Last month I mentioned that I started reading ‘Overstory’ by Richard Powers on my trip back from the US [see ‘When an upgrading is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019]. I only finished it about ten days ago because I have not had much time to read and it is a long book at 629 pages. It is a well-written book including some quotable passages, but one that I particularly liked which seems relevant in this era of polarised perspectives: ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can is a good story.’ And, Richard Powers tells a good story about the destruction of the ecosystem, on which we are dependent, as a result of large-scale felling of ancient forests. The emphasis should be on ‘ancient’ because time for trees appears to run at a different speed than for humans. While we can observe the seasonal changes in an ancient woodland, we are barely conscious on the growth and movement of the woodland. When we read Shakespeare’s lines in Macbeth about ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come’, we think of it moving over the landscape at the speed of an army of people, whereas woods move so slowly that we do not live long enough to notice the change. For instance, there is a spruce tree in Sweden that is 9,500 years old. Our spatial understanding of a tree also leads to a misconception because we can only see the overstory, i.e. what is happening above ground; so, we think that each trunk is an individual tree, whereas for many types of tree many apparently individual trunks belong to the same organism with an extensive understory below ground which might be thousands of years old. All trees are involved in a substantial understory communicating with each other in ways that we can barely imagine let alone comprehend. Most of the ancient forests in Europe were cut down before science revealed the scale and complexity of life in them; yet, we still continue to fell forests as if there was an inexhaustible supply rather than one that could take as long to replicate as humans have been recording our history.
A couple of weekends ago we went to see ‘Anthony and Cleopatra‘ performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a magnificient spectacle and a captivating performance, especially by Josette Simon as Cleopatra. Before the performance started, we couldn’t help noticing the columns of steam forming in the auditorium from the ceiling downwards. Initially, we thought that they were a stage effect creating an atmosphere in the theatre; but then I realised, it was ‘steam’ forming as the air-conditioning pushed cold air into the auditorium. It’s the same effect that sometimes causes alarm on an aircraft, when it appears that smoke is billowing into the cabin prior to take-off.
The air in the theatre was a mixture of air and water vapour that was warm enough that the water was completely gaseous, and hence, invisible. However, when the air-conditioning pumped cold air into the theatre, then the mixture of air and water was cooled to below the dew point of the water vapour causing it to condense into small droplets that were visible in the auditorium’s downlighters, forming the columns of ‘steam’. Of course, the large mass of warm air in the auditorium quickly reheated the cold air, causing the droplets to evaporate and the columns of steam to disintegrate. Most people just enjoyed the play; it’s just the technologists that were preoccupied with what caused the phenomenon!