The new forest had just opened to the public. As had been the case with prior such installations, reactions were mixed. Some people said they found it relaxing or stimulating, an excellent locus to hone or pacify the thoughts, or simply a good place to open up the lungs and breathe. Others complained about the alarming uniformity of the synthetic trees, the absence of pleasant organic odours, the lack of birds, insects and other forest critters attributed to the original forests, not to mention the soundscape. “All that fluttering, humming and clicking,” declared one crusty old critic, “almost drove me mad.” Recalling the real forests of his boyhood, he assured everyone that, “They were nothing like this monstrosity.”
The sounds he referenced were produced by the photovoltaic leaves covering the so-called trees of the forest. After a worldwide beetle infestation —an insecticide-resistant subspecies of bark beetle propelled by a year-long heat wave— had wiped out ninety-nine per cent of the Earth’s forests, many plant and animal species followed them into oblivion, and within a mere decade the atmosphere grew intolerable, virtually toxic. The human population was decimated. But survivors around the world, finding common purpose in the management of this crisis, took immediate —and some would say ethically impetuous or questionable— measures to save humanity and whatever other forms of life that could be saved.
One of the more progressive but controversial programs advanced the development and perfection of wind and solar power generating photovoltaic leaves, and the construction —assisted by bio-archaeologists and forensic artists and designers solicited from Hollywood and the advertising world— of large groups of tree-like structures layered with photovoltaic leaves and designed to replicate natural forests, which by all accounts would have taken decades to regenerate. I had read about the ceaseless fluttering of these photovoltaic leaves, and the peculiar sounds they produced. Equipped with miniature piezoelectric generators, each leaf harvested energy from the sun and the wind, making minute adjustments as conditions changed from moment to moment.
So, it wasn’t just an ornament, the forest, an intricate artifice, or a passable facsimile of a once extant reality fabricated for people to recreate and enjoy themselves, as they reputedly did in the natural forests of the past. It actually generated power. And the idea that these synthetic forests would in time replace those lost to beetle infestation, and in effect harness enough energy to entirely satisfy the needs of the Earth’s population, proved too seductive for politicians and citizens alike.
Needless to say, I wanted to see it for myself. While I admired the pragmatism of the project, I had questions about its aesthetic, that is to say humanistic values. I had learned about the old forests in school and how beautiful, how integral they were to life on our planet —but also how important they were to our human story. After the last of the infested trees fell to chainsaw and fire —forty years ago, mere months before my birth— many doubted that humanity would survive without them. As mentioned, countless plant and animal species had vanished with the trees and the human race had suffered a decimation, but the survivors had, well, survived.
I wondered if these synthetic forests, notwithstanding their obvious utility, provided the same tranquility and aesthetic satisfaction as the originals. In a world where necessity had engendered hitherto unthinkable and often uncomfortable invention, and the lines between what had once been deemed natural and what was humanly engineered became ever blurred, the aesthetic efficacy of the whole enterprise, in my estimation, was still up in the air.
My friend Mercy met me at the local plaza at noon, as scheduled. The forest had been constructed under the escarpment, a ten minute walk from the plaza. A remnant of the Carolinian forest —oak, maples and birch— had thrived there before the beetle invasion, but for years the space had been a charred no-go zone that even cocky teens avoided.
It was windy, the troubled skies mottled. They said it would take a few more years of oxygenation and decarbonization before we’d see clear skies —and stars at night. Mercy, who had worn a red nylon shell, looked flushed. “Aren’t you excited?” she asked, breathless.
Excited failed to describe how I felt. Uneasy was more like it.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“We would have been better off letting nature take its course,” I offered. And I believed this to a great extent.
“You want to see the return of the trees, I get it. But that isn’t happening. Not in our lifetimes. And besides, you’re being hypocritical.” She glanced at my leg.
“A knee-replacement isn’t the same thing as replacing a forest wholesale.”
“What if you hadn’t just wrecked your knee but lost your leg in an accident, would you be willing to replace it with a prosthetic?”
“That’s a silly question. A leg is not a frigging forest.”
