As best we humans have been able to decipher, Planet Earth pulled herself together from star remnants about 4.54 billion years ago.
“This universe doesn’t really let much go to waste,” notes Gaia, as she’s asked to be called for purposes of our story. “It may seem to humans to be full of odds and ends, but there’s actually an assignment for every last asteroid, a strategy to every supernova. But I can’t speak for all of the crew.”
That’s okay, Gaia. I want us to focus on your adventures. So what was it like being a molten accretion of solar nebula bits? “Hot. Really hot. We had a wonderful time playing cosmic bumper cars all over the place. But then you grow up and your crust forms, and you start to realize that you can still have a few volcanoes, but there’s more to life than being all volcano, all the time.”
As water vapor cooled her crust, Gaia began to experiment with belching. “The blend of outgassing and volcanoes was just a little something I dreamed up,” she says modestly. “I’d birthed a moon after a pretty rough asteroid crash, and I decided I wanted to keep the rest of my mass, but, you know, there’s this desire to be doing something when all you have is the illusion of time. So I started playing with recipes, and more of the water vapor started to hang around. Some of the comets got fascinated and dropped me off some ice. So cool!”
As the oceans gathered, microscopic life forms formed within them. “Generating a biosphere was, and still is, considered pretty daring on my part,” says Gaia. “Other planets are always saying wow, cool, sounds fun, but I haven’t seen a lot of them joining in around this neighborhood. And just lately I’m wondering if they aren’t the smart ones after all. I mean, microorganisms are adorable, but they don’t stay little for long.”
Gaia soon discovered, to her delight, that movement coming from her still-molten core could easily shift the solid sections of crust around into different configurations. “Sometimes I played around with having it all in one big bunch, but that gets old,” she says. “Land masses are comfier and more fun when you break them up and spread them around. You get all kinds of variety. I mean, crazy ecodiversity. Penguins! Kangaroos! But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
From 750 million to about 200 million years ago, Gaia fiddled with design motifs, forming supercontinents and then breaking them up. We humans have christened the last known supercontinent Pangaea; it began to form about 335 million years ago, centered on the Equator and surrounded by a superocean we call Panthalassa.
“Mars was always saying that having all that unbroken water wasn’t my best look, and eventually I came to agree,” says Gaia. “So by the middle Jurassic, I was ready to say goodbye to Pangaea. I’m always experimenting. A hundred million years or so down the line, I’m thinking it’ll be time for a change again.”
A snapshot of Gaia from that middle Jurassic era, the second epoch of the Age of Reptiles, is the very picture of vitality. In the water and on land, species were diversifying merrily. Giant pliosaurs and plesiosaurs, marine reptiles bigger than killer whales, ruled the waters; smaller critters like bivalves and crocodilians were perfecting their survival tactics. On land, coniferous trees and ferns were flourishing everywhere, small and diverse species of mammals sheltering among them, dinosaurs dining.
As Pangaea separated, with land masses finding themselves in various locations, life forms adapted and diversified; the marsupials, for example, carried their young on their bodies rather than in. “I was the envy of the solar system,” Gaia reminisces. “All those abundant life forms, eating and growing and breeding, and then adding to my lovely, rich soil.”
Trouble on the Horizon
Things went smoothly, says Gaia, for a while. Then, some 55 million years ago now, evolution took a whole new turn with the development of the first primitive primates. For a while, they seemed to be just another new species. “I thought it was adorable when they started walking around on two legs,” says Gaia. “Even when they started chipping at stones, around 2.5 million years ago, your time, I thought, ‘How sweet!’ Then they started going after more and more control. They figured out how to oxidize stuff, lighting fires; they built the cutest little shelters. I was bragging on them all the time. ‘Look what my life forms are up to now!’ A few ancient exoplanets tried to warn me, but I didn’t listen. I could always pop off a volcano or an earthquake, make some really big waves to move them around when I felt like it.”
Then, she says, things got even more interesting. The feisty mammals began talking about her with one another. “Sometimes I just had to laugh,” she says. “They’d all be coming up with some being or other who was making it all happen. They could never get their heads around the majesty of the sun and the stones and metals, the gasses and microbes and charged particles. They couldn’t quite hear those languages, so they’d mostly come up with some tall tale where there was a being a lot like themselves giving us all our marching orders. Because of course.”
