The island, a smooth piece of peridot from the helicopter window, was hotter and smellier at ground level. Mist from the bald volcanic peak rolled down the slopes of palm and mahogany, choking the airport with the smell of wood rot. Grasses bristled in the cracks of the helipad. Rushing out from under the thrumming blades, heaving his luggage over his shoulder, Andrew felt his arms splat against the slick flesh of his armpits and watched sweat from his hair spatter on the ground. The executives who had lined up to greet him were even worse: oxfords soaked, safari hats wilted, pasty cheeks splotchy and red. They smiled mirthlessly when they shook his hand, like they were trying to guess the angle they should gnaw to scrape the best meat off his wrist.
On the truck ride inland, they hunched in the backseat of a Ford Explorer like a death squad. It was a one-lane dirt road, not worth paving, they said, because the monsoon would only swamp it next season. Andrew heard distant, hoarse roars wafting out of the jungle as they rolled through the faux-wood gates and into the park.
The only thing he’d smelled in so long was metal and glass cleaner and chlorinated air. How long had it been? At least 36 hours, from Raleigh-Durham to Juan Santamaria International, then a jump across the country to Daniel Oduber, then a hundred and twenty miles in a helicopter over the blank blue Pacific. All that time with nothing in his nostrils but Windex. It made him wonder if this small interruption was all it took to get him to notice the smell of rot. Maybe he’d been smelling it his whole life and never noticed before now.
The Explorer pulled up in a dirt cul-de-sac, with a sign that read EAST BUNGALOWS — PERMANENT STAFF. It’s furnished, they said. Get settled in and we’ll start your training in the morning. Permanent staff, he thought. At Duke he’d been faculty.
The next morning he was the only person on the staff monorail and when he got to the Visitors Center it was, as far as he could tell, empty. The whole building, yawning halls and food courts, with no people. He stuck his head out the door, but the plaza was also empty until, finally, after twenty minutes, Dr. Wu slunk in with a briefcase under his arm.
“Dr. Wu!” said Andrew.
“Dr. Ansgeth,” said Dr. Wu. “Good to finally meet the new house botanist.”
“Did I have the time wrong? Nobody’s here.”
Dr. Wu looked at him with sallow, scooped-out eyes.
“Island time, Dr. Angseth,” he murmured. “You’ll get used to it.”
And he walked past Andrew, into the lab. It took Andrew a second to realize that this was a joke, or at least that it was a vestigial joke, that it had been a joke, at some point, in the evolutionary past.
They gave them the presentation they gave everyone, with a few custom features about the botany of the island. Andrew appreciated the treatment—it was fascinating to know, for instance, that the same principle applied to the plant DNA harvest as to the animal one, that fern DNA, preserved in the guts of caterpillars in amber, could be spun out into viable sporophytes and that, in a few years, whole forests of tree ferns and cycads would blanket the interior of the island—but he wasn’t a geneticist, and he wanted to know how, exactly, they were going to grow these things. On an island with a mature ecosystem, an ecosystem dominated by slow-growing hardwoods, where exactly were all the tree ferns supposed to grow? And, moreover, on an isolated island, an island with an enormous number of endemic species, how were they going to justify growing them at all?
There were species here that biologists had been studying since the island’s discovery. He’d done a lit review on one in undergrad, in fact, Ficus nublarensis, a hopelessly isolated fig that, in turn, supported colonies of hopelessly isolated monkeys. These monkeys were living fossils in their own right, with vast occipital lobes, tiny spiderlike forepaws and vestigial pouch-like things that might be a phylogenetic link to the marsupials. Nobody knew for sure, because nobody had done serious work on them. There was Arecacea nublarensis, an enormous wax palm that grew in the highlands, whose closest relative was an endangered species halfway across the globe. Bromelia nublarensis, whose bell-shaped pistil supported colonies of spiders who fed on tadpoles swimming in the water that collected in the pistil, and who themselves became prey when the tadpoles matured. Were they just going to rip all this up? And plant ferns instead?
He asked Dr. Wu, as tactfully as he could, if Mr. Hammond had any ideas about this.
“Mr. Hammond,” said Dr. Wu, “is in Montana, asking a couple of paleontologists to join the staff.”
