The Hadean Eon
4.6 billion years ago to 4 billion years ago
Our sun is born
The Earth forms, albeit in a molten state
Earth is bombarded by space junk
Our moon forms
Space junk bombardment calms a bit
Oceans begin to form from condensation
Things begin to settle down
However early we begin the story, there is something earlier, then earlier again. We can count to the Hadean Eon, about 4.6 billion years ago, when we feel fairly sure the earth began to come together as a little team, then gang, then army, of cosmic material. Rubbish bins of the stars. But earlier still, before those bins were emptied, the now-vibrating surface had to come from somewhere. When our sun was born, it was already a latecomer—its ancestors had died, exploded, and then their ashes had huddled up to make a little nuclear baseball.
The sun moves and vibrates. Scientists used to think it was a mistake, that their instruments were broken and making the waves; because between a gadget we made three minutes ago and a vibrating sun who drifted away from its birth-cluster a hundred light years away, which are we more likely to trust? But no, it turned out all that gaseous tumult is creating sound waves (listen hard enough and you can hear the hydrogen colliding). There are ten million different frequencies bounding from the sun. Its energy comes from within itself, a deep reservoir we’ve barely lapped at yet. And yet, it is a dinky star. Victor Hugo called a nebula an “ant-hill of stars” (although he said it in French) and this is a description I love—both grand and humble at the same time, important and very insignificant. The ant-hill means a great deal to the ants.
There are many odes to the sun, many poems in which your love is like the sun, or a mistress’ eyes are nothing like it, or ruminations on light or sunlight or sunbeams or rays of light emanating from a concept, like truth or justice. Novelists and story-ists do it too: describing his dystopia, Cormac McCarthy wrote that the “sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” Throw a stone and you will hit a metaphor in which the sun is the star. It is easier for us to understand when we ink up metaphor—or, maybe, to pretend we are capable of understanding. A tidy simile: “my care is like a shadow in the sun,” wrote the first Queen Elizabeth. It frustrated her, her shadow: always just out of reach, dangled there by a teasing or malicious or utterly indifferent sun.
Speaking of Queen Elizabeth I. When she died (finally frustrated to death by death, that other shadow) in the spring of 1603, the theaters in London closed for mourning. When they reopened, a man named Ben Jonson—a successful poet and playwright already respected by the people by whom one wanted to be respected – hurried to get his play, Sejanus: The Fall on stage and into production. When he did, the play was a flop. On its 2005 revival at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a critic for The Guardian wrote: “Whatever you do, don't read Jonson's Sejanus. Reading it myself, again, I started to wonder: why do I teach this shit?” The critic was not, making an argument about the play’s value. It’s a very good one, he insists. But it has to been seen – to appreciate the tragedy, the bodies on the stage, one cannot be quietly reading in an armchair, or on a subway commute. Go see it, he urged. Feel those vibrations.
And, to be fair, it was not entirely Jonson’s fault that his play flopped: Sejanus premiered on May 9, 1603. By May 17th, the theaters were closed again, now for a very different reason. The plague had come to London again, and theaters were close, filthy, body-sharing spaces of contagion. London was a hard place to stay healthy even when there was no plague: raw sewage ran through the streets, and folks often dumped their waste and refuse into the Thames—the city’s main source of drinking water. Folks ate oranges in the theaters to mask the smells of feces, urine, and semen that the theater-goers, packed in there for hours, created and discarded. It was not a clean city. Plague visited more than a few times, but the 1603 epidemic was one of the most violent.
A plague death is a particularly gruesome one, difficult to ignore or avoid. In 1603, the city was distracted and consumed by death, by dying and mourning. “Death . . . hath pitched his tents,” wrote Thomas Dekker in The Wonderful Yeare. There was no one who the plague could not find. Rich, old, young, criminal, king. “Feare and Trembling,” wrote Dekker, “arrest every one: No parley will be graunted, no composition stood vpon, But the Allarum is strucke up, the Toxin ringes out for life, and no voice heard but Tue, Tue, Kill, Kill.”
The failure of Sejanus was a blow to Jonson, but he kept working. He wrote a poem (“Who saith our times nor have nor can / Produce us a black Swan?”), got it published, and set up some performances of his older plays in private homes. Still, he was between gigs, so to speak, and his family’s income depended entirely wealthy patrons. Jonson and his wife had had one child, a little girl, who had died in the cradle. But now, finally, they were parents again. The Jonsons were parents to a little boy: Benjamin, a perpetually mud-stained seven year-old.
But how to support a family as a playwright when the theaters were closed, and London distracted by the mounting plague deaths? There was the promise of money elsewhere: Jonson and his friend Will Camden went to stay and work at an estate in the country, in Huntingdonshire, owned by a Sir Robert Cotton. He had terrible nightmares.
