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Friday, July 2, 2010

Continental Inspirations

35 Million Years Ago, North America came into being as two long islands separated by the Bearpaw Sea.  The stable east coast benefited from its own isolated evolution with small crossovers from the shallow sea.  The instable West Coast was joined to Asia by the Berengian land bridge -- a causeway for Asiatic flora and fauna,” (Flannery, p. 10).

Two Books of Continental Inspiration:

Eternal Frontier, The:  An Ecological History of North American and Its Peoples (2001)
By Tim Flannery, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, Australia, p. 404.

Across the Great Divide:  (1998)
By James McPhee, Random House Publishing
     One of the most enjoyable and yet rare items is a science book that is both readable and informative.  I present two such books for your consideration.  In The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery explores the unique biodiversity and living experience of the great North American continent -- a land he shows which has provided a unique and readily catalogued diversity of evolutionary life over the 65 million year period since the latest mass extinction.  He begins with the story of how an ancient meteorite ended the reign of the dinosaurs and ushered in a new age of ascendant mammals and unique to North America, deciduous trees and specialized flora (I greatly enjoyed is observations on the unique evolution of squirrels and North American nut trees).  On the other hand, James McPhee takes an even longer vision of this vast space and time, exploring the geology that cradles Flannery’s evolving life forms.  
    In fact, both writers bring to mind Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Legacy, wherein she discloses the process of these spaces and the effects they have on the local inhabitants -- a legacy of prehistoric seabeds, empty spaces and life and death struggles for survival.  Indeed, as Tim Flannery points out, the plains are in fact the remains of a once vast, prehistoric sea, “North America was born in the twilight moments of the age of dinosaurs, and at birth it was a very different place, for there was no Mississippi River, no Rocky Mountains and no Isthmus of Darien.  Instead, a vast shallow seaway, dubbed by Canadian scientists the Bearpaw Sea, occupied its southern and central portions, dividing North America into separate eastern and western landmasses.  The Bearpaw Sea had been in existence for at least 35 million years … As the Bearpaw narrowed such [wildlife] crossings became more frequent, heralding the amalgamation of the two island realms into a continental whole,” (p. 10).  As such, the prairies form a geologic and biological birthplace and heart of the North American continent.  Later, Flannery reveals the perception of the plains as the great lungs of the continent channeling the world’s winds between two great mountain ranges, inhaling and exhaling a unique breath that has fostered and nourished a singular world, “The continent’s climate means that conflict between the north and the south not only characterizes American history, but North American prehistory as well.  Across the land, turbulent air flowing from the chilly north encounters the breezes of the hot south.  As the two fight it out over the plains, tornadoes are spawned.  Ninety per cent of the world’s tornadoes occur in North America -- most originating between the Rockies and the Mississippi River.  The North American climatic trumpet plays two tunes.  One seasonal, being responsible for winter’s chilly blasts and summer’s heat.  The second, a longer note, is played out over geological time, shifting the continent from greenhouse to icehouse modes.  A small shift in global climate -- in effect a breath of cool air elsewhere -- is magnified until the effect is doubled or tripled, calling forth glaciers and fields of ice,” (p. 86).  Regardless of the perspective one takes, the end result is an enduring tie to a land that both diminishes the human spirit in its expanse, and yet magnifies it in its stillness and horizon.  Such is the love of a prairie dweller for this great land.  Both of these writers seem to share in this connection.
     McPhee’s process seems simple enough, starting off in New York’s Long Island, he takes us on a straightforward cross-section tour of the North American continent, carefully introducing us to each feature we encounter and gently explaining its significance and wonder.  McPhee’s tour encompasses the Great Lakes, the Mississippi Valley and heads down into the unique and varied mountain ranges of the Nevada-California border.  From the largest island mountain ranges to small crystals dug out of sandy banks on the Jersey turnpike, McPhee’s sense of wonder never fails him and we learn how to distinguish the tracks of glacial footprints, geologic movement, and the passage of millennia across the face of the land on which we make our homes.
     Flannery bridges the time gap between the building of McPhee’s mountains, the carving of his great canyons and that of our own history.  Uniquely, Flannery seems to place the immigration of humanity, including both the Native American ancestral trek and the European colonization, within the greater scope of larger evolutionary processes.  Beginning with ferns, and tiny mammals, and ending with humanity’s industrialization of the land, he patiently walks us through the rise and fall of biological kingdoms and empires, until he comes to our own.  Flannery does not provide this breadth of history as an excuse for the much greater impact this latest mammalian invasion has inflicted on the land, but in his way, brings to our attention the effect of time on our world and the slender threads, the mere accidents, of survival.  He sums up the effect we, as a species, have had on a homeland we share with so many others, “If the frontier dreaming of North America has to be destroyed so its environment and people can move into the future, then I’m sure it will be done.  And there are signs that this is already occurring.  After all, the frontier is a state of mind as much as anything, and even now the minds of its citizens are changing rapidly.  Environmental protection is popular even with some of the conservative right, and is slowly closing what remains of the land, water, timber and fisheries frontiers of North America before complete disaster ensues,” (p. 354) But this is not preaching.  Flannery’s long view indicates that life has survived far greater challenges, but reminding us that each catastrophe, and in their own way, each change, bears a cost that cannot be easily mitigated regardless of nature or intent, “Given the stupendous power of the many violent forces released by the impact of the asteroid it is difficult to imagine any life, except perhaps seeds and microscopic species, surviving in the more exposed parts of North America.  Certainly the forests were devastated.  The emergent conifers were all destroyed, never to return to the continent, and along with them went nearly 80 percent of the flowering plant species, including, it seems almost all of the trees.  The destruction off the southern coast was similarly extreme, with even such hardy and uncomplicated creatures as shellfish suffering massive extinctions.  Indeed the effect was so profound that even three million years later the fifty-eight species of mollusc then living were but a shadow of their pre-impact diversity,” (p. 18).  Despite Flannery’s scientific detachment and the inconsequentiality of our timeline against that of McPhee’s geology, we learn from Flannery that evolutionary change is unforgiving and an extinct species never recovers.  McPhee, well, his tour clearly indicates that while deep marks on the land can and will be erased with time, that geological time moves very, very slowly.  Again, I think that Kathleen Norris also ties North America’s land, people, and environment into one experience.

Also recommended, Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Legacy (1996) and Edward Abbey, The Solace of Open Spaces (1963).  Neither Norris or Abbey write from a scientific perspective, but both infuse the scientific realms of Flannery and McPhee with that third realm of human experience -- a deep enduring spirituality based on a unique sense of place.  The four make a great combination.

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