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Leave A Legacy

What Mark Will Humanity Put On The Natural World?

Our planet’s journey around our star has carried us through the longest nights of the year, and spring is just around the corner. Life’s wondrous tapestry weaves its story of beauty, mystery, and miracle in the fabric of seasons, time, and space, and here we are in the midst of it all.

In all its many expressions, life 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 cell 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. What shall be our legacy?

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, 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 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 two billion years, and still flourish to this day in every ecosystem that exists.

Most are unseen and un-named. The evolution of photosynthetic cyanobacteria by three billion years ago made possible the production of oxygen, critical to all nearly all life on earth today.

By 570 million years ago (mya), algae, mosses and fungi began the monumental transition to land while life explosively diversified in the seas. 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 ancient 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 be our legacy? And oh, by the way, Homo sapiens means “wise man.” May it be so, and soon.

Becky Nystrom is a retired Jamestown Community College biology professor, current board president and founding trustee of the CWC, and a longtime CWC volunteer and supporter.

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 716-664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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