The Anthropocene – a bookmark in Earth’s history, “Here lieth Man!”
It’s Tuesday, the 17th November, 2017 CE … yet more than that, it is the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era in the Phanerozoic Eon!
This morning I listened to a wonderful interview with Professor of Paleobiology, Dr Jan Zalasiewicz. He is chairman of a group that is working towards the recognition of a new geological era, namely the Anthropocene Era. Those versed in etymology will recognise the Greek word, anthropos, man. This is a controversial concept because it admits to the fact that humanity is impacting on the Earth in a comparatively large way that will continue into the future. Currently our sedimentary layer comprises half a metre, which is microscopic in terms of Earth-depth (6,371 km), yet enormous compared to the contribution of past eras and eons.
The word “Anthropocene” was coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen in about 2000. Currently the Anthropocene Era has been determined in terms of its proximate shape and size, but now the details are being examined, such as its precise beginning, ranging from 1000 years ago, to the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s.
Subsequently Jan wrote an article about what humanity’s legacy to the Earth would be taking a period of 100 million years into our future. He playfully envisaged petrified cities – the rocks and sand of disintegrated concrete, the silt of farmed and irrigated lands, the degraded metals and synthetics … cars as a pattern of metal dust in amongst sedimented layers.
We are not long for the grave. Just as other eras have passed, so too shall this one. In the face of a world of conflict, terror and war, I wonder at those who bring children into the world still, that they must possess a sense of hope that I do not. My instinct shrills in a Delphic manner that the cycle of generations will be warped and parents will see their children die before them or with them.
Yet the rocks are eternal and I must think back to my very first engagements with beings unseen. I was a lonely child and I spent much of my time in the garden, or slipping through the fence to the large construction site that was to become the secret headquarters of British military. The rubble they used for that site was replete with fossils. I would come back with skirts full of rocks. After a cursory wash in the sink, my mother would help me to put clear nail polish over the fossilised shells to “make them pretty”. Perhaps due to my closeness to the ground as a child, I was fiercely aware of the life of plants, trees, moss, lichen, rocks, earth, worms, woodlice, ladybirds etc. If a bud had unfolded, I knew about it; if grass was sprouting, I saw it.
My father dug a hole for a pond. It was a small pond, maybe a metre and a half in diameter. I have no idea how deep the hole was because to my small eyes it went on forever! It took a while before the pond was made, so I took advantage of this and spent hours with my upper body hanging over the edge of the hole, examining the layers of silt, clay and rock, looking for fossils and rocks and crystals. Sadly, my English garden was not a place for crystals; those would arrive in the post, sent by my grandmother in New Mexico.
And it was to the crystals that I turned in my teen years as I began to explore witchcraft. Crystals became my meditation focus, my spell “ingredients”, my conjuring tools and my wards. These days I have a chest, a box and a shelf of rocks, minerals and crystals. Through all my voluntary and involuntary periods of down-sizing, never have I let a rock go!
In meditation, I find myself split between the awe of connecting to beings so ancient that truly contextualises the blip of humanity in the continuum of time; then at times I find myself merging with the crystal and experiencing a sense of stillness … By stillness I mean that the rapidity of time passing stops. The crystal I hold in my hands has existed through millennia and more. It has no drive or sublimated panic to “seize the day for tomorrow we die”! It IS in the now, because existence is ad infinitum … And even if one day I took a hammer to it and pounded it to dust, each speck of dust would still hold the millions of years of existence inside and continue beyond the time when my own bones have turned to dust.
Ultimately, my mark on the world will not be a fossilised footprint in the sand as the Happisburgh footprints in Norfolk (800,000 years old and the oldest preserved footprints outside of Africa), since my feet more often touch concrete than sand or earth. My disintegrated physical essence will continue like the crystal dust, even if invisible to the eye, absorbed again back into the strata of the Earth which charts the world’s history layer upon layer since the globe was birthed by the adhesion of gas and dust in the colliding cloud of material that formed our sun.
And to me, this is all incredibly comforting, to know that really, very little matters. We die, decompose and our remains enwrap a tiny, tiny portion of the Earth. And upon the sediment of our “civilisation” shall grow the microbes and larger life forms of the future. What hubris of mankind to think we will destroy the world. Yes, we may destroy our world, and for many that is all they care about. If you live separated internally from what is out there, then time will pass frenetically and death will seem like a misfortune robbing us of “living life to the full”, but if you tap into the planet, perhaps through a rock or a crystal, you will see that we are a mere footnote on a page in a chapter of a book in a series on the shelf of the universe.