One of the things I like most about nature is its patient opportunism. Although the presence of human beings invariably pushes animals into the peripheral spaces of our own world — excepting, of course, the impossible-to-intimidate raccoons that have made the Greater Toronto Area their haute-garbage dining lounge, and who consider us no more than trash-bag-carrying busboys — the departure of humans, conversely, leads almost immediately to a squatters’ takeover. Coral conquers our scuttled battleships; rats and bats occupy our abandoned houses; grass grows in the engine nooks of our broken down cars.
So it’s nice to read that the Siegfried Line, the 18,000-bunker network Hitler built to defend Germany’s western border, has now become home to a wide range of wildlife, including foxes, badgers, European wildcats (pictured above) and ten species of bat. Regional authorities have been keen to tear down the ruined bunkers to make way for farmland and development, but wildlife group BUND has been campaigning for an extension to a 2004 federal moratorium on dismantling the bunkers. The politics have been tricky, as BUND wildlife expert Sebastian Schöne told Spiegel Online:
“It’s been hard for us to deal with this issue because in Germany you’re immediately labeled as some kind of neo-Nazi if you say anything positive about the bunkers. We’re accused of trivializing history by calling it ‘Green Wall in the West’. But we’re not saying the Westwall is great. We’re just being pragmatic.”
The thought of industrial-scale Nazi fortifications covered in moss and turned into homes for small mammals brings to mind Briton Riviere’s Persepolis (1878, engraving (below) by Frederick Stacpoole), which shows the ruined and deserted capital of the Achaemenid Empire now visited only by two curious and wary lions. The picture is on display at the British Museum as part of a very interesting exhibition on the ancient Persian empire. At its original Royal Academy showing in 1878, the catalogue included two lines from the following portion of Omar Khayyam’s The Rubaiyat (1120, trans. Edward Fitzgerald from the Farsi, 1859):
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two — is gone.
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter — the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, but cannot break his sleep.