Thursday, August 02, 2007


August already?

Just finished a big manuscript so now have a brief bit of time to get caught up on some reading before the semester starts in earnest. Still creeping through Pynchon's "Against the Day" and have half an eye out for a used copy of the 7th book in a certain series.

And just started Alan Weisman's very readable "The World Without Us," which I'm really looking forward to getting further in. The book is a "thought experiment" about what would happen to the planet if humans suddenly disappeared one day: how would things fall apart, what would survive, what would regrow? Parts of the book are like a disaster movie, describing how buildings, bridges, roads fall apart due to the force of water, ice, or rust. How the New York subways would flood as soon as the pumps shut off. And it follows in great detail this story of destruction down to the molecular level (how ice and rust can tear structures apart). All this has a certain fascination; if humans disappear, what that we've built lasts the longest? which is gone the quickest? [The section on New York's bridges was going through my mind when I heard about the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse]. And what of the environment, plants, and animals? A great deal of the book is really about the relation of humans to their environment from prehistoric times to today, living in balance with some animals and wiping out herds of others (including 5 species of giant ground sloths, some the size of modern elephants, which once roamed North America). Plants and animals which depend on humans to survive (most crops, ornamental flowers, even apple trees, to dogs, rats, and roaches) don't last long post-human (he gives cats a decent chance). I've just finished the chapter on plastics, covering how and why plastics really don't break down (it just gets chopped smaller and smaller until plastic particles invade every organism) to how there's a 10 million square mile swirling swath of the Pacific that is basically covered in plastic debris. Looks like the next chapter's about oil. Sobering stuff. There's also fascinating glimpses of places where humans have vacated (like the Korean DMZ; the area around Chernobyl, and others) and how plants and animals reclaim that land (and which plants and animals do so). So it's about how humans have impacted the planet, but also about how and why plants and animals move and transform and compete. It draws on engineering, anthropology, ecology and a host of other fields. Interesting stuff.

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