N THE WORLD WITHOUT US, Alan Weisman offers an utterly original approach to questions of humanity's impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth. The World Without Us Author: Alan Weisman Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us · Read more · Without Conscience. Without pumping, New York . resembling the first life on Earth outlasts “Alan Weisman offers us a sketch of where we stand as a species that is both.
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Print Friendly, PDF & Email Print. world-without-us-alan-weisman-imperialism- decline-multipolarity. (Fozzman / Flickr). In his bestseller. Editorial Reviews. From Publishers Weekly. Starred Review. If a virulent virus—or even the The World Without Us - Kindle edition by Alan Weisman. Download. Journalist Alan Weisman has worked in 58 countries and on all seven continents. His books, including his bestselling The World Without Us.
Du aber, Mensch, wie lange lebst denn du? The firmament is blue forever, and the Earth Will long stand firm and bloom in spring. But, man, how long will you live?
Except for Ana Maria's hair, still thick and black after seven decades, everything about her recalled a dried legume pod. Her gray eyes resembled two pale fish trapped in the dark eddies of her face. An hour past dawn, they and everyone in the village except Ana Maria were already drunk. To prime the men for going out to slash and burn the forest to clear a new cassava patch for Ana Maria's brother, they were drinking chicha—gallons of it.
Two girls with grass braided in their hair passed among the throng, refilling chicha bowls and serving dishes of catfish gruel. To the elders and guests, they offered hunks of boiled meat, dark as chocolate.
But Ana Maria Santi, the oldest person present, wasn't having any. Although the rest of the human race was already hurtling into a new millennium, the Zapara had barely entered the Stone Age. Until cassava arrived, palm hearts were their main vegetable.
For protein they netted fish and hunted tapirs, peccaries, wood-quail, and curassows with bamboo darts and blowguns. They still do, but there is little game left. Then something happened far away, and nothing in their world—or anybody's— was ever the same.
What happened was that Henry Ford figured out how to mass-produce automobiles. The demand for inflatable tubes and tires soon found ambitious Europeans heading up every navigable siteian stream, claiming land with rubber trees and seizing laborers to tap them. By the s, rubber plantations in Southeast Asia had undermined the market for wild South American latex. Some posed as Quichua, living among the enemies who now occupied their lands.
Others escaped into Peru. He had come, he said, to finally meet his relatives. The government recognized their territorial rights, albeit to only a shred of their ancestral land, and UNESCO bestowed a grant to revive their culture and save their language. By then, only four members of the tribe still spoke it, Ana Maria Santi among them.
The forest they once knew was mostly gone: After a single harvest, each plot had to be fallowed for years; in every direction, the towering forest canopy had been replaced by spindly, second-growth shoots of laurel, magnolia, and copa palm.
The Zapara had survived into the 21st century, but they had entered it tipsy, and stayed that way. They still hunted, but men now walked for days without finding tapirs or even quail. They had resorted to shooting spider monkeys, whose flesh was formerly taboo. Again, Ana Maria pushed away the bowl proffered by her granddaughters, which contained chocolate-colored meat with a tiny, thumbless paw jutting over its side.
She raised her knotted chin toward the rejected boiled monkey. Nevertheless, lately we have had a creeping sense of what Ana Maria means. Even if we're not driven to cannibalism, might we, too, face terrible choices as we skulk toward the future?
A generation ago, humans eluded nuclear annihilation; with luck, we'll continue to dodge that and other mass terrors. But now we often find ourselves asking whether inadvertently we've poisoned or parboiled the planet, ourselves included. Our world, some respected voices warn, could one day degenerate into something resembling a vacant lot, where crows and rats scuttle among weeds, preying on each other. If it comes to that, at what point would things have gone so far that, for all our vaunted superior intelligence, we're not among the hardy survivors?
The truth is, we don't know. We may be undermined by our survival instincts, honed over eons to help us deny, defy, or ignore catastrophic portents lest they paralyze us with fright.
If those instincts dupe us into waiting until it's too late, that's bad. If they fortify our resistance in the face of mounting omens, that's good. More than once, crazy, stubborn hope has inspired creative strokes that snatched people from ruin. So, let us try a creative experiment: Suppose that the worst has happened.
Human extinction is a fait accompli. Nor by some grim eco-scenario in which we agonizingly fade, dragging many more species with us in the process.
Instead, picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Unlikely perhaps, but for the sake of argument, not impossible.
Say a Homo sapiens-speciRc virus—natural or diabolically nano-engineered— picks us off but leaves everything else intact. Or some misanthropic evil wizard somehow targets that unique 3. Or say that Jesus—more on Him later—or space aliens rapture us away, either to our heavenly glory or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy.
Look around you, at today's world. Your house, your city. Leave it all in place, but extract the human beings. Wipe us out, and see what's left. How soon would, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines?
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? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces? How would it undo our monumental cities and public works, and reduce our myriad plastics and toxic synthetics back to benign, basic elements? Or are some so unnatural that they're indestructible? And what of our finest creations—our architecture, our art, our many manifestations of spirit?
Are any truly timeless, at least enough so to last until the sun expands and roasts our Earth to a cinder? For a sense of how the world would go on without us, among other places we must look to the world before us. But even if that record were complete, the future won't perfectly mirror the past. Since some things we've done are likely irrevocable, what would remain in our absence would not be the same planet had we never evolved in the first place.
Yet it might not be so different, either. Nature has been through worse losses before, and refilled empty niches. And even today, there are still a few Earthly spots where all our senses can inhale a living memory of this Eden before we were here.