Paleobotanists studied old plants, paleogeographers studied old land masses. From the derivation you’d assume paleontologists studied old things in general, ontos, entity. In reality they were paleozoologists. But their name went on implying that an entity was, by default, an animal. As if rocks and dust were a special case and would rather be walking around, stinking and sweating.
During the day the island was an inferno but at night it was worse, tides of furry red spiders and frantic bird-sized moths tapping on the double-paned window, beetles groaning and monkeys, from higher up the volcanic cone, wailing like Pharaonic mourners. It rained every day, usually when he was outside, and the shrieks from the jungle never stopped, not even in the middle of the night, when he lay awake, jetlagged and homesick, in the concrete bunker that the park cruelly persisted in calling a bungalow. The air conditioning chugged away like some antique steam engine while he wrestled with the sweat-stained nylon sheets.
In the mornings he ran laps in the staff gym. He tried to eat vegan in the staff cafeteria. He tried to stay hydrated. As politely as he could, he voiced his concerns about the ecosystem to the other staff, who nodded perfunctorily.
He did eventually get to meet Hammond, a short Colonel Sanders-looking old man in a linen suit, who stepped off the plane with a nauseating smile on his face.
“Dr. Angseth,” Hammond said, shaking his hand.
“Mr. Hammond,” Andrew said. “It’s a real honor.”
“Dr. Wu tells me you’re nervous about the endemic plants on the island,” Hammond said in his horrible movie-Scottish accent.
“Well, yes,” said Andrew. “Have you thought about what to do about them?”
“I think,” said Hammond, “We’ll just see how the animals deal with them and use that as our barometer.”
The animals dealt with them badly. The riparian ones did best, but even they were in bad shape after a few weeks—skinny and frantic, their eyes bulging out of their dull brown heads, bent over streams in the lowlands scraping algae from the rocks with their thumbs.
But their problem was only that they were living on a mountainous island, with fast, cold streams that didn’t grow many plants. The plants themselves were perfectly edible. Hypothetically their herd would just die back to carrying capacity. Every other animal the scientists had introduced was being poisoned.
It started with the grazers, whom they’d unwisely plunked down in an “herbivore enclosure” in the middle of the island. Most of the acreage in the enclosure was a thick grassland, low tufts of tropical graminoids. Where the animals came from there was no grass at all, though, just ferns and cycads, and at first they didn’t even seem to realize it was edible. They slunk around the electrified fences at the edge of the forest, stripping the undergrowth. But they couldn’t get very deep into the forest, so once the undergrowth was gone they started to clip the grass.
Some of them could barely do it at all—many had beaks, not teeth and they physically couldn’t get the low grass out unless they dug up the roots. Soon the whole herbivore enclosure was scored with the holes they had dug, and sometimes they’d break their legs in those holes and have to be euthanized. But even when they got it out of the ground they couldn’t digest it. Animals that lived on grass had to have two stomachs to process the leaves and these things didn’t even have molars, just a gizzard full of stones they’d swallowed. They handled the stuff like a pack of dogs would. Whole herds of them were either starving or bloated, panting and immobile. Occasionally you’d find a turd one of them had managed to pass and it would just be a sphere of raw grass.
At first the policy was to airlift the dying animals into the carnivore pens, to save money on goats. For a time this was fine, the big snaggle-toothed brutes lumbering eagerly out of the woods to eviscerate the weakly struggling browsers, but after a few weeks of all that mortifying, immunocompromised flesh they were sicker than their prey. The indigestible matter slunk up the food chain and concentrated at the top, like DDT finding its way into eagle eggs. The big carnivores would lie limply at the fence borders, hyperventilating, their eyes glassy and thick with mites. The executives switched back to goat meat and let the grazers rot.
The only ones that were doing well were the egg-eaters, who had their own small pen where the keepers dumped unfertilized dummy eggs from the lab. The little emu-like things were flourishing. A few weeks of the feeding regime and they were almost tame, crowding at the fence whenever anyone walked by, and Andrew almost started to like their bright little eyes and the big bald knobs of bone on their heads. They weren’t supposed to be eating dummy eggs, of course, because every dummy egg cost the company thirty thousand dollars. The plan had been to harvest eggs from the other animals, which would have helped cull their herds in addition to being a free food source. It was, in theory, an elegant solution. The problem was that none of the animals, not a single one, had laid a single viable egg.
