Monday, July 30, 2007

eco-apocalypse! so let's hide in a tunnel

Interesting article in the Independent today about what an imagined future world might look like if humanity were suddenly to disappear. Actually it's a preview of a new book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

It's an interesting thought experiment, a sort of turbo-Gaia (by which I mean the more cuddly Gaia-redresses-the-balance-of-things imaginings usually involve at least some humans surviving, even if they are reduced to savagery). As the article acknowledges, it's been done before (the imagining bit, not the extermination of humanity) - the two examples given here are a New Scientist article by Laura Spinney from a few years back which references the book After London by Richard Jefferies - written in 1885 and still in print, and the novel A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright.

I was mildly surprised at the omission of one particular name, though, because the whole premise screams JG Ballard to me. Ballard wrote a lot of books on these themes in the 1960s, from the more straightforward stuff like The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World and The Burning World (later republished as The Drought), to the later, weirder stuff like The Crystal World and Hello America. All of which is great, but for me his reputation rests on the more profoundly disturbing and experimental stuff he got into in the early 1970s. If you haven't read Crash (later filmed) and (in particular) The Atrocity Exhibition, then your life is missing something. More Ballard can be found here.

The picture I've included above is Europe After The Rain by Max Ernst, whose painting I like very much, as it seemed somehow appropriate. A portion of it was also used as the front cover design of a volume of Ballard short stories in the 1980s.

Anyway, the reason all this struck me with particular force was that when we were up in the Brecon Beacons last weekend we passed the remains of the Torpantau tunnel, formerly the highest railway tunnel in the UK (it closed in 1962). It's not part of the Taff Trail, though that does run along the trackbed nearby, but is very much still in existence, and you can get inside if you've got a decent pair of wellies and no qualms about what is, essentially, trespassing.

I was looking for a picture after getting home, and I found several, including this one. Two questions occurred to me at this point:
  • isn't it a slightly strange pursuit to keep an extensive archive of photographs of old railway tunnels? Interesting though some of them are...
  • and secondly, might an alien observer not conclude, on seeing some of these pictures, or on parting some wild verdant fronds to reveal the portal of one of these tunnels, quite likely in a secluded place well removed from any current evidence of human habitation or activity, that in fact the cataclysm envisaged at the start of this post had already occurred, and that we, the current dominant species on the planet, were simply following in the footsteps of some earlier, grander, more ambitious race?

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