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The World without Us


The World without Us Cover

ISBN13: 9780312427900
ISBN10: 0312427905
Condition: Standard
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Chapter One

A Lingering Scent of Eden

You may never have heard of the Bialowieza Puszcza. But if you were raised somewhere in the temperate swathe that crosses much of North America, Japan, Korea, Russia, several former Soviet republics, parts of China, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe—including the British Isles—something within you remembers it. If instead you were born to tundra or desert,subtropics or tropics, pampas or savannas, there are still places on Earth kindred to this puszcza to stir your memory, too. Puszcza, an old Polish word, means forest primeval. Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the half-million acres of the Bialowieza Puszcza contain Europes last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness. Think of themisty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. Oaks, shrouded with half a millennium of moss, grow so immense here that great spotted woodpeckers store spruce cones in their three-inch-deep bark furrows. The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcrackers croak, a pygmy owls low whistle, or a wolfs wail, then returns to stillness.

The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forests core hearkens to fertilitys very origins. In the Bialowieza, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass aboveground is inassorted stages of decay—more than 50 cubic yards of decomposing trunks and fallen branches on every acre, nourishing thousands of species of mushrooms, lichens, bark beetles, grubs, and microbes that are missing from the orderly, managed woodlands that pass as forests elsewhere.
Together those species stock a sylvan larder that provides for weasels, pine martens, raccoons, badgers, otters, fox, lynx,wolves, roe deer, elk, and eagles. More kinds of life are found here than anywhere else on the continent—yet there are no surrounding mountains or sheltering valleys to form unique niches for endemic species. The Bialowieza Puszcza is simplya relic of what once stretched east to Siberia and west to Ireland.
The existence in Europe of such a legacy of unbroken biological antiquity owes, unsurprisingly, to high privilege. During the 14th century, a Lithuanian duke named Wladysl.aw Jagiello, having successfully allied his grand duchy with the Kingdom of Poland, declared the forest a royal hunting preserve. For centuries, it stayed that way. When the Polish-Lithuanian unionwas finally subsumed by Russia, the Bialowieza became the private domain of the tsars. Although occupying Germans took lumber and slaughtered game during World War I, a pristine core was left intact, which in 1921 became a Polish national park. The timber pillaging resumed briefly under the Soviets, but when the Nazis invaded, a nature fanatic named Hermann Göring decreed the entire preserve off-limits, except by his pleasure.
Following World War II, a reportedly drunken Josef Stalin agreed one evening in Warsaw to let Poland retain two-.fifths of the forest. Little else changed under communist rule, except for construction of some elite hunting dachas—in one of which,Viskuli, an agreement was signed in 1991 dissolving the Soviet Union into free states. Yet, as it turns out, this ancient sanctuary is more threatened under Polish democracy and Belarusian independence than it was during seven centuries of monarchs and dictators. Forestry ministries in both countries tout increased management to preserve the Puszczas health. Management, however, often turns out to be a euphemism for culling—and selling—mature hardwoods that otherwise would one day return a windfall of nutrients to the forest.
It is startling to think that all Europe once looked like this Puszcza. To enter it is to realize that most of us were bred to a pale copy of what nature intended. Seeing alders with trunks seven feet wide, or walking through stands of the tallest trees here—gigantic Norway spruce, shaggy as Methuselah—should seem as exotic as the Amazon or Antarctica to someone raised among the comparatively puny, second-growth woodlands found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, whats astonishing is how primally familiar it feels. And, on some cellular level, how complete.
Andrzej Bobiec recognized it instantly. As a forestry student in Krakow, hed been trained to manage forests for maximum productivity, which included removing excess organic litter lest it harbor pests like bark beetles. Then, on a visit here he was stunned to discover 10 times more biodiversity than in any forest hed ever seen.
It was the only place left with all nine European woodpecker species, because, he realized, some of them only nest in hollow, dying trees. They cant survive in managed forests, he argued to his forestry professors. “The Bialowieza Puszcza has managed itself perfectly well for millennia.
The husky, bearded young Polish forester became instead a forest ecologist. He was hired by the Polish national park service. Eventually, he was .red for protesting management plans that chipped ever closer to the pristine core of the Puszcza. In various international journals, he blistered official policies that asserted that forests will die without our thoughtful help, or that justified cutting timber in the Bialowiezas surrounding buffer to reestablish the primeval character of stands. Such convoluted thinking, he accused, was rampant among Europeans who have hardly any memory of forested wilderness.
To keep his own memory connected, for years he daily laced his leather boots and hiked through his beloved Puszcza. Yet although he ferociously defends those parts of this forest still undisturbed by man, Andrzej Bobiec cant help being seduced by his own human nature.
