Sunday, July 01, 2007

By the shores of Gitche Gumee

The Scientific American reviews Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, an examination of what the planet would look like if shorn of its human burden.

To see how the world would look if humans were gone, I began going to abandoned places, places that people had left for different reasons. One of them is the last fragment of primeval forest in Europe. It’s like what you see in your mind’s eye when you’re a kid and someone is reading Grimm’s fairy tales to you: a dark, brooding forest with wolves howling and tons of moss hanging off the trees. And there is such a place. It still exists on the border between Poland and Belarus. It was a game reserve that was set aside in the 1300s by a Lithuanian duke who later became king of Poland. A series of Polish kings and then Russian czars kept it as their own private hunting ground. There was very little human impact. After World War II it became a national park. You go in there and you see these enormous trees. It doesn’t feel strange. It almost feels right. Like something feels complete in there.

I’m not suggesting that we have to worry about human beings suddenly disappearing tomorrow, some alien death ray taking us all away. On the contrary, what I’m finding is that this way of looking at our planet—by theoretically just removing us—turns out to be so fascinating that it kind of disarms people’s fears or the terrible wave of depression that can engulf us when we read about the environmental problems that we have created and the possible disasters we may be facing in the future. Because frankly, whenever we read about those things, our concern is: Oh, my God, are we going to die? Is this going to be the end? My book eliminates that concern right at the beginning by saying the end has already taken place. For whatever reason, human beings are gone, and now we get to sit back and see what happens in our absence. It’s a delicious little way of reducing all the fear and anxiety. And looking at what would happen in our absence is another way of looking at, well, what goes on in our presence. ...

What about our greatest acts of art and expression? Our most beautiful sculpture? Our finest architecture? Will there be any signs of us at all that would indicate that we were here at one point? This is the second reaction that I always get from people. At first they think, This world would be beautiful without us. But then they think, Wouldn’t it be sad not to have us here? And I don’t think it’s necessary for us to all disappear for the earth to come back to a healthier state.

The mosses, wolves. The damp forest. It's beautiful alright, but only to beings for whom beauty is a reality. For whom pattern, order, harmony and shape possess an attraction of their own. The wolves themselves see with different eyes. And though the wolves were once our brothers in the days before beauty, the path back to that time is barred. And we ourselves are in the way.


Blogger whiskey_199 said...

The guy is a self-indulgent moron who caters to other self-indulgent morons with too much money and time.

People who have to work for a living don't give a damn about this garbage.

What's lost in all this navel-gazing is that real progress can be made in habitat preservation. If for nothing else the natural pharmacopia that could cure a specific cancer, heart disease, or rheumatism that perhaps you or someone you know and love suffers from.

7/01/2007 11:05:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

The defect of enviromentalism and animal rights as forms of politics is that they are anti-human. Their logical end is a planet devoid of human life. And the logical response is an abandoment of morality and law. (If they are no more important than fishes I might as well kill them all and rape their women). No system of political thought can be valid if it can not assert Cicero's maxim (and the collophon of Locke's Second Treatise) Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto.

7/01/2007 11:51:00 PM  
Blogger mouse said...

"The mosses, wolves. The damp forest." Sounds ghoulish to me. You see one old growth forest you've seen them all: tall, sterile, silent. The only thing exciting is the silence. I think that's innate to man: silence is awe. Except that in this mossy forest you soon realize it's silent because it's dead. No little critters, just some large prey and some large predators who don't live in that forest after all but merely transit through. Winter here, out in the woodlot leading to the ravine with cornfields on either side, I can hear that same silence, except that it's pregnant, the woods is in rest and resuscitation; in the Spring there will be new life.

The best thing you can do with an old growth forest is cut something down or burn it.

Note: There does seem to be something in most humans that I call "nostalgia for the primitive". None of us have ever known that quality of the primitive so it can't be a personal memory, but it too, like the awe of silence, seems to be something innate: an ache for an age before evil before man.

7/02/2007 12:48:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

an ache for an age before evil before man.

I don't know if being swallowed whole by a tyrannosaurs is properly called evil but certainly unpleasant and terminal nonetheless.

Weisman and his ilk, who consider the rest of us as miserable hunks of polluting carbon, are encouraged to make a contribution to Gaia by blasting their ashes into the sun.

7/02/2007 02:58:00 AM  
Blogger lgude said...

