By Christopher P. Winner
nce, the words I treasured most reeked of syllables: Cambrian, Silurian, Ordovician, Devonian, and my all-time favorite, Carboniferous. These vast stretches of ancient time passed little seen by living creatures, which only settled in to stay a few hundred million years later. Partial to winged things, I settled on the Pteranodon, a flying dinosaur, as my favorite imagined apparition from the lengthy then, the one I most longed to see in the tedious now. But Pteranodon carved up the air in the Cretaceous, some 250 million years after my adored Carboniferous.
The advantage of being a basement boy who told time through fossils and geological periods (and the occasional light year) was in understanding early on that nothing necessarily happens fast, and that the true lesson of all things old was that non-human time — the length of a period, say — operated outside most linear concepts its elapsing. Time existed independently of memory, speed, and haste until human consciousness learned to record it, and to fret about its running out.
I think of this each time Google tells me my results have been fetched in less than a tenth of a second. I guffaw at Google and remind it of its narcissism. Yes, it can fetch the known fast, but delivery is not evolution. Evolution is a stickier wicket with enough wastebasket species to push mortality-challenged humans into pill-addled anxiety.
The Carboniferous, which followed the Devonian and preceded the Permian, lasted about 60 million years, the whole of it more than 300 million years before primordial man. It's the time when coal learned to be and later to ripen, horizontally black Easter eggs laid for the human burrowing (and powering) ahead. Viscous and distended amphibians enabled with literally bare bones hung around in bogs and on the cusps of rivers and oceans. The climate changed often, plunging and soaring, with restless, oddball continents bumping into each other like unschooled fish. Mountains fattened into clans, making jagged clubs from their ilk. The long Carboniferous included Romer's Gap, a toothy sounding time in which for no known reason fossils stopped appearing. For some 15 million years most recorded life seemed to stop. Just what happened to creatures between 360 and 345 million years ago no one really knows.
What I did come to appreciate, however, was that 15 million years, while a schematic droplet, covered twice the length of human history, an early and humbling lesson in perspective. Only tadpoles and early snakes seemed to find the time of Romer's Gap appealing. If you were in Iowa in that pre-time time, you might have come upon a "Whatcheeria," a bloated and blister-skinned salamander with a name worthy of a science fiction class, but writing schools had yet to open.
Where a writing school is now lay an inland sea that sloshed from Mexico into Canada cutting through the center of America, including Iowa, making life rich and right for the Whatcheeria and its like. Imagine northbound hurricanes carving their way from the now-Gulf of Mexico into the underwater Dakotas, a Middle America of awash in tides.
Some say Romer's Gap resulted from withering rainforests, which climate change killed, the lost forests taking with them many of the small-boned amphibians that had thrived under their garden green protection (sound familiar?). The drier and more arid land that emerged favored reptiles, eventually opening the door to my beloved Pteranodon, a reptilian albatross that dove down awkwardly to feed on fish.
In essence, a planet ruled for 200 million years first by fauna and later by amphibians gave way to countless dry-land predators that increasingly grew in size and appetite, eventually sating the human need to imagine and embellish a race of impossibly large and terrifying things that preceded that little mental mammal known as man.
What I never forgot in all my diligent studying of picture books and colored graphs were the timelines, since they had the effect of giving context to my me-first love of burned toast and vanilla icing. Some version of me (less mischievous, no doubt) had been around for three million years (at the start of which there was no ice cream). But the periods and creatures that played on my wild mind had existed in a time that predated human vanity by hundreds of millions of years, on a planet that ostensibly got its start 2.5 billion ago. Inspiringly, I was doomed.
A different form of instant gratification is to know that you began as a putrescent mixture of iron and waste oxygen and will return to a similar state after a very brief sojourn among the fleshy hillocks of mischief, musicals and ice cream. If you listen carefully to the no-nonsense syllables of the Carboniferous, you will also know that your remains are likely to endure as timelessly specific contributions to the wandering air, you and Whatcheeria in same boat, on the same shore, two shapes of one forever.
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