In ages long past, seven scientists explored their young world. They were young scientists, fledgeling, still new to their art. And they were blind scientists, born to a race of people that never learned to see.
One morning they stumbled across a great obstacle in their path. It stretched towards the horizon and towered towards the sky, a tall and firm cylinder of incredible girth.
Upon inspection they knew this to be a tree. They had never seen a tree, of course, for they were blind. They had felt trees before, though, in the forests and hills of their village, though no tree was nearly so large as this. But when they felt the rough bark of this obstacle and felt how it towered towards the heavens, they knew that this obstacle was none other than the World Tree.
For their stories and their legends told of the World Tree which holds together earth and sky. Their culture had long spoken of the world tree that was the source of all life. And here, standing at its very base, the seven scientists rejoiced: for they had found the wellspring of their world.
Upon deliberation, they decided to refer to this great obstacle as only “The Trunk” – for though they believed this to be their world tree, these were scientists, and they knew that they must not assume what they could not see. “All we know”, they reasoned with pride, “is that we have found some great trunk of some great tree. Its leaves and its roots have yet to be discovered.” For they were scientists, and they knew that they should not trust the predictions of their stories and legends. In order to determine what type of leaves this great tree had, they would have to ascend the trunk and observe the leaves – nothing else would do.
They observed the Trunk as best they could from their vantage point upon the ground. But they were short, and their technology was limited, and they never managed to reach the leaves.
They did not let this dishearten them, for they had discovered a great tree of massive proportion. They had discovered what was likely the tree that held together earth and sky. They had discovered the Trunk. They returned to their village with the joyous news and there was much celebration. They showed the Trunk to their people, conducted what meager experiments they could, and lived out their days in peace teaching their arts to their progeny.
Later generations never gave up the quest for the leaves atop the Trunk. They dug their tools into the Trunk and tried to climb it, with no success. They invented ladders and built great elevators, though all they managed to find was a single wrinkled knot. The Trunk stretched on above them, seemingly endless, towering into the sky and they knew that if they wanted to feel the leaves they must go higher still.
The celebrations were nearly endless when these people first invented flying machines. They gained their freedom from gravity and from the ground and their freedom to explore the skies: but most importantly, they gained their freedom to explore the boughs of the Trunk.
All society held its breath as the first pilot approached the Trunk, climbing higher and higher, above the single gnarled knot, in search of the boughs of the world tree. But where he expected boughs he found instead a great wall of bark and wood.
The wall extended off into the horizon, suspended at an impossible height. The pilot, short on fuel, could not follow.
Word of this development shook the nation into action. What was this wall of wood? Were the world tree’s boughs thicker than anticipated? Were there leaves on the other end, or were the leaves higher still? The nation developed an impressive fleet and determined they must investigate. Half the fleet climbed up to impossible heights, still searching for the leaves, hoping to breast the top of the great wall. The second half of the fleet followed the wall off into the horizon, into far away lands.
And when they were at the end of their fuel following this great wall of bark hanging suspended in the air they did not find leaves. They found that the Trunk dove back into the ground. Astonished, they returned home with their discoveries in hand. The Trunk soared up into the sky, shot out over the earth, and descended back to ground. It was not the simple cylinder of the ancients: it was a whole geometry unto itself. Who could guess how many times the Trunk descended to the earth? Who could know it’s true shape until it was mapped? The society was abuzz. Truly, science was bringing them the secrets of reality.
Then the trunk shuddered, and bent, and moved.
Within one scant generation, the blind scientists discovered that the Trunk was not a tree at all. It was an enormous ancient elephant.
Unfortunately, the revelation got muddled as it trickled down from the scientists to the general population. The entire language of science – and indeed, the colloquial language of their culture – focused around trees, roots, boughs, and leaves. The language could express elephants, but the laypeople had difficulty setting down their floral allegories and idioms.
Elephant biology proved far more complex than the study of the bark (now known to be skin) of the Trunk. Teachers avoided introducing students to the idea of the Elephant until they’d mastered knowledge of the World Tree. For if you couldn’t understand the Elephant’s leg, what chance did you have understating the entire Elephant?
With only the best and brightest ever told about the elephant, the message that reached the laypeople was sorely distorted. Pop scientists grabbed at headlines that scientists technically couldn’t distpute:
Scientists discover there are four world trees!
The laypeople spoke among themselves in awed confusion, repeating statements that seemed to them to be nonsensical:
The true Trunk isn’t in any of the for World Trees. They say the true trunk is somewhere beyond.
The laypeople shook their heads and wondered. How could the trunk of the World Tree not be in the tree? Surely, the realm of science was beyond their simple minds.
Of the few students who could master elementary Trunk theory (the study of the elephant’s leg), fewer still went on to advanced trunk theory. Those that finally learned of the elephant were awed by the beautiful simplicity of the theory, by how it explained away the absurdities on the lips of the laypeople.
One such student in an advanced trunk theory class raised her hand and asked a question of her teacher.
“Why do we still call it the Trunk”, this student chimed, “if it’s really an elephant?”
“Well”, the teacher said, “we’ve always called it the Trunk, since time unremembered.”
“Yes, but why?” the student asked, curiosity shining in her eyes.
“Have you noticed that long silly nose?” the teacher replied. “It’s a defining feature of elephants, and it’s called a trunk.”