Pangea’s expanse, stretching along the equator and encircled by a shallow super ocean, was punctuated by dense and tall forests. The continent’s spindly trees reached up towards the cool, oxygen-rich atmosphere, the sky a deep, celestial blue, sulfate ash from volcanos staining the sunsets orange and lavender. Forests from the shoals of the Panthalassa Ocean to the shores of the Paleo-Tethys Sea, along the spine of the Central Pangean Mountains to the massive peaks of the Appalachians, not yet winnowed down by friction into green rolling hills. Now extinct lepidodendron and sigillaria trees were packed together, the forest floor a lattice-work of exposed root systems, the trunks of these massive plants engirted with bark, branches of ferns widely spread. Among the mangroves scattered along the coasts was a vast ecosystem of creatures, massive arthropods and insects drunk on the oxygenated air who contested with amphibians that were meters long, all shaded in the dark solitude of this primeval arboretum, the air an orchestra of whirring from giant dragonflies, the clicking of gargantuan spiders.
When trees died, collapsed under their own weight, they would pile atop each other, their fibrous wood too sinewy for any bacterium or fungus to digest. Today, a felled stump is marked by the lurid red and corpuscular purple bloom of mushroom transforming wood into a piquant, sludgy hummus, but 300 million years ago it was impossible for dead forests to rot. Brittle timber stacked atop itself, pressed down and ossified, until over the eons it converted into peat and bitumen, anthracite and lignite. Eventually fungi and bacterium would evolve that would break down these remains, but not before these ancient forests were victimized by their own supremacy. Having radiated so much oxygen, and temperatures eventually plummeted, causing mass extinction. What geologists call a “minor” event, of which there have been many in the Earth’s some six billion years. Currently we’re in the midst of the sixth major extinction event – it will be of multitudes greater in damage than the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse.
“Carboniferous,” incidentally, for the most salient element of that epoch, substance of coal and diamonds, allotropic atom of life. Each of the Carboniferous’ subdivisions named after where the cemeteries of those trees would be unearthed; Muscovian, Kasimovian, Mississippian, Pennsylvanian. West Virginia and Wales once kissed, evidence in the veins of black coal underneath the skin of the planet like a cancerous tumor, or maybe graphite scratched across the page. Carbon is, as chemist Primo Levi described it in The Periodic Table, the most narrative element. “I could recount an endless number of stories about carbon atoms that become colors or perfumes in flowers,” writes Levi, “of other which, from tiny algae to small crustaceans to fish, gradually return as carbon dioxide to the waters of the sea, in a perpetual, frightening round-dance of life and death, in which every devourer is immediately devoured.” Today our geologic era is named after ourselves – the Anthropocene. Understandable, but it doesn’t convey the rapaciousness, the hunger, the avarice which drives our frenzied and cannibalistic madness, the depletion of the earth. More appropriate to call our moment “The Devouring.”
As with the long disappeared sigalaria and lepidodendron, carbon imprisoned within their fossilized bodies, exorcized through an ecstasy of burning, foolish men unaware of those hidden specters and their latent revenge. Novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad describes this sacrificial immolation in his essay for the Amy Brady and Tajja Isen anthology The World as We Know It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate, writing that the “empire of capital would not let the dead, ancient animals alone. Through systemized extraction, they were being unearthed to light up and power our cars, motorcycles, and sky-shattering jets, and they were vengeful at us for disturbing our rest.” Any reader of gothic horror knows that ghosts cannot be disturbed, their slumber always finite, even if millions of years. “The dead want to quicken our union with them,” writes Sudbanthad, “so that we may sooner know what it is like to be exhumed for some living being’s expedient use.”
All of these authorsare confronted with the same collective memento mori issue which any conscious being must ask in this hazy dusk. How do we mark all of that which we’ve lost, all of that which we’re in the midst of losing? What purpose does putting one word after another have anymore? Who will survive to read us, to remember us when everything else is gone? A variation of this inquiry must haunt anyone in these days of super hurricanes and massive wildfires, of pandemics and climate refugees. Our apocalypse is coming – has come – in a billion little incidences, of acidified waters and drowned cities, for nobody has ever before experienced the desertification of a planet, the erasure of all civilization. “The tether between what is and what used to be, constantly stretching under the weight of history and progress, will not stretch any more. It will snap,” writes Omar El Akkad.