Inevitably they invite us to wonder how nature might flourish if granted the chance. Since we're imagining, why not also dream of a way for nature to prosper that doesn't depend on our demise? We are, after all, mammals ourselves. Every life-form adds to this vast pageant. Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us? But if you were raised somewhere in the temperate swathe that crosses much of North America, Japan, Korea, Russia, several former Soviet republics, parts of China, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe—including the British Isles—something within you remembers it.
If instead you were born to tundra or desert, subtropics or tropics, pampas or savannas, there are still places on Earth kindred to this puszcza to stir your memory, too.
Puszcza, an old Polish word, means "forest primeval. Think of the misty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. Oaks, shrouded with half a millennium of moss, grow so immense here that great spotted woodpeckers store spruce cones in their three-inch-deep bark furrows.
The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcracker's croak, a pygmy owl's low whistle, or a wolf's wail, then returns to stillness.
The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forest's core hearkens to fertility's very origins.
In the Bialowieza, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Together those species stock a sylvan larder that provides for weasels, pine martens, raccoons, badgers, otters, fox, lynx, wolves, roe deer, elk, and eagles. More kinds of life are found here than anywhere else on the continent—yet there are no surrounding mountains or sheltering valleys to form unique niches for endemic species.
For centuries, it stayed that way. When the PolishLithuanian union was finally subsumed by Russia, the Bialowieza became the private domain of the tsars. Little else changed under communist rule, except for construction of some elite hunting dachas—in one of which, Viskuli, an agreement was signed in dissolving the Soviet Union into free states.
Yet, as it turns out, this ancient sanctuary is more threatened under Polish democracy and Belarusian independence than it was during seven centuries of monarchs and dictators.
Forestry ministries in both countries tout increased management to preserve the Puszcza's health. Seeing elders with trunks seven feet wide, or walking through stands of the tallest trees here—gigantic Norway spruce, shaggy as Methuselah—should seem as exotic as the site or Antarctica to someone raised among the comparatively puny, second-growth woodlands found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Instead, what's astonishing is how primally familiar it feels. Andrzej Bobiec recognized it instantly. As a forestry student in Krakow, he'd been trained to manage forests for maximum productivity, which included removing "excess" organic litter lest it harbor pests like bark beetles. Then, on a visit here he was stunned to discover 1 0 times more biodiversity than in any forest he'd ever seen. It was the only place left with all nine European woodpecker species, because, he realized, some of them only nest in hollow, dying trees.
He was hired by the Polish national park service. In various international journals, he blistered official policies that asserted that "forests will die without our thoughtful help," or that justified cutting timber in the Bialowieza's surrounding buffer to "reestablish the primeval character of stands.
To keep his own memory connected, for years he daily laced his leather boots and hiked through his beloved Puszcza. Yet although he ferociously defends those parts of this forest still undisturbed by man, Andrzej Bobiec can't help being seduced by his own human nature.
Alone in the woods, Bobiec enters into communion with fellow Homo sapiens through the ages. A wilderness this pure is a blank slate to record human passage: Charcoal layers in the soil show him where gamesmen once used fire to clear parts of the forest for browse.
Stands of birch and trembling aspen attest to a time when Jagiello's descendants were distracted from hunting, perhaps by war, long enough for these sun-seeking species to recolonize game clearings. In their shade grow telltale seedlings of the hardwoods that were here before them. Whenever Bobiec happens on an anomalous shrub like hawthorn or on an old apple tree, he knows he's in the presence of the ghost of a log house long ago devoured by the same microbes that can turn the giant trees here back into soil.
Any lone, massive oak he finds growing from a low, clover-covered mound marks a crematorium. Its roots have drawn nourishment from the ashes of Slavic ancestors of today's Belorusians, who came from the east years ago. Their sandstone and granite headstones from the s, mossy and tumbled by roots, have already worn so smooth that they've begun to resemble the pebbles left by their mourning relatives, who themselves long ago departed.
Andrzej Bobiec passes through a blue-green glade of Scots pine, barely a mile from the Belarusian border. The waning October afternoon is so hushed, he can hear snowflakes alight. Suddenly, there's a crashing in the underbrush, and a dozen wisent—Bison bonasus, European bison—burst from where they've been browsing on young shoots. Just wisent remain in the wild, nearly all of them here—or just half, depending on what's meant by here.
Once, following World War I, bison from zoos were brought here to replenish a species nearly extirpated by hungry soldiers. Now, a remnant of a Cold War threatens them again.
Andrzej Bobiec's Belorusian counterpart and fellow activist, Heorhi Kazulka, is a pale, sallow invertebrate biologist and former deputy director of Belarus's side of the primeval forest. He was also fired by his own country's park service, for challenging one of the latest park additions—a sawmill.
He cannot risk being seen with Westerners. Inside the Brezhnev-era tenement where he lives at the forest's edge, he apologetically offers visitors tea and discusses his dream of an international peace park where bison and moose would roam and breed freely.
The Pushcha's colossal trees are the same as those in Poland; the same buttercups, lichens, and enormous red oak leaves; the same circling whitetailed eagles, heedless of the razor-wire barrier below. In fact, on both sides, the forest is actually growing, as peasant populations leave shrinking villages for cities. In this moist climate, birch and aspen quickly invade their fallow potato fields; within just two decades, farmland gives way to woodland.
Under the canopy of the pioneering trees, oak, maple, linden, elm, and spruce regenerate. Given years without people, a true forest could return. The thought of rural Europe reverting one day to original forest is heartening. But unless the last humans remember to first remove Belarus's iron curtain, its bison may wither away with them.