Alone in the woods, Bobiec enters into communion with fellow Homo sapiens through the ages. A wilderness this pure is a blank slate to record human passage: a record he has learned to read. Charcoal layers in the soil show him where gamesmen onceused fire to clear parts of the forest for browse. Stands of birch and trembling aspen attest to a time when Jagiellos descendants were distracted from hunting, perhaps by war, long enough for these sun-seeking species to recolonize game clearings. In their shade grow telltale seedlings of the hardwoods that were here before them. Gradually, these will crowd out thebirch and aspen, until it will be as if they were never gone.
Whenever Bobiec happens on an anomalous shrub like hawthorn or on an old apple tree, he knows hes in the presence of the ghost of a log house long ago devoured by the same microbes that can turn the giant trees here back into soil. Any lone, massive oak he finds growing from a low, clover-covered mound marks a crematorium. Its roots have drawn nourishment from the ashes of Slavic ancestors of todays Belorusians, who came from the east 900 years ago. On the northwest edge of the forest,Jews from five surrounding shtetls buried their dead. Their sandstone and granite headstones from the 1850s, mossy and tumbled by roots, have already worn so smooth that theyve begun to resemble the pebbles left by their mourning relatives, who themselves long ago departed.
Andrzej Bobiec passes through a blue-green glade of Scots pine, barely a mile from the Belarusian border. The waning October afternoon is so hushed, he can hear snowflakes alight. Suddenly, theres a crashing in the underbrush, and a dozen wisent—Bison bonasus, European bison—burst from where theyve been browsing on young shoots. Steaming and pawing, their huge black eyes glance just long enough for them to do what their own ancestors discovered they must upon encountering one of these deceptively frail bipeds: they flee.
Just 600 wisent remain in the wild, nearly all of them here—or just half, depending on whats meant by here. An iron curtain bisects this paradise, erected by the Soviets in 1980 along the border to thwart escapees to Polands renegade Solidaritymovement. Although wolves dig under it, and roe deer and elk are believed to leap it, the herd of these largest of Europesmammals the world without us remains divided, and with it, its gene pool—divided and mortally diminished, some zoologists fear. Once, following World War I, bison from zoos were brought here to replenish a species nearly extirpated by hungry soldiers. Now, a remnant of a Cold War threatens them again.
Belarus, which well after communisms collapse has yet to remove statues of Lenin, also shows no inclination to dismantle the fence, especially as Polands border is now the European Unions. Although just 14 kilometers separate the two countries park headquarters, to see the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, as it is called in Belorusian, a foreign visitor must drive 100 miles south, take a train across the border to the city of Brest, submit to pointless interrogation, and hire a car to drive back north. Andrzej Bobiecs Belorusian counterpart and fellow activist, Heorhi Kazulka, is a pale, sallow invertebrate biologist and former deputy director of Belaruss side of the primeval forest. He was also .red by his own countrys park service, for challenging one of the latest park additions—a sawmill. He cannot risk being seen with Westerners. Inside the Brezhnev-era tenement where he lives at the forests edge, he apologetically offers visitors tea and discusses his dream of an international peace park where bison and moose would roam and breed freely.
The Pushchas colossal trees are the same as those in Poland; the same buttercups, lichens, and enormous oak leaves; the same circling white-tailed eagles, heedless of the razor-wire barrier below. In fact, on both sides, the forest is actually growing, as peasant populations leave shrinking villages for cities. In this moist climate, birch and aspen quickly invade their fallow potato fields; within just two decades, farmland gives way to woodland. Under the canopy of the pioneering trees, oak, maple, linden, elm, and spruce regenerate. Given 500 years without people, a true forest could return.
The thought of rural Europe reverting one day to original forest is heartening. But unless the last humans remember to first remove Belaruss iron curtain, its bison may wither away with them.
Excerpted from The World Without Us. By Alan Weisman
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman.
Published in the United States by St. Martins Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

miri, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by miri)
Fascinating, but depressing.
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Marie D, January 8, 2012 (view all comments by Marie D)
Probably the most memorable book I read in 2011... I learned about incredible places in the world that I had never heard of before (Cappadocia, Turkey; the Białowieża Forest in Poland and Belarus that is the last fragment of virgin European forest) and considered issues about a humanless world that didn't even occur to me. The book always amazed with its facts and history and hypothetical situations.
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EcoGrrl, September 30, 2011 (view all comments by EcoGrrl)
Just finished this (bought used from Powell's - real books are the way, man!!!!) and loved it. Not a 'treehugger' book, rather a really excellent anthropological look at our society and how the earth would make up for what we've done to it if we were suddenly gone. I loved the historical aspects to this book - I learned so much about how the earth was before humans migrated to different areas and how our activities changed, literally, the landscape of the earth and our footprint on it, and so much damage that we've done that will take millions of years to undo. Great work.
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Product Details

