July 12, 2003
I wake on a foggy morning twelve billion years into the life cycle of the universe. For all I know, today, July 12, is the birthday of the universe and therein lies the cause of my celebration.
The experts, the ones who have what they think is evidence, argue about the exact age of the universe. Some say it is as young as ten billion while others think it is as antiquated as fifteen billion. The consensus is twelve.
I do the usual. Get up, eat some breakfast and walk the dog on the beach. It was about a year ago that Jody was as close to death as a dog can get. But today she is fine thanks to her family’s loyalty, tenacity, vigilance, medicine, healing thoughts and that colour photo of the old Pope placed beside her.
And today the universe itself is fine. Foggy but fine. There may be surfable waves by afternoon and the fog may lift. Or not. But I’m on the optimistic side of things today after several dark days brought on by I know not what.
On the beach, the usual miracles. Sand — one of the great inventions of a twelve-billion-year-old universe. Wet stones, each one a collaborator in the eight a.m. artwork of this place. Seaweed, dollops of it, bright rusty threads of it, pulpy shiny glands of it, fine thin slimy sheets of it. All of it asleep, waiting for high tide after a night of sleeping off a great party on the beach.
A blue toy sand shovel: evidence of sun and children in the recent past. And then this, my anchor for the morning. Someone has carried a large flat stone to the wooden walkway and written on it with purple paint, “Nakita, 2003, Indian Brook.”
It’s been many years now since NASA launched that probe into deep space. Unmanned but full of math and symbols and music and art and a recording of voices, I think. The earth was already filled with silly monuments in arctic and sub-arctic and tropical places, great chunks of granite set down in cities and countrysides to commemorate atrocities and man’s predisposition to killing each other. Something more ambitious was in order — a benign bullet shot into the vast emptiness of this small galaxy. (There are so many and ours is a trifling bit of fluff, or at most, just another face in a vast crowd).
But we do tend to want to leave some evidence that we were here. As Nakita did.
Why the rock is so instructive and pleasing to me I am not sure. But I think it goes like this. I’m fairly sure Nakita is a girl or a young woman — the purple paint, the shape of the well-formed letters. It is an unlikely name for these parts and it reminds of Nikita Khrushchev who has always interested me.
My take on history is that the only reason we are all still alive is that Khrushchev had the good humanitarian sense to back off in 1962 as his USSR naval men were hauling missiles to Cuba. John F. Kennedy threatened all-out nuclear war if he didn’t stop the shipment. The US already had nuclear missiles not far from the Soviet border in Turkey and Khrushchev had hoped to balance things but Kennedy would have none of it.
In those days, I was but a boy and practising for nuclear attacks at school by going into the hallway and kneeling with my head down facing the wall. Teachers would scold you if you poked your head up, admonishing that if you popped your head up, you would get radiation in your eyes and go blind.
I knew enough science even then to realize that, head up or head down, if we were anywhere near a nuclear blast, we were going to be smoke. It wasn’t like we would be able to get up after it was all over, brush off the dust and go home to dinner.
Like everyone else in my school, I thought we were the good guys and thought Kennedy was a pretty sharp president. But it wasn’t until nearly two decades later that I realized Nikita Khrushchev was the one man who saved us from global calamity on that fateful day.
As I write this, I drift off to look at a small plastic globe sitting in my window. The sun fades the colours of nations. Canada is a large northern faint-pink country. Mexico is a pale yellow place and the United States, once the sun has altered a prominent green country to light blue, is the same colour as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The effect is startling. It is as if it is not there. Canada hovers like a great craggy island at the top of the world and Mexico has a northerly coastline. There appears to be an easy navigational path between England and Japan.
Nova Scotia looks like a small narrow appendage dangling to what’s left of the continent.
The seas will reshape all of our native lands any way it damn well wants to when the time comes. My beach is being consumed by the Atlantic and may be gone within my lifetime, so I’m committed to walking it each morning to get my money’s worth out of it before it goes.
