The Day of the Triffids

You may know the book. The English science fiction writer John Wyndham published it in 1951, depicting a deadly (and mobile) plant species that took over Britain.

Like any science fiction book it’s a bit of a leap of faith, because it requires the triffids to possess specialized sensory organs—plants have tissues only, not organs—arguably it’s that level of complexity that ultimately kills us, as microorganisms, cancerous cells, or toxic chemicals destroy organs like the brain, liver, or lungs.

Plants, on the contrary, have been granted eternal life—they can be laid to waste by disease, just as we can, but as a rule, gardens outlive gardeners.

It’s a great read, but as always, the best question is why?

Why would plants want to destroy humans, what purpose would it serve? After all, humans—particularly English humans—are obsessed with plants: they grow them, nurture them, proudly exhibit them, and enter their sexual organs into competitions.

And the difference between humans and humus is only a couple of letters and fourscore years, so in that sense, why triffids should bother with us is beyond me. Now if Wyndham had equipped them with a digestive system…

Yes, we like our land plants. But when it comes to the sea, things can be a little different. Every so many years, usually between five and ten, the ocean plays a little trick on us. The trade winds that blow off South America toward the northeast weaken, and the coastal waters off Peru are no longer blown offshore.

The warmer water evaporates quicker, and as the southern hemisphere approaches midsummer’s day the skies open—Christmas becomes a nightmare of floods and disasters as the Christ child—El Niño—delivers buckets of rain onto pastures and villages.

The mischievous baby Jesus causes all manner of climate upsets when he gets going, and this year he’s out in force. In 2003 he directed the giant floods in South Africa and Mozambique, when the Olifants River, a tributary of the Limpopo, rose over thirty feet above its normal level.

This year, and south of the equator it’s still only springtime, the plants are causing all the chaos. From the diary of Columbus, transcribed by Las Casas, the admiral enters the Sargasso Sea in late September 1492, and descriptions of seaweed and floating prairies abound. Columbus had a good eye for detail, and we learn that the seaweed is brown. Here is an excerpt from Clear Eyes.

He could see the captain talking to the pilot Nino on the poop deck, pointing at the Pinta and the Nina—both vessels were practically becalmed. Bastos lowered a baler and pulled up a tangled mass of weed.

Around him, other sailors did their ablutions and muttered uncertainly about the vegetation in the water.

“Es un mar de yerba,” one of the men said, a sea of grass.

“And no land anywhere,” said another.

“Mala yerba.” The two sailors crossed themselves.

The muttering grew louder, as the men again doubted whether they would ever find land to the west, and most importantly, whether they would ever return home—in one week, it would be two months since they had left Palos de la Frontera. The sea was like a pancake and the sails hardly moved.

Columbus’s fleet was becalmed in an area of high pressure, stuck between the north east trades and the westerlies. This pressure band, at around thirty degrees north, was later christened the horse latitudes, due the practice of throwing the animals overboard to conserve drinking water.

The two sailors looked aft at the mizzen mast, and noted the flaccid lateen. Despair set in.

“Estamos plantados num mar de coles.”—we’re planted in a sea of cabbages. The men’s despair slowly turned into a seething anger at the foreigner who had put them in this predicament.

Bastos looked at the seaweed in his hand. It was a patchwork of dark and light brown, and the fronds were knotty and ribbed. The Portuguese had seen similar weeds in Lisbon—the Tagus was full of oysters, and a brown wrack was often fixed to the oyster shell—but the brown plant was smoother than this one, with bladders all along the frond.

He knew that when those brown weeds detached they might survive a short while, then die. But these ones were clearly thriving, just floating at the water surface, and there was a mighty forest of brown, as far as the eye could see.

Bastos understood how they floated—each plant had dozens of grape-like berries on it, each fixed on its own little stalk.

Berries! Bagas!

Something was bothering him. Where had he heard that word before?

In the fall of 2015, the Sargassum has taken on a life of its own. Scientists are perplexed about the reasons, but the weed has been causing mayhem in Mexico and points south, all the way to Barbados.

Sargassum piles on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, in July 2015.

Sargassum piles on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, in July 2015.

The drifting seaweed has not let up. Changes in wind patterns change surface currents, rain brings nutrients that can cause explosive plant growth, and temperature shifts regulate how seaweeds live. Hoteliers in the Caribbean are offering discount packages, and towns are pulling men out of the drunk tank if they join beach clean-up gangs.

The Cancun Maritime Chief, who boasts the wonderful name of Mariscal de la Selva, literally jungle shellfish, explained that half a million cubic feet of seaweed have been cleaned up—in the sea, assuming that the seaweed layer is at most one foot deep, due to access to sunlight, the Sargassum would cover ten football fields.

When the seaweed comes ashore, it drives a fly boom, eager to feed on the decomposing organic matter. But the El Niño downpours also cause weird and wonderful sights.

The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is the driest place on earth. The average rainfall is just over half an inch per year, and there are weather stations that have never recorded a rain event. 2015 is different: the desert is vivid with the color of the malva, or mallow, flower.

A riot of color in the world's driest place.

A riot of color in the world’s driest place.

These amazing scenes will no doubt find their way into the more sensationalist media as the Paris summit on climate change, hosted by the United Nations, goes into full swing.

But the changes we see this year have everything to do with the naughty child, and most probably little to do with climate change.

Because this year, the triffids are coming.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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