Then stand back. Cleans them right off the face of the Earth. They all go. Back when they told you what your house would cost, nobody mentioned what you'd also be paying so that nature wouldn't repossess it long before the bank. Even if you live in a denatured, postmodern subdivision where heavy machines mashed the landscape into submission, replacing unruly native flora with obedient sod and uniform saplings, and paving wetlands in the righteous name of mosquito control—even then, you know that nature wasn't fazed.
Or you've been colonized by termites, carpenter ants, roaches, hornets, even small mammals. It always wants in. After we're gone, nature's revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne. It starts with wood-frame construction, the most widely used residential building technique in the developed world.
It begins on the roof, probably asphalt or slate shingle, warranted to last two or three decades—but that warranty doesn't count around the chimney, where the first leak occurs. As the flashing separates under rain's relentless insistence, water sneaks beneath the shingles.
Newer isn't necessarily better. I'm sitting on a pile of low bids! On the one hand, that's all right: Soon they're rusting, and their grip begins to loosen. That presently leads not only to interior leaks, but to structural mayhem. Besides underlying the roofing, the wooden sheathing secures trusses to each other. The trusses—premanufactured braces held together with metal connection plates—are there to keep the roof from splaying. But when the sheathing goes, structural integrity goes with it.
As gravity increases tension on the trusses, the H-inch pins securing their now-rusting connector plates pull free from the wet wood, which now sports a fuzzy coating of greenish mold. Beneath the mold, threadlike filaments called hyphae are secreting enzymes that break cellulose and lignin down into fungi food.
When the heat went off, pipes burst if you lived where it freezes, and rain is blowing in where windows have cracked from bird collisions and the stress of sagging walls.
Even where the glass is still intact, rain and snow mysteriously, inexorably work their way under sills. As the wood continues to rot, trusses start to collapse against each other. Eventually the walls lean to one side, and finally the roof falls in.
That barn roof with the byinch hole was likely gone inside of 10 years. Your house's lasts maybe 50 years; , tops. While all that disaster was unfolding, squirrels, raccoons, and lizards have been inside, chewing nest holes in the drywall, even as woodpeckers rammed their way through from the other direction.
If they were initially thwarted by allegedly indestructible siding made of aluminum, vinyl, or the maintenance-free, portland-cement-cellulose-fiber clapboards known as Hardie planks, they merely have to wait a century before most of it is lying on the ground. Its factory-impregnated color is nearly gone, and as water works its inevitable way into saw cuts and holes where the planks took nails, bacteria are picking over its vegetable matter and leaving its minerals behind.
Fallen vinyl siding, whose color began to fade early, is now brittle and cracking as its plasticizers degenerate. The aluminum is in better shape, but salts in water pooling on its surface slowly eat little pits that leave a grainy white coating. But water and air have been conspiring to convert it to zinc oxide. That leaves the chimney, where all the trouble began. Brambles and wild grapevines are snaking around steel gas pipes, which will rust away before another century goes by.
Only the bathroom tile, the chemical properties of its fired ceramic not unlike those of fossils, is relatively unchanged, although it now lies in a pile mixed with leaf litter. After years, what is left depends on where in the world you lived.
Amid the trees, half-concealed by a spreading understory, lie aluminum dishwasher parts and stainless steel cookware, their plastic handles splitting but still solid.
Over the coming centuries, although there will be no metallurgists around to measure it, the pace at which aluminum pits and corrodes will finally be revealed: The chromium alloys that give stainless steel its resilience, however, will probably continue to do so for millennia, especially if the pots, pans, and carbon-tempered cutlery are buried out of the reach of atmospheric oxygen. Then again, lack of knowledge of how to duplicate them could be a demoralizing frustration—or an awearousing mystery that ignites religious consciousness.
If you were a desert dweller, the plastic components of modern life flake and peel away faster, as polymer chains crack under an ultraviolet barrage of daily sunshine. With less moisture, wood lasts longer there, though any metal in contact with salty desert soils will corrode more quickly. Still, from Roman ruins we can guess that thick cast iron will be around well into the future's archaeological record, so the odd prospect of fire hydrants sprouting amidst cacti may someday be among the few clues that humanity was here.
Although adobe and plaster walls will have eroded away, the wrought iron balconies and window grates that once adorned them may still be recognizable, albeit airy as tulle, as corrosion eating through the iron encounters its matrix of indigestible glass slag. The results are still around today to admire, but we don't often emulate them, because quarrying, cutting, transporting, and fitting stone require a patience we no longer possess. Nor, absent the availability of a few thousand slaves, is it cheap, especially compared to another Roman innovation: Today, that brew of clay, sand, and a paste made of the calcium of ancient seashells hardens into a man-made rock that is increasingly the most affordable option for Homo sapiens urbanus.
What happens, then, to the cement cities now home to more than half the humans alive? Before we consider that, there's a matter to address regarding climate. If we were to vanish tomorrow, the momentum of certain forces we've already set in motion will continue until centuries of gravity, chemistry, and entropy slow them to an equilibrium that may only partly resemble the one that existed before us. That former equilibrium depended on a sizeable amount of carbon locked away beneath Earth's crust, much of which we've now relocated into the atmosphere.
Instead of rotting, the wood frames of houses may be preserved like the timbers of Spanish galleons wherever rising seas pickle them in salt water.
From Cairo to Phoenix, desert cities rose where rivers made arid soils livable. Then, as population grew, humans seized control of those aquatic arteries, diverting them in ways that allowed for even more growth. But after people are gone, the diversions will soon follow them.
Only eons later, when old mountains have worn away and new ones risen, will young streams cutting fresh canyons through sediments reveal what once, briefly, went on here. The sheer titanic presence of a New York City resists efforts to picture it wasting away. The events of September showed only what human beings with explosive hardware can do, not crude processes like erosion or rot.
