A city entails a wilderness. You strike out beyond the city walls, cross a narrow stretch of hinterland – in the Florentine contado that would be dairy farms and brickworks and watermills; in our case suburban Canbury - and step into the forest. The forest is the grotesque anti-matter of the city, a place of magic and beasts, centaurs and dryads, Diana hunting and Actaeon fleeing.
The city is small and the wilderness is everywhere. Hunter Sidney holds that Norbiton: Ideal City being configured as it is, the wilderness overlies rather than surrounds the city. You step out into it merely by losing concentration for a moment. The lion prowls Jerome’s study at all times just as books litter his wilderness retreat.
But Hunter Sidney is by his own admission particularly alive to the fact of the encroaching darkness. It has him, so to speak, by the throat. I think we can be more precise, and can after all supply a geography. We have, in other words, our forest – Richmond Park.
Richmond Park is not a park but a loose-woven forest dotted with motes of significance – Pen Ponds, or the Isabella plantation – and accessible via wrought-iron gates: the Kingston Gate, the Robin Hood Gate, the Richmond Gate, and so on.
The park lies beyond the empirically real city and beyond the hospital, a vast massy body. Unlike Kingston and the Hospital, it does not exert its effect directly – there are no routes to the park that cut through Norbiton. However, this whole region of London is controlled by the park, which sets up ripples and turbulence at its margins, bends roads out and around it. At night the gates creak shut, the sluggish trickle of daytime traffic is choked off, and Norbiton groans and shudders in the night shadow of the strange tumescent place.
To reach the park from Norbiton entails crossing a tract of Canbury - Wolverton Avenue and Queen’s Road. At the mouth of Queen’s Road and watching the approaches to the park like a castle of the Marches is the Albert Pub. In the Albert you are still in the realm of urban silviculture and its deceits; but as you sip your pint you are lurchingly aware that at your back the material world has bolted beyond control.
In 1800 or thereabouts Alexander von Humboldt pitched his tent in the rainforests of South America, marvelled for a moment at the various embellishments of the tropical baroque, sharpened his pens, laid out his specimen jars, and started to take notes.
The forests of the Amazon and Orinoco (like anywhere else) are a white noise of competing, interfering orders; each individual creature understands the rainforest in its own pragmatic way, which is analogous to or divergent from the way others of its species understand the rainforest, and others of its genus and family and so on up or down the chain of creation. A vast humming overlay of mutual (in)comprehension leading by the elegant beauty of complexity to a sort of teeming order.
It must have taken some stones to conceive an inventory of all this, but Humboldt grappled the miasma of forms to the ground, captured and pinned and described insects, stuffed birds, bottled worms, pressed leaves, collected seed, sketched the ruins of forgotten cities, noted the habits of jungle people, traced the distribution of volcanoes, charted the transit of Mercury, and gloried generally in his own vitality.
He took away only a fraction of the place, but from that fraction he was able to derive his great description of everything, Kosmos, first published between 1845 and 1847 and subsequently revised, expanded, inflated.
We still ask primary school children to marvel at the proliferation of species in the rainforests, but each new species, each new wonder, now falls under the rubric of a catalogued order. A new beetle crawls into our traps; we are surprised locally, in detail – look at these markings here! these behaviours there!; globally it is more or less what we expected. Just another beetle. Pin him in the book with all the others.
For the most part Humboldt of necessity confined his botanical and zoological attentions to the forest floor, but noted that the forest canopy is a forest above a forest.
The canopy is roughly 35-40 metres above the ground, about 10m thick; and it contains 50% of the plant life of the forest, and 90% of the animal life. 95% of all photosynthesis done in a rainforest is done in the canopy. It is, in a sense, where the forest happens.
Above the canopy is the level of emergence, known as the overstory, where the tallest trees sway above the green waves. Below the canopy is the understory of lesser trees, and then the shrub layer. The forest floor, is a murky, silent, empty, dead world. Queer, like the bottom of the ocean, subject to excessive survival pressures, turning out big spiders and rot-eating millipedes, and tapirs all intestine, and ants, organised for victory, swarming over the carcasses of the monkeys that have dropped dead from above. The forest floor is the forest of Pan, not Apollo; of centaurs, not men.
This is where Humboldt unfolded his desk. In a sense, if he was missing something it did not matter. This Kosmos is vast, he might have answered, and unified if nothing else by our experience of it. If you wish to study it, it is only necessary to pick a corner and go.
Humboldt came to mind when Emmet Lloyd showed us the picture of the dendronautilus.
The dendronautilus is a dirigible or airship designed for life above the forest canopy. You would equip the gondola, I imagine, with a small laboratory, a living area, perhaps a small veranda; you would live in it for weeks, months, even years, floating over the inexhaustible forest, picking specimens from leaf tops with extensible pincer arms and suction tubes, trawling for beetles with mesh nets, tagging birds of paradise, having a sundowner on the veranda while you flick through Humboldt’s Kosmos; the mud and heat of the jungle floor would be half a universe away.
