Plants, Survival, and Fantasy Mapping

In the realms of fantasy there are magical herbs, strange fruits, plants that walk about and attack, wood that is lighter than air, and so much more. Useful plants will be spread by those that use them, others will tenaciously cling to what they have, and still others will survive in wildly hostile environments where little else can live. The magic of plants is subtle, and slow – but it is deep and strong, a basic part of most fantasy worlds. Like all life… plants seek to reshape the world to suit themselves. Those that are best at it will spread and prosper.

Even in reality… soil deepens as leaves are shed. Rocks are broken up. Nitrogen is fixed. networks of roots hold soil and water. Some plants thrive in levels of salt, or heat, or dry conditions, or cold, that would destroy most others. Others host colonies of ants, or bribe birds and animals to carry their seeds, or nurture deadly fungi, or defend themselves with thorns, poisons, or tiny packages of explosive toxins. Yet others release compounds that attract carnivores when they are damaged by herbivores. As with human cities, plants help to shape their own microclimates. Single plants – often existing as clonal colonies – may be tens of thousands of years old. “Pando” – a single mass of Quaking Aspen roots with many trunks – covers 106 acres, and is a small biome of its own.

In fantasy settings… when the plants need water, or are threatened, or the weather turns too cold, they will respond, each in their own way. Some may summon (or animate parts of themselves as) more active guardians, some will toughen or swiftly heal themselves, some will shape the area around them creating enchanted lands, and many will seek to control the weather. At the most extreme, they may summon storms to stop forest fires, taking advantage of the way that a fire modifies the local weather for their own purposes. Overall… there will be a compromise in any given biome: as it rains, the call for “more water” will fade – and eventually some plants will start trying to stop the rain in favor of sun. The natural climactic patterns are shifted in favor of the plants – but not wholly overturned, simply because plants that are reasonably well adapted to the local weather patterns will need to spend less effort to modify it – leaving more energy with which to grow.

But when the climate shifts, the plants resist. Where some natural barrier prevents easy takeovers by better adapted plants, where a particular biome is well-established, or where the change is extreme enough, sufficient magic is available, and all the plants of a biome are threatened… the course of nature may be dammed as effectively as men may dam a river. Thus are “lost worlds” born – patches of ancient biomes, often complete with creatures long extinct elsewhere, located in the most unlikely of surroundings. Thus one may find sections of ancient dry-weather savanna on plateaus in rain forests, tropical jungles in hidden magical valleys in arctic wastelands, and so on. Moreover, such places are slow to change – for much of the ambient magic that helps speed life’s change and adaption elsewhere is being channeled into maintaining the environment.

And thus it is that fantasy maps show such sharp divisions and strange-by-earthly-standards juxtapositions. Rain forest may well abruptly give way to desert – indeed, they may in some ways complement each other. For the Rain Forest will be pulling in all available water to maintain itself in an area that would normally be a somewhat drier forest – thus helping the desert get rid of water to maintain its own status in a similar area. Both, of course, may be in a stalemated battle against the standard temperate forest that is attempting to invade through the mountain passes, wipe out the desert and the rain forest, and claim the territory for itself. For with the Rain Forest and the Desert effectively cooperating to split the existing temperate area into dry and wet areas rather than simply attempting to force it all to be wetter or drier, they are neutralizing the temperate forests natural advantage.

Such inadvertent alliances may extend to animals as well. A jungle that just happens to be filled with valuable spices, useful mystic herbs and fruits, and other valuable vegetable resources… will be cared for, defended, and even extended by the tribes that live there. A jungle that provides the locals with deadly poisons and beasts of war may well spread rapidly into less formidable biomes.

Does the desert provide a nurturing environment for the sensitive eggs of dragons and great reptiles? Does what grows there harvest the raw energies of the sun, producing magical gems and crystals filled with light? Do quests, visions, and purity grow where one can be surrounded by the power of light both day and night? Thus may the desert may gain its own defenders.

Just as importantly… most such biomes will host their own Realm-Spirits to guard and ward them.

So go right ahead oh designer of worlds. Put that desert next to that rain forest. A tropical lost world will do just fine in the middle of a glacier. Perhaps the people of the sunken realm cultivated air-trees as their realm slowly sank into the sea and now live a hundred fathoms down in a land of thick mists where the trees hold air around themselves. Does fire-flora like to root itself in molten lava? Do those cavernous fungus-farms defy entropy to feed a massive population of underworlders with no reasonable source of energy to make that possible? Why not? The plants of a fantasy realm are every bit as magical as the lightning-throwing sorcerers and cannonball-bouncing warriors. They’re just quieter and more patient about it.

In a time long since lost to myth and legend, the nigh-immortal LyjosAlfar of Malavon wove the great Planetary Bindings – laying their will upon the world itself, to bring a halt to the annoyance of erosion and geologic change for two hundred million years. During those ages, in a lonely forest now known as Malinlassor, the ancient stronghold, the Aursuntelyn grew – trees which were natural foci for life, binding, and nature magic.

Long after the age of the LyjosAlfar had passed the ancient Bindings were broken at last across much of the world – and millions of years of geologic change were unleashed in mere weeks. But an oncoming continent shattered against Malinlassor and the Aursuntelyn, mounding up in mountain-mazes of broken stone. For the Aursuntelyn had become foci for the Bindings, and they and the lands they sheltered endured, as they had endured the ages and every power that had been directed against them for two hundred million years. Beneath their sheltering branches many of Malavon’s other plants and creatures survived the cataclysm – and eventually found their way through the shattered mountains that now surrounded Malinlassor to spread out once more and fill the barren places of the reshaped world.

A few priests and mages of nature and life have been gifted with a talismanic bit of wood, a seed, or – greatest of all – a living Aursuntelyn sapling-staff, but such things can only be gained at the will of the realm-spirit of Malinlassor and the near-eternal trees themselves.

Even today, some twenty thousand years later, forests are still considered a place of refuge – and some among the long-lived races maintain ancient shrines, where young Aursuntelyn gather to themselves the deeply buried remnants of the ancient Planetary Bindings and the energies fed to them by generations of caretakers. If and when planetary catastrophe strikes again… then refuge-outposts of Malinlassor shall be near at hand.

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One Response

  1. I do like the visual of various biomes acting like empires/nation-states with competition for territory, invasions, and cultivation of resources and infrastructure.

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