Weisman, Alan
Picador USA
Earth Sciences
Environmental Science
Earth Sciences - General
Human Geography
Life Sciences - Ecology
Material culture
Nature -- Effect of human beings on.
Human-plant relationships.
Environmental Studies-General
Environmental Conservation & Protection
Edition Number:
Reprint ed.
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Publication Date:
August 5, 2008
Grade Level:
Includes 18 black-and-white photographs
8.26 x 5.72 x 0.78 in

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Product details 432 pages Picador - English 9780312427900 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

"Let us try a creative experiment," Alan Weisman proposes on page three: If humans disappeared from earth, what would happen? To your home, for example. To our cities, farms, and oceans. To the animals that remain. Or to the billion tons of plastic we'd leave behind. Deserving of the lively conversation it will inspire, rich with spectacular detail* — from the edge of the universe to the underground city of Cappadocia (spacious enough to house 30,000 people!) to the forests of New England — The World without Us is, in Bill McKibben's apt words, "one of the grandest thought experiments of our time."

*Details such as: "To dig [the Panama Canal] required the labor of 6,000 men every day for seven years." "Any vehicles and machinery that worked [at Chernobyl] on the cleanup, such as the giant cranes towering over the sarcophagus, are too radioactive to leave [the 10-kilometer radius around ground zero]. Yet skylarks perch on their hot steel arms, singing." "Les Knight, the founder of VHEMT -- the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement -- is thoughtful, soft-spoken, articulate, and quite serious. Unlike more-strident proponents of human expulsion from an aggrieved planet -- such as the Church of Euthanasia, with its four pillars of abortion, suicide, sodomy, and cannibalism, and a Web site guide to butchering a human carcass that includes a recipe for barbeque sauce -- Knight takes no misanthropic joy in anyone's war, illness, or suffering."

"Review" by , "Alan Weisman has produced, if not a bible, at least a Book of Revelation."
"Review" by , "The World without Us gradually reveals itself to be one of the most satisfying environmental books of recent memory, one devoid of self-righteousness, alarmism, or tiresome doomsaying."
"Review" by , "An astonishing mass of reportage that envisions a world suddenly bereft of humans."
"Review" by , "Weisman is a thoroughly engaging and clarion writer fueled by curiosity and determined to cast light rather than spread despair. His superbly well researched and skillfully crafted stop-you-in-your-tracks report stresses the underappreciated fact that humankind's actions create a ripple effect across the web of life."
"Review" by , "I don't think I've read a better non-fiction book this year.... [Weisman] writes like Malcolm Gladwell and John McPhee mashed together and set on fast-forward."
"Review" by , "[S]o intellectually fascinating, so oddly playful, that it escapes categorizing and clichés.... Written as if by a compassionate and curious observer on another planet, [Weisman's] book restores a sense of wonder not just to one little piece of the cosmos, but to the human race whose amazing deeds have transformed it, and whose equally monumental folly now threatens it."
"Review" by , "A sober, analytical elucidation of the effects of human dominance on this planet, intriguing if not especially comforting. This book should be broadly read and discussed."
"Review" by , "Extraordinarily farsighted. A beautiful and passionate jeremiad against deforestation, climate change, and pollution."
"Synopsis" by , Weisman, an award-winning journalist, offers readers a penetrating — and sometimes terrifying — take on how the planet would respond without the relentless pressure of the human presence.
"Synopsis" by ,

Time #1 Nonfiction Book of 2007

Entertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of 2007

Finalist for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award

Salon Book Awards 2007

Amazon Top 100 Editors Picks of 2007 (#4)

Barnes and Noble 10 Best of 2007: Politics and Current Affairs

Kansas City Stars Top 100 Books of the Year 2007

Mother Jones Favorite Books of 2007

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Best Books of the Year 2007

Hudsons Best Books of 2007

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books of 2007

St. Paul Pioneer Press Best Books of 2007

If human beings disappeared instantaneously from the Earth, what would happen? How would the planet reclaim its surface? What creatures would emerge from the dark and swarm? How would our treasured structures--our tunnels, our bridges, our homes, our monuments--survive the unmitigated impact of a planet without our intervention? In his revelatory, bestselling account, Alan Weisman draws on every field of science to present an environmental assessment like no other, the most affecting portrait yet of humankind's place on this planet.


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