And even that once-inconceivable calamity was confined to just a few buildings. By marrying its queen, Jagiello had united Poland and his duchy of Lithuania into a European power. The sculpture portrays him on horseback following his victory at the Battle of Grunwald in Six sad years later, the Polish government gave it to New York as a symbol of its courageous, battered survivors.
When Dr. Eric Sanderson leads a tour through the park, he and his flock usually pass Jagiello without pausing, because they are lost in another century altogether—the 17th. At its Bronx Zoo headquarters, Sanderson directs the Mannahatta Project, an attempt to re-create, virtually, Manhattan Island as it was when Henry Hudson's crew first saw it in His team has scoured original Dutch documents, colonial British military maps, topographic surveys, and centuries of assorted archives throughout town.
They've probed sediments, analyzed fossil pollens, and plugged thousands of bits of biological data into imaging software that generates three-dimensional panoramas of the heavily wooded wilderness on which a metropolis was juxtaposed.
With each new entry of a species of grass or tree that is historically confirmed in some part of the city, the images grow more detailed, more startling, more convincing. Their goal is a block-by-city-block guide to this ghost forest, the one Eric Sanderson uncannily seems to see even while dodging Fifth Avenue buses. He can trace the shoreline of the long, narrow lake that lay along what is now 59th Street, north of the Plaza Hotel, with its tidal outlet that meandered through salt marsh to the East River.
Except for some massive, unmoveable schist outcrops in Central Park and at the island's northern tip, Manhattan's textured terrain was squashed and dumped into streambeds, then planed and leveled to receive the advancing city. Later, new contours arose, this time routed through rectilinear forms and hard angles, much as the water that once sculpted the island's land was now forced underground through a lattice of pipes. In a city that buried its rivers, he observes, "rain still falls. It has to go somewhere.
It would begin very quickly, with the first strike at the city's most vulnerable spot: Every day, they must keep 13 million gallons of water from overpowering New York's subway tunnels. Once, Manhattan was 27 square miles of porous ground interlaced with living roots that siphoned the Whatever the roots didn't take settled into the island's water table.
In places, it surfaced in lakes and marshes, with the excess draining off to the ocean via those 40 streams— which now lie trapped beneath concrete and asphalt.
Today, because there's little soil to absorb rainfall or vegetation to transpire it, and because buildings block sunlight from evaporating it, rain collects in puddles or follows gravity down sewers—or it flows into subway vents, adding to the water already down there. Below st Street and Lenox Avenue, for example, a rising underground river is corroding the bottom of the A, B, C, and D subway lines. Whenever it rains hard, sewers clog with storm debris—the number of plastic garbage bags adrift in the world's cities may truly exceed calculation—and the water, needing to go somewhere, plops down the nearest subway stairs.
Add a nor'easter, and the surging Atlantic Ocean bangs against New York's water table until, in places like Water Street in lower Manhattan or Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, it backs up right into the tunnels, shutting everything down until it subsides. Schuber and Briffa have no idea what will happen then. Think about those pumps: New York's subway system, an engineering marvel in , was laid underneath an already-existing, burgeoning city.
As that city already had sewer lines, the only place for subways to go was below them.
Shading his eyes with his white hard hat, Schuber peers down into a square pit beneath the Van Siclen Avenue station in Brooklyn, where each minute gallons of natural groundwater gush from the bedrock.
Such pumps run on electricity. When the power fails, things can get difficult very fast. Had the Hudson River actually burst through the PATH train tunnels that connect New York's subways to New Jersey, as was greatly feared, the pump train—and possibly much of the city—would simply have been overwhelmed. In an abandoned city, there would be no one like Paul Schuber and Peter Briffa to race from station to flooded station whenever more than two inches of rain falls—as happens lately with disturbing frequency— sometimes snaking hoses up stairways to pump to a sewer down the street, sometimes navigating these tunnels in inflatable boats.
With no people, there would also be no power. The pumps will go off, and stay off. Within 36 hours, the whole thing could fill. Before long, streets start to crater. With no one unclogging sewers, some new watercourses form on the surface. Within 20 years, the water-soaked steel columns that support the street above the East Side's 4, 5, and 6 trains corrode and buckle.
Well before then, however, pavement all over town would have already been in trouble. According to Dr. Whenever it is, the repeated freezing and thawing make asphalt and cement split.
When snow thaws, water seeps into these fresh cracks. When it freezes, the water expands, and cracks widen. Call it water's retaliation for being squished under all that cityscape. Pretty six-sided crystals suggest snowflakes so gossamer it's hard to conceive of them pushing apart slabs of sidewalk. It's even more difficult to imagine carbon steel water pipes built to withstand 7, pounds of pressure per square inch exploding when they freeze.
Yet that's exactly what happens. But in the postpeople world, there's no one left to continually patch New York. The weeds are followed by the city's most prolific exotic species, the Chinese ailanthus tree. Even with 8 million people around, ailanthus—otherwise innocently known as the tree-of-heaven—are implacable invaders capable of rooting in tiny chinks in subway tunnels, unnoticed until their spreading leaf canopies start poking from sidewalk grates.
As soil long trapped beneath pavement gets exposed to sun and rain, other species jump in, and soon leaf litter adds to the rising piles of debris clogging the sewer grates. The early pioneer plants won't even have to wait for the pavement to fall apart. Starting from the mulch collecting in gutters, a layer of soil will start forming atop New York's sterile hard shell, and seedlings will sprout.
Since trains stopped running there in , the inevitable ailanthus trees have been joined by a thickening ground cover of onion grass and fuzzy lamb's ear, accented by stands of goldenrod. In some places, the track emerges from the second stories of warehouses it once serviced into elevated lanes of wild crocuses, irises, evening primrose, asters, and Queen Anne's lace.
