April 22, 2004 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia  -  It’s Earth Day today and I am looking at the December 1988 issue of the National Geographic with a hologram cover of Earth with this caption: Can Man Save this Fragile Earth? It was an important millennium question and we are now well, on our 16th year since then, trying to answer National Geographic’s cover query. Depending on whom you ask, the environmental movement that is behind this question is on it’s fourth or fifth decade. These were the mindful folk, many were "flower people," who brought us Earth Day (April 22) and World Environment Day (June 5) and all the other celebratory Nature days. (I also think the songs from that generation are among the best and most poetic and I think it had to do with the artists getting too intimate with Nature, specifically with the powers of some plants but this interesting topic deserves a separate De Rerum in the future).

Of course, even further back in history, pre-colonial life around the world was filled with rituals and traditions that expressed these connections we had with the natural world. "New Age" minds are now uncovering myths and songs from history and they claim to gain a better sense of their world and their place in it knowing these things. But this history of questioning, story and song just covers a fraction of our Earth’s history, a minute fraction of how long it took for our home in this vast universe to live and grow. Many scientists think that it is our all too-human centered timeline of history that skews our lenses in looking at the world and our place in it. Human-centered timeline takes a short cut and just whizzes through the first four billion years of the Earth’s history as if there was absolutely nothing of interest to us humans then. I think it is good that filmmakers like Spielberg or science fiction/fantasy writers like Michael Crichton or J.R. Tolkien rouse our imagination with dinosaurs and strange "middle-earth" images that we somehow manage to see through their eyes and the world is bigger because our sense of how things are, extend beyond the present modern-day images. So how about a highlighted tour of the 4.6 billion years, little known in text books now, and practically non-existent in my generation’s local schooling, to get to know this planet celebrating it’s day in the human consciousness?

Imagine that you are journeying back in time, morphing into ancient forms before you evolved into this human form. Most events in this timeline are loosely based on a basic source and chosen according to my sense as a science writer guided by facts as well as the intention to connect the lay reader with the facts. We begin today. (Basic source: Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. What is Life. London 1995: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Ltd.)

2004 – 7 billion humans

1988 – 5 billion humans; National Geographic cover of Hologram Earth appears;

1888 – 1.5 billion humans; National Geographic was formed;

1 million years ago (mya) — Homo Sapien appears (modern-day humans)

5 mya – Homonoids (human ancestors)

5 — 5.5 mya – humans and their closest genetic kin, the chimpanzees evolve separately

65-100 mya – age of mammals

245-300 mya — age of reptiles (yes, includes the Jurassic period)

500 mya – appearance of Fourth and Fifth Kingdoms of Organisms: PLANT and FUNGI

570 mya – age of marine mammals

600 mya – appearance of third Kingdom of Organisms: ANIMALS; this is so far where scientists can trace the beginnings of egg, sperm, embryo and blastula (stem cells from which other organs form)

1.4 billion years ago (bya) – appearance of bacteria on land

1.5 bya – origins of cell division (mitosis), gender and death in cellular processes of multi-celled organisms (eukaryotes)

1.7 bya – appearance of second Kingdom: PROTOCTISTA

2 bya – oxygen becomes abundant in the atmosphere

2.1 bya – ozone shielding Earth from Sun’s ultraviolet rays increasing

2.5 bya – oxygen begins to accumulate

2.8 bya – large continents form

3.3 bya – trace amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere

3.4 bya – the earliest beginnings of continent-formation

3.7 bya – first appearance of banded iron formation which suggests oxygen mixing with water.

3.9 bya – Origins of Life in the form of bacterial cells, making up the first kingdom of organisms: MONERA, appear in the seas.

4 bya – beginnings of Earth crust formation

4.2 bya – early seas appear

4.6 bya – origins of Earth-Moon and solar system

A timeline of natural history gives me a deep respect for time and the passage of life through it that no philosophy or religion can match. In a scale developed by environmental writer/educator, David Orr, if you collapsed the Earth’s history into 24 hours, we humans did not appear until the last minute before midnight. In that brief moment, we managed to settle ourselves in proportions that cover almost the entire habitable portions of the Earth, figured out how to split the atom and made real the capabilities of erasing this planet in seconds, eliminated with our lifestyles and industry a significant portion and quality of habitats and creatures, punched a hole in the ozone which took 2.1 billion years to build. We are all Johnnys and Janes-come-lately but we behave like we are the only ones who have been given the privilege to evolve from the humble sea bacteria that we all were 3.9 billion years ago. We now write books and publish magazines and form groups rallying humans to save the Earth. Hey, we even write columns. We now even have people so wealthy that they can give a dollar for every year the Earth evolved with change to spare and people so poor that they ask and lament, with good reason, why Nature does not deal even-handedly with each creature in terms of equal chances for life.

We have evolved to be the most contradictory species in the planet, confusing other creatures as well as ourselves in the process. But we go on despite the contradictions because it is also in our nature as human beings to do so. We still hope to save the Earth if we understand it better. A friend recently asked me to recommend a book on what he called "relevant history." I am still deciding. Four and a half billion years of the life of the only home we know is a lot to cover.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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