Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A World Without Us

It has long been a fantasy of mine to hop back in time, say 200 years or so, to take a long look around at the place I live before permanent settlement arrived. Or maybe time warp back 15,000 years to a time when mile thick ice sheets had their violent way with the land. The mind, it wanders even further, to ice ages previous, to pine forests, back to precambrian swamps even, so foreign that we can scarcely conceive of their reality.

To get to flashback even a mere blip in time to 1800 would be a stark shock to a system used to row crops and small slivers of woodlands around our waterways. European ancestors, founding fathers immortalized in our county histories, had yet to bring large scale ag to the prairies.

"Native" Americans, long since crossed over the Bering land bridge had lived in the area for centuries, undoubtedly altering the land, but their exploits cannot equal what came with the plow.

There were no Indian dwellings along Walnut Creek when Joseph Dillon showed up in 1823 and broke up the thick sod two miles south of where the county courthouse still stands.

And we know what the land was like when he arrived.

Uplands were tallgrass prairie of a number of sturdy grasses and forbs. Lowlands in areas sculpted by thousands of years of water runoff through the till had at this particular point in the heating/cooling cycle been home to oak/hickory forest that fanned out miles over bisected ridges: snaking stands of various oaks, hickories, cherry, elm, willow, plum, mulberry, and others intermingled with the bluestem and switchgrass in irregular patterns of sweeping jigsaw fashion.

Creatures were here then. The deer, yes, buffalo, wolves, badgers, panthers, wild hen, turkey, avian species too numerous to list, all roaming through a maze of grassland and forest.

This seemingly idyllic picture changed, as it has at all points along the chain of human history, with the settlement of humans. We move in and rearrange the furniture to suit our needs. This story of Walnut Creek is indeed the story of everywhere humanity has stumbled upon since leaving the wild plains of Africa and populating most reaches of our planet.

Six billion of us here now. Things altered, certainly. But what of the alteration? Are we so arrogant as think ourselves the alpha and omega of creation, of life in all its forms? Questions perhaps we all entertain.

For me personally, my fantasy of seeing the past, what exactly these acres were like, how they looked, smelled, what life flowed out of and around them at points in time, is grounded in a deep sense of longing--of connection to this earth. A connection that is very human. This fantasy is, I think, a common one, an indulgence perhaps allowed of us as the top of the food chain.

A fantasy of the past may also be a fantasy of the future. Consider for a moment that all of us simply vanish tomorrow. Human life erased in an instant for whatever reason. What happens to the rest of life on Earth, to our creations, our marks upon the land, our civilizations? What might happen to other species, our cities, our countryside, all of our vain technologies?

In college I had a bumper sticker on the old Nova that stated, "visualize industrial collapse," not so much to be a contrarian or radical as to hypothesize what was to me a fundamental question. Is this planet so inextricably linked to humanity in its present form that we have forever altered the picture of life on her surface? These are the questions that Alan Weisman tackles in his book, The World Without Us.

In order to conjecture what will actually happen when we are finally gone, Weisman takes us journeying to some fascinating places: the forests of colonial (and modern day) New England, the DMZ between North and South Korea, the Panama Canal, Cyprus, all of them offering intriguing clues as to what the future may look like.

Not entirely a cautionary tale, Weisman doesn't condemn human endeavor as the fatal blow to the ecosystem that many enviros do, but rather views us through the lens of being part of the mega-cycle of life on the planet. He does so from the perspective of geologic time, the imperceptible scale that all ultimately must conform to.

Rather than the notion of humans standing apart from and impacting "nature," fanning out from Africa to pillage, plunder and destroy, we are collectively just organisms living within a system, and yet while the vast powers of time will erase our efforts, much of what our species has wrought (see: plastic polymers, enriched uranium, and the underground cities of Derinkuyu, Turkey) are simply elements of the cycle, ultimately broken down, altered into another form, or obfuscated altogether.

Still, in the short term, while humanity is yet the king of speciation, issues are here to be dealt with. Sustainability, ways that don't worsen our plight, possible answers to the path of our existence are discussed, but maybe not in ways you would predict. Weisman is a visionary with the refreshing perspective of the cool observer, taking solace in the notion of constant change as the catalyst for all.

But beyond the answers, the governmental policies, the despair of rusting modernity: When we go--and we will go--what happens?

Oak, hickory, grasses may yet return to subsume what has been built on my Walnut Creek ridges atop till of glaciers long melted, more ice may yet come and raze them, reworking, molding landform into something new, perhaps something beyond even my fantasies, beyond our science or even our collective imagination. Maybe the mega-mammals roam again, having found new life where ours has waned.

The cycle continuing, awaiting the sun's expansion to a red giant some five billion years hence, absorbing whatever has become of the world without us.

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