Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Idea of Stromatolites

We had a yellow-sky dusk today. Mostly cloudy with rain predicted but not yet happening. The light begins to fade at around 8 now, a mark of the declining summer. I sat on the deck for a while just after 8, admiring the sky and listening to cicadas and crickets. They were almost loud enough to drown out the ambient traffic noise. Good.

Recently I finished reading In a Sunburned Country (2000) by Bill Bryson. I liked it a lot. (And I recommend A Walk in the Woods, too, which I read a couple of years ago.) It's clear from his writing that he enjoys the pure pleasure of setting out to see what he can see, and he takes his well-honed descriptive and interpretative skills with him. I also liked the book because its subject is Australia, a place Bryson's very fond of. Me too.

Toward the end, he describes a marvel that should be on educational flash cards (see yesterday), but never will be. Bryson traveled to Shark Bay on the remote west coast of Australia north of Perth, where he sought out a formation found only there and and a few other places in the entire world. "Nowhere in any direction was there a sign of human intrusion except directly ahead, where a nifty wooden walkway zigzagged for 150 feet or so out into the bay over some low, dark, primeval-looking masses that didn't quite break the water's calm. I had found my living stromatolites..." he wrote.

"Stromatolites are so primitive of nature that they don't even adopt regular shapes. The just sort of, as it were, blob out... In fact, they are shapeless gray blobs, without character or luster. It has to be immediately conceded that a stromatolite formation is not a handsome or striking sight.

"It's not the sight of stromatolites that makes them exciting. It's the idea of them -- and in this respect they are peerless. You are looking at living rocks -- quietly functioning replicas of the very first organic structures ever to appear on Earth. You are experiencing the world as it was 3.5 billion years ago -- more than three-quarters of the way back to the moment of terrestrial creation. Now, if that's not an exciting thought, I don't know what is. As the aforementioned paleontologist Richard Fortey has put it: 'This is truly time traveling, and if the world were attuned to its real wonders this sight would be as well-known as the pyramids of Giza.' Quite right.

"If you peer, you can sometimes see tiny bubbles of oxygen rising in streams from the formations. This is stromatolite's only trick and it isn't much, but it is what made life as we know it possible... For two billion years this was all the life there was on Earth, but in that time the stromatolites raised the oxygen level in the atmosphere to 20 percent -- enough to allow the development of other, more complex life-forms: me, for instance. My gratitude was real."

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