I like knowing the age of living things—not the age of the individual organism but of the lineage, of how long a plant or animal has been different from other lineages. The dates give me a glimpse of a Past that, like a god, generates and then consumes everything.
So here are the ages, youngest first, of the plants and animals in my suburban yard. Dates are approximate by millions or tens of millions of years!
The youngest creature in the yard is our dog, an animal that separated from its wolf-like ancestors about 40,000 years ago.
Next is me and my wife. Our species, Homo sapiens, separated from our Homo ancestors about 200,000 years ago. Before that, our genus, Homo, split off from the genus that chimps belong to about 7 million years ago. All our ancestors in our genus have died off and we are the only member left, a strange isolation. We are probably the only species in the yard in that situation.
The youngest plant is the grass, appearing about 40 million years ago among plants that adapted to a warming climate.
There’s a big oak tree in the yard. Although trees in general have been around for much longer, the oak was part of the spread of flowering plants, at very roughly 70 million years.
There’s a holly tree. The several hundred species of holly emerged about 80 million years ago.
Other flowering plants and trees come next. Their ancestors began diverging from plants without flowers around 240 mya, they were blooming 160 mya, and they became widespread and then dominant among plants during the 100 million years after that.
Insects originated about 600 million years ago, but the modern insects in the yard—flies, butterflies, wasps, bees, ants— co-evolved along with the flowering plants from 146 to 66 mya.
The birds are thought to have evolved from certain dinosaurs that grew feathers, about 180 million years ago.
The pine trees and cedars around the house are among the conifers that date back 300 million years when early trees began to live away from the water. They reproduce through exposed seeds (on pine cones) and pollen. Protected seeds, enclosed in nuts and fruits, came after.
Two other back-yard inhabitants go back that far: Ferns, not so different 350 million years ago, with their tiny, single-cell spores, another predecessor of the modern seed. And spiders, spinning their silk about 300 million years ago.
I realize as I finish writing this that hunting through Wikipedia for these dates has muddled my intentions somewhat. The “birth” of these species was more process than event, a long interweaving with their early kin. Constant, slow transition. The age of a rose depends on whether it’s viewed as a rose or a seed-bearing plant or a land plant.
Still, I savor majestic history here, the story of life.