“Piper in the Woods” is a story by Philip K. Dick, first published in Imagination in February 1953. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 113–129.
Doctor Henry Harris is debriefing Corporal Westerburg, recently arrived at a major military base from Asteroid Y-3, a primary check-point for ships arriving from deep space to the inner solar system. A report Harris received points out that Westerburg is suffering from a delusion. The interview reveals that Westerburg believes he is a plant. While the delusion seems to involve no physical transformation, Westerburg has abandoned all of his labors and would just sit outside all day. Harris reports his findings to the Base Commander and suggests that he will need another interview.
One evening, Harris asked a robot for directions to Westerburg’s quarters. He finds that Westerburg is asleep and cannot be woken up during the night. He later finds his patient sitting out in the sun. They engage in a more philosophical conversation. Harris challenges the corporal on the necessity of work for a complex society. Westerburg counters that there is really no need for the work, particularly of extraterrestrial exploration. Later, the Base Commander, Cox, reports that more “plants” are arriving from Asteroid Y-3.
Twenty people claiming to be plants have arrived from the asteroid. Some of the patients include high level officers from the base. Harris notices that they are all entirely rational.
Harris shows Commander Cox a video of an interview he had with one of the patients, Robert Bardshaw, the former chief biologist at Asteroid Y-3. In the interview, he explains that he is not a biological plant, yet he has taken on the “psychology of a plant.” He also tells how he learned to become a plant from the “Pipers” that live on the woods of the Asteroid.
Harris travels to Asteroid Y-3. It has an Earth-like gravity thanks to a heavy core and is largely covered by woods, something that is apparently largely gone on Earth. Harris learns of new cases, bringing the total to around 10% of the total garrison. Lawrence Watts, the garrison chief, worries that important tasks are no longer being done at the base, since in this frontier setting everyone has an important job. Harris learns from Watts that there is an indigenous woodland population, apparently related to the Martians, but have a dark, copper color skin. They are considered civilized and cannot be the Pipers.
Harris visits the woods and comes across an indigenous girl. To Harris’ eyes she is beautiful and primordial. She speaks “Terran.” After a short conversation she expressed a willingness to take Harris to see the Pipers.
Later, Harris returns to the base on Earth with the mystery solved. The Pipers are a mass hypnosis that crew of the military base experience after facing the primitive existence of the indigenous people, and the beauty of the woods. The crew members being to relive their own innocent childhood and want to give up all adult responsibilities. As overworked technocrats, most of the crew is susceptible to this type of primitive existence, the exact opposite of their life on the base.
As Harris is unpacking his luggage from his trip to Asteroid Y-3 he begins to show some of the characteristics of a plant.
“Piper in the Woods” questions the necessity of the work ethic. The crew members who are becoming “plants” are rejecting the work regimen they are facing on Asteroid Y-3. As Harris explains in his diagnosis, “[a]ll their lives they’ve been schooling by complex modern society, fast temp and high integration between people. Constant pressure toward some goal, some job to be done.” Harris’ original patient questioned whether the work ethic was even necessary, suggesting that it was only leading to future unnecessary exploitation of the stars. As type of “blue flu,” the mass psychosis is effective, almost bringing an end to operations at the base. Unlike the frontiers in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, work is still necessary on Asteroid Y-3.
The natives of Asteroid Y-3 are modeled off the idea of the “noble savage.” Lacking civilization, living in harmony with nature, hunting and fishing, and enjoying a life without the rigors of modern industrial life, the natives are very close to how many Europeans views the indigenous people of the Americas. The woods and the life lived within them are, to the crew, the lost innocence of humanity. Harris eroticizes the native girl he meets, much like how Europeans eroticized the colonial other. “She was lovely, very lovely, with long dark hair that wound around her shoulders and arms. Her body was slim, very slender, with a supple grace to it that made him stare, accustomed as he was to various forms of anatomy. How silent she was! Silent and unmoving, staring down at the water. Time passed, strange, unchanging time, as he watched the girl.” She reflects everything that modern civilization is not, even pulling Harris into a fresh conception of time. As historians such as E.P. Thompson and thinkers such as Bob Black have pointed out, the clock is one of the central inventions of modernity. By becoming plants, the garrison crew is “going to Croatoan.”
The environmental politics of this story is unclear, but it does seem that Earth has been fully deforested. For the garrison on Asteroid Y-3, the woods are an overwhelming drive, an uncontrollable instinct drives them to visit it. The garrison commander simply is unable to stop his crew from exploring the woods near the base. The mass psychosis of becoming plants suggests a desire to return to a state before the environment on Earth was destroyed. Corporal Westerburg put forth just such a critique of progress saying, “If everyone felt the way I do they wouldn’t be going into outer space.”
Audiobook reading of “The Piper in the Woods”