Remember, new resources are invented, they are not found. Three billion years after the first teaspoon of life spread out and turned the savagely dissolving liquids of the sea into an organic soup and the dark and threatening bottom of the sea into a fertile goop, some strange life forms set off on a voyage that once again would give a middle finger to the laws of nature. This time the rebellion would be against more than just toxicity. The uprising would be against one of nature’s most fundamental commandments. Gravity.
Above the seas there were two nothings: the air and the land. Both were impossible wastelands, hostile, empty deserts. Places of danger and barrenness. Places not fit for life. What’s more, going there defied a law so basic that even stars and moons have had the good sense to obey it: yes, gravity. Gravity makes a simple demand: “stay down.” Down is natural. Up is not. Up is sin. Up is defiance. Up is heresy. Up is being uppity. Up is a rebellion against nature. And those who are uppity get slapped down. Right?
Going upward to the murderous emptiness also defies another natural boundary, a barrier that protects life—the surface tension of the seas. Surface tension is the sort of skin on the boundary between water and air that you can see at work when it surrounds a detached chaos of water molecules, pulls them together into a droplet, then keeps that droplet intact. As if that droplet was enclosed in a tiny plastic sack. To get beyond that skin of surface tension would be a struggle. Surely it was there for a reason. Surely nature was trying to tell life something. Something about the sacredness of the only existing biosphere 2.2 billion years ago, the sea.
What were the two torture-filled wildernesses beyond the womb of the waters? One was a vast emptiness where radiation reigned supreme and temperature changes were appalling—the air. The atmosphere. The other was a barren waste with a face of naked stone. Empty rock. Rock where you could starve for lack of food and where you could dry down to a lifeless flake for lack of water. Rock where you could be poisoned by the downpour of radiation, pounded and washed away by the unpredictable rain of liquid from clouds, and where you could be tortured by the massive changes of summer and winter, day and night. The rock face above the seas was no fit place for life. That impossible height would someday be called land.
But life doesn’t just find what’s fitting. It makes things fit. It makes the impossible proper, the toxic tasty, and the barren rich. Despite nature’s law of gravity, life thrived by aspiring high. Life thrived by mounting space programs. Roughly 1.65 billion years after life began, a few brave bacterial search parties managed to struggle through the surface tension barrier and rise up, making their way to the sterile and hostile rock face beyond the sea, rising from the nurturing embrace of the waters to the raw, wind-scoured, sunlight-battered stone of land. It may have been an accident. These pioneering teams of microorganisms may have been left behind when a flood ended and the waters pulled back. They may have been abandoned when puddles dried up. Left behind to die in a yawning empty space on high. But no matter how accidental, the move beyond the waters, the move up, paid off.
On the sheer rock face, life showed once again how it creates new frontiers by inventing new ways to transform terrors into treats, new ways to rape old purities, new ways to desecrate the status quo. As geographer Denis Wood put it, the first bacteria, the first prokaryotes, to hit the land
slimed everything, their sheen was on every surface. They painted rock and river bank and mudflat and pond with crazy colors, with chemical colors, acidy and sharp, hallucinogenic oranges and aquamarines, and brilliant reds and greens.
This was the start of something many of us consider a sin—vain display. A new supposed sin that would someday produce a grand advance. Why the flamboyance? Why the colors? Competition. My community versus yours. Differentiation. Differentiation based on different strategies for eating the environment and for dodging its dangers. My community flashing one color. Your community flashing another. Continues Wood,
Some of the colors came from pigments bacteria had evolved to hook up the energy of the Sun. Others came from pigments they’d evolved to protect themselves from its ultraviolet radiation. The earliest photo-synthesizers, anaerobic green and purple sulfur bacteria, came in all kinds of pinks and greens.
Among these color-wearers were some of the greatest material miracle makers in the history of the cosmos, astonishing new transformers of terrors into treasures. These wonder workers grabbed photons of light machine-gunned from the sun, incoming bullets of radiation, and turned them into energy sources. They used these bullets of light to start a flow of electrons that powered the manufacture of new molecules, molecules that defied nature—carbohydrates and sugars. They turned the toxin of radiation into the gift of light. The result graffitied the natural landscape. Says Wood,
Cyanobacteria, the earliest oxygenic photo-synthesizers, bloomed scums bright and thick like oil paint. Some of the scums were green. Some were blue-green. Others were purple.
Desecrators of the natural landscape were innovators. What’s more, waste and garbage piles were life-makers. And lifesavers. Explains Wood,
Because the photo-synthesizers ran off the energy of sunlight, they couldn’t bury themselves in the mud like other bacteria to hide from the destructive energy of the ultraviolet. Instead they shaded themselves with colorful mats made of the carcasses of bacteria that had died from exposure to the radiation.
Or they learned how to tan.
These first bacteria to invade the land were not nature lovers, they were plunderers. They were industrialists massively mining the environment. And changing it. Like strip miners, Says Wood, They pushed trillions of tons of gases and soluble compounds around through the air and water.
The bacteria who fed off the volcanic glass at the bottom of the sea had shown no respect. And the microbes invading the land were just as bad. They poked, probed, and opened cracks in the planet’s pristine rock face. They produced chemicals that penetrated the tiniest orifices of the cracks and turned this third pebble from the sun’s outermost coat of rock, its pure and virginal skin, into powder. And worse. Microbes defecated mineral particles from which new rocks would be made.
2.6 billion years ago, those first microbes to test the land turned rock, light, and rain from dangers to delicacies, and turned chemical catastrophes into to food, fuel, and shelter. They turned a nothing into an everything. They turned a terrain of tortures into a home. Meanwhile, they laid the rock face waste and they laid their waste—their litter, trash, and garbage–all over the place. But that waste was not what it seemed. Yes, it was materialism, consumerism, and throwaway culture run wild. But it was not a desecration. It was a new consecration. It was a new layer of the sacredness we call green. A new layer of the biosphere. That microbial waste was the first hint of what we’d someday call topsoil. It was the first layer of what we’d someday call nature’s resource base. To repeat, it was the first taste of what we’d someday call our planet, “earth.” It was the first layer of what we’d someday call nature.