So that was Hammond’s barometer. The island was rejecting its new inhabitants like a tree rejecting a graft. Andrew wanted to tell them they should abandon the whole experiment, pull up stakes on the island and get back to medical genetics. Sunk costs were kicking in, though; nobody wanted to give up now when there was still so much money left to lose.
He was supposed to be the head botanist, but of course they went over his head. The board greenlit a breeding program for the plants they would need. The development office drew up a plan for terraforming the island. They’d denude the whole herbivore enclosure, strip it of all its grass and seed it with ferns and cycads. They’d airlift silt high up into the mountain streams to stimulate algae growth. They’d rip up the forests, those figs and palms, and plant ginkgophytes and magnolias in their places. Hands were waved at the possibility of keeping a corner of the island free for the figs, but in the meetings they never seemed to come back to that.
They tried it first with a four mile square in the herbivore enclosure, ripping up the grass and seeding the patch with ferns and cycads. After a few weeks the animals had browsed it clear. That was all the encouragement the board needed. The plans went ahead.
In the meantime they offered Andrew a consolation prize: they’d build him a greenhouse that would hold the endemic plants they’d stripped off the island. One palm, one fig, a few bromeliads and a lot of plaques. It would be called the Native Plants Museum. They’d build it right in the middle of the main park, they said, so that people who came in would get to see the plants up close.
After one meeting, Andrew caught up with Hammond and asked why they were blowing money on another museum when they had just committed to terraforming the island.
“Nobody’s going to pay attention to the plants out there, Andrew,” said Hammond. “And you’ve been so patient, we just wanted to reward you with a program of your own.”
“Yes, okay,” said Andrew. “But how are you going to pay for it?”
“The investors gave us an emergency cash injection when they found out about the terraforming,” said Hammond. “You can defy thermodynamics if you want, Dr. Angseth. All you have to do is dream big.”
That fall—if you could call it fall, here where the only seasons were summer and the monsoon—the only thing Andrew seemed to hear outdoors was the distant crash of trees and the shrieks of monkeys. The island was crawling with cat-tracks and loggers, dead-eyed men getting paid an American dollar a day to flatten the jungle. They flushed nests of iridescent birds into the electric fences to save money on traps. They pulped the only flowers that the endemic butterflies laid their eggs on, and then they pulped all the flowers that relied on the endemic butterflies for pollination. They stripped the rare night-blooming hardwoods of their parasitic vines, then gathered up the corpses of the moths who had nested in the parasitic vines, then cut down the rare night-blooming hardwoods. They trucked it all away and then they laid down, in strange, unnatural rows, the ginkgophytes, the cycads, and the wispy white magnoliids.
And finally, over a week or two, the shrieking from the interior of the island dwindled to silence. The monkeys, moths, beetles and birds, all the quaternary life that had kept him up at night, was scraped off the surface of the earth, as if with the side of a hand. All that was left now was a silent forest of fronds and cones, hideously silent, nothing left to make noise except the put-upon grazers in the herbivore enclosure, who honked sadly from time to time.
Andrew caught himself thinking that now the worst was over, the monkeys were beyond saving, and the island could embark on this strange new epoch in its history. After all, the ferns and cycads, theoretically, had as much a right to exist as the figs and palms. But of course the worst wasn’t over. The board had ignored every consulting scientist and planted a muddle of different species, lycopods next to tree ferns next to magnoliids, between which there were millions of years of evolution. Some of the niches in this Frankenstein ecosystem were overstuffed and others were dead empty.
And so he watched with a mix of horror and clinical satisfaction as this overcomplicated system relaxed, in the old biogeographer’s euphemism, into equilibrium. The magnoliids didn’t have any pollinators, so they had to bring back the loggers to help them reproduce, by hand, hundreds of men marching dourly across the island with q-tips. The tree ferns were used to more carbon in the air, and so when they did grow they grew gnarled, their fronds warped and dark. Worst of all, a weedy little clade of ferns started to choke every other plant in the underbrush. It must have evolved with a parasite or a pest to check its growth, but in the guts of the caterpillars that the scientists had centrifuged there were no such limiting factors.
