[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.