I think 'that nostalgia for the primitive' arises from our instincts which evolved during the time we were wholly part of nature. Various aspects of primitive life attract the unwary because they unconsciously appeal to our instincts where the primitive lives on. The primeval forest. The social equality of the hunter gather. That vision of past perfection appears in our founding myths - the Garden of Eden, the early Caliphates - in all visions of a Golden Age because it is encoded in our DNA.

7/02/2007 03:02:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Ok, then,
Answer this:
Your choice, the Forest Primeval complete with Wolves and Tyrannosaurs,
or a bunch of Throat Slashing Raisin Seekers?

7/02/2007 04:12:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Bad Choice

7/02/2007 04:12:00 AM  
Blogger KrishnaKirti said...

Wretchard, you never fail to impress me with your knowledge of American culture. Having lived in Michagan's UP for some time, I'm familiar with "Gitche Gumee", and I've lived near enough to its shores, no less. I would say most Americans have never heard that term.

7/02/2007 06:00:00 AM  
Blogger karrde said...

Well, there is a stretch of land "By the shores of the Gitche Gumee" which approximates the old-growth forests described in the article. There are also many stretches of forest which are more recent, but with very little signs of human touch.

It is beautiful, but it is a reminder that the most visible parts of human society are also among the most transient. The old mining towns (in the region I'm familiar with) contained many structures which were about a century old, and needed regular attention to keep them standing as historical relics. In several places, a collection of townships which used to dot the railroad line have now disappeared. A few old wooden structures stand, but little else.

The world would be a vastly different place if humans disappeared overnight. Not that anyone would wish it so.

It is one thing to reflect on the large (but not overpowering) effect humans have on their climate. It is another thing to wish that the whole world were empty of people.

As yet another reminder of transience--the lake Gitche Gumee (and her sister lakes in the Great Lakes system) were once covered in thick sheets of glacier-ice. There's been a good deal of warming since then, and not all global warming is bad.

7/02/2007 06:30:00 AM  
Blogger karrde said...

quick question, krishnakarti: where in the UP do you live?

I spent 3-4 years in the Keweenaw, and wish that I could have lived there longer. More for the community than the wilderness, though the wilderness was entrancing.

7/02/2007 06:37:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

BC (Not the Belmont Club) North of Alert Bay is the only place on Earth I am aware of with a combination of non-extreme climate, and primeval purity.
(Michigan is EXTREME!)

7/02/2007 07:14:00 AM  
Blogger KrishnaKirti said...

karrde, I lived in Sault Ste Marie for two years and Marquette for five. I was living in the UP when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. I've been to the Keweenaw peninsula only once. Always wanted to see Isle Royale, but never got to it.

7/02/2007 07:29:00 AM  
Blogger Red River said...

"I think 'that nostalgia for the primitive' arises from our instincts which evolved during the time we were wholly part of nature."

Nature does not give a crap about us collectively or individually. Forests burn. Wolves hunt. Bears attack. Snow falls. Drought kills. Volcanoes erupt. Bacteria invades. Pain, death, and despair await us every day.

"Various aspects of primitive life attract the unwary because they unconsciously appeal to our instincts where the primitive lives on. The primeval forest. The social equality of the hunter gather."

It appeals to our flight from reality, our willingness to suspend our own reason.

There is no equality among the hunter gatherer. Maybe one out of 20 men have the patience, intelligence, and determination to hunt well. The rest are there to support him. If this one man gets hurt, the tribe starves.

7/02/2007 07:41:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

The world is slowly coming to an end. But now quickening and then slowing down. Always the direction is the same. A slow divide of future history. One part of man goes to space. One part of man stays on Terra Firm a.

We live betwixt times now. The great age of earth exploration from Columbus behind. The great ages of space exploration to come.

But there are deeper ages of men concluding and beginning. You can see it most plainly at the planetarium of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu HI . The curators have purposely linked the star navigating abilities of the Polynesians to the star maps of the space farer's.

Coastal voyaging has been around for 50,000 years or so. But cross ocean voyaging-- which requires that men navigate by the stars has only been available for a couple thousand years. And in deep time this knowledge of the stars happened nearly simultaneously all over the world about 5000 years ago. Why do we know that? Because the temples from Stonehenge to Egypt were built to track the stars. And because the wanderers from Melanesia and Europe using the stars to cross oceans arrived in Hawaii within 1000 years of each other.

