Seedling

[Image: From 2001: A Space Odyssey].

There’s a poem I think about every once in a while called “For the Missing in Action,” by John Balaban, from his book Locusts at the Edge of Summer. In fact, I’ve written about it here before.

In it, Balaban describes the postmortem landscape effects of someone—possibly a U.S. soldier, possibly a local villager—killed in the Vietnam War. The person’s body “fertilized the earth” as it decayed for months after death, vegetation assuming the body’s outline in the landscape.

In that dead place the weeds had formed a man
where someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh
and blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones.
No scrap remained; not even a buckle
survived the monsoons, just a green creature,
a viney man, supine, with posies for eyes,
butterflies for buttons, a lily for a tongue.

I thought of Balaban’s poem again a few months ago when I read a story published by the Mirror—otherwise quite possibly the world’s least-interesting newspaper—about a missing Turkish man whose body was discovered in a cave 40 years after his disappearance due to a fig tree rooted in the man’s remains.

“A missing man who was murdered more than 40 years ago has been found—after a seed from a fig in his stomach grew into a tree,” the paper reported. The man had apparently eaten a fig before he died, and the seeds soon germinated.

The sequence of events that led to this Balabanian discovery included the botanical clue of the tree itself, which was apparently so unusual for the area that its presence required a more implausible explanation. Further, the man was murdered in the cave with two others, “killed by dynamite that was then thrown in after them. Yet the dynamite also blew a hole in the side of the cave, allowing light to flood into the darkened interior which in turn allowed the fig tree to grow from the man’s body.”

Our corpses have landscape effects, blooming with new ecologies after we’re gone.

Briefly, I’m reminded of a blog post published by Astronomy back in 2016 that took this thought interplanetary, asking, “Could an astronaut’s corpse bring new life to another world?” If our bodies can seed fig trees and flower into weedy outlines in the jungle, could we also become origin points for life on other worlds?

If you can “imagine a human corpse seeding life across the cosmos,” the article explains, then there might be much larger timescales over which it can do so, despite the seemingly insurmountable barrier of interstellar radiation: “The longer your corpse is floating in space, the more ambient cosmic radiation it’s absorbing. Enough radiation will scramble an organism’s DNA and RNA with mutations, ‘and unless those mutations can be repaired during the transit, at a rate equal to the mutations you’re accumulating, well then survival becomes questionable,’ [microbial biologist Gary King] says. ‘When you talk about one-million-plus years with little radiation shielding, then I’d say we’re talking about a very limited possibility of microbial survival. But I won’t say impossible, if you only need one of the vast number of microbes on the human body to survive the trip.’”

Mutant landscapes of the far future seeded by the bodies of drifting astronauts, a genesis moment for new planetary lifelines like ghostly human shapes appearing in the woods.

Dumpster Honey

[Image: Photo courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab’s amazing Flickr set, via Science Friday].

In a poem I clipped from The New Yorker a while back, Davis McCombs describes what he memorably calls “Dumpster Honey.” It remains a great illustration of altered natures—and the fate of food—in the Anthropocene.

McCombs shows us bees wandering through a rubbish heap “of candy wrappers and the sticky rims / of dented cans, entering, as they might / a blossom, the ketchup-smeared burger // boxes,” mistaking a stained world of “food-grade waxes / mingling with Band-Aids” for healthy flora.

Hapless bees slip their little bodies past “solvents / and fresheners,” picking up industrial food dyes and “the high-fructose / corn nectars” of artificially processed edible waste.

With this in mind, recall several recent examples of bees feasting on edible chemicals in urban hinterlands, in one case actually turning their honey bright red.

As Susan Dominus wrote for The New York Times back in 2010, a stunned Brooklyn beekeeper “sent samples of the red substance that the bees were producing to an apiculturalist who works for New York State, and that expert, acting as a kind of forensic foodie, found the samples riddled with Red Dye No. 40, the same dye used in the maraschino cherry juice” being mixed at a nearby factory.

This had the dismaying effect, Dominus writes, that “an entire season that should have been devoted to honey yielded instead a red concoction that tasted metallic and then overly sweet.” (Amusingly, Brooklyn’s cherry-red honey also inadvertently revealed an illegal marijuana-growing operation.)

[Image: Photo by Vincent Kessler, courtesy of Reuters, via National Geographic].

Or, indeed, recall a group of French bees that fed on candy and thus produced vibrant honeys in unearthly shades of green and blue. This honey of the Anthropocene “could not be sold because it did not meet France’s standards of honey production,” perhaps a technicolor warning sign, as the very possibility of a nature independent of humanity comes into question.

In the post-natural microcosm of “Dumpster Honey,” meanwhile, McCombs depicts his polluted bees “returning, smudged with the dust / of industrial pollens, to, perhaps, some // rusted tailpipe hive where their queen / grew fat on the the froth of artificial sweeteners,” a vision at once apocalyptic and, I suppose, if one really wishes it to be, ruthlessly optimistic.