Mixed with these anthropocentric tales were crumbs of truth: once-wordless primal memories of great floods and volcanoes, of a time when all continents were one. There was homage to the sun and moon, an effort to hear the message of the roaring wind and comprehend the movements of the stars, to create pyramids and labyrinths and stone rings that would help decipher meaning.
“I quite liked humans for a while there,” says Gaia reflectively. “It seemed like they were genuinely trying to understand things. There was talk, for a while, of helping them out. Even efforts to…oh, but that would be telling.”
A disturbing trend arose: humans in some areas began to suggest not just that an intelligence like their own had been in charge, but that there had been fundamental errors. “Their life force flows through them and of course it feels really great—let me tell you, it’s nowhere near what a volcano feels, but for a teeny little mammal, it’s pretty cool,” says Gaia. “They can make new mammals; they can also touch those places and feel that force in celebration. We meant it as a feature, but then along came some who decided to tell everybody it was a bug.”
Stories arose that Gaia finds rather slanderous, suggesting that life on earth was a fallen state: the Middle Eastern tale of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel; the Lakota story of spider trickster Inktomi making trouble between the sun and the moon. “As if,” Gaia snorts. “That projection thing gets you humans in all kinds of trouble.”
She grows serious. “Normally, you know, we just watch. Humans aren’t the first life form to go down the wrong road, forget there’s enough to go around and start building up huge piles of stuff and hurting each other. But things have gotten severely out of hand, and I really needed to just sit you guys down and talk to you straight.
“Stop poking holes in me all the dang time and pulling my insides out. How would you like it if somebody did that to you? Everything you need to live is in Layer one, what isn’t constantly being shipped in in mass quantities, like light and heat. Learn to use what we give you. Fracking hurts, dammit. The Sun absolutely has my back on this, by the way.
“I’m not saying don’t dig a little and move some rocks around. I’m not saying you shouldn’t grow plants and make all sorts of things from them. But you’ve developed a really nasty habit of digging way down deep, yanking stuff out and turning it into really weird crap that just squicks me out. Gold ingots! Sixpack holders! Lithium ion batteries! Nuclear bombs! You think you’re just super smart, but you’re literally undermining the very ground you stand on. Segregating the plants, for Sol’s sake. Do you have any idea how a corn plant feels with no beans or squash, no berries to talk to for miles? Being fed poison?
“For thousands of years, a lot of you seemed to get it. The rhythm of the seasons, the tides, my turnings. When the Haudenosaunee came up with the Great Law of Peace, when you had a lot of people looking to grandparents for wisdom and to the seventh generation for inspiration, for a little while it seemed like it might be alright.
“But that bad old urge to dominate each other? It’s so petty, really, it’s fear and insecurity. It’s time to grow up. Sol is losing patience and I don’t blame him a bit. Now we hear that some of you actually think you can start this poking and sucking nonsense on the moon? On Mars?
“For the sake of all that is, but mostly for your own sakes—I’ll still be around, but I’d rather have blissful biodiversity than nothing left but boa constrictors, Lyme ticks, Asian carp, and Bradford pear trees. That will take a while to fix even if I do evict your sorry tails. I’m still kinda hoping I won’t have to do that.”
The clues we need, Gaia says, are right before our eyes. The clear water, the cleaner air, the virus reminding us that we cannot help but share it. The discoveries we’re making every day about the urgency of working together, about the quietly miraculous communication of plants, the wisdom of whales, the mind bending beauty of deep space.
“Can you not see,” Gaia wants to know, a tear in her eyes now, “the resemblance between your own neural network and the branches of that tree over there? Do you think a universe that provides fermentation and fungi needs you to be punching holes in me, sucking my innards out and burning them to survive? Measuring each other in dots and dashes that represent dead trees that supposedly represent precious metals?
“For millions of years, I was fine without any such nonsense, and I’ll be fine without it again and so will you. But you need to find a way to get the reins away from those anti-life types with the hole-poking obsession. That and the shame at being mammals. All the Martian mining you’ll ever get to accomplish is far, far less valuable than a random carp to those of us who are actually running this show.
“And you can take that to the bank.”