I should also point out that Nakita’s rock noted the year, 2003. Not the exact date, just the year. She clearly had some expectation that people will be noticing that rock, saying to themselves, Nakita was here in the year 2003. Imagine that. She will be old and wise and charming by then. I know this to be true.
The fact she is from the small inland community of Indian Brook assures me that she is in fact Mi’kmaq — descended from the first people who lived in Nova Scotia. The Mi’kmaq have been living here for about 12,000 years if we are interpreting the evidence correctly. My own ancestors, the Europeans, have been here less than five hundred years. We are not as good at sharing the wealth of this place as the Mi’kmaq have been.
The beach, Lawrencetown, named for the military governor responsible for the expulsion of the Acadians and atrocities against the Mi’kmaq, was a place where the Mi’kmaq people would migrate to in the summer. It was a place of great bounty — fish and clams and mussels and more. But in the winter, the Mi’kmaq wisely retreated to the inland forests, following waterways north into the interior.
I don’t ever see many Mi’kmaq people on the beach on hot summer days when the thin strip of sand is crowded with pale city people stretched out on towels, looking oiled and bored.
As you may recall, the earth has existed for 4.6 billion years. It took 7.4 billion years before that for the expanding universe to contrive a planet where people would one day invent computers, chewing gum and surfboards. But it was in the schematic from the beginning.
Our spinning sphere was a ball of boiling goo until 3.8 billion years back, at which point some hard surfaces appeared and oceans were in the works. Evidence of life is dated as far back as 3.5 billion years, which, if you think about it, suggests that it came on the scene fairly quickly. This life took the form of blue-green algae not much different from that in the ponds in the salt marsh beyond my garden.
I used to buy the family some fairly expensive supplements of dried blue-green algae that came from a lake in Oregon. It may have done some good and we only quit taking it because it was so darn expensive. This is odd, of course, realizing that it is a form of life that’s been around for 3.5 billion years and such a common commodity in the world. Some people think of blue-green algae as not much more than pond scum. But just because it can’t play chess, it doesn’t mean it is less important than you or me. Far from it.
On the week leading up to this birthday of the universe, this foggy Saturday commemorating that extraordinary explosion that set everything in motion, I gave myself (being an intrinsic part of the universe) a series of presents.
One was a journey to a remote Bay of Fundy stretch of shoreline that I’ll call Crystal Cliffs. Crystal because there is amethyst to be found there. Cliffs because you have to lower yourself down to sea level by an extraordinary series of ropes. My friend Lou went with me, each of us uncertain about finding the right path through the dense spruce forest or if we could hoist ourselves back up the cliffs once we made it down.
Lou is a psychologist by profession and he and I hike to remote places to get away from civilization as much as is humanly possible in this century. I don’t think he shared my enthusiasm for the upcoming birthday of the universe and wasn’t convinced that I knew exactly which day it was. But I tried to explain it was like other shifty holidays: Easter or Christmas, for that matter. Washington’s Birthday, even, was sometimes shifted around by the wily Americans to allow for long weekends wasn’t it?
In order to get to our destination we drove to the Fundy Shore and parked at the very end of the road. The great thing about this shoreline is that here is where two continents collided and pulled apart millions of years ago. What was once the landmass of Gondwana had wandered north and west and smashed right into what was the old version of North America. It was a slow crash by modern standards but monumental in that it shoved rock that was once horizontal into vertical formations. And it brought to the surface quite a bit of unusual rock that was usually found deep below the surface.
Fortunately, it was not the sort of collision where lawyers were involved because there were no people around. Mostly just rocks, who had the run of things in those days.
Gondwana eventually became tired of being jammed up against old North America, grew restless in a geological sort of way and headed off south and east to become, ta da, Africa. However, a fairly large chunk was left over, like a scrap of somebody’s fender stuck to your bumper after a car crash. That fender became much of Nova Scotia, dangling out in the Atlantic shaped like a lobster.
