Lost City Forest and Area X

Out of a looming work deadline, I managed to carve out a short jaunt last weekend, in which I walked in the Lost City Forest and thought about Area X.

Fiddlehead, Gallistel Woods / Lost City Forest, UW Arboretum

Lost City Forest is a part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. The name is not a flight of some ecologist’s whimsy – it refers to the land’s previous but short-lived existence as the site of a housing development touted as the “Venice of the Midwest”, where construction started with grand ambitions, but failed to take adequate note of some engineering considerations, such as the load-bearing capacity of the low-lying, marshy soil.

Not to put too fine a point on it, they built a subdivision in the swamp, because everybody said it were daft, and it sank into the swamp. Such difficulties can be overcome with sufficient cash and political will – for an example, St. Petersburg – but the Lake Forest Land Company was not the Tsar of All the Russias. They simply went bankrupt, and nobody else really felt like taking up the torch of building the Venice of the Midwest, so the land became part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, and in time turned into Lost City Forest.

Area X, on the other hand, is not exactly a real place. It’s a creation of weird fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, in his Southern Reach trilogy, out this year (the first two volumes already published, the third due in September). In Area X, inexplicable and unsettling things happen. There is a tower – or maybe it’s a tunnel into the ground, people can’t quite seem to agree – with a fungus growing on the walls whose fruiting bodies spell out semi-coherent apocalyptic text. People who enter Area X either never come out, or re-appear suddenly well outside its borders, dying of cancer. Meanwhile, the air and water there are oddly low in environmental pollutants.

I say it’s not exactly a real place, because it is inspired in part by St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, not far from where the author lives. The descriptions of natural and semi-natural places have the detailed feel of careful observation; in the first book, Annihilation, there is a vivid sketch of an overgrown, abandoned swimming pool, a touchstone for the book’s viewpoint character (not given any name beyond ‘the biologist’ and her husband’s nickname for her, ‘Ghost Bird’), which appeals to all the senses – even reading it on a bus in icy February, I could smell the algae in the water, and hear frogs calling in the humid night air.

As I wandered through the hush of the Lost City Forest, the bones of hundred-year-old house foundations invisible beneath my feet, I found myself thinking of Area X. Before its mysterious transformation, Area X was not a pristine wilderness; people lived there. Like almost every place on land it has a history with humans; “history” having the colloquial connotation of “there’s been a messy relationship”, as well as the primary meaning. But, uniquely, it has been forcibly re-wilded by some undetermined agency: God? Aliens? Ghosts? Its own will, somehow? That aside, there remains something unsettling about how quickly and thoroughly a piece of terrain can be, well, un-settled, the traces of human work reduced within a lifetime to crumbling cement under tree-roots. You feel that very strongly in Lost City Forest.

Where there was full sunlight and water, there were turtles (Chrysemis picta):
Turtle, Teal Pond
They basked at the edge of Lake Wingra and in Teal Pond. By my feet, a young snapping turtle zipped into the water, too fast for me to get my camera in place. By the way, this belief has no basis in fact, but every year I feel that once turtles are out, winter doesn’t get any more touchbacks. A solid wall of clouds laden with snow could move in, but then they’d have to be “I can’t, you guys. There’s turtles.”

It doesn’t quite fit the narrative flow, but most of the good pictures I got that day came from neighbouring Gallistel Woods, rather than Lost City itself. As the season advances, more colourful wildflowers are starting to appear, like celandine-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum):
Celandine-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum
and prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum):
Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum

In Ontario, where I was born and raised, the (white) trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is the provincial flower, and it’s actually kind of a big deal there; I can’t think of any other province or state where the official flower is such a thing, except maybe Texas with the yellow roses. The state flower of Wisconsin is the wood-violet, and even here in the capital I’d be prepared to bet that only a minority of people I buttonholed on the street would be able to tell me that without recourse to Wikipedia, which, full disclosure, is how I found out to put it in this post. Anyway, as a boy I was assured any number of times that picking trilliums was highly illegal, although this doesn’t actually seem to be the case.

Outside of the woods, the life of my species went on. A helicopter came in to land on the roof of St. Mary’s Hospital; a brass-band in the park played “Solidarity Forever”; someone went by with most of a windowsill container gardened balanced on the handlebars of their bike. If any naturalists are observing us, that is the sort of thing I’d prefer them to see.


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