That year I heard the first blackbird sing on New Year’s Day, and the marsh tits were singing before the start of February. Just over two weeks after the new year began I saw the coltsfoot flowers open on their naked stems, and a little more than a week after that the pale yellow of lesser celandine shimmered among the green leaves along the ditches. During Eastertide, which – how could it have been otherwise? – came early that year, the cuckoo flowers were in bloom, and the fruit trees in the garden were in full flower. The night before Easter Sunday I was stung by mosquitoes for the first time, and on the Sunday itself honey bees and bumblebees zoomed through the garden as though it were midsummer.
At first I thought, everything is early this year, strangely early. But on Easter Sunday morning, when I sought shade under an already flowering laburnum, I felt dull and languid because of the oppressive, summer-like warmth, and it seemed to me that something had gone wrong, either with my capacity for registering changes in time, or with nature itself. A premonition of approaching calamity deepened in the course of March to an unease that drove me almost crazy.
The kind of unease that troubled me so greatly resembled a feeling I occasionally had in my youth. From time to time I would become convinced that Christ would soon come again and that the days of the great tribulation, which would precede that event, would not be long delayed. Standing in the small unlit room in our house, aiming the splashing jet at the middle of the toilet bowl, how often had I lifted my head to look out through the small window at the crescent moon in order to check whether it was covered with the ‘sackcloth of hair’ that heralded the arrival of Judgement Day. Only recently did I notice that I used to remember that Bible verse incorrectly: ‘the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.’ But back then I looked for sackcloth around the moon. A few times, as a grey cloud drifted in front of the moon, I clearly saw the outline of a sack, and I ran into the living room shouting, ‘He’s coming, He’s coming!’ But neither my father nor my mother would believe me. Only once did my mother come with me to the toilet. She looked at the moon and said, ‘That’s a cloud.’
As Christ did not come, not even after I saw sackcloth around the moon on five separate occasions, my fear of the Second Coming receded over the years. But every time I walked along the river with just one friend, I thought of the words of Jesus: ‘Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken and the other left.’ I was convinced I would be left, and my heart shrank at the thought of what would await me: I would be consigned to outer darkness, where the worm shall not die, neither shall the fire be quenched.
So that year, in the nights after Easter I dreamt of the Second Coming again and again.
Usually it began in a train, in a freight car. After a journey of several days we arrived in a large station. He, Christ, stood on the platform and, after we got off the train, motioned with His thumb to separate the sheep from the goats. Each and every time I was unable to get off the train. I wanted to scream but my throat was clamped tightly shut. Then I woke up and looked at the slowly swaying curtains and raised my head because I thought I heard noises, the sound of trumpets that announced His coming. I went back to sleep, I rode in the train again, I couldn’t get off, I couldn’t scream, I woke up, and my heart pounded as though it would break.
On the Tuesday after Easter a female colleague arrived from England. She had written to ask whether she could work in our laboratory for a while and use our surplus sticklebacks. She had a pike, she wrote, which she had taught to eat sticklebacks, and she had heard about the sticklebacks that we had bred for aggression. She wanted to test whether they would be better able to defend themselves against the pike than her own sticklebacks. Her curious letter increased my unease further: a woman who was coming over from England with her trained pike – how peculiar! I replied that I usually fed the surplus sticklebacks to my rats, but that I was willing to save them up for her. So, after some fitful correspondence about when she would arrive and where she would stay, she stood in front of our house, at dusk on the Tuesday after Easter. All day long I had been in a state. What would she look like? The malaise I felt, the result of the acceleration of time I thought I had detected, might all too easily lead me to become infatuated with her. Not that I was hoping for that: absolutely not. The sort of gnawing pain over a woman you see every day and with whom you talk and laugh as a matter of course and who is nevertheless unattainable: for God’s sake, not that.
Trembling, I opened the door of our house. There she stood, next to her car, framed by the leafy green of the lime trees in front of the house. She was a tall blonde, a woman to look up to, with a big voice that said, ‘Hello,’ and that agreeably affecting awkwardness which can cling to women biologists. When I opened the door she was staring up at the dark blue of the evening sky. I followed her gaze and saw the small bats that rapidly appeared above the roof of the house, so rapidly that it looked as if they were being shot from catapults, one after another.
‘Bats,’ she said and followed me inside, and I showed her the way to the guest bedroom. After that we took her pike to the laboratory. It was a young fish that to all appearances adapted itself quickly to the artificial ditch in there.
