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Photograph by Adam Kuehl

The Scariest Vine You Never Ever Want to Meet

The kudzu vine, I’m told, grows about an inch an hour. That’s crazy fast. A single kudzu strand can stretch a hundred feet, which is probably twice as high as the trees it clings to. Plus, vines improvise. Touching ground, a vine will root. Touching rock, it will grow suction cups and clamp itself up the surface. Vines will “fight their way up to the light by any means necessary,” writes geobiologist Hope Jahren in her new book Lab Girl, using “pure grit and undiluted gall.”

You’ve seen these vines—on buildings, twisting up tree trunks—but I want to show you one that’s so preposterous, so monstrous, you will never think of vines again without cringing. This one is about to swallow New York City—the whole town: bridges, buildings, pavement, everything. It is, thank God, a fantasy created by three demon filmmakers from Switzerland and Germany who see it growing inside an innocent rodent that swallowed the seed. Then it splays through its intestines, pokes out into the air, and spreads, spreads, spreads while sticking to the basic rules of vinehood, which is: Wrap oneself around anything and everything that seems sturdy—and keep wrapping.

This vine will wrap and crush Manhattan in less than four video minutes.

“Vines are not sinister,” Jahren writes. “They are just hopelessly ambitious.” Well, she’s talking about real vines. These, being less than real, are much more scary.

Vines Are Relentless

The cool thing about this video, composed as a graduate thesis at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Germany, is that it respects—to a degree—what we know about vines.

“A vine’s only weakness is its weakness,” writes Jahren. “It desperately wants to grow as tall as a tree, but it doesn’t have the stiffness necessary to do it politely.” So it frantically searches for anything—tree, lattice, building, tower, bridge—that will offer it support. And, like the vines you see in this film, once they get going, they don’t stop.

“Vines are evergreen,” Jahren writes, “which means that they never take a day off; no long winter vacation like the deciduous trees that they have laboriously scaled.” And, as you see in the video, they don’t flower and produce seeds until they’ve reached a high point in the forest (or the skyscraper/penthouse) canopy. Only then—when they are strongest and at the height of their reach—do they spit those seeds out.

What Survives?

For some reason, that’s when the Brooklyn Bridge comes tumbling down. Why seeds cause that, I don’t know. So yes, there are a few things to quibble about. But what kept me musing after I watched the video a second time is—what might survive a Gotham Vine Attack? The people are all dead. That’s a given. The buildings will all come down eventually. The subways will flood and become rivers. What might survive?

A few years ago, reporter Alan Weisman wrote a bestseller called The World Without Us, and in that book he tried to imagine what would happen to every man-made thing on Earth if people were suddenly, permanently gone. Buildings, roads, sewers, walls, almost all evidence of us would eventually disappear, he wrote, but what would stay longest, because “the chemical properties of its fired ceramic [is] not unlike that of fossils” turned out to be—of all things—bathroom tile.

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Photograph by Jose Maria Mellado, Getty

Grand Central Station might go to dust, but the men’s room walls, they’d hang in there—at least the tiles would—and some future earthling, sniffing very, very closely might catch the faintest trace of us: our last perfume. And doubling the joke, Weisman believes that thick, cast-iron objects might also endure, so that same future earthling might also come upon a fire hydrant, mostly intact, randomly standing between two desert cacti, and, leaning in real close, he might catch the scent of another ancient animal, Canis lupus familiaris, also known as “Rover” or “Butch,” which did the same thing to that hydrant as we did to the tile.

So it would take a long, long time for us to completely disappear. What this new video asks is, Would a super-enhanced annihilating vine that carpets the world in a vicious greenness erase us much, much faster? And completely? I wonder. Super-vines can probably crush bathroom tiles. But fire hydrants? I have to think about that.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Roman Kaelin, Falko Paeper, and Florian Wittmann, three graduate students, produced the video Wrapped.

Hope Jahren’s new book Lab Girl has a little essay on vines that I drew on. Her book is much more than a meditation on plants; she writes—gorgeously—about what it takes to be a woman in science, and especially a woman bench scientist, one who sits there and asks small, precise questions of nature and then wrestles answers from the not always cooperative data. Plus she suffers. She suffers (and loves) so grandly that what I thought was a science book felt more like reading a novel.

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Photograph by Farrel Grehan, National Geographic Creative

Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us also champions the long-lastingness of stainless steel pots, pans, knives, aluminum, and, maybe best of all, he gives Teddy Roosevelt’s face a long, long future. “According to geologists,” he writes, “Mount Rushmore’s granite erodes only one inch every 10,000 years. At that rate, barring an asteroid collision … at least vestiges of Roosevelt’s 60-foot likeness, memorializing his Canal, will be around for the next 7.2 million years.” Mona Lisa won’t be so lucky.