I never thought I’d be here, working on a non-fiction book about geology. I didn’t have the grades to study science, and until one fateful rainy day on Cape Cod when the YouTube algorithm worked in my favour, I didn’t know that anything like the Pacific Crest Trail existed. Life is strange to say the least.
Today, I’m here sharing a part of one of the very few not-so-geology-focused chapters. (Or maybe it’ll be the only one, who knows?) Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy it. Now, without further ado, here’s your offering for today.
NOTHING IS ETERNAL
When you’re crawling up and down the magnificent peaks of the Pacific Crest, when you’re, perhaps, exhausted, hot, and maybe even a little bothered, remember that in a short little while, none of the beauty you’re surrounded by will exist. The mountains you’re standing on will fall apart in a geological blink of an eye, never to be seen again, never to be remembered by the short collective memory of humanity. In fact, humanity itself may not exist, disappearing in the spiral of time together with these peaks and ridges.
Oh, how incredibly precious is that moment in time when you’re powering up a short-lived mountain in your even more short-lived life!
Why do geology books tend to turn contemplative, why do they often make both their readers and their authors think about life and death, existence and non-existence, the impermanence of life? Perhaps it’s because they show us how incredibly short our lives are, and how incredibly short are even the lives of things we once thought eternal, like mountains. A mountain stood long before we were born and will stand long after we’re dead. In our eyes, a mountain may never crumble. It’s a symbol of permanence.
Geology takes that false feeling of safety in existence and challenges it in ways some may rather not contemplate. Thinking in geologic time may be terrifying; what does it mean that the mountain, so stable, so ever-existing, will, too, die one day? What does it mean that your life, long in the world of living things, is nothing but a single spark in the eternal night that is time?
Astronomy might do the same for people. After all, stars live longer than planets, let alone mountains. The problem with stars, with understanding the timescales they exist on, is that they can’t be easily grasped by our minds, can’t be touched. Universes, even more incredibly (im)permanent things, are even more of a mystery. You can’t go out of your front door and closely observe a black hole but you can go out of your front door and grab a rock, a handful of sand, or a nice little piece of silica, and literally touch time. Depending on where in the world you live, what you’re holding was once a mountain, a lava field, a seafloor on which first life forms lived, an ancient desert, or poop. Okay, that last one isn’t too probable but petrified excrements, coprolites, are, also, a thing one can study.
Picking up a handful of sand, a once-mountain ground down to tiny particles, can in and of itself provide another perspective shift. Just like the mountain it came from, we, too, will one day turn back to dust. This dust may be recycled however nature and the Universe want it to be recycled, as it was before it became us.
Just like everything on this planet, including mountains, we are made, quite literally, from star stuff. As Carl Sagan said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Besides being an astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist, Sagan was also an author and science communicator. He had his way with words, which made the idea of star stuff nigh immortal. In his speech, Sagan then progressed his attention to the idea of getting to know oneself, of the Universe having a need for the same thing us human beings do: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Astrophysicist Sarafina Nance expanded on his speech and ideas when she wrote, “nearly all of the elements that make us up are born from dead stars, churned up in their stellar cores and then injected into the interstellar medium upon explosion.” But where Sagan looked inwards, Nance took it in a different direction, and that was beyond. She stepped beyond our mortal life here on earth: “we never *really* die. We are recycled within the cosmos, forming new bright lights, star dust eternal.”
When we come back to Earth, this idea can, perhaps, be grasped slightly more easily. Have you ever heard of sedimentary rocks?…
The chapter then continues on but we’ll leave it here. Writing a book is certainly a completely different adventure from any other I’ve ever been on. I hope you liked this excerpt and I’ll see you all again next week!