We see the evidence in that liturgy of small things now mute – in dead birds and silent insects; and the large things now roaring – the derechos and tornadoes, hurricanes and heat-waves. A short brief of individual griefs. Few of us can grapple with the implications of an increase of carbon dioxide in parts per million, other than that it means rising temperatures, rising oceans, rising misfortunes. We can remember stark changes and dark omens within our own lifetimes, with the editors noting that we are in a “time when the majority of us can still remember when things were more stable… We are forced to confront, in strange and sometimes painful ways, how much those places have changed." A harrowing litany – the heat-death of majestic saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert and of Lyme-carrying tick infestation in Cape Cod, of New Hampshire’s White Mountains without snow and Dominica demolished by hurricane.
Give expression to all that has been lost, and all that is yet to be lost. The winters without snow and the endless summer heatwaves, how essayist Gabrielle Bellot describes it as being “as if a star’s brightness in our sky had slowly shifted, night after night, until we came to believe, astronomy notwithstanding, that it had always been that intense.” Seasons remain how I count the rosaries of a year, even as the months are unpredictable, out of sync. “There is so much to mourn that sometimes it’s hard to discern from where my sadness springs, or to what it belongs,” writes Melissa Febos. Autumn on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that bushel of yellow, and orange, and red; stopping at the Sideling Hill farmer’s market for Amish shoefly pie, clouds of respiration visible in dawn’s chill. Now, the trees are a scraggly brown, torrid days stretching into early October. Winter flakes, fat and slow, falling over a December sidewalk and burying it in white, holy silence of blankness, red, orange, and yellow of Christmas light reflecting off the mirrored surface. Five years ago, Christmas was so warm we opened our presents on the porch. Spring was when our magnolia tree would erupt in its haze of purple and white, but recently warm weather has tricked her into awakening too early, only to be stunted by the return of frost. Summer, of saltwater wind and waving arms out of car windows, rhythm of cicada and fireflies, their glow growing dimmer as the heat becomes more uncomfortable, until it can’t be tolerated at all.
“We are to lose so much,” writes El Akkad, “climate change is going to render our past as unrecognizable as our future.” As children they told us we had centuries; later, that there would be decades, recently it feels like years, sometimes like a few months. Through all of that, writing seems pathological. “I have made a monument more lasting than bronze,” the ancient Roman poet Horace said, but what good is print when all the paper is to pulp, a humid and sticky mess in a quiet world after the average temperature has risen more than 8 degrees Fahrenheit and the whole biodome has collapsed? Even a bronze would be meaningless on an empty planet. As the Anthropocene comes to a close, there are three reasons to write – to warn, to preserve, to understand. Warning, it would seem, is pointless. All of those who are responsible are dead or so rich that the heat will touch them last. They already know what they did. Preservation, the recording of myths and poems, stories and songs, is at least redemptive. El Akkad argues that “We have an obligation to document and preserve… these stories we tell ourselves. We have an obligation to do it now.” Visualizing readers on the other side, after Amsterdam, Venice, and New York have been devoured, when the southwest is uninhabitable and the ice caps have all melted, at least staves off total despair. Ultimately though, I write for myself. During the Anthropocene, I write to understand as this devouring happens. I write to mourn as it happens. I write to bear witness, even if only to myself.
“I want to believe that, even if there is no grand meaning for our lives and our planet has a finite lifespan – as do our art and dreams – that art is worth making and love is worth finding,” Bellot writes, and I agree. Writing is sanctified because it’s a ritual of meaning in the happening, and sometimes there is a grace powerful enough that somebody gets consolation from that act, a human reading and hopefully encountering another. Words and narratives matter as much as they ever did, for if they mean everything to an individual it doesn’t matter if they mean nothing to everybody else. “Ten thousand years of living in a steady climate is over. We have returned to the times of mythology, and we need new stories to survive,” writes Meera Subramanian, and I also agree with her. What form these stories will take, how they will be preserved, who shall tell these stories – I don’t know. But the why of them always makes sense. Humans tell stories because we’re story telling creatures. Tautological, yes. Still, meaning endures in memory, so we carry with us those cool autumns and warm springs. If the real bronze has long since melted we can hopefully craft a monument somehow enduring, even if it’s not the original, and we can pray that we have great-grandchildren who are able to imagine it.