I’m reading a book, The World Without Us . The premise is simple: what if, suddenly, humans were to disappear from the face of the earth? The mechanism for that disappearance, whether it’s sickness, suicide or mass exodus (voluntary or involuntary) is immaterial.

What matters is what happens afterward.

What happens here on Earth, that is. With humans gone, how do ecosystems continue? What happens to our cultural artifacts, once we’re no longer around to tend to them? What things last, and what things rot?

The answer to the first is, they do. Ecosystems continue as they always have, governed by evolution and species specialization. Without human husbandry, of course, those specializations change. Cockroaches and domestic dogs get the short end of the stick, the former denied the heated buildings that a tropical species requires in northern climes.

The latter, which domesticated us into giving it table scraps hundreds of thousands of years ago, simply can’t compete against real game hunters: bears, wolves, coyotes. With us goes our best friend, too.

Domestic cats, on the other hand, turn out to be some of the winners in a world without us. Cunning and self-reliant, they easily evade the predators that come back to once again occupy the land where our cities stood. Likewise does water win, invading every opportunity, every crack, every cranny. And where water wins, so too does a riot of molds, mildews and fungi.

The center cannot hold

Many things take a remarkably short time to become undone. The book’s author, Alan Wiesman, takes pains to point out what I, and many others, have long sought to make clear. Namely, the more modern, the more new, the shittier. Houses built in the post WW II boom are the first to go, the more recently constructed, the more quickly reclaimed by nature.

“One thing [that disasters] have in common is that nearly all the buildings that crumbled or will crumble were built after World War II,” the author writes.

Within as little as half a decade, and without any human maintenance, any human tilting against nature’s windmill, today’s chipboard-and-vinyl McMansion sprouts a roof leak in a couple of years, a rotten roof truss a year after that, and inward collapsing mold-covered walls only one-sixth of the way through a conventional 30-year mortgage.

But the book’s most fascinating passages concern not what will happen in a world without us but what has happened in those parts of the world that we, for whatever reason, have already abandoned.

My wife, half-Korean, half-Finnish, introduced me to the book because of that subject; namely, the subject of the two-mile wide, 100-mile long, Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). An area that, since Eisenhower was president, has hosted all manner of species save one: humans.

Protected southward by a double fence of razor wire, the DMZ holds against Seoul’s expanding suburban shock wave. It’s protected to the north, against hordes of starving North Koreans, by a similar barrier. And between the fences lies a literal minefield, turbocharged by the occasional sound of automatic rifle fire emanating from a pillbox belonging to one, or the other, side.

Perhaps his target is a family trying to dash to sanctuary. More likely a bored soldier is just blowing off a little steam.

Everything about the zone says “Humans stay out.” Everything about the zone says “For the rest of you, here is found sanctuary.” And so became, in one of the most inhospitable places, a riot of life.

Frontier, redux

Hard in southeastern Indiana’s uplands lies another sanctuary. A post-WW II relic that, unlike almost everything else built since that war, was built to last.

The Jefferson Proving Ground (JPG), 55,000 acres of pristine Hoosier homestead carved out of national necessity (and 2,500 displaced families) to prove the weapons that would make us victorious first against the Germans and Japanese, and then later against the Koreans, against the Vietnamese, and, finally, against the Arabs.

Then, in the early 1990s, JPG offered its last salvo. Helping prove our nation’s weapons here in the Heartland before they went overseas to defend the Homeland.

Not long after its last hurrah, the decision was made to close JPG. Computers had become far more adept, and much more economical, as a way to model ordnance. No longer did we need a vast wilderness in which to fire our guns, just to prove to ourselves that they would work. That job was outsourced from real space into cyberspace.

Which left those 55,000 acres, nearly four times the size of Brown County State Park, in limbo. Decades of firing lead and depleted uranium (DU) shells into the hinterland had left that hinterland too dirty for even the most ambitious developer’s suburban daydreams.

So a decision was made: fence it off.

And so JPG is today. Twenty-miles- by-five of pristine woodlands. Enough buried DU to keep the humans out, not enough to actually affect the wildlife that has come crashing back to the sanctuary: a warren of birds, coyotes, foxes and even rumored cougars thriving in a world without us.

And so it will be, so long as we keep our goddamned hands off.

Gregory Travis can be reached at .