One miraculous fact about humans: a mother may pass protection (the passive IgG antibody) to her child through her placenta and breastmilk. To the diseases of which the mother cannot transfer memory, the little body is vulnerable. But each new infection, cold, virus that a young child suffers serves to help its immune system learn. Challenges of increasing difficulty strengthen the child’s immune system gradually. This means, however, that while it learns, the immune system is also immature; it has not had enough experience in the ring to defend against a particularly violent infection.
For children in the seventeenth century, the death rate from plague was higher than fifty percent, and Ben’s son, at seven, simply didn’t have an immune system strong enough to battle the bacterium Yersinia pestis or the plague it wrought on his small body. When Jonson returned home to London, his only child was dead.
Jonson goes on to make friends with John Donne and Francis Bacon, write a play for the actor William Shakespeare, murder a man, enter most poetry anthologies still doodled upon by high-schoolers, get even his worst flops performed in 2005 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and generally mark the earth with his name many times before he left it. Jonson called his first son, Benjamin, his “best piece of poetry.”
Insignificant and very important, that child: an ant-hill of star-dust to dust. But to the universe, such is our planet, our measly solar system, our single sun. “Now the iron of old nova coughings vivified the redness of our blood,” wrote Howard Bloom. The generative cough, that old ringing of the alarm, maker of poems and suns.
The Archaean Eon
4 billion to 2.5 billion years ago
Formation of algae and stromatolites
Formation of bacteria
Arrival of oxygen in buckets
This is a big time, for us. During the early Archaean, the first thing became alive. This does not seem possible—if there was nothing alive Tuesday, how is there something alive on Wednesday?
The term “abiogenesis” is the one some use, here: the emergence of life from non-life. No one really knows how that happened. Some people feel very strongly that aliens came to earth and planted us here. Or, we were deposited by another delivery system: when the earth was being bombarded with space junk, asteroids, meteors, and other little bits, something fell to the ground carrying little microscopic stowaways . . . these little cells moved into their new home and began to grow and evolve. Some scientists think that the answer is simply luck: the right combination of atoms and molecules just happened to be our atmosphere, and something ignited the perfect molecular combination—a lightning bolt, perhaps.Either way, the fact of it is simple: life just happened. Tuesday, everything was not alive; Wednesday, something was.
There has been constant life since then. Something always survived, even if it was very very little. When the constant meteoric bombardment of the earth settled down, some of the smaller life had a chance at survival. One form appeared as a sort of blue-green scummy thing, a sort of lichen growing inside rock. As it grew, it produced waste. Very, very luckily, through some miracle of the molecules, that waste was oxygen. The oxygen built up and up, and went down into the sea; then it moved and bound to itself and built an ozone layer. All of it from that little bacteria and its waste, thrown haphazardly into the atmospheric Thames.
The geologic record is riddled with death—every so often comes a great dying. It’s all in there, somewhere: the story of multiplying loss. It is difficult for us to imagine an earth like the one that existed in the Archaean; the sky was not blue; the waters would look olive green, drab. And while this might be frightening, or toxic, it remains a loss. When asked about one of his books, Paul Auster replied that “you can’t know what the accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself. Life so short, so fragile, so mystifying.” The earth has had a long and storied life and binds its autobiography within itself: inside the rocks, under the water, in the ice, and in the life forms it has created. The earth has written itself onto itself. But the story is so very, very long and so very, very complicated. We are just learning to read and understand what earths we have lost, what animals the earth has lost, what plants and little bugs and bacteria the earth has lost.
A strange one, though. The earth made it mighty hard for anything to come alive, in the first place. Early earth’s conditions were so harsh that it probably killed off more than it generated . . . And yet, it keeps a diligent record of every item lost, and seems to nourish and love us for the short while we are here. This aging earth will eventually kill us, too, our brief big-brained species; we’re headed down the path everyone else took. This is no tragedy. When a guest moved to leave his house, an elderly E.M. Forster said, “when you go to see someone old, it may be the last time. Please stay, if you can, and I will tell you when it’s time to go.”
2.5 billion to 544 million years ago
Formation of eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus)
Seaweed and other multi celled organisms appear
Marine worms and jellyfish emerge
In the Proterozoic Eon, the earth had its element: oxygen. The oxygen dove deep into the sea, which, at that point covered most of the earth—land was there, mostly sticking close to itself, like a wad of gum floating in someone’s Coke. With the oxygen reaching to the ocean floor, living things became a little more lively: cells took a nucleus on board and, later, started dividing. The water was the earth’s home for the first multicellular lifeform. We know a little bit about this lifeform (it might have been plankton) but also we don’t know. There are things that were alive that no one can really explain or identify. It’s a thing, they shrug. It was alive, though. By the end of the Proterozoic, a carpet of bacteria coated the ocean’s bottom, spreading and unrolling. A lot of the animals did not yet have mouths . . . evolution goes slowly. We’re not real sure how they ate. Sponges existed, and also something like a mollusk.