Emmet Lloyd saw the dendronautilus, he said, as an investment opportunity. He had been handed a pamphlet at a trade fair, and was now showing us some pictures on his tiny laptop as we sat in the Albert. Big scientific institutions, MIT, the Japanese, would pay for rival fleets of these costly vehicles, he said. Perhaps the rivalries would generate international tension, skirmishes like the cod wars, boarding parties, piracy.
There was little practicable competition, he explained. The beauty of a dendronautilus is that it is non-invasive. You glide about in the canopy and emergent layer like gods of the middle air, party to but not part of the treetop squabbles of howler monkeys, the death struggles of slow lorises grappling big insects, the rainbow display of birds.
Clarke said that you didn’t need an airship, you could just build a tree house. You could carry flatpacked treehouses into the interior, raise them into the canopy with vines. You could then lodge an entire research community deep in the jungle, just as they have at or near the South Pole. With an interlocking series of canopy accommodations and laboratories connected by rope walks, scientists could live there indefinitely, at one with the canopy and their suctioned rations; in such a scenario dendronautilae could plausibly function as public transport.
Clarke then suggested to Emmet that we construct a prototype of my modular tree-top research city in Richmond Park. He recalled a story, probably untrue, of a man who built and lived in tree houses in Central Park for months and years, eluding the park authorities, gliding away as they approached, melting into the undergrowth, only to re-emerge weeks later with a superior construction, deeper in the trees. Park officials who took them down marvelled at their sturdiness, their constructional economy. Finally they caught him, and gave him a job as a tree surgeon.
Emmet countered our objections. He said that these ideas had already been considered or tried but were ultimately counterproductive because they intervened in the economy of the canopy. A dendronautilus could observe without interfering. But we weren’t listening to him now, the conversation had turned to submersibles – we could build a submersible and explore the bed of the Hogsmill river, or Penn Ponds on Richmond park; then back to Dendronautilae – we could develop an urban version, an Urbanautilus, or better still a Suburbanautilus, floating over the rooftops, the emergent layer of the high-rise estate, discovering attic tribes and undescribed chimney pot bird species, peeling away roof corners and peering into the hitherto unknown world of the inhabitants, their first floor, upper storey lives. The Roof Peoples of Outer Norbiton.
Humboldt, whatever his personal experience of the jungle (and see Geographical for a reading largely contradictory of what I suggest here) did not regard the wilderness as an irrational space. He regarded it as a coherent system, a rational wilderness.
The rational wilderness is peopled with rational trees. How do you mark out a coherent space governed by the laws of linear perspective in a painting of an unpaved wilderness? Piero della Francesca uses trees in orderly recession. This is the sort of wilderness that makes topiary and avenues of pleached hornbeams thinkable. A wilderness of Apollonian groves.
If Piero could do it, so could Humboldt: he could infer Kosmos from the rainforest. However, had he constructed for himself a dendronautilus, lifted himself above the trees and started to work in earnest, he would have looked out over the infinity of treetops and known despair.
The forest floor, however strange, is local to you. You know to some extent this tree, that clearing. Here is where you sleep, there is where you eat. This is where I trapped that snake, over there I squished that beetle.
Up there it is just you, your schizoid ship, everything and nothing.
Standing at the urinals in the Albert, my head full of vast plans, I am moved to ask myself what sort of trade fair would have a stand for dendronauticae. Exploration expo 09? And why would Emmet Lloyd be visiting a trade fair? He has time to kill and he has money, he probably has a blazer which he likes to wear to functions, but Birmingham?
I am moved to doubt his whole story. And then it dawns on me. There is no pamphleteer who looks like Sandra Bullock, there is no trade fair. These are only smoke. Emmet Lloyd wants a project, who can say why: perhaps as a way of ingratiating himself with Kelley. No doubt if we pushed the point he would buy us a dendronautilus (or lease one); we could have a dirigible flying around Empirically Real Norbiton with Arion emblazoned on the side. We could do nutty stuff and make a sort of tedious name for ourselves. Be in the local paper. Kelley and the gods would smile on Emmet.
As I stand there pissing, my heart hardens. Emmet’s attempted project is aggrandising. We either accept his money or, knowing us, resolve to design and build and fly our own. To make our own we would require a diversion of resources on a massive scale. Time, energy. It would become everything. Norbiton: Ideal City is a diaphanous web and it needs protecting.
It is at this moment precisely that I conceive of the Anatomy – our vehicle of exploration.
I zip my flies, go back to the table, drink up and buy the next round without saying anything much. I let them talk their talk. The City is safe.
Why do we people the wilderness? We people it with dryads, horny gods, lions, the devil. In the wilderness there are predators, we are watched, and if we are not watched then we had better behave as if we were. The wilderness is a panopticon. If it is not wild animals, ghosts, bandits, then it is the trees themselves, the rocks. The Lord your God walked mildly about in the originary wilderness, his Eden, shaming his cowering subjects in the knowledge that he would see them.
But as an Italian woman I used to know once said to me, in space, there is nahthink. Nahthink! She might have added, go tell the world the great god Pan is dead.
The wilderness is absence. The city is presence. We finish our pints and turn our faces to the city.