Dear President Carter,
I once knew the name of every tree in the world, before it fell apart.
I was born on an island in the Southeast Pacific, though we did not call it that, closest to Antarctica and Chile, but still far from both. We were fortunate: small, only half a day's walk across, and far in the southern cold. We did not attract explorers and banana farmers, like other, less fortunate islands. Until the invention of the satellite, we were not known to exist. We were "uncontacted" in your parlance, though I have come to learn that even this status is not unique.
Our world, our cosmology, would seem simple to you. A small, rocky island surrounded by an endless ocean. One crop to master, a hardy and nutritious kind of sweet potato.
But that does not mean that we were simple! The human mind has a fixed capacity for detail. When there is more, it backs up, takes in a wider view. When there is less, it steps closer, and makes a finer distinction.
Take those trees, which I knew every one of. There were 117 trees in the world when it fell apart. I knew each one. It was hard for me to find an analogy to your experience because you people have so many examples of everything: every noun in your language names an almost uncountable set of objects, billions of humans and apples and chairs and bicycles. Not so in ours. But after some time, I was able to set on something that is limited for us both: friends. In our world, as in yours, a person can only have so many friends—the limits of psychology are constant. (Yes, our brains are the same as yours, and you would think like me if you had been born here.)
Imagine you were talking to someone about a mutual friend. You have a word for "human", and a word for "friend", but you would probably simply use their name, because it communicates all the shared knowledge of them in a single word. This is how we talked about everything, including trees. We had a word for "tree", but it was very rarely used—many never learned it. We instead talked of Telam, the one over by the hill that had survived an infection, and Emerte, the one down by the sea that was too wet for firewood, etc. This isn't to say that we were sentimental about the trees. We chopped them down for firewood and timber and did not pray to any gods before doing so. (In fact, we were as materialist as many of your modern cultures.) It simply was more natural to refer to them this way.
You may first protest that you have met people from other islands who were previously not known to you, and they did not think in this way. You would be correct—but those people still knew of the "outside", they knew that their island was not alone. Maybe they had stories of coming from another place. Maybe they occasionally made trips to other islands. They may have been surprised by the technology of your world, but its existence was expected, and they thought in ways that accommodated this. Not so for us, who had been on our island for so long that we forgot we came from somewhere else, and lived thousands of miles from any other land whatsoever. We never set out into the ocean, for we had no reason to, and we scarcely imagined it possible. We were a lone rock, set within infinity, and we did not consider there could be a tree outside the ones we had named.
Next, you may protest that this way of thinking is broken, that we lose out by not abstracting, and must find it difficult to see the commonalities between things. But really, you lose out by assuming that everything that happens to be shaped similarly is the same just because you must. We were not so restricted. You collect nuts from all the trees at once and wonder why some are good and some are bad. We know that Telam-nuts are a very different kind of thing than Kemad-nuts, and must be harvested on Kided-day instead of Make-day (which you would call March 10th and 11th) to avoid astringency. You must consider multitudes and lack the focus for this specificity.
It is also not that we lack imagination. We enjoyed telling what you would call Speculative Fiction. Rekese, a story that was a favorite of my friend Karme, involved Rek, the main character, falling asleep and waking up on a version of our island where every tree was swapped with one from somewhere else on the island. It was a comedy: at first he is confused and keeps getting lost, a familiar Emerte-branch pointing in the wrong direction. But eventually, he figures it out, and vows to dig up and replant every tree back in its proper place. When he finishes, he wakes up, back at his home.
There were also stories of other, truly different islands, where every tree and oven and house had its own, unique name. But generally these stories just had one or two new islands—too many, and it got confusing, overwhelming. Some attempted to solve this using those rarely used category words—"tree", "house"—but they were never popular. Too abstracted, zoomed out from the interesting detail. Your stories have much the same problem.
Of course, however, those unpopular stories were vindicated. Our island was discovered by one of your satellites. And despite the directives, someone flew a plane over and dropped a bag of books. Most we could not read, and we were confused, but one had pictures: a botany textbook. And as I flipped through the pages and looked at images of thousands of different kinds of trees from every corner of your world, I knew that nothing would ever be the same.
Some of us embraced your world, and left for Chile or the United States, learned Spanish or English, taught themselves with drill after drill to not name every tree they walked past. I tried this for some time—it is how I learned the English to write you this letter. But I could not take it, the fuzziness and anonymity of it all, and after some time I returned. Mele, Rama... those who stayed welcomed me with open arms. They each had found their own ways to cope, or not think about it. But I cannot do this either. I walk by a tree and find myself automatically calling it such, forgetting its name. And when I look at it, or try to draw it, I no longer see it. I see some fuzzy probability-mass, some proto-tree, a cartoonish stick with a bushy top. Only with focused effort can my mind break through and see the true shape of the thing that is directly in front of my eyes. This is what your world did to me.
With all these efforts to leave your world behind, Mr. President, you may be curious why I'm writing you this letter at all, using this language that forces me to categorize and abstract just to say "Hello".
Well, simply put, I have learned from my friend Karme, still in your country, that your government plans to launch a spacecraft, "Voyager". Now, do not get me wrong. I think this is a wonderful endeavor. Space, other planets—these are already a part of your frame, your level of abstraction. It is virtuous to understand them better, to name their parts.
But I have also learned that you—that is, NASA—also plan to include a "Golden Record" with information about humans and a map pointing out the location of Earth, so that whoever finds it may visit us. And this, Mr. President, I must caution against in the strongest terms.
Now firstly, this is because whoever finds this record, whether it be in 10 or 10,000 years, cannot possibly agree to receive it beforehand. To send it is to be the person who dropped the books over our island, an act we could not have imagined possible. It is not right.
There is something far worse, however. You imagine those who would receive the record to be like you. Your stories involve going to another planet where everyone has a funny forehead, or a war between three planets, all alike to Earth. Why do you imagine these things? Our island was not found by inhabitants of another island! No, those you bring back with your map will break your world, just as you broke ours, I fear.
Do not send this record.
Found in the Carter archives, 2017, unread.
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