It soon became clear that she was passionately interested in field biology. As a result, that year I observed several phenomena I might not have noticed otherwise. I took her to the dunes at Meyendel to show her something of the work that people in our lab were doing with wolf spiders, click beetles, cinnabar moths, sow bugs and a number of other humble animals. We walked along dune paths, the white sand glistening brilliantly in the sun. The scent of wild honeysuckle was everywhere, and the sea buckthorn was in full bloom. It was very summery, and it didn’t seem right to hear a curlew calling and to hear the song of willow warblers, blackcaps and finches. At a copse she suddenly halted and said, ‘Chiffchaff,’ and I heard the surprise in her voice but didn’t grasp the reason for it. I listened; aside from the penetrating sound of the chiffchaff I also heard the clear song of the willow warbler.
‘Strange,’ she said, and still I didn’t know what she was driving at. I tried to find the chiffchaff but could not see the little bird. The sound came from near the ground and I knelt down to have a better look. As I was kneeling I suddenly understood why she had said ‘strange’; a willow warbler high in the trees and a chiffchaff down by the ground. Normally it is just the other way around. I was on my knees in the sand, I heard the bird but did not see it. Sow bugs were walking slowly over the sunlit white sand. I opened my eyes wide, yes, they were sow bugs all right. ‘How can that be?’ I muttered. And of course it couldn’t be: most of the sow bugs dried out and shrivelled during their ramble in the sunshine; they can move only at night when it is warm and moist, they are like crayfish who suffocate when it’s dry. Only the occasional sow bug managed to reach the flowering tansy ragwort that fringed the path.
‘Ragwort can’t be in bloom already,’ I said softly to myself. I looked for the cinnabar moth’s zebra-striped caterpillars that are often present on ragwort, but I couldn’t see any. I began to mumble to myself. The words were incantations, more or less, as I sought to ward off a growing feeling of panic, and I sensed that she was regarding me with amazement. I hardly dared to look at her, but when I raised my eyes to hers I saw the expression of someone asking herself whether she was in the company of a madman. I got up hastily, slapped the sand from my trousers, and we walked silently towards the field laboratory. There, too, I heard about the strangest facts: bird-cherry ermine moths that belonged on the spindle trees were on the hawthorns instead, hedgehogs weren’t rolling themselves into balls, tansy ragwort plants weren’t being visited by the larvae of the cinnabar moth, and a pair of cuckoos had built their own nest.
‘This year there’s almost three times as much helleborine as last,’ one of the ecologists said.
I tried to interrogate them, gingerly, about all these irregularities in nature; they were very much surprised, yes indeed, but they were not afraid. They seemed to regard the aberrations as a consequence of the extraordinary climatic conditions and had thrown themselves fanatically into the study and description of the strange phenomena. They were cheerful rather than downcast because so many unusual things were happening and because the weather kept on being so gorgeous. I could not put up with their good spirits for long. I left the field laboratory and, breathing heavily, halted in the shade of the mixed trees that stood in the hollow in the dunes near the assembly tent. I heard the twirling song of the goldcrest and I saw a few whitethroats. That’s strange, I thought, usually you don’t get to see a whitethroat. While I pondered this, I tried to discover the goldcrest. It is almost always found high up in spruce trees, and since there was a good deal of spruce around, I looked intently at the upper branches. Unable to locate the goldcrest, I walked towards the sound. By chance I looked at an oak that stood nearby and saw the goldcrest, perched in the oak. ‘That’s okay,’ I half shouted, ‘they are not married to the spruces,’ but I clapped my hands over my eyes. I’m going crazy, I thought, goldcrests in oaks, whitethroats that show themselves, midsummer in April, and the ermine moths that belong on the spindle tree are on the hawthorn instead.