After all, perhaps, amidst the litter and ruin of a formerly teeming world, some new nature might yet spring forth, thriving on the sugared colors of factory sludge, beautifully adapting to a world remade in humanity’s chemical image.

It’s worth reading the poem in full. It stands on its own as a vivid encapsulation of these sorts of overlooked, peripheral transformations of the world as we forcibly transition an entire planet into a new geo- and biological era.

(Somewhat related: Architecture-by-Bee and Other Animal Printheads.)

To roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course

The blog Landscapism takes a look at the “integral but largely uncharted topography” of the combe, the “amphitheatre-like landform that can be found at the head of a valley.” There, the post’s author writes, amidst lichen-covered rubble and interrupted creeks, “these watery starting lines disguised as cul-de-sacs are a gift to the rural flâneur; sheep tracks, streams, crags, ruined sheep folds—all encourage the curious visitor to roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course.”

Below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees

[Image: Piranesi’s Rome].

Peter Ackroyd’s allusion to a landscape comparable to the tropical swamps of Borneo found in the sewers of London reminded me of a brief line in Gilbert Highet’s book Poets in a Landscape.

Describing the origins of Rome, a city built on the Tiber River, Highet writes that the landscape there was once as wild as any to be found on earth—indeed, offering evidence that writers seem consistently to fantasize of finding a new tropics in the very ground of Europe, Rome was founded in “those early idyllic days, when the Tiber was as primitive as the Upper Amazon today.”

Highet goes on to describe the city’s long-term devolution into the “heap of ruins” it became in the Middle Ages, a city “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” one where weeded streets were lined with “the titanic palaces of later monarchs—arches which now look not so much like relics of human architecture as fragments of mountain-ranges into which dwellings have been built.”

“In those days,” Highet writes, a variant form of “primitive” landscape emerged, one in which forests returned and plants ran riot, when “Rome was a place of grassy ruins and elegant palaces and whispering melancholy churches, little changed from the strange half-visionary city immortalized in the engravings of Piranesi: tall pillars standing among rocks and mounds which prove to be the fallen walls and earthquake-shattered arches of some vast mansion; huge fields in which a few peasants stand gossiping while their goats scramble among carved pilasters, and which are at a great distance revealed as being, not fields, but the overgrown floors of temples and baths; lonely obelisks once designed to perpetuate some Roman glory, and now purposeless, mighty circular tombs converted during the Middle Ages into fortresses; hills which covered buried palaces.” The ruin, here, “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” could thus be seen as a vertiginous act of misrecognition: architecture mistaken for the surface of the earth.

Even the supersized spatial affectations of someone like Emperor Nero, Highet continues, could not ultimately resist the inhuman pull of insects and vegetation that settled onto Rome: “so many centuries after Nero shocked his contemporaries by insisting on making a private landscape in the midst of a crowded metropolis, the ruins of his palace have gone back to nature. Bees hum through the roofless corridors; flowering weeds flourish among the imperial brickwork; from the sunlight above we hear the voices of children running and laughing on the grassy slopes.”

Highet was writing nearly half a century ago, but it’s still accurate that, as he writes, visitors to the city are able to “feel the ephemeral happiness of summer flowers and summer birds all around, to enjoy the fresh warm air and the genial quietness, and to reflect that below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees, clogged with hundreds of tons of earth and fallen masonry, shrouded in the darkness of many disastrous centuries, there lie some of the foundations of our world”—foundations built and implanted when the region was “Amazonian” in its humid and unsettled wildness.

Green Man

[Image: An unrelated photo by BLDGBLOG].

The other day I mentioned a poem by John Balaban, taken from his book Locusts at the Edge of Summer; but there’s another poem in that book with an incredible image that seems worth posting here.

In it, Balaban describes how villagers growing rice during the Vietnam War—where Balaban, a conscientious objector, served with the International Volunteer Corps—stumble upon an extraordinary feature in the landscape:

Beyond the last treeline on the horizon
beyond the coconut palms and eucalyptus
out in the moon-zone puckered by bombs
the dead earth where no one ventures,
the boys found it, foolish boys
riding buffaloes in craterlands
where at night bombs thump and ghosts howl.
A green patch on the raw earth.

This “green patch” has an usual shape, however. Balaban continues:

In that dead place the weeds had formed a man
where someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh
and blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones.
No scrap remained; not even a buckle
survived the monsoons, just a green creature,
a viny man, supine, with posies for eyes,
butterflies for buttons, a lily for a tongue.

And the sight of this “green creature” proves too fertile, unforgettable, haunting all the villagers who’ve seen it:

Now when huddled asleep together
the farmers hear a rustly footfall
as the leaf-man rises and stumbles to them.

Out of the darkness, convinced by the life they give to the land around them that they might not yet be dead, the missing-in-action pull themselves from the tangle of the earth and rise and walk again.