In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freezethaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Where they do, rain leaks in, bolts rust, and facing pops off, exposing insulation.
If the city hasn't burned yet, it will now. But with no firemen to answer the call, a dry lightning strike that ignites a decade of dead branches and leaves piling up in Central Park will spread flames through the streets. Within two decades, lightning rods have begun to rust and snap, and roof fires leap among buildings, entering paneled offices filled with paper fuel.
Gas lines ignite with a rush of flames that blows out windows. Rain and snow blow in, and soon even poured concrete floors are freezing, thawing, and starting to buckle. Burnt insulation and charred wood add nutrients to Manhattan's growing soil cap. Native Virginia creeper and poison ivy claw at walls covered with lichens, which thrive in the absence of air pollution.
Gutters buried under tons of leaf litter provide new, fertile ground for native oaks and maples from city parks. Arriving black locust and autumn olive shrubs fix nitrogen, allowing sunflowers, bluestem, and white snakeroot to move in along with apple trees, their seeds expelled by proliferating birds.
Ahmad, a hearty silver-haired man whose hands talk in descriptive circles, believes that process will begin faster than people might think. In a future that portends stronger and more-frequent hurricanes striking North America's Atlantic coast, ferocious winds will pummel tall, unsteady structures. Like a gap in the forest when a giant tree falls, new growth will rush in. Gradually, the asphalt jungle will give way to a real one.
It's unlikely that they'll come back, because most canopy trees here long ago stopped regenerating. Every resident native species now harbors its own pathogen: As if that weren't enough, as the NYBG forest became an island of greenery surrounded by hundreds of square miles of gray urbanity, it became the primary refuge for Bronx squirrels.
With natural predators gone and no hunting permitted, there's nothing to stop them from devouring every acorn or hickory nut before it can germinate.
Which they do. There is now an eight-decade gap in this old forest's understory.
According to Chuck Peters, curator of the NYBG's Institute of Economic Botany, exotics such as ailanthus and cork trees, both from China, now account for more than a quarter of this forest.
Plants from the Americas changed not only ecosystems in European countries but also their very identities: In a phrase coined by the American geographer Alfred Crosby, this ecological imperialism helped European conquerors to permanently stamp their image on their colonies.
In New York, the European starling—now a ubiquitous avian pest from Alaska to Mexico— was introduced because someone thought the city would be more cultured if Central Park were home to each bird mentioned in Shakespeare.
To what extent the Mannahatta Project's virtual past resembles the Manhattan forest to come depends on a struggle for North America's soil that will continue long after the humans that instigated it are gone. The NYBG's herbarium also holds one of the first American specimens of a deceptively lovely lavender stalk.
Once established, it moved up streams and rivers as its seeds stuck to the muddy feathers or fur of whatever it touched. By the 21st century, purple loosestrife was at large even in Alaska, where panicked state ecologists fear it will fill entire marshes, driving out ducks, geese, terns, and swans. Yet once humans are gone, the native plants left to compete with a formidable contingent of alien species in order to reclaim their birthright will have some homeground advantages.
Many foreign ornamentals—double roses, for example—will wither with the civilization that introduced them, because they are sterile hybrids that must propagate through cuttings.
Other pampered colonials like English ivy, left to fend for themselves, lose to their rough American cousins, Virginia creeper and poison ivy. Still others are really mutations, forced by highly selective breeding. If they survive at all, their form and presence will be diminished. Untended fruits such as apples—an import from Russia and Kazakhstan, belying the American Johnny Appleseed myth—select for hardiness, not appearance or taste, and turn gnarly. Except for a few survivors, unsprayed apple orchards, defenseless against their native American scourges, apple maggots and leaf miner blight, will be reclaimed by native hardwoods.
Introduced garden plot vegetables will revert to their humble beginnings. Broccoli, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, and cauliflower regress to the same unrecognizable broccoli ancestor. Descendants of seed corn planted by Dominicans in Washington Heights parkway medians may eventually retrace their DNA back to the original Mexican teosinte, its cob barely bigger than a sprig of wheat.
One thing is certain: Gradually, bacteria will feed on residues of fuel, laundry solvents, and lubricants, reducing them to morebenign organic hydrocarbons—although a whole spectrum of man-made novelties, ranging from certain pesticides to plasticizers to insulators, will linger for many millennia until microbes evolve to process them.
Yet with each new acid-free rainfall, trees that still endure will have fewer contaminants to resist as chemicals are gradually flushed from the system.
Over centuries, vegetation will take up decreasing levels of heavy metals, and will recycle, redeposit, and dilute them further.
As plants die, decay, and lay down more soil cover, the industrial toxins will be buried deeper, and each succeeding crop of native seedlings will do better. Even the deeply mourned American chestnut, devastated everywhere after a fungal blight entered New York around in a shipment of Asian nursery plants, still hangs on in the New York Botanical Garden's old forest—literally by its roots. It sprouts, sends up skinny shoots two feet high, gets knocked back by blight, and does it again.
One day, perhaps, with no human stresses sapping its vigor, a resistant strain will finally emerge. Once the tallest hardwood in American eastern forests, the resurrected chestnut trees will have to coexist with robust non-natives that are probably here to stay—Japanese barberry, Oriental bittersweet, and surely ailanthus.
Everyone has something to offer. But botanically, we're xenophobic. We love native species, and want aggressive, exotic plant species to go home. Trim and youthful in his early fifties, Peters has spent much of his life in forests.
His field research has revealed that pockets of wild palm nut trees deep in the site, or of durian fruit trees in virgin Borneo, or of tea trees in Burma's jungles, aren't accidents. Once, humans were there, too. As will this one. In fact, it has done so since soon after Homo sapiens appeared here.
