Billions of years ago, at a place
whose traces have since been churned into the restless Earth, the motor of life
first turned over. Chemical shards built into chunks of RNA and then into the rudiments
of a working cell. From a simple beginning Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful
and wonderful” have evolved to carpet the planet.
An old man and his grandson regard
the scene. Their starry silhouette is a reminder that we are all stardust, our generations
of atoms cycled through cosmic cauldrons. The Moon was our first guide to tracking
deep time, the word itself from a Greek root meaning to measure. Its cratered surface
is a mirror of the Earth’s violent history and the random impacts that disrupt evolution.
Yet it also stabilizes the Earth’s orbit, making the planet more convivial to biology.
More recently we have miniaturized our timekeeping, using vibrations of atoms and
the precise shimmering of light waves and the radioactive decay of massive atoms—the
clock in the rock. Below, the book of life is laid out like crumpled pages in the
strata below our feet. The story of evolution on Earth is read from slowly mutating
base pairs of DNA, but it degrades with time like paper turning to dust. Reanimating
a dinosaur from the blood sucked by an insect, subsequently trapped in amber, would
be like trying to reconstruct a library from a few scattered book pages.
We are the universe and the universe
is us. Water and carbon are leitmotifs in this story. Water is the placental fluid,
the universal solvent, carried onto land when animals left the sea. Carbon is the
universal building block. Its delicate forms are etched on glass. The specimen jar
is an allusion to Miller and Urey and famous “life in a bottle” experiments, which
recreated the first steps from simple molecules to amino acids. Within the jar,
carbon is mixed with silica in a layer of mud, an allusion to clay sheets as templates
for the first replicator—the story of the Golem. The ash is combustion, the energy
released in life and death. Carbon cycles in and out of the biosphere every million
years or so, and has done so thousands of times since life began. A crystal is carbon
formed under enormous pressure. The chip of zircon that results is the oldest thing
on Earth. In our most thoughtful moments we can see heaven in a grain of sand.
About the Artist
Heather Green is a graduate student in the College of Fine Arts at the University
of Arizona and a second generation Tucsonan. Her current work is informed by her
lifelong relationship with the headland of La Cholla near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico,
a passion for old science books, and her love of the natural world. She has designed
exhibits about sustainable fisheries and materials for conservation initiatives,
and is currently developing a virtual museum about La Cholla.