It is no bad thing to keep the memory of other ages of men. They are needed even as we retain in our brains the old appendages of lizard brains. (insert joke here. remember, timing.)

I am beside myself. Jesus, I love you. Thank you for enabling me to enter into the presence of the Lord.

we live in deeply settled times now. Fagots in the high places work their old corruption. Civilizations are renewed at their boundaries. The final fireworks for earth will come when the deserts are turned green.

7/02/2007 07:54:00 AM  
Blogger Red River said...

"I was living in the UP when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank"

The operators of the EF got the Coast Guard and the ABS to agree to a change in the amount of tonnage the EF could carry. This also lowered her freeboard from 14.5 feet to 11 feet.

Accumulated minor damage, malfunctioning shore and ship instruments to include radar, and a tired crew all combined with the increased tonnage and loss of freeboard to create a classic Normal Accident.

7/02/2007 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger Isegoria said...

I come to The Belmont Club for thoughtful conservative commentary, not the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that labels a science writer a "self-indulgent moron with too much money and time," because he is "navel-gazing" by exploring a thought experiment.

Oh, and KrishnaKirti, most Americans used to know about the shores of Gitche Gumee from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Hiawatha."

7/02/2007 08:00:00 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Isegoria, you are absolutely right.
I read the article, and it so happens I have a lot of experience in the structural failures of buildings here in NYC, so let me land some punches on the author in a more intellectual manner.

1. NYC subways would fill with water in only 2 days? False. As some might recall, NYC has already experienced complete power outages lasting more than that, and including the subways. The subways did not flood. All our ice cream melted, though. The article seems utterly ignorant of the fact that many tunnels are above the water table. We'd start to lose tunnels, deepest first, but the idea that 2 days of no pumping will submerge the entire system is balderdash.

2. Subterranean streams and erosion- correct, to a degree. Many buildings are in danger from this- I have personally seen some, with caverns underneath the basement. The UN building is in peril, as are some buildings on the upper east side. However, the author made it seem as if this was everywhere- it is not, only in some locations where this underground water exists.

3. The speed of collapse of buildings- entirely wrong. You would think, in the course of writing an article in which the buildings fall down, the author might do a little field research and document a case history of even one actual abandoned building which hasn't seen maintenance in years, just to check his theories. He did not. As it stands there are quite a few abandoned buildings, and there are others that have not seen real maintenance in decades.

4. Roads failing in months? - absurd. Most roads already don't see annual maintenance- according to Weismann, most of our roads should have already failed!

Granted, in the long run its the same end- the city gets flattened in the next ice age- but his view of the next few decades is so off from a scientific, intellectual point of view that "The guy is a self-indulgent moron" is probably an apt description. At the very least, it sounds like Weisman is an associate professor of journalism, and not a civil engineer. Ah, wait, Weisman IS an associate professor of journalism, and not a civil engineer. Alas, he could have gotten some engineer input on how and when buildings collapse, but that probably would have resulted in a less exciting, less sensational, and gosh darn it, less fun article.


7/02/2007 08:34:00 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

'that nostalgia for the primitive' encoded in our DNA.

You could be right
Sometimes I wonder though, if maybe the primitive--(even extinctionary :-) things like asteroid collisions) works better than, let's say, humans eating most of the wild shrimp available in a given area.

I am not sure that I have the scientific or philosophical background necessary to really answer the question--If it can be answered.

7/02/2007 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger Keitousama said...

Bah. Wrote an essay in the comments and figured, why waste valuable space here? I'll just put it on my blog.

Basically, Weisman's behind Science Fiction in this by about five years ago; an SF writer writer beat him to the punch. I mostly just kind of go from there.

Anyhow, click through if it sounds interesting.

7/02/2007 09:14:00 AM  
Blogger Keitousama said...

Um, the URL didn't see to copy.

=Hope this fixes it.

7/02/2007 09:17:00 AM  
Blogger Keitousama said...


7/02/2007 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

My reply to keit... do know that human extinction has been a staple of Speculative Fiction since the early days?

But the first statement of it turned into a whole theme that I know of was in 'The Earth Abides'. G. Stewart 1941

7/02/2007 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger dick stanley said...