Eric Sanderson's Mannahatta Project is re-creating the island as the Dutch found it—not some primordial Manhattan forest no human had set foot on, because there wasn't one. In its place came what we know as the temperate eastern forest of North America: In the clearings grew shrubs of chokecherry, fragrant sumac, rhododendron, honeysuckle, and assorted ferns and flowering plants.
Spartina and rose mallow appeared in the salt marshes. As all this foliage filled these warming niches, warm-blooded animals followed, including humans. A dearth of archeological remains suggests that the first New Yorkers probably didn't settle, but camped seasonally to pick berries, chestnuts, and wild grapes.
They hunted turkey, heath hens, ducks, and white-tailed deer, but mainly they fished. The surrounding waters swarmed with smelt, shad, and herring.
Brook trout ran in Manhattan streams. Oysters, clams, quahogs, crabs, and lobsters were so abundant that harvesting them was effortless. Large middens of discarded mollusk shells along the shores were the first human structures here. By the time Henry Hudson first saw the island, upper Harlem and Greenwich Village were grassy savannas, cleared repeatedly with fire by the Lenni Lenape for planting.
Much of the island was still as green and dense as the Bialowieza Puszcza.
Subsequently, two more made it into town, as well as a wild turkey. The rewilding of New York City may not wait until people leave. Later, he took over the bridges that link Staten Island to the mainland and Long Island. Del Tufo himself spans an ocean. His olive features bespeak Sicily; his voice is pure urban New Jersey. His bridges are under a constant guerrilla assault by nature.
Its arsenal and troops may seem ludicrously puny against steel-plated armor, but to ignore endless, ubiquitous bird droppings that can snag and sprout airborne seeds, and simultaneously dissolve paint, would be fatal.
Del Tufo is up against a primitive, but unrelenting foe whose ultimate strength is its ability to outlast its adversary, and he accepts as a fact that ultimately nature must win.
Not on his watch, though, if he can help it. First and foremost, he honors the legacy he and his crew inherited: Peter's Cathedral: Yet Jerry Del Tufo knows exactly how these bridges, without humans to defend to them, would come down. It wouldn't happen immediately, because the most immediate threat will disappear with us. It's not, says Del Tufo, the incessant pounding traffic. The GW alone has enough galvanized steel wire in its three-inch main cables to wrap the Earth four times. Oil, antifreeze, and snowmelt dripping from cars wash salt into catch basins and crevices where maintenance crews must find and flush it.
With no more people, there won't be salt. There will, however, be rust, and quite a bit of it, when no one is painting the bridges. At first, oxidation forms a coating on steel plate, twice as thick or more as the metal itself, which slows the pace of chemical attack.
For steel to completely rust through and fall apart might take centuries, but it won't be necessary to wait that long for New York's bridges to start dropping. The reason is a metallic version of the freeze-thaw drama.
Rather than crack like concrete, steel expands when it warms and contracts when it cools. So that steel bridges can actually get longer in summer, they need expansion joints. In winter, when they shrink, the space inside expansion joints opens wider, and stuff blows in. Wherever it does, there's less room for the bridge to expand when things warm up. With no one painting bridges, joints fill not only with debris but also with rust, which swells to occupy far more space than the original metal.
The concrete could crack where the beam is bolted to the pier. Or, after a few seasons, that bolt could shear off. Eventually, the beam could walk itself right off and fall. Rust that forms between two steel plates bolted together exerts forces so extreme that either the plates bend or rivets pop, says Del Tufo. Arch bridges like the Bayonne—or the Hell Gate over the East River, made to hold railroads—are the most overbuilt of all. They might hold for the next 1, years, although earthquakes rippling through one of several faults under the coastal plain could shorten that period.
Should any of their sections separate, the Atlantic Ocean would rush in. Until then, more coyotes follow the footsteps of the intrepid ones that managed to reach Central Park. Deer, bear, and finally wolves, which have reentered New England from Canada, arrive in turn. By the time most of its bridges are gone, Manhattan's newer buildings have also been ravaged, as wherever leaks reach their embedded steel reinforcing bars, they rust, expand, and burst the concrete that sheaths them. Older stone buildings such as Grand Central—especially with no more acid rain to pock their marble—will outlast every shiny modern box.
Missing, however, are nearly all fauna adapted to us. Rising water, tides, and salt corrosion have replaced the engineered shoreline, circling New York's five boroughs with estuaries and small beaches. With no dredging, Central Park's ponds and reservoir have been reincarnated as marshes.
Without natural grazers—unless horses used by hansom cabs and by park policemen managed to go feral and breed— Central Park's grass is gone. A maturing forest is in its place, radiating down former streets and invading empty foundations. Coyotes, wolves, red foxes, and bobcats have brought squirrels back into balance with oak trees tough enough to outlast the lead we deposited, and after years, even in a warming climate the oaks, beeches, and moisture-loving species such as ash dominate.
With bridges finally down, tunnels flooded, and Manhattan truly an island again, moose and bears swim a widened Harlem river to feast on the berries that the Lenape once picked. Amid the rubble of Manhattan financial institutions that literally collapsed for good, a few bank vaults stand; the money within, however worthless, is mildewed but safe.
Not so the artwork stored in museum vaults, built more for climate control than strength. Without electricity, protection ceases; eventually museum roofs spring leaks, usually starting with their skylights, and their basements fill with standing water. Ceramics, however, are doing fine, since they're chemically similar to fossils. Unless something falls on them first, they await reburial for the next archaeologist to dig them up.
