Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Taking a 100 Year Nap

Sometimes it is fun to go on creative thought experiments, like what would happen to your home if you took a nap for 100 years and woke to see what it would look like without adding the human energy and capital necessary to maintain it. One day in late summer, I did just that as I sat on the driveway in my front yard watching my kids ride their bikes up and down the street.

I live in a wood frame, two-story single-family home in a downtown area of a suburb outside of Chicago. The siding is cedar and the base in the front is clad with limestone. To the east our home is a large walnut tree that hangs over our house unless it is trimmed back. At the north-west corner is another large elm tree. Both are approximately 100 years old. So, if I were to sleep for 100 years old - what would my home look like? What parts would nature reclaim and what parts would remain recognizable?

Prior to settlement, my home was a part of a larger swath of oak woodland adjacent to a tallgrass prairie, so I can imagine that through drought cycles inherent in our climate, this type of vegetation will gradually overcome some of the introduced landscaping plants so prevalent in our neighborhood.

I wonder what would happen to the old walnut tree next to our home? Would it live another hundred years or would it fall and crush my home? Walnut trees have a lifespan of up to 250 years, so it is possible that the walnut tree would still be alive and well one hundred years from today - amazing to think about! I assume it would lose a few branches in that time, and I'm sure that a few of those branches would fall on my roof and damage, if not collapse it, in sections. Damage to the roof would be the death knell for the wood frame structure. If not the branches, the failing windows.  Water introduced would slowly decay the wood, it would lose its structural integrity, and collapse in more and more sections, pancaking down to the floor below. Over 100 years, the only remaining structure would be part of the brick chimney and the walls clad in crumbling stone.

We have a large Norway Maple tree in the back yard (60 years old or so), which has verticillium wilt and a life expectancy of only 100 years, so that tree would fall to the ground at some point, becoming a host site for forest plants and animals. It's prolific production of invasive helicopter seeds, however, would insure that it's progeny would colonize the interior of my collapsed home. I can imagine large trees growing out of my home in 100 years.

Freezing temperatures will also take their toll on the stone driveway and cladding. Freeze-thaw cycles will exploit cracks in them and lead them to crack and crumble over time. My driveway already plays host to enterprising young plants who grow in the cracks between the pavers. Over time, dandelions and grass will give way to trees and bushes and all views to where my house once stood will be obscured.

All told, I'm sure my lot would be reclaimed by the forest on which it was once built. Most ecosystems succeed to forest if given the right conditions and based on our proximity to a local river, I'm sure that would be the case. So after awakening from my 100 year nap, preserved in some sort of bubble stasis that protected me from the elements and allowed my body to stay hydrated, I would awaken in a forest filled with native plants and animals. And that would be ok - provided I could build a new little home in the woods.

If this sort of thought experiment is interesting to you, check out "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman and this cool website.  

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