Would Hiawatha have been at home in an old growth forest? Could he have found any game that wouldn't eat him first?

7/02/2007 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger eggplant said...

It is a funny thing about European forests. I'm an American by birth of European descent. When I walk through an American forest, I enjoy the beauty of the place but always feel like a visitor (I do not belong there). When I walk through an Australian rain forest (which are fantastic!), I feel like I'm on an alien planet. However when I'm in a European forest I feel like I'm "home". I know this is very subjective but there might be some sort of genetic memory at work here.

7/02/2007 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Off topic: Over at
, there is a very informative hypothetical conversation between George Bush and Vladimir Putin.

IMHO, Spengler and Wretchard are two of the brighest guys on the web.

7/02/2007 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger exhelodriver said...

That phrase is from the poem "Song of Hiawatha"

(Thank you, Classic Comics!!)

7/02/2007 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger J. Random American said...

I think W. is referencing the Longfellow poem "The Song of Hiawatha":

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis,
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

7/02/2007 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Dr. Ferris said...

This sounds like a win-win. All we have to do is take all teh limousine liberals and eco-nutters and leave them out in the wild, for all the lions and tigers and bears to eat.

Oh my.

7/02/2007 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger The Count said...

Reminds me of the W.B. Yeats poem popularized by the Waterboys "The Stolen Child"

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

O to escape the horrors of this world.

7/02/2007 12:30:00 PM  
Blogger dueler88 said...

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?

7/02/2007 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Papa Ray said...

dr. ferris got to the nitty gritty.

Every idotarian (with a degree or not) that I have met and talked to or read, thinks that man is the interloper, the problem and is going to be the cause of either our destruction or the destruction of everything.

Since this is a somewhat civilized blog, I won't tell you what I really think about that.

But I will tell you this.

No matter where man is, here or 500 light years from here, we will prevail and we will improve our situation.

If I want to walk through a still forest, by a babbling brook all I need do is to use my imagination or buy the movie.

The time for people like the author of this "book" is gone in the real world. In the world we live in now, man must learn and teach others how to survive, because man's most dangerous enemy is others like him that believe different than him and want to destroy him and his like.

Nature will have to just get out of the way and do the best it can (and it will), while we try and stay alive.

Papa Ray
West Texas

7/02/2007 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger Insufficiently Sensitive said...

Scientific American in its last few decades has been wholly captured by the misanthropic, anti-American ivory tower of the greenies. Those disbelieving that thought need only read its treatment of Bjorn Lomborg's 'Skeptical Environmentalist' and Lomborg himself. It is no longer scientific (it treats Lomborg as an heretic for going against received dogma of global warming, and instead of answering him in debate simply excommunicates him), nor American.

Small wonder that its reviewer would wallow in reverence for a forest with no recent sign of homo sapiens.

The problem with that notion is, h. sapiens is as 'natural' as any of the wee beasties in that forest. What the review reveals is a desire by the smart set to see its unsmart humanoid neighbors banished from the Garden of Eden.

A parallel of that desire is the recent movement by unelected greenie planners to stuff h. sapiens into overcrowded 'densified' urban ghettos, leaving the cognoscenti with uninterrupted rural vistas for their viewing and fawning pleasure, and unsubdivideable 'large acreages' in the leafy perimeter as exurban estates for the annointed.

7/02/2007 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger PresbyPoet said...

Earth Abides is copyright 1949. I have the Ace edition. It shows 1949. An interesting detail; much of the action takes place in a depopulated Berkeley California.

7/02/2007 04:18:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Befort said...

Dare I suggest that Wretchard actually intended a reference to Evangeline, not Hiawatha? This seems to fit his context better than Gitche Gumee --

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers --
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed!

Better poem too, for my money -- if only because any reference to Hiawatha inevitably suggests:

When he killed the Mudjokivis
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.

He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He, to get the cold side outside,
Put the warm side fur side inside.

That's why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

7/02/2007 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Dr. Ferris said...

Think about this:

What sort of ideology would one expect from people who consider the world better off without humans?

Would it be prudent to turn anything resembling real political power over to such people?

Might this go some way to explain why their 'utopian' philosophies were resposible for tens of millions of deaths in the 20th century?

Food for thought. "Inconvenient truths" if you will.

7/02/2007 06:32:00 PM  

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