Corrosion has thickened the patina on bronze statues, but hasn't affected their shapes. Even if the Statue of Liberty ends up at the bottom of the harbor, Appelbaum says, its form will remain intact indefinitely, albeit somewhat chemically altered and possibly encased in barnacles. That might be the safest place for it, because at some point thousands of years hence, any stone walls still standing—maybe chunks of St. Paul's Chapel across from the World Trade Center, built in from Manhattan's own hard schist—must finally fall.
Three times in the past , years, glaciers have scraped New York clean. The mature beech-oak-ash-ailanthus forest will be mowed down. Then it was hauled to the dump and returned to the Earth. The next toolmaker to arrive or evolve on this planet might discover and use it, but by then there would be nothing to indicate that it was us who put it there.
The reasons involve continental drift, the Earth's mildly eccentric orbit, its wobbly axis, and swings in atmospheric carbon dioxide. For the last few million years, with the continents basically where we find them today, ice ages have recurred fairly regularly and lasted upwards of , years, with intervening thaws averaging 12, to 28, years. The last glacier left New York 11, years ago. Many scientists now guess that the current intermission before the next frigid act will last a lot longer, because we've managed to postpone the inevitable by stuffing our atmospheric quilt with extra insulation.
Comparisons to ancient bubbles in Antarctic ice cores reveal there's more C 0 floating around today than at any time in the past , years. If people cease to exist tomorrow and we never send another carbon-bearing molecule skyward, what we've already set in motion must still play itself out. Among the human-crafted artifacts that will last the longest after we're gone is our redesigned atmosphere. He finds he must draw on all those disciplines to describe how humans have turned the atmosphere, biosphere, and the briny deep into something that, until now, only volcanoes and colliding continental plates have been able to achieve.
Volk is a lanky man with wavy dark hair and eyes that scrunch into crescents when he ponders. Leaning back in his chair, he studies a poster that nearly fills his office bulletin board.
It portrays atmosphere and oceans as a single fluid with layers of deepening density. Until about years ago, carbon dioxide from the gaseous part above dissolved into the liquid part below at a steady rate that kept the world at equilibrium. Now, with atmospheric C 0 levels so high, the ocean needs to readjust.
But because it's so big, he says, that takes time. As it saturates, that slows. It loses some C 0 to photosynthesizing organisms.
So is the land, where excess carbon will cycle through soil and life-forms that absorb but eventually release it. So where can it go? On top, it's basically closed to any extra matter, except for letting in a few meteors. At the bottom, the lid is slightly open—to volcanoes. But it's much longer. Carbonic acid dissolves soil and minerals that release calcium to groundwater. Rivers carry this to the sea, where it precipitates out as seashells. That will take about , years.
One concern is that even as tiny sea creatures are locking carbon up in their armor, increased C 0 in the oceans' upper layers may be dissolving their shells.
Another is that the more oceans warm, the less C 0 they absorb, as higher temperatures inhibit growth of C0 -breathing plankton. Still, Volk believes, with us gone the oceans' initial 1,year turnover could absorb as much as 90 percent of the excess carbon dioxide, leaving the atmosphere with only about 10 to 20 extra parts per million of C 0 above the ppm preindustrial levels. During the time that the extra carbon is being slowly sopped up, however, palmettos and magnolias may be repopulating New York City faster than oaks and beeches.
In a third, wishful scenario, the two extremes might blunt each other enough to hold temperatures suspended in between.
Depending on exactly how much of it and Antarctica go, Manhattan might become no more than a few islets, one where the Great Hill once rose above Central Park, another an outcropping of schist in Washington Heights. Ice Eden Had humans never evolved, how might the planet have fared? Or was it inevitable that we did? And if we disappeared, would—or could—we, or something equally complicated, happen again?
The Great African Rift Valley is the continuation of a tectonic parting of the ways that began even earlier in what is now Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, then ran south to form the course of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Then it widened into the Red Sea, and is now branching down two parallel cleavages through the crust of Africa. Lake Tanganyika fills the Rift's western fork for miles, making it the longest lake in the world. Just as annual snowfalls preserve a history of climate in glaciers, pollen grains from surrounding foliage settle in the depths of bodies of freshwater, neatly separated into readable layers by dark bands of rainy-season runoff and light seams of dry-season algal blooms.
At ancient Lake Tanganyika, the cores reveal more than the identities of plants. They show how a jungle gradually turned to fire-tolerant, broad-leafed woodland known as miombo, which covers vast swathes of today's Africa. There they planted crops such as finger millet, whose signature also appears.
All this and more can be learned from mud recovered with 10 meters of steel pipe lowered on a cable and, aided by a vibrating motor, driven by the force of its own weight into the lake bed—and into , years of pollen layers. A next step, says University of Arizona paleolimnologist Andy Cohen, who heads a research project in Kigoma, Tanzania, on Lake Tanganyika's eastern shore, is a drill rig capable of penetrating a 5million- or even million-year core.
Such a machine would be very expensive, on the order of a small oildrilling barge. But it would be worth it, says Cohen, because this is Earth's longest, richest climate archive. But there's good reason to believe that circulation at the tropics is also involved. We know a lot about climate change at the poles, but not at the heat engine of the planet, where people live. The pollens would be the same that our ancestors inhaled, even broadcast from the same plants they touched and ate, because they, too, emerged from this Rift.
East of Lake Tanganyika in the African Rift's parallel branch, another lake, shallower and saline, evaporated and reappeared various times over the past 2 million years. A stream draining Tanzania's volcanic highlands to the east gradually cut a gorge through those layers meters deep.
