South Park Self

vaster than empires, and more slow

The auto-repair business of Ray, magical mechanic, has a bunch of youngish and very beautiful plane trees in its parking lot. They probably have about a quarter of the girth of the one in our garden, but they're lovely trees - well-shaped, healthy, full of green and those fascinating hedgehog bobbles which plane trees produce. Absolutely all of them, though, have weird protrusions from their trunks - bits of plastic string, barbed wire, that sort of thing, embedded in the bark and with bits sticking out rather incongruously. Obviously the young trees were staked when they were planted, and over time have gradually grown to absorb the material which tied them up.

It's a very strange image, encapuslating human obliviousness to nature at the same time as a sort of half-arsed, unthinking care - back when they were planted, someone clearly cared enough about the young trees to prop them up, but didn't care enough, or stick around long enough, to remove the supports when they were no longer necessary. And, in that slow, imponderable, organic way nature has, she simply engulfed the problem, incorporated it, and allowed growth and strength to happen regardless.

There was a moment, while I was waiting for my lift and pondering the odd bit of blue plastic string sticking out of the bark, when I found myself wishing that the world on a more macro level was capable of absorbing our damage in that way. Coal-based power stations, for example, folded gently into the earth. Giant forests slowly reducing to rubble our uglier cities. Four-by-fours engulfed by elephant herds which patiently, inexorably flatten them into a thin, quickly-rusting metallic film. The problem is that in the destructive stakes the human race as a whole is really a lot more far-reaching than a few bits of blue plastic string.
it is remarkable how soon all of that would go. Compared to geological time, I mean. In a few tens of thousands of years most of it would be unnoticeable.

But it's not just quality of the trash, it's sheer quantity of the pieces. The Anthropozoic era will be marked (geologically speaking) by the strata of plastic-rich sediment now being laid down

Which reminds me a bit of Vernor Vinge's a Deepness in the Sky where the main marker of a long-vanished very high-tech civilisation is a a strata (stratum?) of mostly diamond.

Edited at 2011-11-18 09:48 am (UTC)
I wouldn't worry
In the time frame of the natural world, and even more in geological time, everything we've done will disappear with just enough remnants to tantalise our successors (hopefully our enlightened descendants; possibly another species or visitors from another star).
Re: I wouldn't worry
Indeed. It's odd to think that bits of junk in orbit or on the moon will last millions of years; long after cities on the earth's surface have turned into subterranean fossils.

Edited at 2011-11-18 02:29 pm (UTC)
Re: I wouldn't worry
I am not consoled by the thought of enduring metallic or plastic mess: it's what will be gone that's heartbreaking. Integrated ecologies don't grow on trees, you know!

It fascinates me that so many responses to this post refer to the eventual disappearance of the human race. The thing is, we aren't going to disappear: if we do, it's because we've stuffed up our environment enough to be catastrophic and non-life-supporting, to an extent which will devastate other species far more than us. Humanity as a species has considerable more ability to survive than is strictly fair.
Oh yeah, it will happen eventually. Species that over-consume their own resource bases don't stick around all that long. Didn't we have a book about exactly this in book club once?
Indeed we did: The World Without Us. Much as its beguilingly empty vistas appeal to me, unfortunately we are not going to simply vanish any time soon, which means that our eco-destruction is going to continue. The plane trees were a powerful metaphor to me because they were so strong and healthy despite us. Like them, the world would soon recover if we disappeared, but we're still here, and are fast approaching the threshold where the damage we've done is irrevocable. What survives will be a devastated remnant of the diverse and integrated system which currently still manages to exist. It won't be a beautiful plane tree.

I'm realising that the thought in this post wasn't really properly developed. Comes of blogging in a hurry. Like developing technology in a hurry. You don't see all the ramifications until it's too late.