Monday, May 26, 2008

Forget "Life After People", read Richard Jefferies

This evening Channel Four is showing a programme called Life After People. It asks:

What would happen to planet Earth if the human race were to suddenly disappear forever? Would ecosystems thrive? What remnants of our industrialised world would survive? What would crumble fastest?

From the ruins of ancient civilisations to present-day cities devastated by natural disasters, history gives us some clues to these questions.

All very interesting even if it does reflect the anti-human strain you sometimes find in Green thinking. In Women in Love D. H. Lawrence was happy for his alter ego to imagine "a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up".

My reason for writing this post is to put in a word for Richard Jefferies, the nineteenth-century writer I wrote my Masters dissertation about. In his After London from 1885 - which has some claim to be the first English science fiction novel - he imagined the collapse of civilisation after some unnamed cataclysmic event:

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.

The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but which neither had nor would receive any further care. Such arable fields as had not been sown, but where the last stubble had been ploughed up, were overrun with couch-grass, and where the short stubble had not been ploughed, the weeds hid it. So that there was no place which was not more or less green; the footpaths were the greenest of all, for such is the nature of grass where it has once been trodden on, and by-and-by, as the summer came on, the former roads were thinly covered with the grass that had spread out from the margin.

In the autumn, as the meadows were not mown, the grass withered as it stood, falling this way and that, as the wind had blown it; the seeds dropped, and the bennets became a greyish-white, or, where the docks and sorrel were thick, a brownish-red. The wheat, after it had ripened, there being no one to reap it, also remained standing, and was eaten by clouds of sparrows, rooks, and pigeons, which flocked to it and were undisturbed, feasting at their pleasure.

Note the extraordinary attention to detail from a writer who really understood nature and agriculture.

In all honesty this is the best writing in the book, apart perhaps from an extraordinary visionary section where the hero visits the site of the long abandoned London - it is as though Cobbett's Great Wen has burst.

But I have to plug my man Jefferies now and then.

2 comments:

Niles said...

Incidentally, this book is available for free on Gutenberg - http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13944

Niles said...

When I discovered last year that it was available for free on Gutenberg, I put it on my private list of things that one day I might find time to read aloud for Librivox.org, the free, volunteer-read audiobooks site.

Now, checking up 8 months later, I find someone else has already done it!

So now there's a free audiobook:
http://librivox.org/after-london-or-wild-england-by-richard-jefferies/