Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ex libro lapidum historia mundi

Mazon Creek lagerstätte
Mazon Creek lagerstätte
All geology represents the present-tense freeze-frame of the earth's history, condensed conveniently in the chemistry of rocks and soils. Though the course of any single organism's life is infinitesimally minute by comparison with the history of the earth, only one species in the earth's parade of life — ours — has managed to crack the code. It is as though some geological variant of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle prevents observation over a more meaningful time span. Any organism attaining the power to unlock the earth's secrets also acquires, by that very stroke, the power to destroy the earth itself.

The true wonders in this world do not hide. Rather, they wait in plain sight, obscured not so much by ice or vegetation as by the shades we draw across our eyes. Most of geologic history belongs in this category of true wonders. Terrestrial history accretes at rates too slow for any mortal observer to notice. But it leaves records in the form of rocks and soils and layers.

CoccolithophoreOn extremely rare occasions, the chroniclers of geologic time pause to pick one fragment of one organism — a leaf, a wing, a shell, a bone — and enshrine it in some durable medium. The imprints of Carboniferous ferns, horsetails, and club mosses, insects in amber, the barely perceptible bas-relief of a mollusk, cliffs colored by coccolithophorid shells, even the hydrocarbon relics of ancient plant life that humans so casually burn and polymerize — all these bear mute testimony to worlds long past.

As with sediment, so with sentiment: Our efforts at self-understanding have no chance of overcoming the mindless buzz of being and doing. We cannot understand feelings of the moment, with deep emotional footprints and even with lasting practical consequences, until we stop acting upon those feelings and seize the opportunity to look backward, in the serenity of solitude.


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