As we walked toward the escarpment, tension freighted our normally harmonious communion. We had known each other since university —I had studied the aesthetics of nature, she quantum mechanics, but somewhere between these two polarities our minds found common ground and bonhomie— and had always gotten along even if we had on occasion disagreed politically or aesthetically. Mercy believed that we humans, composed of atoms, the very stuff of the universe, were inextricably intertwined with nature, and could not by definition ever act unnaturally, that is to say contrary to the physics and progression of the universe. And she believed that we were integral to that progression, as were our creations.
“The trees died,” she went on, “and we had the brains and the pluck to replace them and save ourselves and the planet. And the damn beetles can’t touch our trees now. How does this offend you? Do you miss wood or something, is that it?”
“I just imagine large swathes of the planet covered by these clattering pseudo-forests and subverting its natural beauty.”
“Have you looked around lately? Not much natural beauty happening as far as I can see.”
I allowed for that; compared to photographs and videos of the majestic forests and lush tree stands of the past, the current world was an eyesore. And it wasn’t improving, that is to say it would not recover on its own in my lifetime. Maybe some future generations would once again behold a vast and undulating forest composed of real trees, real leaves, with birdsong and the chirrs and chitter of insects and small animals, but for now this was it.
“And my God,” Mercy continued, “the energy —I mean we’re talking about a perfect solution to our energy needs! Don’t get hung up on aesthetics. You haven’t even seen it yet. Don’t prejudge.”
I decided to keep quiet and suspend my scrutiny until we had actually walked through the new forest. And contrary to Mercy’s assertion, I wasn’t hung up on aesthetics. But I frowned at the argument that anything would be better than the current blight upon the eyes, the vast wastes and barren lands that marred so much of the landscape. Thanks to the sublime efforts of scientists, engineers and designers, in addition to meeting all our energy needs, the planet would aesthetically benefit from the universal installation of these “picturesque” forests, that is to say, it would also look better. The natural world experienced as some grotesque art installation; how fitting. As compelling as it sounded, I wanted to make that assessment for myself.
The forest boundary barrier —of whitewashed concrete, erected high enough to obscure the trees— came within sight, and already I could hear the fluttering of the photovoltaic leaves. Having nothing with which to compare it, save a number of nature documentaries and a few scratchy old recordings, I was initially not alarmed by the sound.
Mercy smiled at me, her cheeks reddening further, her excitement palpable.
We strode up a cobbled path and entered the barrier through a gated passageway. A strong whiff of polyethylene made my nostrils twitch and my head spin. The fluttering grew louder as we stepped between the trees. Momentarily overwhelmed, I stopped in my tracks and pressed my fingers to my temples. Tinted a deep green rarely witnessed anymore, and displaying a metallic glint at certain angles, the fluttering photovoltaic leaves convincingly shagged the trees.
“Ah,” Mercy said, clasping her hands together, “so beautiful —so, so beautiful.”
Stunned into silence, I failed to respond to her rapture, and ultimately disagreed with it. Far from beautiful, I found the artificial forest menacing and unpleasant in the extreme. The old timer who had critiqued the sound was spot on; it could drive you mad.
“Isn’t this amazing?” Mercy said, turning on her heels and surveying the absolutely uniform structures around her.
I felt my vertigo flaring up and shut my eyes to regain my equilibrium.
“What’s the matter?” Mercy asked, touching my shoulder.
“That sound —it gets in my head.”
“Really? It’s not so bad. Maybe next time wear some earplugs.”
“But you have to admit,” she gushed, “this is fantastic.”
I had to admit that, yes —the forest was fantastic. The leaves almost looked like real leaves; the trees like real trees— as far as I could deduce, though I had never seen a real leaf or tree. That we had come up with such a thing was a human triumph over annihilation and blight and a tribute to our redoubtable spirit as a species. And I had to tip my hat to the genius of something that would solve the world’s energy problems. That said, I felt deeply dissatisfied.
“Why no birds?” I asked.
“The noise keeps them away,” Mercy said.
“Would be nice if there were some birds.”
“I guess so, yeah.”
“Maybe they could introduce some mechanical birds, you know. Photovoltaic drones or what not. Make them lifelike.”
Mercy smiled at me. “That’s not a bad idea,” she said.
We continued walking in silence, side by side, our thoughts drowned out by the ceaseless, tuneless fluttering.
Salvatore Difalco is the author of 4 books, including the novel Mean Season (Mansfield Press). He splits his time between Toronto, Canada and Sicily.