A Moment In Time
As I write this in early January, the world is hushed in a blanket of snow and icy stillness. It’s a time to pause and ponder, with renewed awareness and appreciation of the fleeting nature of the seasons of life. Life’s wondrous tapestry weaves its story of beauty, mystery, and miracle in the fabric of time and space, and here we are in the midst of it all.
Life in all its many expressions is exquisitely complex. Each human begins as a tiny cell of potential, a single fertilized egg from which are created nearly 100 trillion cells in the average adult – more cells than there are stars in the Milky Way! Our hearts beat more than 100,000 times each day, propelling our blood through 62,000 miles of vessels- enough to wrap around the earth twice — and reaching every single cell of our body. And each of those cells contains more than six feet of DNA, the unique genetic coding for life, precisely packaged and coiled within. If all the DNA of one human body were to be unwound and lined up end-to-end, it would reach to the sun and back 30 times! Millions of other creatures are likewise just as complex and wondrous, and together we journey as fellow travelers on this beautiful blue planet that gave us being. So what shall we do with the gift of time we’ve been given?
Among all creatures, our one species wields unprecedented power… to steward, care, create, and nurture with knowledge, compassion, and wisdom, and to dominate, exploit, degrade, and destroy with ignorance, greed, and arrogance. How shall we answer to future generations for the choices we’ve made, the things we’ve done, and the things we’ve left undone? There is a sense of urgency, for time is growing short. Humanity is impacting the world and its very life support systems in unprecedented ways, and the consequences of our actions shall reverberate far into the future. At the hands of our one species, CO2 levels have reached their highest concentration in 800,000 years, our planet is warming, and storms are intensifying. Sea levels are rising, oceans are acidifying, and wetlands, wildlands, and forests are disappearing. Waterways are poisoned with pollution and plastics, chronic illnesses are increasing, and extinction rates are accelerating 1,000-fold. If current trends continue, half of all plant and animal species may be lost forever by the end of this century. Is this the legacy we wish to leave? I am haunted by the whispers of tomorrow’s children, who will surely ask why people of our generation didn’t better care for the gifts we were given, when there was still time and when we knew what we knew.
Life has flourished on Earth for at least 3.8 billion years. Anthropologists tell us the existence of modern humans, Homo sapiens, extends back a mere 200,000 years or so. Compared to the antiquity of Earth’s other creatures, our human existence is but a blink.
Earth’s most ancient and ubiquitous life forms, the bacteria, were the sole inhabitants of its early seas for nearly 2 billion years, and they still flourish to this day in every ecosystem that exists. Most are unseen and un-named. The evolution of photosynthetic cyanobacteria by 3.2 billion years ago made possible the production of oxygen, critical to all nearly all life on earth today. A new, more complicated form of life evolved by 1.5 billion years ago, and by 570 million years ago (mya), algae, mossesm and fungi began the monumental transition to land while sea life explosively diversified in the oceans. Fast-forward to 350 mya, when primeval Carboniferous forests gathered sunlight and created the foundations for today’s “fossil fuels” of coal, oil, and gas. By 150 mya, dinosaurs dominated the Age of the Reptiles, but came to a catastrophic end with the impact of a monster meteor 66 mya and the extinction of more than half of all life on earth. But life was resilient. Mammals, flowers, and others survived and thrive to this day, and dinosaurs live on as our modern birds.
But what about us? If we imagine this unfathomable 3.8 billion-year history of life as a 24-hour clock, we modern humans appeared about 2 SECONDS ago. Think about this. We are truly the newbies on the block, but our one species, with these incredible minds and hands and hearts, are rapidly altering this planet’s life support systems and threatening its long legacy of life. We are a smart species, but we have a lot to learn, and nature has much to teach us. May we more intentionally seek to encounter and experience the wisdom of the natural world, and to learn its lessons. So I’ll ask again, what shall we do with the gift of time we’ve been given? What shall be our legacy to future generations? And oh, by the way, Homo sapiens means “wise man.” May it be so, and soon.
Becky Nystrom is a Professor of Biology at Jamestown Community College, founding trustee and board director of the CWC, and a longtime CWC supporter and volunteer. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.