Early in the morning after the nights when I did not dream about the Second Coming, I could hardly imagine why something as insignificant as seeing a goldcrest in an oak tree had upset me so much. But almost every day during that month of April, something happened to interfere with my sleep. I didn’t dare talk about it with anyone; as soon as I opened my mouth it struck me as so ridiculous to make a fuss about wolf spiders or click beetles that I retreated into silence. As a result I was all alone with my strange premonitions, my absurd fears. Once I tried to discuss it with Priscilla, my English colleague. Over breakfast I said, ‘Everything is very early this year, don’t you agree?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it really is a splendid spring,’ and after that I was unable to say another word. A splendid spring? Spring? It was midsummer! During breakfast, swarms of wasps tried to steal our sugar, and if you opened a jar of jam, within minutes there would be dozens of wasps inside. Those wasps became an intolerable plague, and our April breakfasts were mostly devoted to waging a dogged warfare against them. They managed to get inside the house even though we kept all the doors and windows shut; they had to, because where else would they have been able to find sustenance? Food in the form of ripening fruit was not yet available. Day after day, when dinner was finished, as long as the light lasted, I did nothing but search for wasps’ nests. The first nest I discovered was under the eaves, and on four consecutive evenings I sat on a ladder, holding the nozzle of a vacuum-cleaner hose. The vacuum cleaner stood on the window sill in the second-storey bedroom, and I vacuumed up wasps that came back to the nest for the night. No other method of combating the nest came to mind. It was jammed so closely between the downspout and the eaves that I could not reach it, and if I had poured kerosene over it and lit it the whole house would have gone up in flames.
On the first evening, after I had spent forty-five minutes vacuuming up wasps, my wife looked out through the bedroom window.
‘Having any success?’ she asked.
‘Some,’ I said, ‘but you can turn it off now. I’m going to quit; my left leg has gone to sleep and hardly any more wasps are coming.’
‘Okay, I’ll go and turn it off.’
She disappeared. I climbed down a few rungs of the ladder and went in through the open window. My wife was already gone but I still heard a muffled humming noise. She’s left the vacuum cleaner on, I thought. I pulled the plug out of the socket; the vacuum cleaner kept on humming. It sounds like the motor is running at half speed, I thought. I pushed the knob. No change. Even the appliances are out of kilter, I thought, and the malaise that had already bothered me for so many days surged through my body again. I stood motionless in the half-dark bedroom. I listened to the threatening sound of the vacuum cleaner, and only then did it sink in that the sound was being made by wasps still buzzing inside it. I murdered them with ether and that evening was one of the few evenings in April that I felt happy. It’s all an illusion, I thought, nothing is the matter, it’s simply that I’m fool enough to make a big deal of everything, even wasps in a vacuum cleaner.
It was an unforgettable evening, a summer evening full of the heavy scent of lilacs. I listened to one of the most beautiful compositions I know, the nocturne from Béatrice et Bénédict by Berlioz: ‘Nuit paisible et sereine,’ peaceful and untroubled night. It was as if he had composed that unbelievably beautiful music for that very night.
The next few evenings were also sublime. I destroyed one wasps’ nest after another. I poured kerosene into the nests that had been built underground and then I set fire to them. Oh, how they burned! They were made of paper that the wasps produce themselves; drenched in kerosene, they went up like a torch. Still, there was one nest I couldn’t get rid of. I had located the hole all right, but even though I poured several litres of kerosene down the hole and threw in one lighted match after another, the nest would not catch fire. I’m going to have to dig it out a bit and then spray it, I thought. And so on one of those summer evenings in April I went into the garden with a shovel and a barrel of kerosene. I wore leather gloves and canvas rainwear to protect myself against possible stings. Even before I had put the shovel into the ground, the sweat was pouring down my body. Some wasps flew past, and I had such a strong sense that it was a warm summer evening late in August that, on my way to the nest, I stopped for a moment to pick a ripe pear. I acted without thinking, but when I tried to grab the pear and found myself riffling through the leaves in vain, I became aware of what I was doing.
‘Things are not that early,’ I said. I had developed the habit of talking out loud when alone; it was as if I were two people, a half-crazed wasp hunter and an observer who regarded the hunter with amusement. I stopped for a moment, gripped my shovel resolutely to suppress my fear. I walked on until I reached the nest and drove my shovel deep into the ground. I prised the soil halfway up. Then, suddenly, thousands of wasps rose out of the earth in a flash. It was a yellow-black cloud, and the oddest thing was that the upper surface of that cloud was completely flat. I stood there in the evening light, staring in fascination at that mass of wasps which seemed to be held down by an invisible ceiling. But the sound coming from the cloud contained a tremendous threat; a very angry buzzing that rapidly gained in volume. I turned around and ran away, but the wasps caught up with me at the pear tree and stung me in five places at once. By the time I reached the house my body was nothing but an organism burning with pain, yet I was still able to open the kitchen door and quickly close it before I lost consciousness.
