Fathoming Moby Root

He lay there on the surface, exposed to the sun for the first time in 50 years, the life forces coursing beneath his fibrous 60-foot hide, stretching up the driveway, through the garage, out the back door, and into the patio, where he turned 90 degrees to the left, extended another 5 feet, then plunged down into the wet, dark earth. Undoubtedly, this enormous root was a "he". By prevailing cultural convention, destruction has been the province of males, and this root represented nature's destructive potential. He had heaved up a miniature concrete mountain range through my driveway, garage, and patio. His name, I decided, was Moby. Moby Root. That made me none other than Ahab. Ahab Homeowner, engaged in a hopeless battle against nature.

I had paid a fortune to a mercenary band with jackhammers and dump trucks who removed the concrete slabs covering driveway, garage floor, and patio. I stood, therefore, in awe of the root's power and his determination to fracture 60 feet of 4-inch concrete and the house's foundation until the door frames no longer tolerated their doors.

Ficus microcarpa nitida, the Indian laurel fig, visits destruction upon us all here. Its roots obstruct clay sewage lines, and those growing near or on the surface travel a hundred feet or more, rupturing concrete. The roots raise sidewalks like drawbridges that kids use as skateboard ramps. Unwitting contractors planted the trees throughout southern California about 50 years ago, and now we pay the price.

Surveying the disaster, I realized that, besides being enormous, Moby was unique. He had grown straight to the patio. Normally, Ficus roots meander without any apparent goal in mind. Moby, however, was different. He seemed to know where water lay before he pursued it. How could a root know that from 60 feet away?

Then Moby further astonished me. Years ago, the house's previous owner replaced the sewer line, and workers had cut a trench across the driveway. They'd cut the root and removed a 2-foot section. However, the root had since reconnected itself! I gazed on the evidence: a swollen knob on both ends where the wood had healed, and four new trunks about 11/2 inches in diameter, running parallel like pipes from the tree-side stub, across the 2-foot gap to the severed side, which must have lived for months without sap and nutrients.

My gaze followed Moby's length to the garage doorway where the root had flattened out as it entered and exited. To do that, it had to squeeze through the foundation's interface and the slab over it. The root had flattened like a ribbon, but once past the squeeze, turned left at 90 degrees and immediately returned to its natural form. Five feet beyond, it plunged into the wet, brown depths of a water seep caused by heavy rains.

Had Moby sensed the water's presence and traversed 60 feet through earth to reach it -- normally, roots grow toward gradients, toward higher concentrations of moisture or nutrient. Millimeter by millimeter, a root advances as cells behind the tip send "information" to the living substance. If no gradient exists -- if it has no "reason" to push in a particular direction -- the root twists, groping for water. Well, maybe other roots, but not Moby. His shape lay before me like the will of nature writ upon the soil.

The reason for his odd shape -- I don't know. Do some roots have a sense that perceives some undiscovered energy wavelength -- we may never know.

As for Moby Root, I stood in the warm, dry, southern California breeze, lashed to his broad back by the harpoon lines of financial ruin caused by the staggering cost of hired jackhammers and dump trucks. I brought my ax down. Again and again, the Ahab I had become fought against the inevitable until the ax cut the magnificent root. White sap, the blood of Ficus, poured forth. Then, as Moby's spirit twisted and writhed, I beckoned to my neighbors with my unbound arm to join me as I sank beneath the billowing swells of bankruptcy.

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