In any case, the Proterozoic Eon was long and shudderingly alive with swimming, slogging things, all alive in the sea: it was a massive and massively busy place. As more and more photosynthetic plants created more and more oxygen, it became busier and busier until it all but churned with legless bodies.
When Ben Jonson’s son died, in London, of plague, it was the end of a longer story for that bacteria. Before it crawled into the little boy’s hair, before the fleas regurgitated Y. pestis into his blood over and over and over, the bacteria had to cross the water. More legless bodies.
Outside the city of Caffa, in 1347, the story goes, the attacking Mongols were stricken with plague. Frustrated and sick, they constructed catapults and flung their dead, leaking infected corpses, over the city walls, thus spreading the disease through the city walls. I have heard rumors, though, that this story is false: that the disease probably spread, as they all do, by rats squeezing through little spaces and bringing the bacteria, far less dramatically, into the city streets. It is very possible that the historians, later, made up the catapult story because they didn’t want anyone to think that God had smote those good Christians . . . no, it was those nasty Mongols. They tricked Caffa into dying.
The disease spread quickly and gruesomely; the Genoese fled on boats. Already infected passengers climbed on the boats, and doubtless a few rats climbed on the boats carrying their guest Y. pestis, and sent the plague on a trip across the sea. Centuries later, it would kill a little boy, and his father would write a poem about it.
Plague had dazzlingly grisly effects on the human body. A notary writes that the Tartar corpses, outside Caffa, had an “intolerable stench.” One man, who had visited a friend of his recently down with plague, wrote that the “stench [of] sweat, excrement, spittle, [and] breath was overpowering.” There was a lot of stuff exiting the body, most of it fluid or somewhat fluid, when the bacteria Y. pestis flourished. A lot of waste materials, not any of it helpful for others or delightful to the senses.
A contrast, here. The beauty of the cyanobacteria that emerged in the Archaean Eon was its waste: by surviving, this life created an element which propelled new life into existence. Many living things have come to accomplish just the opposite. Not only can wetwood (AKA slime flux) turn a forest into a wasteland, not only can Erwinia amylovora blight a forest regrown on the same spot, but even the kindest of us can carry disease. Even the happy toys, even the clear, cool drinking water. Even the boats, even the cars, even the trains. The homeliest little steam engine, burning the homeliest little carbons, can plug the atmosphere with so much carbon dioxide that—
Well, the same darn thing. Turn something blissfully growing into a withering wasteland. The cyanobacteria created oxygen, which then moved into atmosphere, and when that was full, the oxygen infiltrated the sea. Wherever the oxygen went, life thrived. Machines that burn carbon or hydrocarbons create carbon dioxide, which moves into the atmosphere and, because it works differently than oxygen does, traps more of the sun’s heat. That carbon dioxide infiltrates the sea, and makes that warmer, too. When the ocean gets warmer, little tiny living things, used to their colder homey temperatures, can no longer survive. They die. And the living structures that depended on them for food, like coral reefs for example, those die, too. Carbon dioxide isn’t a problem. Living things require it. But too much is too much and where too much goes, life dies.
“It is a curious situation,” writes Rachel Carson, “that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life.” Life was born in the sea, began there as greenish blueish stuff. She goes on: “but the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
The “sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea,” as Joyce would call it. The wine-dark sea, the snotgreen sea, the sea described by what we, homo sapiens, eat, drink, expel. Our waste. The sea permits our nicknames because it knows we are a finite bully. We are so vulnerable; we perish by flea bite. We cradle our monsters inside our friends’ homes, we catapult them joyously toward our enemies. We carry our death with us in the boat, we send it hopefully across the sea.
An ocean without sea monsters—the monsters that have evolved as all life has evolved, since this Proterozoic Eon, would be nothing at all. “An ocean without sea monsters would be like sleep without dreams,” wrote Steinbeck. An oblivion. An ocean without razor sharp coral or killer whales would be a dreamless rest. But it would be only a rest, and not a death. Because the ocean, as Carson reminds us, does not depend on us. It will be here, regardless.
Our end is, perhaps even now, being catapulted into our city. We are, perhaps, the ones doing the catapulting, the ones in the catapult, the ones staring up at the falling corpse. The sea does not have to do very much at all, if it wants us gone.
The sea has a 4 billion year head start on us. It does what it always has done: it is waiting, and it will wait us out.
544 million to 248 million years ago
Animals with a notochord emerge
The first fish emerge!
The first land plants!