For more than two weeks I lay in bed with a high fever. Right after my assault on the nest they even feared for my life. I had been stung 142 times in all, as the swollen lumps on my body showed. I suffered uninterrupted pain and had continuous visions of the Last Judgement. I was in hell and was being tortured: they were sending thousands of wasps to sting me. And even when I was able to think a bit more clearly, the pain was so intense that the visions of hell that came with it did not entirely disappear. Only after two weeks did I begin to sleep normally again, and that night I dreamt a new version of the Second Coming. I was walking in a vast plain, all alone. I had been raised from the dead and Christ had judged me, and now I was on my way to hell. I had to go even though I didn’t want to. There were neither shrubs nor trees on that plain, nor any animals. I was walking barefoot through the very sharp grass. My feet were bleeding, the sun burned low in the sky, and on the horizon I saw tiny figures. When they came closer I saw that they were horses, red, white, black and pale ones, who seemed to be approaching slowly under the red sky. But they weren’t walking slowly, they were galloping rapidly towards me and I could already see their manes. Oh, what gorgeous hair, I muttered, it’s just like a woman’s. But I had not yet seen the tails. Only when the horses were very close and slowly began to enclose me did I see those tails. They were black stings, and the horses turned their hindquarters to me, raised their stings and approached me. When the first horse pierced me with its sting, I tried to scream but couldn’t utter a sound. The horses whinnied, I woke up, and again I heard the whinnying. At first I thought the sound belonged to my dream, but then I heard it for a third time, and it frightened me so much that I hardly had the strength to throw off the covers. As I walked to the window I heard the sound of horses’ hoofs on gravel. I opened the curtains. By the light of the full moon I saw horses walking on the gravel path alongside the lawn. Occasionally they stopped to graze for a moment, then they raised their heads again and whinnied. I heard my wife’s voice, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Horses in the garden,’ I said.
‘Horses? How can that be?’
She was already at my side, she looked at the horses, so pale in the light of the moon, and said, ‘Oh, those are the horses from the riding stable, they got out, of course, and now they’re doing the rounds of the gardens; I’ll go and phone.’
She left the window. But I was in no condition to move, it felt as if I were no longer alive. I’m going crazy, I thought, I’ve got to see a psychiatrist, I’ve got to get treatment. I moved the curtains so as to cool my burning forehead. But I couldn’t bring myself to close the curtains, I had to look at those horses that walked so quietly and peacefully through the garden. They were the horses of the Apocalypse, they stood there grazing, the white horse, the red horse, the pale horse, the black horse, the horses with the curved stings of scorpions.
Perhaps I really would have gone crazy if I hadn’t had Mozart and if Priscilla’s husband had not shown up. I had always loved Mozart’s music with a passion but until those days of my wasp fever when I was still oddly light-headed and couldn’t do anything except listen to music, I didn’t fully realize how unbelievably profound the music of Mozart is. Every time the memory of fever-dream visions became too much for me I put a black disc labelled ‘Mozart’ on the turntable. As soon as that music, melancholy, cheerful, ever perfect, resounded in the room I felt calm again. I was being addressed by someone who had also gone through terrors of the kind I had felt but had risen above them. Strange that something as incomprehensible as music – aerial vibrations that reach the ear – of which you can say only hesitatingly what it actually expresses, can mean such an enormous amount to you. During my convalescence, how would I have managed without Mozart?
I was still taking the Mozart cure when late one evening and completely without notice, Priscilla’s husband George suddenly stood before us. By then I was almost over my wasp fever, though still a bit light-headed, and he began to talk about the accelerated movement of time of his own accord. He was a tall, sinewy man who spoke nonchalantly about the telescoping of spring and summer. He associated it with processes of decomposition in the polluted oceans.
‘Because of that,’ he said, ‘not only does the air above the oceans warm up as a result of the heat released by decomposition, but the water also becomes warmer. The temperature in the warm Gulf Stream rises and so our winters become milder, and occasionally there is a chance that spring may fade away. In fact, the seasons are disappearing.’
He talked about his work. He was an algologist and did measurements in the Atlantic Ocean of, among other things, the oxygen production of algae. I don’t think I exaggerate in saying he was obsessed by the oxygen economy of the world.
‘The world’s deserts are spreading,’ he said, ‘effect: fewer forests to produce oxygen. Now they’ve sold the timber on Borneo to Japanese timber companies; they drive bulldozers into the forest and systematically cut metre after metre. So the fertile topsoil is exposed to erosion, the soil washes away, nothing grows there any more, and then no more oxygen gets produced by plants.’
