In the past few weeks, as the pandemic has reduced pollution levels significantly, stories of animals appearing in unusual places, as if to highlight the environmental good our inaction is doing, have circled the globe endlessly. While we’d all like to believe those Lockean ‘bitter streams’ have become unpoisoned, these stories are almost entirely fake.
And yet, the concept of wildlife returning where humanity had once reigned endures, far longer than the real environmental gains we’ve made since we stopped flying one hundred thousand planes every day probably will.
That was the case in 1895, when Herbert George Wells had his narrator tell us of a future where his own house has been replaced by a vibrant garden that flourished in its place. There is, of course, a precedent for this vision, and if the Time Traveller had had more time, and a better year-honing device, this is what he might have seen.
Meet me in 738 CE.
We’re standing on the harbor of the capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles, a truly international city, the same size as London became seven hundred years later. Look at the North Sea, calm, tranquil, endless. The Frisian kingdom is straight across that sea; it’ll become the Netherlands one day. Take a good look around this astonishing city of Dunwich, with its priory, churches, and leper hospital, because over the next five hundred years it’ll slowly disappear forever, swallowed up by the water as great storms batter and finally submerge this grand metropolis. As our time traveler knows, the people of Dunwich lost more than just a house. A fragment of a church is all that now remains, like a tombstone to a lost generation.
Let us travel now, two hundred and fifty years into the future.
We arrive in South West England in the town of Winchcombe. If we’d landed there today we’d see a beautiful Cotswold-stone village with an abundance of historic houses, Range Rovers, and cream teas.
But as we look down it’s main street in 938 CE, a hollow-way of effluent and mud, we behold a murder of the finest upstanding Saxons, swigging beer from the skulls of their enemies and reciting ancient poetry in deep tones of bravery and phlegm.
As we dodge wayward axes and Saxon vomit, we survey old Winchcombe, later to be the capital of the proud English county of Winchcombeshire. A county you've probably never heard of because in the early years of the new millennium, King Cnut’s town planning commission disposed of it like a used battery, and alas it was never heard of again.
Off we go now, to Scotland, and it’s the year 1321.
We’re here in the city stronghold of Roxburgh, with its magnificent castle guarding the Royal Mint. We find it thriving today, with the crest of William The Lion, king of the Scots, flying on the castle turrets and inns and public houses and everywhere across this seat of Scottish power.
The Scots here are in celebratory mood, their independence assured with the new Arbroath Declaration, and their city thriving thanks to the trade brought by the River Tweed to and from the port of Berwick. Roxburgh is acting on the world stage, and the audience approves.
Scots live and prosper here, and many will die and be buried here, after a good, long life of haggis and whisky and cullen skink. But not Scots like James Watt and Thomas Newcomen who gave us independent mechanized movement; or Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird who allowed us to communicate with each other; or even John Lloyd Dunlop and Thomas Telford who enabled us to roll along country roads in comparative ease. Because by 1482, Roxborugh, once the de facto capital of Scotland, had ceased to exist.
When the English captured Berwick and stopped the trade, Roxburgh shut up shop and disappeared into the land it had once defended. The Scots lost their once-great city,
and the land was returned to nature, and nature flourished just like Well’s future Earth.
Now, let us travel in our time machine to 1821.
George IV sits upon his mighty (and reinforced) throne, Prime Minister Jenkinson leads parliament in the UK, and Werner Jacob is downing a wheat beer, in Kelmis, capital of his small but perfectly formed country, Neutral Moresnet.
Neutral Moresnet's brilliant tricolor flag of black, white and blue is flying in the warm summer air, and Jacob, the Royal Commissioner of this zinc-rich country, which sits neatly between Germany and Belgium, is still lamenting or celebrating Napoleon’s downfall, depending on the number of beers he’s drunk.
The country was formed five years before we arrived, as a result of Prussia and The Netherlands not agreeing under whose sovereignty it fell once Boney had lost his grip on Europe. So, in the spirit of European comradery, collective sense, and combined interest (let's hope we never jeopardize that, eh ), Neutral Moresnet was born.
Jacob is enjoying very low taxes and no international warmongering, and as a descendant of Neutral Moresnetians he is exempt from military service anywhere. A wonderful existence, even when the Belgiums began to get more involved in the country in the 1830s.
But, from 1885 onwards, as the zinc industry declined, so did the country’s prospects. Casinos, Esperanto adoption, and a new coat of arms in the early 1900s didn’t really help, and by 1920 the country had been absorbed fully into Belgium, and evaporated like an aerosol into the ozone on a warm sunny day.
Time to leave poor old Neutral Moresnet. Now to Devon in the mid 1800s.
Ah, the smell of the beach, the shells, the gentle waves, the noise of the dredging machines as they drag sixteen hundred tons of land off the beach beneath the village to expand the naval dockyard. But, that’s not just yet though.
Right now, the village is glorious, sitting above the shoreline with glimmers of sunshine bouncing off its salty walls above idyllic rows of sunbathed cottagers as they wind their way down to the bay to fish for their livelihood and their supper.
But these villages would lose something in the storms of the early 1900s that was far more devastating than a single house. They lost their village, or at least half of it, as storm after storm washed their homes away. And when I say half of it, I mean half of every house; the shore collapsed and took every front room, hallway, under-stairs closet, and upstairs occasional-guest-bedroom with it, leaving them their fireplace mantel with their battered copy of The Time Machine, the framed picture of King George, and a perfect view of the beach at Perros-Guirec if they had a good set of field glasses. And of course, the now-calm but ever-destructive English Channel on their doorstep.
Our time traveler has one more lost place to visit. Not a village or a city; not a county or a country. A whole continent.
We’ve traveled back in time more than twenty-five million years, and we’re standing on Norfolk Ridge, a high plateau which was once part of the supercontinent, Gondwanaland.
As we look around, we see a continent coming alive with life. This is a world that’s home to the first apes, just as they’re about to split away and become us, and where endless grasslands have replaced dense forests. Here come modern mammals and birds that we’d certainly recognize, running, hopping, trotting along. And in the sea, seals and whales swim happily, supported by an unimaginable volume of kelp.
But now, we don a diving suit and a facemask, which will definitely keep us alive, and we travel forward a few million years, to the same ridge, now a thousand meters under the Tasman Sea.
Around half the size of Europe, this is Zealandia, our lost continent.
Loss is relative, of course, and can rarely be measured on any standard scale. But the loss of a capital city must have been devastating for the East Angles, just as the loss of the English county of Winchcombeshire was to the Saxons, or the magnificent city of Roxburgh to the proud Scots, the beautifully-independent, high standard-of-living country of Neutral Moresnet to Neutral Moresnetians, or the peaceful village of Hallsands to its Devon fisherfolk by the sea.
Our time traveler knows from experience that the line between the present and the future, existence and oblivion, is a mere fence, and very much hopes that you gain a ‘thorough knowledge of it’ before deciding which side you’re on.