LIVING WITH FOSSILS COMMENTARY

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By Nicholas Simon
Capital News Service

LANSING — Growing up in Dallas, Texas, the world felt preoccupied with the new, the now and the endless variety of urban life. 

Despite this obsession, the city felt both stagnant and claustrophobic to my Midwestern parents. 

Before long, they started to compare the benefits of contemporary city life to the traditional values offered in the Midwest. Eventually, they decided that congested concrete is not a cradle for creativity and traded their suburban setting for land with areas that time seemed to forget.

Our family moved to Michigan and purchased a 50-acre plot of undeveloped, old-growth forest outside of South Haven, not far from the shores of Lake Michigan. 

This mysterious land was filled with trees that towered over my head, sand dunes that rolled between stands of pines and streams that snaked their way through the green-caped wetlands. As a young boy with a predisposition for adventure novels, it was easy to imagine that I was the first person to explore these woods and paddle these streams.

Influenced by these ideas, at the age of 9 I started to build a trail. I thought this would be a good way to leave a lasting mark that someone had been here and where they wanted to go. 

Laying there, amidst my monument to progress, was an arrowhead, which stood in opposition to the naivety of my boyhood notions of exceptionalism, like a poem by Percy Shelly that speaks of the futility of building monuments. 

By attempting to leave a unique mark, I instead accidentally uncovered the first clues to understanding the true timescale of the natural world, as well as our place in that lineage. 

As I grew older, I learned the basics of geology from my father, who was just as passionate of a storyteller as he was a scientist. He taught me how to read earth-toned layers of rock and soil as if they were chapters in a book that was far beyond anyone’s comprehension. 

Along the Michigan coast, Petoskey stones told tales of the salty oceans that came before, metamorphic deposits told war stories about ancient volcanoes, and polished beach glass would preached about today’s freshwater seas.

Later, the lakes which once seemed permanent and immutable revealed themselves as a canvas painted over for thousands of years. 

In Wisconsin, the high cliffs of the Door Peninsula towered above the mast of even the mightiest ships in the most dramatic high-water-mark that the lakes could ever produce. 

Conversely, sonar displays a rocky ridge, hundreds of feet below the surface of Lake Huron, that some of the earliest humans in North America used to hunt along. 

This shows us how humans have evolved with the Great Lakes since prehistoric times and reminds us to be adaptable and collaborative when dealing with the environment.

Further examples of the region’s history can be found growing out of the ground. Amid the modern orchards and farms that make up the agricultural system, artifacts of a much older system of ecology are easy to find if you know where to look. 

Groves of maple and birch can be found in the forest arranged in a straight line, which nature tends to avoid. 

Further investigation of these trees, some of them saplings when kings and queens were still the norm in Europe, reveal human modifications in the form of stripped bark and tool markings. These groves,, now overgrown, speak to a time when the area was abuzz with activity, whether canoe manufacturing or maple syruping.

Other trees known as trail trees offer a literal and metaphorical map to the past and remind me of my own efforts to leave a path so that future explorers know that they are not alone although we might be separated by time.

Flying over the tops of these trees and swimming in these streams are sandhill cranes and lake sturgeon, both living fossils. 

Cranes have been flying over what is now the Michigan region for around 10 million years. Their distinct calls were heard over the region at a time before the Great Lakes were formed, echoing over the heads of now-extinct species such as the mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger. 

Still, these birds are relatively young when compared to lake sturgeon, which have remained virtually unchanged for 150 million years (about 70 million years before T. Rex). 

These animals have found a way to survive multiple mass extinction events and massive shifts in global climate, a fact that takes on added importance as other species, including humans, try to find their own homeostasis with nature.

To keep this balance, the forest teaches that we must be active participants in ecology, just like any other species. 

Where mammoth and bison used to trample prairies into flat grasslands, humans must now fill that role with prescribed burns. Trees that used to be toppled by beaver now need to be cleared by timberers to promote new growth. 

If these management efforts aren’t made, certain habitats like forest floors and prairies will no longer be able to support their own species. Loss of biodiversity at this scale can create a vicious cycle that causes entire ecosystems to collapse. 

For me, realizations like this represent the main reason we need to think about nature on a different timescale and recast our role in the ecosystem. 

Studies have shown that a hands-off approach to forestry management is a leading contributor to wildfires. 

Researchers believe this is so because there are no other megafauna left in North America to fill important roles in the forest due to overhunting. One domestic example can be seen by examining states like California and Oregon where seen wildfire rates exploded without human intervention in the form of controlled burns, a practice dating back to ancient native American ecology.

Lack of proper techniques, paired with a rising climate, threatens some of the world’s surviving fossils. Wildfires in California have destroyed redwoods, some of the largest and oldest living things on the planet. 

Similarly, a rash of fires in Australia have threatened the Wollemi pines, another ancient plant with origins that could go as far back as 200 million years. They have remained rooted in the ground long enough to see the earth itself change shape, hitching a ride atop the continental plate that makes up Australia. 

These trees had never been reached by humans until recently, but even they are not immune to the effects wrought by our species in such a limited time. 

Some argue that these species have had their time and that changing conditions will naturally lead to species loss. 

However, I would point to the millions of years of climate shifts that have already occurred during the plants’ time on earth.. Something must be different for these species, in the 2000s, for them to kick the compost bucket as a species.

To reverse this trend, we must begin by understanding the planet with a continuous history that began long before we got here and will continue long after we disappear. 

Only then, can we truly appreciate the speed and degree to which humans have changed systems that took geologic ages to develop. If more people took time to stop and admire the living and dead fossils around us, I believe the world would gain a newfound urgency not to become the latter.