part 7: ecological futurism

The Last Flower Children Guard San Francisco’s Most Secret Garden


+ go back to part 6

The most disconcerting element, to me, within the shattered greenhouse, is not any menace of its broken glass edges, nor the forbidding spraypaint scrawls, nor those creeping vines and brambles. These decaying flourishes accent, if anything, the nursery’s special intrigue: the way it stays majestic though in ruin.

What bothers me is the way certain of the greenhouse panels tilt upward, perched, like opened skylights, away from the angle of the canopy. Like someone had said, as though more than most of the ceiling panels were not already smashed or fallen, you know, we need some air in here. Seeing this produces a mix of awe and embarrassment you might have coming upon a frozen hiker in an ice shelf, one hand reaching halfway up his nose. And both feelings come from the same source: the mortal difficulty of realizing intention.

Literature’s most famous example of this is probably Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” that classic of mortality and ruin. A traveler in the desert comes across a crumbled monument: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone … near them, half sunk, a shattered visage lies…”

The poem’s heft is its dramatic irony; the Pharaoh’s long-expired challenge: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” These words are both pathetic, because Ramses II’s power seems so empty all these millennia later, and terrifying. The same thing will become of all of us, on some scale or another, so long as you extend the timeline far enough.

Shelley’s friend Horace Smith took this theme one step farther in a verse Smith wrote in response to “Ozymandias.” The same traveler finds the same legs in the same desert. But now Smith adds a bit of parallax, shifting perspective thousands of years into the future, to his own London:

We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

This is perhaps the founding moment in a genre known as “ecofuturism,” the creative exploration of a posthuman landscape using the combined resources of science and the imagination. In short, an environmental thought experiment. At least, Richard Jefferies seems to have had Smith’s poem in mind when, 68 years later (1886), he wrote After London, or Wild England, which MacArthur Award-winning urban theorist Mike Davis describes as “the adventures of the archer-scholar Felix Aquilas … as he crosses the medievalized landscape of a postapocalyptic England in search of the ‘utterly extinct city of London.’”

Aquilas battles feral subspecies of dogs and even livestock, but Jefferies’s real triumph is his speculative natural history. After London details successions of evolving ecosystems as they reclaim the formerly civilized land, anticipating, according to Davis, surprisingly complicated mechanisms given what ecology was known at the time.

Jefferies tells of fields and ruins choked with “wild jumble of docks, nestle, sorrel, wild carrots, thistles, oxeye daises and yellow charlock flowers,” “while briar and hawthorn followed … a mass of bramble,” which could be anyplace gone to seed, of course, but sounds just like he’s describing University Mound Nursery. And Jefferies even predicts dynamics causing the collapse of human engineering: bridges dammed by fallen trees, then snapped by mounting water; basements bursting from hydraulic pressure and invading roots, toppling homes and buildings.

“Nature is constantly straining against its chains: probing for weak points, cracks, faults, even a speck of rust,” Davis commented in his essay “Dead Cities.” “Cities, accordingly, cannot afford to let flora or fauna, wind or water, run wild. Environmental control demands continuous investment and systematic maintenance: whether building a multi-billion-dollar flood control system or simply weeding the garden.”

Jefferies’s novel prompted many science-fiction ripoffs (although some of these are hard to separate from an older tradition concerning “the end of history and the last man;” Mary Shelley, Percy’s wife, contributed one of the more archetypal examples in this mode). The Bay Area even boasts its own wing particular to the genre, in Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (notable for postulating that, by Year 20 without human upkeep, “much of the architecture … in downtown San Francisco is in an advanced stage of decrepitude”).

“Temporary human victories always yield in the end to the stubborn power of place,” Davis writes.

Felix Aquilas notwithstanding, After London stands out in literature in part for placing nature in the role of the protagonist, or at least the actor with the most lines.

continue to part 8 +

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