The gray rubble of Olduvai Gorge, now a semidesert bristling with sisal, eventually yielded hundreds of stone-flake tools and chopper cores made from the underlying basalt. Some of these have been dated to 2 million years ago. In , 25 miles southwest of Olduvai Gorge, Mary Leakey's team found a trail of footprints frozen in wet ash.
They were made by an australopithecine trio, likely parents and a child, walking or fleeing through the rainy aftermath of an eruption of the nearby Sadiman volcano. Their discovery pushed bipedal hominid existence back beyond 3. From here and from related sites in Kenya and Ethiopia, a pattern emerges of the gestation of the human race. It is now known that we walked on two feet for hundreds of thousands of years before it occurred to us to strike one stone against another to create sharp-edged tools.
The dust we breathe here, blown by zephyrs that leave a coating of gray tuff powder on Olduvai's sisals and acacias, contains calcified specks of the very DNA that we carry. Animal bones in these places—some from hippo, rhino, horse, and elephant species that became extinct as we multiplied; many of them honed by our ancestors into pointed tools and weapons—help us know how the world was just before we emerged from the rest of Mammalia.
What they don't show, however, is what might have impelled us to do so. But at Lake Tanganyika, there are some clues. They lead back to the ice. At one time, these dropped through gallery rain forest. Then came miombo woodland. Today, most of the escarpment has no trees at all. Its slopes have been cleared to plant cassava, with fields so steep that farmers are known to roll off them. An exception is at Gombe Stream, on Lake Tanganyika's eastern Tanzanian coast, the site where primatologist Jane Goodall, a Leakey assistant at Olduvai Gorge, has studied chimpanzees since The national park that surrounds it is Tanzania's smallest—only 52 square miles.
Where it opened into woodland and savanna, lions and cape buffalo lived. Although chimps are the most intensely studied primates at Gombe, its rain forest is also home to many olive baboons and several monkey species: During , a Ph. Red-tailed monkeys have small black faces, white-spotted noses, white cheeks, and vivid chestnut tails.
With different coloring, body size and vocalizations, no one would confuse blue and redtailed monkeys in the field. Yet in Gombe they now apparently mistake one another, because they have begun to interbreed.
From the forest floor, she scrapes their feces, in which fragments of intestinal lining attest to a mix of DNA resulting in a new hybrid. Only she thinks it's something more. Genetics indicate that at some point 3 million to 5 million years ago, two populations of a species that was the common ancestor to these two monkeys became separated.
In Gombe, the opposite has apparently occurred. At some point, as new forest filled the barrier that once divided these two species, they found themselves sharing a niche.
Or, maybe even with advantage over the parents, because the habitat has changed. Such as evolve. Something similar may have happened here before. Once, when its Rift was only beginning to form, Africa's tropical forest filled the continent's midriff from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.
Great apes had already made their appearance, including one that in many ways resembled chimpanzees. The American physical anthropologist Richard Wrangham has given this undiscovered ape a name: Pan prior. Prior, that is, to Pan troglodytes, today's chimpanzee, but also prior to a great dry spell that overtook Africa about 7 million years ago. What caused this was an ice age advancing from the poles. With much of the world's moisture locked into glaciers that buried Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia, and much of North America, Africa became parched.
No ice sheets reached it, although glacial caps formed on volcanoes like Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. But the climatic change that fragmented Africa's forest, more than twice the size of today's site, was due to the same distant white juggernaut that was smashing conifers in its path.
That faraway ice sheet stranded populations of African mammals and birds in patches of forest where, over the next few million years, they evolved their separate ways.
At least one of them, we know, was driven to try something daring: In southwest Uganda, there's a place where it's possible to see our history reenacted in microcosm. Chambura Gorge is a narrow ravine that cuts for 10 miles through a deposit of dark brown volcanic ash on the floor of the Rift Valley. For chimpanzees, this oasis is both a refuge and a crucible.
Lush as it is, the gorge is barely yards across, its available fruit too limited to satisfy all their dietary needs. So from time to time, brave ones risk climbing up the canopy and leaping to the rim, to the chancy realm of the ground. With no ladder of branches to help them see over the oat and citronella grasses, they must raise themselves on two feet.
They select a tree they calculate they can reach without becoming food themselves. Then, as we also once did, they run for it. Usually everything that comes from nature is returned back to it eventually. Something we humans invented only 70 years ago, but that cannot possibly be biodegraded by nature and turned back into its original form: plastic.
Plastic cannot be broken down by microorganisms over time and therefore, will leave an impact on nature forever. Rain, wind and the oceans can erode plastic, just like rocks, but that only makes it smaller, not disappear.
Eventually, all plastic will be crushed into tiny particles and fibers.
Nevertheless, these will stay around, letting plastic reach places its never gone before, thanks to the wind and water carrying it everywhere. Scientists have verified this by feeding such tiny particles to bottom-feeding worms. They usually feed on organic material, but all of the plastic particles passed right through their digestive track and came back out with no effect or harm done.
Lesson 2: Predators will rise again and domestic farm animals will be their lunch. Many animals once prevailing in only small quantities now count billions in numbers, mostly for the purpose of serving as our food. But what if we were gone? More importantly, almost none of the animals we domesticate are predators, which are outnumbered right now. Without humans holding back the carnivores and protecting the animals they prey on, endangered species like tigers, lions, crocodiles, bears and even komodo dragons will explode in numbers.
Only for a while though. The large imbalance would be countered by another imbalance in favor of the predators, until the supply and demand of predators and prey evens out again. Lesson 3: Only a very small number of human creations will last for the following millennia. Yet, when we look at the half-life of most of these things, they become laughable in the context of history. Most buildings, even skyscrapers, for example, are mere constructions of glass, steel and concrete, all of which will be withered away by water and wind in a few decades.
There are some exceptions though.