He spoke tersely, and both for that reason, and because of course he spoke English, I can’t remember his remarks all that clearly, but ‘less oxygen’ has stuck with me, so often did he repeat it. He calculated for me how much oxygen there was on the globe, how much was used by cars, humans, animals, plants, industry, and how much was won back by oceans and rainforests. It made for a gloomy picture. He himself became visibly downcast in the course of our conversation. But his comments cheered me up tremendously. What I had seen in nature was brought about by developments in the oceans, it seemed, not by developments within myself.
A few days after he had arrived, I suggested to him and Priscilla that we should go and have a look at the bluegrass wetlands along the Wijde Aa river. Most of all I would have liked to cycle with them along the Ruige Kade, something I always do in the spring to count the orchids in the marshes and bluegrass lands. Unfortunately neither of them knew how to ride a bike. In their car we drove as far as the small bridge over the branch of the Wijde Aa, and moments later we walked across the bridge to the narrow path on the other side. A pair of grebes swam under the bridge. They did not dive, so I stamped a few times with my right foot. Why did they still not dive? Once again I felt my old surprise at the unusual, and I shivered for a moment. Surely this couldn’t be the consequence of decomposition in the oceans? It was as though I heard the noise of horses’ hoofs. But I forgot my fear when I saw the first orchid. It stood on the same spot along the path where I had seen the first orchid a year earlier. In memory I went back a year; it had been the first fine day in what was otherwise a cold and windy spring. I pointed to the orchid. I related how a year earlier I had spotted sixty and as I said this I realized that I was a year further along, that this year spring had not been cold and windy but had in fact not happened. We agreed that we would count the orchids this time as well and walked on, looking for the purple torches of the southern marsh orchid.
It was a strange day. An autumn-like smell hung in the air under an overcast sky, penetrated in just a few places by hazy, light-red sunlight, and not a bird was to be heard. There was not a ripple in the Wijde Aa; two garganeys flew by soundlessly in the windless air, and far off in the distance I saw the silhouette of a cormorant being pursued by two gulls. Here and there along the path stood untidy clumps of mushrooms. We counted the orchids and found that their number was amazingly large. Especially on the gentle slope of the dyke along the Wijde Aa, a lot of them were in bloom among the sorrel and the buttercups. Along the edge of the grass, tall horsetails raised themselves high, alternating with flowering black sedge, and in a few places we could see the small pale-blue flowers of lamb’s lettuce. When we reached the copse of willows at the far end of the grassland we had counted 172 orchids. We sat down in the grass near the copse. My voice sounded high and shrill as I said, ‘Strange, last year sixty, this time one hundred and seventy-two, I don’t get it at all.’
‘That’s possible, isn’t it?’ said Priscilla.
‘Yes, why not,’ said George, ‘not all years are the same.’
‘But I’ve been counting them for ten years now,’ I said, ‘and there have never been this many. Usually there are between sixty and eighty, and now suddenly one hundred and seventy-two.’
‘Be glad there’s been so much progress,’ my wife said.
‘I find it strange,’ I said, ‘it’s just like everything is exuberant for one last time . . . like a TB patient just before he dies.’
‘What nonsense,’ said my wife.
‘Maybe not,’ said George, ‘the same thought has crossed my mind a couple of times this year.’
He fell silent, we looked at each other, I resumed speaking, calmly at first, then gradually more agitatedly and rapidly, with many gestures which I tried to restrain, making them seem awkward. I spoke about everything I had seen, about the sow bugs, the ermine moths, the goldcrest and all those other apparently so insignificant phenomena. I felt relieved to have my say, and he listened to me without even a moment’s disparagement or scepticism.
When I had finished he said, ‘And now it’s almost like autumn.’
I looked out over the meadows. I had often sat there in springtime, usually on 30 April, the holiday for our Queen’s birthday, and suddenly I remembered how much I had enjoyed seeing the common swifts flying high. I looked up to the sky. There were no swifts at all.
‘The swifts haven’t come back,’ I shouted. ‘What’s going on anyway?’ I hardly dared to look at the ditches in the meadows before me. But if I didn’t want to see that no barn swallows or house martins were flying around either, I would have to close my eyes.
‘Maybe they’re still on their way,’ Priscilla said.
‘They should have been here by now,’ I said, ‘especially since everything else is so early.’
