World after Humans?
Best-selling science writer Alan Weisman comes to Cullowhee
by Rob Neufeld
We all should read more science. It has become so godlike these days.
Technical scientists play God. Naturalists sing Gaia’s praises and warn of the Apocalypse. Scientists clash with Fundamentalists over truth and heresy.
The new face of science comes to Western Carolina University in a bright light Apr 7, as Alan Weisman, author of the bestselling book, “The World without Us,” speaks in Coulter Auditorium. He is one of several great authors participating in the Spring Literary Festival, Apr. 3-7. (See info box.)
The world after humans
“Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished,” Weisman writes in the “Prelude” to his book. “How long would it take to recover lost ground and restore Eden to the way it must have gleamed and smelled the day before Adam, or Homo habilis, appeared?”
Weisman begins by giving a glimpse of Bialowieza Forest in Poland-Belorussia, still in a primeval state. And then he starts showing how the modern world would crumble and transform, if humans were gone.
“It starts with wood-frame construction,” he writes, particularly at the flashing around chimneys. Water enters. Trusses collapse. Wrought iron survives.
Manhattan floods, subways first. Chimps take over at Olduvai Gorge. Kenya’s killer cut flower industry stops sucking water out of the region.
In Turkey, the Hagia Sophia remains standing, minus its minarets; and the underground city in the volcanic region lasts through the geological era.
Plastics and synthetic rubber form land-and-seascapes. Chickens flourish amid explosions in Texas’ abandoned oil fields. All over, flowers keep breathing leached heavy metals for thousands of years.
Rock-a-bye, rational baby
Mountaintop removal in West Virginia gets a few pages in Weisman’s breathtaking selection of scenarios. Though humans have been a scourge, there have been examples of harmonious living in history.
Nonetheless, Weisman concludes with two hopes. Miracles and prayers.
“There will be many surprises,” Doug Erwin, the Smithsonian’s expert on extinctions, promised Weisman.
“Who would’ve predicted the existence of turtles?” Erwin added. “That an organism would essentially turn itself inside out, pulling its shoulder girdle inside its ribs to form a carapace?”
Paranormalists, Weisman reports, “insist that our minds are transmitters that, with special effort, can focus like lasers to communicate across great distances, and even make things happen…That may seem far-fetched, but it’s also a definition of prayer.”
Science as savior?
This year’s editor, Freeman Dyson, groups and sequences the entries. Space exploration leads to inward-looking neuroscience; wonders of nature precede ecological scenarios; and the book concludes with stories of good stewardship around the world.
Dyson ratifies hope in science and scientists. For instance, Kathleen McGowan writes in her piece, “Out of the Past,” scientists have discovered something called “memory reconsolidation.”
Memories get changed every time one accesses them; and scientists can erase specific memories by blocking a certain enzyme or protein at the moment of re-remembering. In addition to nightmarish uses, the procedure has benefits, such as curing phobias and addictions. “Turning traumatic memories into regular bad memories…That’s all we want to do,” one scientist says.
Dan Stap, one of the nature-gazers in the anthology, also looks to good scientists.
In “Flight of the Kuaka,” he tells of his participation in a bird-tagging mission in the mucky wetlands of New Zealand. The bird, a bar-tailed godwit (a shorebird related to the sandpiper) sets records flying eight days without food and water from Alaska.
To accomplish this, Stap writes, “the godwit’s body undergoes a remarkable change: its intestines and gizzard…shrink, allowing more space to store fat.”
The tagging project aims to claim the godwit’s spaces, threatened by South Korean golf course communities. Still, global warming may affect wind patterns and disrupt the route through five wind systems that the godwits have charted.
Science on the mount
In one essay, “Purpose Driven Life” by Brian Boyd, the volume addresses religious matters.
“Does evolution by natural selection rob life of purpose, as so many have feared?” Boyd asks, and continues, “The answer is no.”
Boyd goes on to cast the story of evolution as efforts by organisms to attain immortality. Art and religion are the two highest-level achievements along these lines.
And what have we here in Western North Carolina, so rich in religious thinking, ecological initiative, and biological enterprise? Do we have writers contributing to the noteworthy body of science and nature writing?
Thomas Rain Crowe’s “Zoro’s Field” (2005), reflected on back-to-nature living on a wilderness homestead near Saluda. John Lane, Associate Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Wofford College (and, at times, a mountain man) develops programs and writes books that make the ecology-literature connection.
One of Lane’s books is “Chattooga: Descending into the Myth of Deliverance River” (2004).
Last year, Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, Brevard College Associate Professor, published one of my favorite books on the region’s wildlife and ecology, “Mountain Nature: A Seasonal Natural History of the Southern Appalachians.” Also last year, Mallory McDuff of Warren Wilson College published “Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God's Earth.”
Peter Loewer’s and George Ellison’s botanical and zoological writings are highlights of the local science writing scene.
Wildacres Retreat hosts science-writing workshops. Michael Windelspecht teaches science writing at Appalachian State University. Irene Russell teaches the subject at UNC Asheville. Thomas Rain Crowe directs the Southern Nature Project (www.southernnature.org).
I wonder if this region might foster even more of a voice.
The World without Us by Alan Weismann (Picador trade paper, 2007, 426 pages, $15)
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010 ed. Freeman Dyson (Houghton Mifflin, Mariner paperback original, 2010, 413 pages, $14.95).
More about the festival
Western Carolina University’s ninth annual Spring Literary Festival features eleven programs, which take place in University Center Theatre, unless otherwise noted. Call 227-7264 or visit litfestival.org for more info.