The Earth Calendar ~ Early Spring from Part II. Early Migrations
The moon is a bone-white disk that fills the sky. So close you could almost touch it, but there are no fingers for touching. Spring brings heavy winds and high tides, drawn toward the great white moon. The planet is fire and ice, burning and freezing, melting and congealing. But Spring brings new life. First life. Microscopically small. Neither sunlight nor moonlight can find it. February’s tiny oval masses of organic carbon have become bacteria by March. A living thing, like the first new buds on a tree. In the churning seas, jellyfish are taking form and early shelled organisms. Sea anemone and coral.
Throughout March, Earth slowly brings forth new living organisms. Blue-green algae have begun to harvest sunlight to store energy, producing oxygen in the process. Oxygen levels are rising in the atmosphere. As an infant at birth leaves behind a fluid realm to breathe air for the first time, earth life too makes an extraordinary shift. By April, living things will take their first breath of oxygen, breathing out carbon dioxide. In June, the very air will become toxic to all living things not dependent upon oxygen. Carbon dioxide levels will rise, causing acidification of the oceans. This will prove fatal for marine life requiring stable carbon dioxide levels to form their shells. Insects will die out in massive numbers. Sea anemones and coral beds will all but disappear. It is the earth’s first great extinction, two and a half billion years ago. But that great extinction gives way to new and richer forms—July’s children, dedicated to sustained life. Membranes form around the new cells and a nucleus at their center can hold genetic material: biological software that not only sustains the patterns of an individual organism and holds an outline of its future, but contributes the means to replicate itself. This is a turning point. From now on, things will move quickly.
By September, many-celled organisms have clustered into cell colonies. At the end of the month, another milestone is reached, turning the page on a new chapter: sexual reproduction. Life is stabilizing and cohering. Individual forms create and diversify. Become more resilient. Find new strategies. As the earth is striped with nights and days, turning in the sunlight, settling into seasons, rhythms develop, felt by the early bacteria; by the blue-green algae, making energy from the sun; vulnerable DNA replicating in the safety of darkness. Patterns lay down that take hold. Rhythms that endure, become intricate, will make birdsong, drum sounds, early music and late Beethoven quartets; that will become the tapping of feet upon the Earth. Dancing.
By November, life fully emerges from the nourishing placenta of the oceans onto land as mountains begin to rise and the first trees take root. Moonlight dapples the primordial forest floor, paler than the moon of early spring. More distant. Life will grow in the seas and late in the month, the waters too will be teeming with new creatures. Jellyfish and the ancestors of the steelhead which one day will glide through the waters of Copeland Creek.
At the end of November, the first footprints that we know of will appear on the Earth, like Buzz Aldrin’s and Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the surface of the Moon. Early four-footed animals step out of a shallow lagoon in southeastern Poland onto dry land, three-hundred ninety-five million years ago on November 30th of our Earth calendar. Animals are on the move. Exploring. Seeking nourishment. Shelter.
On December 26th of our Earth calendar, a massive meteor strikes the Earth in the Yucatan region of Mexico. The six mile wide (10km) meteor creates a crater over a hundred and ten miles wide (180km) and twelve miles deep (20km), causing the fifth great extinction of planetary life, including those terrestrial giants, the dinosaurs.
The game speeds up by the last day of the year as lumbering dinosaurs are replaced by “the fleet of foot”—like lions, zebras, horses and two-legged creatures, not as swift as the horse but agile and clever. On December 30th, the Earth’s surface on the east side of Africa begins thinning and softening, following the cracking of its outer shell. The cracking has caused a great rift, where Olduvai Gorge and the Great Rift Valley will later appear. Throughout the day, over millions of years, the hot interior beneath begins to bubble up through those cracks, forming lava beds and then volcanoes. The largest of these is at least as large as the present Mt Kilamanjaro and will be known as Ngorongoro, two and a half million years later. The lava will form a lid on Ngorongoro.
About eight a.m. on the last day (3.6 million years ago), two early humans* are walking through the wet volcanic ash. Whether they speak together on their ancient stroll we will never know, but they speak to anthropologist Mary Leakey when she comes upon their footprints over three million years later. “Yes, we have been here in Africa a long long time.”
Just after dinner time on New Year’s Eve, a huge volcanic eruption blows through the lid of Ngorongoro and leaves behind it a crater fifteen miles (24km) wide, sloping upwards for two thousand feet along its rim. When the rains come, their water flows down the slopes of the crater. Lush grass will grow in its moisture, fertilized by the residue of volcanic ash. The spread of that volcanic ash will blanket an area of over two thousand square miles (5,000km) that will be called the Serengeti by the Maasai people—“endless plains.”* To the east lies Mt Kilimanjaro and the western wall of the Great Rift Valley.
The wide and fertile Ngorongoro Crater and the endless plains of the Serengeti will become a wildlife Eden in the heart of Africa. And here in the noonday sun of New Year’s Eve, following an ice age, the first great migrations begin. Wildebeest will travel by the millions across the endless plains in search of greener pastures, in the company of zebras and gazelles, and the predators who follow them—lions, hyenas, jackals and others—on their own quest for food. Three of our current months later they will return, in a seasonal pattern of going and coming. It is the tracks of these migrations that have preserved the vast savannah across millions of years.
Elspeth Huxley, writing in her diary two million years later in 1933, can still evoke for us the wonder of those primordial sights that have been sustained over so much time. She lived with her family in Kenya from 1912 to 1923. Here she is returning to Africa through the same area where the early couple walked, leaving us their footprints.
It was one of the great sights of the world. Even without the animals it would
have been spectacular, with the thin pure light of sunrise, the colour of a fine
Moselle, flooding over this enormous savannah and picking out every tree,
every fold in the surface of the plain; far beyond, the white dome of
Kilimanjaro seemed to hover in the western sky. But it was the animals that
brought life and wonder to the scene. Thousands, tens of thousands of them
could be seen from the carriage window, from pygmy mongooses peering out
of their burrows to - if you were lucky - mighty elephants in family parties,
from dappled, mild-eyed giraffes like tall-masted ships of the veld to graceful
little shiny 'tommies' or zebras shimmering in the sunlight: lumbering
kongonis, heavy-dewlapped elands, a rhino perhaps, standing fore-square with
horn uplifted, silver-backed jackals trotting home to their dens after a night's
Twelve months for life to solidify, take root, stand still, rise up in place like the mountains and trees. And then life begins to move. To spread out. Not as colonies of cells but colonies of birds and fish and monkeys and bison and creatures too numerous to count. It is in this last month of December, after almost an entire year of preparation, that everything that we think of as life, as Earth, as meaningful, as important, will finally come into being. On Christmas day of the Earth Calendar, fifty million years ago, an event will take place that plays a major role in our story.
* The entire Serengeti eco-system today covers 12,000 square miles (30,000 square kilometers)