‘Swallows don’t bother themselves about an early spring,’ said George, ‘but it is funny they aren’t here yet. Perhaps it’s got something to do with all those strange climatic phenomena, as well. We’ve calculated that if the oxygen production of the oceans declines to forty per cent of the original level, there will be no way back any more. Then everything in the oceans will rot, something that’s already happening on a large scale. At a certain point oxygen will no longer be produced, it will only be consumed by the process of decomposition. The rainforests won’t even be able to produce enough oxygen to supply the process with the oxygen it needs. And then it will be game over for all life on earth.’
He spoke without showing any emotion. I could never have done that. I wanted to ask him: what percentage did you come up with this year? But I didn’t dare: I was simply scared to hear that magical number forty again. The others didn’t ask either, and he didn’t say anything. I thought of a verse from the book of Revelation: ‘And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.’
We got up and walked back along the path under that flaming-ashen sky. I kept an eye out for house martins but saw none. For a moment I thought: they left before I could see them. I haven’t been unconscious for several days as they said I was; I’ve been unconscious for several months. I have been ‘hibernating’ all summer and now it’s autumn and everything that frightened me so much during the spring didn’t really happen but was something I dreamt during my summer of sleep. I cherished this thought. It wasn’t so hard; in spite of the fact that the leaves weren’t falling yet, it was so autumnal that more and more I believed in my summer of sleep. But I took care not to ask my wife, ‘Have you all been deceiving me, have I been unconscious for several months?’ for I didn’t want to wake up from my dream. It happened all the same. After dinner we sat in the garden until it was quite late. The sky was dark blue, the bats like black specks. The intoxicating scent of the almost overblown lilacs blended with the deep fragrance of the philadelphus. George smoked a pipe, the smoke curled up slowly, hung in the windless air. He was talking with Priscilla, a simple dialogue, fleeting words spoken casually, apparently without significance or implications.
‘How was it this time?’ Priscilla asked
Without taking his pipe out of his mouth he asked, ‘How do you mean?’
‘With the ocean. The tests.’
‘How much oxygen in the algae, you mean?’
‘Less than forty per cent, for the first time since we started.’
‘So the situation is hopeless now?’
‘I think so.’
‘How much time before . . .’
‘I have no idea, but it won’t be very long.’
‘And then what?’
‘I’m afraid we’ll suffocate.’
By this time it was about to turn ten. I was waiting for the tawny owl. It had the habit of dropping by around ten every evening, seating itself in the alder. First it would let us hear its shrill cry and then it began its doleful hooting. It had been doing this for years, and even this year it had not diverged from its customary behaviour, thank God. I heard the living-room clock strike ten and at the same time I heard the owl’s sharp cry. I saw it sitting in the tree, an inverted equilateral triangle with a round base. Suddenly it pounced, and we heard the death cry of a sparrow. That terrifying shriek abruptly made the implications of George and Priscilla’s conversation clear to me, and I said, ‘We’ve got to warn people.’
‘Pointless,’ he said, ‘they won’t believe it, they think it’s enough to cut back a little on industrialization, energy use and solid waste.’
‘We’ve got to warn people,’ I repeated.
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘You want to be a Cassandra?’ he asked, and continued: ‘As far as I am concerned, I don’t much care about humans disappearing from the earth. What does bother me is that all plants and animals will become extinct too, except for a few organisms such as sulphur bacteria that don’t need oxygen.’
‘But humans . . .’ I said.
‘After the calamity has finally come to an end maybe new forms of life will emerge from those bacteria, and evolution can begin anew. But,’ he said, raising his voice, ‘it is to be hoped that no other species like the human race emerges. It’s a good thing, the extinction of a species that has so shamelessly destroyed other animal species and plants, and that has plundered the earth with such complete lack of care or scruple. Maybe that extinction balances out against the fact that all other forms of life requiring oxygen will also meet their end.’
‘Yes, all right, but . . . but . . .’ I said.
‘Without humans there would be no concentration camps, no wars, no torture, no dreadful traffic accidents, no . . . well, just try to enumerate all the horror.’
I tried desperately to think of an argument that would justify the continued existence of the human race. The tawny owl hooted mournfully at the bottom of the garden, and George looked at me expectantly. I wanted to contradict him, to defeat him with powerful arguments. I felt that in that way I could still postpone the threat of the coming destruction of all life. The owl took wing, and the only thing I could come up with was, ‘Then there won’t be anybody left to listen to Mozart.’
Photograph © Ko. Fujiwara / Photonica