appeared, but not until between five and six hundred million years ago. Some of these have survived until today in the form of fossils, so I have concrete proof for everything I’m telling you. As opposed to this chap here, who is telling you nothing but untruths. Then, about…

ASTRONOMER (putting his newspaper down beside him on the bench and interrupting the biologist): I’m sorry, colleague, but I don’t think I can entirely agree with you.

BOY: Are you a biologist too?

ASTRONOMER: No, I’m not a biologist.

BIOLOGIST (angrily): Then why do you address me as “colleague”? And why are you butting into our conversation in the first place?

ASTRONOMER (calmly continuing): I’m addressing you as “colleague” as we are both scientists. Of course, we are engaged in different sciences. You study biology and I study astronomy.

BOY: And what is astronomy?

ASTRONOMER: Astronomy is the science that studies heavenly bodies and the universe as a whole.

BOY:  You mean stars and all that?

ASTRONOMER: Well, yes, stars and all that. I suppose you could put it like that.

BOY (looking up into the sky): Stars are super. It’s a shame they’re not here during the day.

ASTRONOMER: But they are here during the day. It’s just that we can’t see them because of the Sun.

BOY: What do you mean, we can’t see them because of the Sun?

ASTRONOMER: Let’s see, how can I explain…? You live in the town, I assume?

BOY: Yes.

ASTRONOMER: On which floor?

BOY: On the seventh.

ASTRONOMER: Excellent. Then in the evening, when you turn the light out, through your window I’m sure you can see lots of other lights from other buildings, even if you’re standing on the opposite side of the room?

BOY: Yes, I can.

ASTRONOMER: But when you switch the light on in your room, can you see them then? I mean, of course, if you’re standing a long way from the window?

BOY: Well… No, I can’t.

ASTRONOMER: Exactly. But they are still there. It’s just that they are dazzled by light that is much closer – the light in your room. It’s the same with the stars in daytime, it’s just that they are dazzled by a much nearer star, the Sun.

BOY: The Sun’s a star?

ASTRONOMER: Yes, the nearest star to us.

BIOLOGIST: But what has all this got to do with life on Earth?

ASTRONOMER: Well, while I was sitting here I couldn’t fail to hear the story that this gentleman the writer was telling and then your remarks. I’m afraid I can’t agree with you that his story was entirely made up of untruths. On the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much truth there was in it. Real, scientific truth, at that – just disguised a little bit.

BIOLOGIST: Scientific truth, my eye!

ASTRONOMER: Let’s take for example the bit about the Earth and the Moon once being one heavenly body, or, to use the writer gentleman’s words, in an “embrace”. Most astronomers agree with this. How they got round to separating, is a different matter. Whether the blow from an asteroid broke the Moon off the Earth, or whether it was simply attracted by the force of its gravity, I can’t be certain. However, I do agree with you that it wasn’t the result of the Earth falling in love with the Sun, as the writer puts it. Then there’s the matter of the Moon’s rejection of the “love light” towards the Earth. The Moon really does behave like a mirror that during the night reflects a little bit of the Sun’s light towards us. What’s more, the Moon and the Earth comprise a united, firmly connected system. Without the gravitational effect of the Moon, the angle of the Earth’s axis would not be the same and the distribution of light and heat would be completely different. The Earth would revolve much faster around its own axis, day and night would alternate faster, the atmosphere would be unstable, high and low tides would be less obvious, asteroids would collide with the Earth more frequently and winds would be more destructive. All this would have a tremendous effect on life in general, so it can truthfully be said that the Moon is responsible for life on Earth as we know it today. So, as you see, it’s not all untrue. In fact I would say that a good deal of this story is true.

At that moment, the philosopher’s head peeps out from the crown of the tree.

PHILOSOPHER: Excuse me, did I imagine it or did someone really mention truth?

BOY (quietly, to the writer): Who’s this?

WRITER: I haven’t the faintest idea.

BOY: And what’s he doing up the tree?

WRITER: I was wondering that as well.

BIOLOGIST (angrily): Hey, what are you doing up the ginkgo? Do you want to damage it?

PHILOSOPHER: But how can you be certain that this is actually a ginkgo? I’m not even certain that it’s even a tree. You should know that I’m a philosopher and my life consists of searching for the truth. But in order to reach it, I have to be very careful not to lose my way. That’s why I don’t accept anything as the truth until I have confirmed it without any doubt. This is one of the oldest rules of philosophy. Thus, I can’t say that I am absolutely certain that this is a tree. Who knows, perhaps it just seems to me that this is a tree, whereas it is in fact something completely different.

BOY: But what are you doing up there?

PHILOSOPHER: Well, this morning it occurred to me that perhaps it just seems to me that I’m a man, and that actually I’m something completely different. I’ve thought about it and decided to check whether I’m by some chance a bird. That’s why I’ve come here and climbed up this tree, to see if I feel good here. I am assuming that birds feel good up in a tree. Mind you, I’m not absolutely certain that this is the case.

BOY: So you’ve spent the whole day up in the tree?

PHILOSOPHER: That’s nothing, my lad. Diogenes lived in a barrel.

BOY: In a barrel?

PHILOSOPHER: Yes, in a barrel. The roads that lead towards the truth are hard and long. However, I think I can say that I am fairly certain that I’m not a bird. Birds are not supposed to understand human speech, and I heard what you have been saying here about truth. Mind you, it’s quite possible that I didn’t actually understand what you were saying, and that it just seemed that I understood you. In any case, I’m always ready to assist in the search for the truth, and that’s why I’ve decided to help you.

BIOLOGIST:  Come on, get down from the ginkgo!

ASTRONOMER (gets up from the bench, picks up the newspaper and goes over to the writer): It seems to me that this conversation is becoming rather chaotic. How about coming to my place so that we can chat about the differences between scientific and artistic truth in peace? I’ve got some excellent black tea.

WRITER (gets up): That seems like a good idea. (To the boy.) There, instead of one, you’ve heard several interesting stories. Mind you, I expect that at this moment football seems far more interesting to you. Just train diligently and one day you’ll become a real footballer.

BOY: Yes, I will. I’m off to play now. I hope I won’t be late.

The writer and the astronomer leave the park walking slowly along the path, while the boy sets off in the opposite direction.

PHILOSOPHER (to the boy): Do you perhaps need another player?

BOY (stops): Do you play football?

PHILOSOPHER: To be quite honest, I’ve never tried. But it’s just occurred to me that it might only seem to me that I’m a philosopher, and that I am really a footballer, so I’d just like to check it out.

BOY (thinks for a moment, taking a look at the philosopher): It’s all right, thanks, there are enough of us. (Goes off.)

PHILOSOPHER (to himself, sadly): Pity… But perhaps it’s all for the better that they don’t need another player. It gives me the opportunity to confirm once more that I am not a bird. (Once again he disappears into the branches, leaving the Biologist alone beneath the tree.)


BIOLOGIST (shouts): Hey, listen, you! It would be better for you if you came down from the ginkgo of your own accord!


Originally published in BCS in Par grama drama (A Few Grams of Drama) in 2010. Translated by Timothy John Byford. Translation copyright by Kosta Tadic.