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November 23, 2021
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It was a November Sunday in New Haven, and I was looking at Mill River. It mirrored the trees along its banks, and its surface was so perfectly undisturbed that floating leaves—yellow and red—were the only things that distinguished the reflection from the real thing. Cirrus clouds grazed the atmosphere; the water reflected them too. Above, a sheer cliff loomed. It was hard to imagine that this rugged vista would give way to open ocean, just four miles downstream. But the leaves floated southwards without a ripple. The tide was going out.
A noise: two squirrels chased each other among the branches of an elm. How different life once looked, I mused. Strange creatures once roamed this land: long-necked things like the Tanystropheus and Brachiosaurus, the armored Ankylosaurus, the single-fingered Linhenykus. Pterodactyls flew among the clouds, and ichthyosaurs hunted in the sea. Below the periphyton, deep in the mud under Mill River, there could be the fossilized remains of a primeval shark, mid-migration when the mantle's convection currents shifted. It was then that Pangea fractured, and molten rock flowed through the cracks. Here, it formed the cliff I was observing, and the rest of Metacomet Ridge. Then, suddenly, an asteroid from the cosmos.
It came from the outskirts of the solar system, but what was beyond that? Planets, gas, dust, and dark matter; groups, clusters, and superclusters, all revolving around Sagittarius A, all saturated in intracluster medium.
Other galaxies swirl in ellipses and spirals beyond the Milky Way. Scientists say it’s dark energy that’s expanding the space-time fabric between the galaxies. I’ve heard them predict that stars will drift so far apart that humans won’t see any in the night sky: endless, infinite, exponentially increasing cosmic inflation. The galaxies are intact now, but soon the rate of expansion will overpower gravity, and it will dismember the clusters. Still, the void will keep stretching. Eventually the force of expansion will surpass nuclear force, and everything will rip apart.
Before that happens, perhaps humanity will discover alien life. It’s highly likely—there are more than a quintillion inhabitable planets in the universe. Life elsewhere could be silicon-based, or breathe methane. It’s probably gravity-bound, and drinks water. Does it have consciousness? And what about a soul? What about life beyond our bubble universe or stringy brane—life in the greater multiverse? It’s eerie to fathom what beings could grow under the amniotic atmosphere of some other world.
Life from this ocean planet sometimes looks alien. Microbes emerged here more than four billion years ago: archaic prokaryotes, growing in mats across the seafloor. Then prokaryotes, with gullets. Protozoa, corals, and fungi evolved from that. Then the fantastical organisms of the Cambrian explosion: the Trilobite arthropods, the soft-bodied Wiwaxia, worms of all sorts.
Eventually, dinosaurs evolved from primitive reptiles, then the mammals. It was during the Cenozoic Era that an iceberg carved through the land that I was looking at that Sunday in November. The soft sandstone wore away, but the lava intrusion didn’t. Left behind in the iceberg’s wake, a diabase bluff with red ledges. Two centuries ago, they named it East Rock.
Looking at the ridge, I noticed the negative space. In the air between the river and the summit, there used to be sandstone. Where did it go? I think its grains speckle the sea floor, across Long Island Sound. They float in the water, catch in eddies, and flow with the tides.
And there I was, watching ancient dust float in ancient water, hardly aware of the invisible forces that hold their molecules together or drive their movement. Just watching the tides turn.