The fish develop lungs
Mosses begin to appear
Insects come along: beetles, scorpions and centipedes
The first land animals begin to appear
The first seed plants begin to grow
Pangaea forms into a single supercontinent
Glaciers begin to form
Permian/Triassic extinction event: 96% of all life dies.
Life is “preposterous pointlessness” said the comedian Stephen Merchant. All human life —all life on earth—is descended from the 4% of species that survived the Permian/Triassic extinction event. Even more surprisingly, all mammalian life (human included, but also dogs, giraffes, and mice) descended from only a single species that survived the event. And it survived because it was tiny and pretty insignificant in the usual scheme of things. In many ways, the extinction was the great leveler: predators were just as vulnerable as their prey, and sometimes more so. Survival had nothing to do with how well they behaved at home in the den, or how respectful they had been of others’ space at the watering hole. Species were wiped out indifferently, wholesale, without chance for appeal. The trees were gone, the grasses, the fish, the bigger fish, the little fish plant hybrids. “What do you call that,” Julian Barnes wrote, “—natural selection? I’d call it professional incompetence.”
Though the extinction that closes the door on the larger Proterozoic era was the largest and most deadly in earth’s history, it has not been the only one. There have been at least four more major clean-slate events, and some scientists are guessing we might be in the early stages of a new one, now. It didn’t, and it does not, will not, happen in one big go—not the ‘forty days and nights’ watery extinction event that Barnes was writing about. This one took 500 millennia.
Partly the life on earth was doomed because it hadn’t spread out enough yet. There was only one great big continent, Pangaea, and everyone who wasn’t swimming lived there. So, when the massive tidal wave of molten lava appeared from fissures in the earth, it was almost impossible to find somewhere to hide. Those early deaths were nasty ones, likely very painful ones, with animals being burned alive and crying out. In some ways, actually, it was like Noah’s flood—except the water was liquid fire and the “rain” fell up. A backwards day of extinction events.
These lava waves went on for years and years.
The earth and every living thing on it suffered for next 500,000 years. Gasses from the volcanic eruptions infiltrated the atmosphere; those species that survived the basalt flood cannot survive the manic changes in climate; they suffocate slowly and die, or are poisoned. Carbon dioxide, of which we have plenty today, moves across the world, traps heat, and kills off the oxygen. It is getting difficult to find food or freshwater.
Death, death, death. Just when it can’t get worse, that’s when the rain comes. Not just any rain. Acid rain! Sulfuric acid, the child of volcanic gases and oxygen, kills all the greenery that had struggled through the last century. These changes have happened too quickly, and evolution cannot keep up. Life cannot adapt as quickly as the climate does. The landscape has begun to look like the poets’ imaginings of hell: scorched and barren and filled with things in pain.
After 200 years, small scavengers are doing well. They can hide, eat rubbish. Some could chew and eat at the same time, and so take in more air with each breath. They had families, who they kept close to, and so had a little team around at all times. They’re tiny, tiny, and with each generation, they get smaller. It is easier to feed and oxygenate and conceal a smaller body.
After 10,000 years, everywhere in Pangaea the plants are either dead or rotting. Waste turns the seas into a cesspool. When the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air gets high enough, the ocean becomes so warm that the currents stop. Marine life is out. In Coppola’s The Godfather, Al Pacino turns to Robert Duvall, who plays the Corleones’ lawyer, in a scene where things have gone real bad. You’re out, Tom, he says. Why am I out? Tom asks, surprised and hurt. You’re not a wartime Consigliere, Tom, the Godfather says, and that is that. Tom is out.
You’re out, plant. You’re out, fish-like animal.
Why am I out?
Sometimes the ones that get to stay aren’t the nice ones, the rational kind Toms of life. After the ocean currents stop, some bacteria lives—but are the kinds that produce toxic gas. They do, and the wind circulates the gas worldwide. More die from this, the survivors’ contribution.
This system seems unjust, and hellish.
After 500,000 years, things settle down. The ‘Great Dying,’ as it’s called, comes to an end. Those 4 out of every 100 species that had survived began to pick up the pieces of their evolution; most had become smaller, developed better ways to breathe and eat, and interbred to cull the advantages of friends. “Some creatures were simply Not Wanted on Voyage,” Barnes’ woodworm sighs. The groups that did survive were tiny, castaway populations, and their lives were very very hard. Everything was a struggle—from finding water to breathing air. It would have been hellish to survive and intolerable to die. “Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave,” Cormac McCarthy writes, but “perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”
Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine, and her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. Her work has been published in The New England Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She was recently named the recipient of Poetry International's 2014 C.P. Cavafy Prize for Poetry and the Fall 2016 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. She is the author of the chapbook Providence (Finishing Line Press, 2017); her first novel will be released in late 2018 by the University of West Alabama's Livingston Press.