The life of Pierre Gittleman, it turns out, was and is of no concern to the aged, remaining residents of Halifax. The past decade, hallmarked by the slow erosion of the systems and infrastructure created to sustain its population, has doomed Halifax to history’s footnotes, along with most other isolated communities that were created as safe habitats while climate change transformed and ultimately doomed modern human civilization. A small number of residents still huddle within climate-controlled and well-insulated buildings, but overall, the city is deserted and those who remain are mostly elderly. As if nature itself is settling some score, no new births have been recorded in Halifax in more than a decade.
Sequestered in the Gittleman home, now one of the few structures housing anyone in the hilly neighborhood, Pierre and Len spend their days together. Sleep consumes many hours of Pierre’s day, his advanced age relentlessly pushing him towards the finish line. He and Len read books and engage in conversation, but with all contact with the outside world ended and Pierre needing increasingly more care, even those conversations are truncated and repetitive. Len, by any standard, has become a scholar, having plowed his way through much of the Gittleman library. In some sense, he may be among the last of such scholars to exist for a very long time. The Internet is long since ceased in operation, most printed books are by now discarded and decayed; knowledge overall, that unique metaphysical realm combining science, mathematics, philosophy, culture, and history, is disappearing. Much as coastal lands are disappearing beneath the waves, the reign of Homo sapiens is slipping into obscurity.
Len’s reading, in addition to volumes of history, includes a great deal of philosophy. From the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, he gains insight into the quandary of Homo sapiens life, the simultaneous, and often contradictory inner experiences of reason and passion. “No wonder sapiens society failed,” he reflects, “they were unable to overcome or reconcile themselves to their animal nature. What a tortured existence.” His reading of Plato, and its obsession with perfect forms helps Len understand the often-obsessive character of sapiens’ thought, and ultimately its futile search for purity through metaphysical conceptions. “The span and range of human imagination, combined with irrational biological drives, has driven them crazy,” he thinks. A book by cyberneticist Warren McCullough illuminates Len’s understanding of the dynamics of thought, and how the neurology of conflicting psychological forces emerges as destructive and self-destructive behavior. Works by Sigmund Freud further demonstrate the enormous challenge of Homo sapiens’ psychopathology, and the prodigious efforts made to explain, understand, and modify it, albeit unsuccessfully.
The net effect of all this and other accumulated information on Len are feelings of deep compassion for humanity. His long relationship with Pierre, who himself spent his entire adult life obsessed and in anguish about the failure of sapiens society, exposed him to the power of love; whatever failings Pierre and his brethren displayed and they’re ultimately fatal nature, Len feels great sympathy. And yet, although he has spent his entire life in the Gittleman home, Len has never felt alienated by or in life. To the contrary, the ebb and flow of time and the continuous, myriad manifestations of material reality cause him no discomfort. Curious and accepting, Len is content and unafraid. He is alone, but not lonely, different but not apart.
Pierre, increasingly frail, speaks frequently of his father, Leonard. Sometimes he speaks as if his father is still alive, saying things like “Yesterday my father told me to stop working so hard.” When the topic turns to his botanicus project, however, and speculation about how and if his progeny have survived, Pierre perks up and is fully conversant. “I’m not sure how my children will evolve as successive generations are born,” Pierre comments to Len. “Of course, my hope,” he continues, “is that their enhanced capacities bring them closer to a unity with nature, each other, and the world. Freed from predation, their source of living energy provided by sunlight, I think botanicus might, over time, meld into the world seamlessly, without conflict or aggression. You know, Len, while relatively rare, even some species of animals, despite predation, were able to comfortably coexist with each other and different species. The great baleen whales, for example, the largest creatures to have ever lived, consumed tiny marine crustaceans called krill. Krill by the billions filled the oceans. Meanwhile, when not feeding, these sea-faring mammals had the largest brains in history and used them for complex social communication. Some even sang! Their songs were carried by the ocean depths for hundreds of miles. Each year, their songs would change. Can you believe that? Singing, eating, raising young…I wonder what else went on in those great brains?”
“I read a book by John Lily,” Len offers, “he believed that dolphins and other cetaceans employed complex communication, and he tried to find ways to understand it. He concluded that their communication was connected to dolphin relationships, that the sounds were forms of calling and response, warnings, and even signs of identification and affection.”
“Elephants,” Pierre interjects, “another huge animal with a very large brain, emitted deep, long-wave sounds that traveled for miles through the ground and could be felt in the pads of their sensitive feet. Their memories were prodigious. And, perhaps most telling, they mourned their dead, turning bones over and caressing them, while making moaning sounds. The loss of these creatures is very sad. We’ll never really know how they felt or what they thought. Ah, well.” They sit silently for a few minutes.
“You’re looking tired, father. Shall I make you a cup of tea, or would you like to head to bed?” Len asks. Pierre, within the momentary lull of conversation, has fallen to sleep. Len gets up from his spot on the library couch and covers Pierre with a blanket, knowing that getting him up and into bed would simply prolong his falling back to sleep.
Crossing the room, he opens an old atlas, and examines a map of Nova Scotia and Halifax. With his finger, he traces a route from the city to the lands in the west. As the years have passed, his curiosity about his botanicus brothers and sisters has only increased; Pierre’s constant wondering about their fortunes have only heightened Len’s interest. He closes the large atlas and sits himself underneath one of the illuminated grow lights installed in a corner. Removing his button-down shirt, he relaxes into the armchair and closes his eyes.
“Om Mani Padme Hum,” Pierre suddenly exclaims, talking in his sleep while dreaming of chanting with his father Leonard. Len’s eyes open briefly, and he realizes he has also fallen asleep under the warming glow of the lamp. He thinks to himself, “Father is dying. More and more of his day is spent sleeping. I want him to be comfortable and not alone. It’s just a matter of time, though.” With that, his eyes close again, and like Pierre his breathing settles into a regular pattern as he quietly slips back to sleep.