So Lou and I were at the crash site. The trail to the cliffs was not obvious and a local woman pretended she didn’t know the route. This made perfectly good sense because, once we made it to the rope drop, we realized it was a perfect place for the average person to fall several hundred feet onto old Gondwana rocks.
She said, though, we could talk to her uncle, Carl. Carl was stacking firewood in the neatest configuration I had ever seen. It was summer and the need for the wood was a long way off but Carl’s stacking had a kind of geometric precision. I asked about the path to the cliffs and I could tell he was sizing me up.
I had a one-strapped European backpack that had the logo for a French party drink. This did not speak of cliff climbing expertise. I could see the doubt in his face. But he looked at my shoes and then back at his firewood. He took a deep breath and then gazed across his pasture.
“There,” he said. “Walk across the field until you see the path by those blown-down trees. Go to the top of the ridge and veer to the right, then go left if you can find the path going down.”
Lou and I had several debates as to which was the right path or if we were even on a path. We stuck to the basic theory of going up and then down for we knew we had to cross a ridge. We veered at what we thought was a good place to veer and then explored several dead ends until we found a path that led to the ropes.
The ropes were a series of various old fishing ropes tied to trees and roots that were amazingly cemented to the side of this very steep piece of real estate. The footing was loose gravel or crumbly rock. The descent was breathtaking.
Once we dropped to sea level, we had arrived at the proverbial land that time forgot. High rock cliffs to the north, wide stony plain to the south — low tide on the Bay of Fundy. Not a soul in sight. No boats, no houses, nothing. Two boys with rucksacks looking for rocks.
The tides of the Bay of Fundy are legendary in that they drop so far and sweep back in so quickly. The tourism departments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia speak of them as being the “highest tides in the world.” Because Fundy is a funnel, it has an amazing capacity to drain itself quite low and then as the tide comes back in, it compresses a massive amount of water into an ever more narrow space until you get a tidal bore sweeping up the smaller tributaries. In full surge, it is said that the volume of the flow of the water in the Bay of Fundy is equivalent to the “output of all the world’s combined rivers.” How someone figured that out is beyond my comprehension as many things are. But it could draw more tourists if promoted on the Internet, I am sure.
One of my dreams is to surf the front of the tidal bore, muddy as it is, but I’ve tried and failed twice, getting dragged a mile or so until beaching myself on a sandbar (mudbar, really).
Today we had about two hours of low tide before the flow would reverse itself and come washing back in. We had been warned that if we did not retreat up the ropes soon enough after the tide’s turning, we could be in big trouble. If we were a mile or so away, with sheer rock cliffs to our backs, there would be no way out. People had drowned here. Others had been rescued by Sea King helicopters.
I claimed that I wasn’t worried. Lou was more respectful of things neither of us understood, a good tactic for a psychologist hiking with a half-crazed poet blathering on about the age of the universe. Lou wondered out loud exactly where all that water went, when the tide when out.
“It goes back into the sea,” I suggested.
“But we live by the sea on the other side of the province,” he reminded me. “And the tide goes out there too.
“Maybe it goes to Europe,” I suggested.
“Or the other side of the planet.”
“I know it has something to do with the moon,” I offered up.
Lou shrugged. We had not a clue as to where the water went when the tide went out. Between us we had four graduate degrees and not one solid clue about where water went at low tide or why it bothered returning to our shoreline at the appropriate time. It was a dazzling failure of the North American education system and we were both impressed by the poverty of our knowledge.
Not entirely clueless when it came to the age of the universe or the history of the geology at hand, I knew that geologists had been here before. Two codgers named Alger and Jackson had been poking around near here in the 1820s. Jackson, the more poetic of the two, wrote, “The visitor, in addition to the wildness and picturesque beauty of the scene, will find the field so richly stocked with minerals that he will delight to linger on the spot and gather these objects of science.”
I envisioned Lou and me hefting heavy payloads of amethyst — the currently desired gem of the day — up those nearly dependable dangling ropes.
