I recently had the good fortune to travel to several of our magnificent national parks on the west coast. I was particularly struck by my time in Death Valley. Although I was visiting during the most recent government shutdown, we were able access and experience most of the park, mainly due to the generosity of the Death Valley Natural History Association who funded the salaries of several park rangers and kept the visitor center open. Additionally, many residents, workers and visitors also pitched in to pick up trash, clean bathrooms and keep things up and running. Time and money were taken from their own lives and pockets and given over to the common good. These selfless actions were as inspiring as the landscape.
Today, I am once again back home sitting at my desk in Connecticut. Strewn amongst the papers, books, reading glasses, pens and one miniature rubber chicken, sit two rocks that contain trilobite fossils. The clutter on my desk ebbs and flows, but the trilobites are constants. I find them to be awe inspiring and incredibly humbling just like the landscape of Death Valley, mainly because both offer glimpses into the long, tumultuous and mostly human-free history of our planet.
It is believed that Death Valley’s oldest rocks formed at least 1.7 billion years ago when the continents, as we know them today, did not yet exist. But amazingly, the clashing of the tectonic plates that was occurring along with millions of years of erosional action have left behind an unbelievable geological record throughout the park. The Black Mountains and the vivid, rainbow-hued soils that can be found in the Artist’s Palette area are evidence of volcanic activity in the Tertiary Period (2 - 65 million years ago). The dramatic folding and fracturing that is visible on the drive to Dante’s View occurred in the Mesozoic Era (65- 251 million years ago). But it is the limestones and sandstones that can be found in the Funeral and Panamint Mountains that are most closely associated with the trilobites on my desk. These ancient layers formed in the Paleozoic Era (251- 542 million years ago) indicate that this area was once the site of a warm, shallow sea. This is the exact type of environment that trilobites once flourished in.
Trilobites, which are classified as arthropods. are easily recognized by their three-lobed, three-segmented forms. They lived exclusively lived in the Paleozoic Era in marine environments across the globe. It is believed that they became extinct at the end of the Paleozoic primarily due to the dramatic drop that occurred with the world’s sea level. Standing on the dry, fractured salt pan of Death Valley it was hard to believe that trilobites and other sea creatures were once swimming there. It is also sobering to think about the fact that they also lived in the northeast, which millions of years ago was located south of the equator and was completely covered in water!
Death Valley is not only a vivid example of how our planet has shifted and moved in the past, but also of how it is still moving and shifting. Every year, sand dunes grow, mountains erode and tectonic plates still grind along the fault lines. Trilobites successfully survived many of these same shifts for almost 250 million years until the changes became too drastic. As their warm seas became shallower and then ultimately disappeared, so did they. New eras, epochs and species would continue emerge and evolve including, rather recently, humans. Although geologic upheavals continue and often endanger our existence to some extent, it is most likely that it will be our own actions, or should I say inactions, that may threaten our existence the most. The trilobites demise was tied to dramatically lowering sea levels. Will humanity’s demise be the inverse? Many people believe that in this epoch of the Anthropocene, if we are to avoid the impacts of rising sea levels and more extinctions, including possibly our own, we must quickly take dramatic and decisive action. The question is, can we do it?
Until recently, I doubted it. But now I have a new ambassador of hope in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Representative Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, along with Representative Ed Markey, D-MA, brought forth a resolution to the House of Representatives yesterday that outlines a framework for a Green New Deal. This idea is not a new one, in fact it was first discussed in 2003 at an environmental conference and then again in 2007 by the journalist Thomas Friedman. Although these earlier calls did not propel us as a country into action, I think this time something more than just the tectonic plates may be shifting. Representative Ocasio-Cortez is an intelligent and articulate person of integrity. She is leading a chorus of many new, young and impassioned voices that truly want to work towards a more sustainable world. I sincerely hope that they will be joined by both young and old as well as Democrats, Republicans and everyone in between in support of adopting this new resolution and in enacting a new and comprehensive Green New Deal. To see the actual resolution that was presented yesterday, click this link to NPR. We can't stop the continents from moving, but there are many things that we can do as was seen by the actions of all those wonderful folks in Death Valley during the government shutdown. We can do this!