Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nature Despite Us

In 2007 Alan Weisman wrote an amazing book, The World Without Us. I love to revisit this book from time to time and immerse myself in an imaginative, yet fact-based and entirely plausible outcome  of some catastrophe: something that takes some species (us) but leaves others. For instance, the idea that frozen methane deposits encased in permafrost could suddenly burst into our warming atmosphere as the Arctic continues to melt - bad news for us but maybe a relief and an opportunity for the rest of Life:

In our absence, presumably plenty of wild and feral creatures will rush to fill our void and set up house in our abandoned spaces. Their numbers no longer culled by our lethal traffic, they should multiply with such abandon that humanity's total biomass - which eminent biologist E.O. WIlson estimates wouldn't fill the Grand Canyon - won't be missed for long. 
- The Petro Patch (p. 129), The World Without Us

A drag path for an oxen team pulling logs, circa 1920s. Blackwater NWR MD.

Weisman conducts this marvelous thought-experiment with an interesting question in mind: will we be missed? As I hike, paddle, and bike around the Mid-Atlantic and encounter places like the Cornwall Banks and the dying infrastructure of our once-industrial landscape, I often wonder at the speed of takeover nature employs when a human endeavor fails. I wonder if we will even be an afterthought! In our region, we don't have to wait 'for the end' to appreciate how nature invades and reclaims the anthropogenic landscape. Post-industrial landscapes revert quickly in our temperate and increasingly wet climate to a semi-wild state.

Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal is now the domain of frogs and salamanders.

While hiking or paddling or biking in what you think is a natural area, look around for patterns in the  landscape that seem out of place or different from the rest. Nature doesn't like straight lines and these stick out: constructed waterways, old hedgerows, abandoned roads. A single old tree in a mass of younger trees is a clue to a recent shift in land use: a former pasture, a yard tree in a deserted neighborhood.

A farmhouse, deserted in 1930s, is reclaimed.

Old lines of transportation: canals, railroad beds, farm lanes, logging roads, abandoned and no longer maintained, collapse or relax into the landscape. My favorite vernal pond is an old section of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, high above the river, closed in the 1860s and collapsed by a century of neglect. Easily accessible on a north and south mule path, it is a window into the resiliency of amphibians as they re-inhabit an area that was once industrial and devoid of trees. On March evenings we set up our camps chairs on the path and, donning our headlamps, enjoy the early spring chorus of singing frogs and the wriggling of salamanders as they head into the shallow canal to mate and lay eggs. Barn owls and vultures nest in the open attic of a deserted farmhouse nearby while bats have reclaimed the widening gaps of the clapboard sidings. Frogs in the canal, bats in the house, owls in the attic.

Once a busy country crossroads where a school, post office, country store, and three roads converged. Shenandoah NP, VA
The 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon is May 2. We've altered and exploited the natural landscape to such an extent that hundreds of species have disappeared from the continent during our short tenancy. But nature always bats last! As a contemporary local example, a long-deserted town, on the shoulders of the Blue Ridge Mountains is now home to a healthy population of wildlife - some of it so rare during the heyday of this little logging town, that to mention a sighting of a bear would raise skeptical eyebrows. We love to hike this area, the old Corbin Hollow area on Robinson Mountain. The hustle and bustle of this early 1900s crossroads town was facilitated by a two lane paved road, quite the boast for it's day!  Now it is a single track trail traversed by backpackers, coyote, black bear, and deer.

Barn foundation sprouts a forest. An pasture or 'wolf oak' stands where livestock shaded up and is now a bee tree.

What would happen if our path follows that of the passenger pigeon?  Species that depend on us or that are bred by us are ill suited to life in a human-less landscape and would soon follow us into oblivion  Rats and mice would decline as human stores of food and waste are depleted. Predators will be quick to return. Plants will facilitate the destruction of the built environment from highways to tall buildings.  Based on Weisman's book, The History Channel produced this dramatic film "Life After People" - not exactly for a young audience, but I know the older kids and adults will find it hard to look away after one day, a week, a year, five, twenty five.. I think it's a tad dramatic but worth the telling for some fun and creative what-if's. I liked the book much more, however.

The plants that takeover our deserted homesteads and crumbling cities, however, will most likely not be native species. They are, in fact, already at work in our more neglected areas: purple loosestrife, ailanthus, Japanese honeysuckle, and kudzu - all introduced accidentally or intentionally by humans from other continents. But English ivy will probably succumb to the native Virginia creeper, so there is that bit of native revenge. As our region warms, southern mammals will continue their northern spread, faster without our interference. Opossums, originally from South America will march double-time to New England. Manatee will fully colonize the Chesapeake. Armadillo will skitter happily into our abandoned farmlands en masse.

Three years ago I encountered this manatee while kayaking in Havre de Grace, MD. A climate change migrant!

As a thought-experiment, imagining the Mid-Atlantic without us adds great fun to an afternoon hike or bike ride. In a city park or suburban trail, whip out the sketch book and draw the scene gone wild. Working with a middle school class of boys, we imagined and then sketched Baltimore street scenes a century after people had vanished. Of course they included herds of elephants and prides of lions, escaped from the zoo! Far from being a doom-and-gloom exercise, creating a future world of plants and animals re-inhabiting a landscape can be a wonderful entry into storytelling and art for kids and adults. Imagining a re-wilding of familiar places reminds us that our time here is, like all species, just a fleeting moment in the larger story of geologic time. 


Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (2007)

Post-apocalyptic literature can be categorized as  'speculative non-fiction' if well researched and supported by scientific evidence and prediction. But some critics of Weisman's book labeled it science fiction fantasy. You decide. Either way, the manatees are coming!  

Is a species-specific or family-specific extinction possible? Yes, says Elizabeth Kolbert. It's happened before and can happen - or is happening - again! Learn the difference between background extinctions, extinction events, and the sometimes surprising after-effects...

1 comment:

  1. When we went kayaking down in the Guana River, our guide said that if humans leave the world would recover quite nicely without us in probably 100 years. But humans can't recover so well if we let other species vanish. Puts us in perspective.