January 3, 2009

Paradise with People?

My book group is reading "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman. The premise of the book is summed up in the title: what would happen to the earth if people suddenly disappeared. The author describes, in sometimes excruciating detail, the way human-made structures would quickly fail. He also tells of the effects of humans on the air, soil, and water of the planet. And he explains how the earth would begin to revert, heal, restore -- you pick the word -- if we were no longer here.

I've known in a small way what the book proposes all my life. On our farm, cleared land left for only a season or two quickly begins to sprout up with all kinds of things. The blueberry farm where I worked all through high school, acres and acres of cultivated bushes yielding a good crop and employing the neighborhood for three or four weeks each spring, is now all grown up in pines. The barn where we packed the berries is probably fallen down but it is hard to know since the road through what was once field is now completely gone. Places on the farm where timber was cut only fifteen years ago are again forest. For the farmer, maintaining the human enterprise is constant work, so it is not surprising to me to read how quickly nature, of a non-human nature, rushes in.

In November, I traveled in New Zealand. This is one of the places the book discusses. Because it is a remote set of islands, New Zealand existed without humans for a very long time and it is relatively easy to figure out what life was like there before "we" came. One thing that happened with the coming of humans was the introduction of other animals. Stoats, rats, and possums found easy pickings in a place where the only native mammal was a small bat. Centuries of evolution had produced flightless birds, some of which became easy targets for predators, both animals and people. The signature kiwi was almost eradicated; the giant moa was.

There are some small islands just off the large South Island that are being restored to their prehuman state. The rats and possums have been trapped, and naturalists keep constant vigil to see that no new predators are reintroduced. We visited one of those islands, and it was incredible. The whole island is a rain forest, lush and green, with giant ferns reaching up to the sunlight. The most amazing thing was the birds. They are almost tame. I sat for a while beside the path, and all kinds of wild birds came and gathered around, seemingly curious but also astonishingly unafraid. It was a powerful experience to see them up close that way, looking at me with interest, just as I was looking at them.

Many of those on the trip talked about these places as paradise; we observed that walking through these primeval forests must be what it was like to walk in the Garden of Eden. Of course, in Genesis story, paradise is lost soon after the humans arrive. But I want to believe that paradise with people is still possible. Maybe one of the unanticipated effects of all this financial woe will be to turn us away from the kind of mindless overconsumption that has destroyed so much of the earth, attacking like a predator introduced into a trusting, unsuspecting ecosystem.

New Zealand and its birds are very beautiful. So are the doves and juncos and cardinals and sparrows cavorting in the snow under the feeders in my back yard. And I do believe that paradise is possible.

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