Soon the board was engaging in population management. They were engineering a balanced ecosystem. They were desalinating seawater to rescue the withering lycopods. Insanely, they had started to call the virulent ferns an invasive species. Meanwhile the grazers were still dying. Their social structure had broken down so completely that when they laid eggs, the mothers would often abandon them or smash them in confusion. The few endemic birds they hadn’t yet managed to extirpate had started to transmit diseases to the carnivores—that, or the carnivores were just moribund in the carbon-poor air. It was impossible to tell. The park was supposed to open in six months. It was 14 billion dollars in debt and hadn’t yet earned a cent.
After months of struggling with their collapsing shitshow of an ecosystem, the board finally started to scale things back. Instead of a whole herd of herbivores they would have just a few, in a pen. Instead of a pack of egg-eaters, just a breeding pair. They could work their way back up to the planned numbers, they said, when the money started coming in. In the meantime the forest would not be maintained, which meant that the magnoliids and lycopods would die, just like the figs and palms before them.
So they euthanized most of the herds in the enclosure, dumping the corpses into the cove for the sharks. They killed one of the apex carnivores and its mate became listless, apparently with depression. And in the middle of the island, as opening day drew near, they finally started to erect the Red Robins, the Rainforest Cafés, the Embassy Suites where the guests would spend their nights. Gradually the island filled up with people, and not just sallow loggers and scientists but restaurant managers, college students, federal regulators, personal trainers and journalists. The strip mall advanced all the way to the staff bungalows. The museums opened. The vending machines came in on a boat, in an enormous blue shipping crate, a box full of boxes of boxes of Butterfingers.
Andrew got his Native Plants Museum, a forgettable dome with a family of monkeys and a sickly fig, where tourists would theoretically gawk at the flora that had just gone extinct before they moved on to the fauna that had been extinct for eons. One of the museum’s walls, the wall that looked out towards the interior, was made of sheet glass, and through it Andrew could watch as the forest fell apart. The scrappy little ferns, like kudzu, had choked everything but cycads and ginkgoes, and those were facing an impossibly tight genetic bottleneck. Soon they would die, and without their shade the weedy ferns would die too, baked by the sun. And after that, maybe, the hardwoods would come back. But it would take years. He’d be dead by the time it was back to normal. Everybody would.
Every day the forest rotted a little more, like a wilting houseplant. One day they put in a Fuddruckers beside the museum, blocking the view.
Years later, people talked about what happened to the park as a tragedy. The senseless deaths, the epic hubris of science and especially the romance of that island out in the Pacific, forever left to the resurrected fauna of a bygone age. Andrew always wanted to respond that what you saw on the news was just a postscript. The carnivores finally gone berserk and snapping up innocent guests, the herbivores stampeding, panicked, through the karaoke bars, men yanked out of porta-potties by massive jaws, mauled in the back of Ford Explorers, devoured in the lonely silence of the woods—all of it was really just the final act of a much more banal tragedy. The failure of the terraforming had made the failure of the grid inevitable.
He told people this in confidence or when he was drunk, daring them to castigate him, as they inevitably did, for failing to mourn the lost human lives. Eventually, worn down, he kept his views to himself. And finally he too began to question them. Had the ecocide been the real tragedy? Or was it just a nested bullet point in some bigger and slower tragedy?
He smoothed over his memories of the catastrophe until there was only one image left.
It was the next morning, after the pens had broken and the animals had gotten loose. He’d picked his way through the wreckage of the staff bungalows toward the emergency checkpoint, which stood on the other side of his Native Plants Museum, and as he passed the museum he saw one of the herbivores, still loose, with its head through the glass wall.
It was the size of a school bus, its six-foot horns thrust up through the museum ceiling, its frill streaked with blood and dust, its beak snapping branches from the fig tree in dumb herbivorous contentment. It wiggled its neck in pleasure as he passed, sending rubble tumbling to the bloody pavement, and just for a second he caught sight of its eyes.
They were no longer wild and desperate, the way the herbivores had looked when they were pawing up the grass. They had gone from glossy to matte, to dull and bovine. Crushing a fig, it rumbled happily, and Andrew thought he heard the weak hooting of the last endemic monkeys in response.
He still thought about those dull, bovine eyes, and he still sometimes felt a flash of pity for those monkeys and all their doomed cousins. But it was too late for them now. Death had found a way.
Griffin Reister Johnson is a writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He lives in Missoula, Montana.