descended from the oppressors. My
ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal
It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t born yet! But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.
A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet. My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa. They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.
During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home. The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north.
Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age. But my ancestors were undeterred. They did not respect the old territorial boundaries. Soon they supplanted the native peoples. Every last one of the natives died. Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.
Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed. Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration.
If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities. Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.
In this case, no reparations are possible. The victims are dead; their families curtailed. My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.
But I can atone through remembrance.
And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal. When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent. But I recognized that sort of language. My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata. Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman).
Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference. Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.
My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true. Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us. Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.
Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.
I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election. But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal. Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.
Genetics isn’t destiny. And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false. Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.
I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority. As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.
seems shocking to me. Quite recently,
the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.
As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and
thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.
contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness. Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by
dark-skinned immigrants from the south.
In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs. That makes sense to me. If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.
But my perspective is upside down. Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth. They listen underground. They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.
their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet
seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep. I try to roll over only to find somebody’s
toes wedged under my back.
year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.
And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried
underground. My reflexive perspective gives
me an inverted image of a tree’s world.
not alone in this misunderstanding.
hold our heads high as we walk across the ground. A major source of tension in human evolution
was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without
too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the
Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other. Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flying. All club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music. Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.
prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together. The evidence is especially compelling for
human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such
small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone
in the group. But even if prehistoric
men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have
introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.
ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’
kills. Eventually, they began to
hunt. Their strategy was to exhaust and
bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each
kill. Mammoths were more likely to fall
to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones
accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.
caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace
of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.
tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that
once harbored our communities. After
all, we live in our heads. It seemed
sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its
biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it
dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.
Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction. But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.
universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to
introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.
But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress
toward higher entropy. This
directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to
be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.
say most physicists. From my
perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is
mutable. If I didn’t believe in that
asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.
again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we
feel about that change.
flow of time progress or decline?
tree’s branches its hands or its feet?
Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward
corruption. Time passes and the world
grows worse. Currently we are trapped
within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes
have passed. We are just biding our time
before the world can be destroyed and made good again.
the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade. Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.
Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too. At one point in time, a pair of humans were good:
before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.
Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that
original means to linger by the origin and insist on it. The task is to avoid the progression toward a
future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any
further. In this sense, and in this
sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.
Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum),
just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).
humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.
America great again, perhaps.
personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are
bad. We’ve designed distracting,
addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children. Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic,
which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this
neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to
dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.
we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge
amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic
incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful
investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their
But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past. The world was a terrible place for so many people. Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens– that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.
generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence
farming. Their lives were worse than
their ancestors’. But we, now,
can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.
not doing it, but we could.
At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs. I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.
used to be worse.
And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed. Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire. Maybe that’s fine. Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.
so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars. I dream about the future. And hope against hope – despite overpopulation,
climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the
one I’ve been living in.
perspective, time will let us make the world better.
it surely won’t happen on its own. We
will have to work to make it better. The
work might not be that hard. Just live
the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.
We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years. National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message. Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.
But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world. There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels. Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second. “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.
And then there’s the world. The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape. The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever. Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow. A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years. The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.
Trees do not have a neural network. But neither do neurons. When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking. And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious. The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures. Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.
Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing. But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.
Trees talk. Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.
Trees talk slowly, by our standards. But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains. If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice? Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions. Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money. Selecting which TV show to stream. Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.
In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand. Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.
He still binges on old-school reading. At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks. Domed cities like giant terrariums. Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds. There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it. When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database. Aliens land on Earth. They’re little runts, as alien races go. But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow. They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years. To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat. The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply. Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.
Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume. Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed. We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet. But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want. “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.
In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:
Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute. This is more or less the situation of the human species. We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life. We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse. Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.
What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels. This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline. The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate. Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.
In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time. We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources. A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations. At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic. A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise. History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.
The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness. It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.
Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!” The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction. And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.
Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves. Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist. The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide. But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen. Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.
As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached. On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):
We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.
Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference.
Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets.
No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.
Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees. It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish. But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests. We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.
Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.
“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”
The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”
I was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.
My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.
Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.
Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:
I suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.
It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.
Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:
And equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.
Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.
Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.
Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.
The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.
Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.
Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:
It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.
And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.
Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.
Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.
Some plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.
In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:
A tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.
As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.
But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:
In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.
The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.
And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.
At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass. I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep. A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me. Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.
Around midnight, I gave up. I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room. I quickly fell asleep.
I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home. Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful. And a whole lot of people have to do it.
But that’s not why I was outside. I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like. She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now. She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.
Fewer blinding headlights, though.
And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves. More birds. More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability. During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.
Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct. Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure. Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.
Our civilization might fall. So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button. A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die. Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead. Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too. Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.
These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness. When we fall, we might fall hard.
Other cultures have. The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.
And, of course, the Neanderthals. Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.
But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals. I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power. What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar. Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.
It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites. But they can. From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes. And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart. This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.
Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate. Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.
Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred. Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.
People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes. People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression. Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too. Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.
The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist. We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising. After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant. So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other“symbolic”behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.
Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in. But that’s okay. Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.
The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though. For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism. Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.
So I imagined a religious taboo. Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health. Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland. Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.
It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation. And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self. In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.
If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate. She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.
At times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes! And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.
But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.
The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault. After all, the climate was changing. Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period. Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears. Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…
But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier. The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter. There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.
And yet. We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures. We can be better than our genes.
Our world was stolen. Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.
I’m no communist, mind you. It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number. People’s effort to create more should be rewarded. The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.
For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves. But petroleum, for ages, had little value. It was noxious black muck. Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.
And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated. They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth. Those inventors did nothing wrong.
The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.
This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings. Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land. Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).
As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away. The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans. There were zero survivors.
Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors. Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this. You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.” “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.”).
And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land. Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed. It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.
Which always seems unfair. After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end. Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.
I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.” A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.” And quite telling. It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.
For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece. He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.
No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.
So, the world formed. Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own. Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land. Taking it from others. In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it. This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:
anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right
Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago. The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves. Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.
But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means. Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it. And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another. From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.
We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species. Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent. But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.
Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from. That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers. Their tragedies birthed our prosperity. True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.
It’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge. Did they know that their culture was being obliterated? Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals? The last Homo habilis? The last Homo floresiensis? Did they know that their kind were going extinct? Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?
In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion. The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically. The man’s family is killed by the French. He is driven away from his land. And his way of life is coming to an end. In Kingsnorth’s words,
The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.
As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree. The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation. Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats. The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people. The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food. Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.
Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.
three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows
a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me
But then he loses his land. All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king. Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population. Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no. There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.
Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps. But, inequality has been with us forever. From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive. Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared. With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases. It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk. And easier still to horde gold. Grain rots. Gold does not.
Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself. This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking. At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe. That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated. Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory. The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch? So compensation decreased. Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine. Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all. Only the owner of the machine makes money.
It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually. But in this world, in England, it happened then.
I do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English. As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t. The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read. Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents. Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.
The early English created the nation we now live in. They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from. Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis. Language seemed the best way to convey this.
Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings. I speak only English and read many books in translation. I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work. I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit. I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.
(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms. I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ” And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)
Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice. The book’s language compels a reader to slow down. Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words. Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention. And good literature rewards attentive reading. In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.
All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world. It gave me a lot to think about. And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals. It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss. Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans. People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.