When we walked the dogs the other evening Jerry and I watched the full moon rise above the eastern mountains. As it cleared the peaks of Sisters I had a sudden awareness of the earth turning rapidly. We came around the corner and saw the jagged mountain top silhouetted against the moon’s bright face, but just a few steps down the road the whole globe had lifted, with the sky space growing fast between it and the mountain.
The tide was out which uncovered a broad mud flat, full of clams and seaweed and scavenging sea gulls. Blackberries and wild rose bushes covered with red hips grew along the banks. We were walking on this little life-covered planet with its littler adjunct barren moon: whirling through space in a universe of unknown and unknowable vastness. That moment passed into the unthinkable span of time — time that may be infinite and that waits for no man.
I am sure most people think about these things sometimes, in between thinking about dinner or sex or being mad at their parents or their neighbors or what to wear to work or to a party. Or whether they have cancer. Or death.
I have been thinking about time a lot lately because of the topics Jerry and I are studying. Well, studying sounds more organized and energetic than it should. After dinner we watch DVD’s from the teaching company, and one or the other of us generally falls asleep for a wee while as they are playing. Next I read to Jerry in bed until he falls asleep. Sometimes while I read my eyes begin to droop. We don’t remember a whole lot the next day. But a bit of it sticks, and I think on it.
The book we are reading now is one of a series of geology books we have read. It is called “A Brief History of Planet Earth: Mountains, Mammals, Fire, and Ice” by J. D. Macdougall. It begins, as did the 2 Teaching Company geology courses we watched, with the formation of the solar system and the birth of the earth 4 ½ billion years ago. That’s a lot of time. I can’t imagine it. I think, a billion is a thousand million. A million is a thousand thousand. I give up. Then I try again.
Life probably began after about a billion years — things had to cool down a bit first. Life exists because earth has liquid water. For a couple more billion years life was only stuff like bacteria and algae. Photosynthesis released oxygen into the atmosphere and colonization of the land became possible. Multicellular organisms appeared around 600 million years ago, and things with shells and skeletons came along about 540 million years ago.
About 250 million years ago almost all of these critters and plants went extinct. It isn’t really known why, and it happened over a span of a few million years (short time, geologically speaking). But the earth was changing a lot, the continents were shifting about and bumping into each other. Eventually there was one big continent, Pangea, which stretched from pole to pole, and one big ocean, the Tethys Sea. Pangea began to break up, and the Atlantic began to form. All of this caused lots of climate and sea level changes. And these changes interfere with ecosystems, things go extinct and new things evolve. Like Dinosaurs. After a bit, 66 million years ago, a big asteroid hit the earth which zapped the dinosaurs and let mammals have their day.
The classic analogy of the place of humans in geologic time is this: imagine the distance from the king’s nose to his fingertips. Pass a nail file over his fingernail once and you wipe out all human history. Those of us alive today, why we’re here and gone in the blink of the king’s eye. There is no doubt that one day the human race will be gone from the earth, the earth will be gone from the universe, and the universe will go on. And on.
Jerry and I zoom in on time and study (well, sort of study) human history on our DVD‘s. Nobody has yet figured out how to travel in time except in the mind, but I love the mind time travel — it’s kind of life extending. However, a lot of what one discovers in this kind of tourism can be troubling. Just now we are in the Middle Ages. We are in the High Middle Ages, having done the Early Middle Ages and the history of the Vikings.
The course on the Vikings was taught by a professor at Tulane, Kenneth Harl. He begins far back in the past, 8000 years B.C., when bands of hunters roamed the land around the Baltic Sea. (Just a swipe of the nail file in geologic time.) He quickly progresses through the Bronze Age to Viking culture, colonization of Iceland and Greenland and raids on England and the European continent. He tells us that undergraduates call his course “rape and pillage 101.”
The courses on the Middle Ages are taught by a professor at William and Mary, Philip Daileader. He is a young person (under 40) but a good lecturer. He talks about how the culture of the Middle Ages changes over time, starting with its beginnings at the end of the Roman Empire. He hypothesizes that the collapse of the Roman Empire came about not because of the Barbarian raids or decline in morals, but because the population was decimated by disease and plagues. Biology wins. Whole cities were simply abandoned. Agriculture had been conducted with the use of slave gangs who were kept in miserable conditions, and they died of plagues. Infrastructure crumbled and governments dissolved. But the people who were left fought on; fought among themselves and fought with people of other regions.
In the High Middle Ages Daileader begins again with his demographic analysis. Europe prospered because the climate warmed, agriculture improved and the population doubled between 1000 and 1300. (Geology and biology at work again.)
Next he talks about the culture of the High Middle Ages: about knights and nobility. Well, if I had any illusions about these people they are gone now. They were a bunch of illiterate thugs. They could neither read nor write and knew only fighting. They got rich and powerful by murdering and stealing from each other and from farmers and peasants living around them. They built castles and forced nearby peasants to work for them without pay. These are the “old families” that some people like to claim to be descended from. Noble violence was an ongoing problem in the Middle Ages, and the clergy, the only literate class, tried to counter it by introducing ideas like chivalry without much effect.
Look at our present world. From the time I was born until the time I was about 40 the population doubled and will probably have doubled again before I die. Warming and increase in population may have been a good thing in the Middle Ages, but now it may be causing another mass extinction. We can do so many things, but still have not learned to control our violent nature, so instead of addressing these problems we fight each other.
It’s all biology and geology, of course. “Mom Nature,” as one of our DVD geology professors called it, will get us in the end.