We walked the rocky shoreline for a bit until we came to a likely place to search for rare rocks: a chunk of fallen cliff face. We knew that geodes, agates and even amethyst could be found inside seemingly dull, uninspiring rocks. And there were many dull uninspiring rocks. Lou had a hammer and chisel, which surprised me that he had come so well prepared. I myself was expecting amethyst to jump out at me and command my attention.
My own research had led me to understand that much of the ordinary uninspiring rock was basalt but there was also Triassic red sandstone and shale, even some Triassic limestone. I tossed the word Triassic around quite a bit while poking away at the cliff face with my bare hands, disturbing millennia of the hard earth-building work that had situated the rocks here. The basalt had come from lava; that would be your igneous rock, left over from back when the planet was cooling. Now we were at least getting ourselves back into the past, closer by a breath at least to the origin of the universe.
Sir William Dawson, back in his 1891 volume Acadian Geology, wrote, “The trap formation of Nova Scotia has become somewhat celebrated for the abundance and fineness of the specimens for which it affords.” Trap was another word for basalt. I liked the way Dawson spoke of “abundance and fineness,” words that one would like to apply to every day of one’s life, not just concerning rocks but other pleasures as well.
We wandered off from each other and, from a distance, I listened to the echo of Lou chipping away at the dull rocks looking for gems. I had a small assortment of interesting specimens, none agate, but a geode (a nifty little cave of crystals) nearly as big as a penny and some black dangerous-looking crystal rock that looked like it came from an asteroid.
Sitting on a big boulder eating a sandwich, I saw the tide reverse itself and begin to advance with great rapidity. The amethyst continued to ignore my presence and I hiked back to where Lou was still attempting to bring down a precarious overhang of basalt on his well-educated head.
For our trouble, we had found rocks with names like haematite, gelignite, schist (an old favourite rock name from my youth), dodecahedron magnetite and some prized zeolites that looked like frozen waterfalls of crystal. As the tide advanced, we retreated to the ropes and the rock face for ascent. In truth, my best find of the day was a pinkish white zeolite the size of a beer bottle that I picked up randomly right before heading up the ropes. It was strategically placed dull-side up but, once turned over, had a magnificent appearance.
Though I gloated momentarily over my good luck, Lou brought me down out of my glory by pointing out it was unlike any other rock beneath our feet. Some other rock hound had carried it this far but rejected it as too heavy, too unworthy of lugging it up the several hundred feet to the ridge above.
The climb back up the cliffs was straight out of a Harrison Ford adventure movie. The Tim Horton’s coffee on the way home tasted better than any cup of coffee produced since the Triassic period.
On the road back to Lawrencetown Beach, to home, I reminded Lou that for the first three billion years on earth, life only existed in the oceans. “And probably for good reason,” he said.
“There were no living organisms on land until a mere 400 million years ago,” I stated with self-satisfaction. I wanted to go on but Lou was losing interest so my diatribe became internal. And so the tides kept flowing in and out, day after day. Tides always seem to know what they are doing. As do planets in general and galaxies.
There are, they say, no goals of evolution. Shit happens. Purpose or not. Random consequence or divine plan. What humans are referred to — genus Homo — have been on this planet for only two million years. We are a kind of test case for who knows what. We are not particularly adaptable, the biologists would point out. The cockroach, for example, evolved into its present form 300 million years ago. It can survive almost anywhere on earth on its own without Game boys, Gore-Tex or Spaghettios.
Today, on this warm foggy morning by the sea, I drink in the damp sweet salt air with every pore of my body. I smell the richness of the seawater and the life contained therein. By afternoon there will be waves and I will tap the energy produced by storms hundreds of miles from here as the tide drops a billion gallons of water to go someplace else to an undesignated location.
Nakita’s stone anchors me to the present, which is a thing hard enough to do during any one of the twelve billion years this story has been in progress. At fifty-two years old, I have been part of the narrative for only .0000000043 or .043 billionth of a percentage point of the current universal life span. I suppose that makes me sound like a pretty small player in the scheme of things but, for whatever reasons, I am convinced that I am not without significance.