Summertime Blues

IMG_20150720_090706_367Mid July, and summer turns hotter and drier. Most plants slow their growth and soon leaves will turn a slightly duller green. But the peak season begins for the thin stalks of bright, light-blue flowers that grow close along the roads and in sun-hardened patches of earth in the angles of intersections. From a moving car, chicory is a tiny galaxy of blue dots and wheels pointed every which way as they hug the road.

Chicory has been pushing its way into civilization for a long time. It originated 40 million years ago when it branched off from the daisies and marigolds in its family. The Egyptians and Romans used it as medicine. Today it remains an effective toxin against parasites in animals. The roasted root substitutes for and is added to coffee in Europe and the U.S. Its dandelion-like leaves make good salad; among its relatives are endive and radicchio.

Each blue flower blooms for only a day or two. The plant lives for two years, flowering only during its second summer and then dying at first frost. Forty million years of fleeting, persistent life.

It’s the scattered blue flowers and their affinity for roadsides and compacted dirt that catch my attention. Chicory likes the warmth of pavement. Ingenious life.

chicory Asteraceae (wikipedia.com)

“Asteracea poster 3” by Alvesgaspar, Tony Wills (10) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

On The Cosmic Calendar, A Date To Remember

Carl Sagan, describing his twelve-month capsule of the history of the cosmos, summarized its lesson this way: “The world is very old, and human beings are very young.”  But a neglected date on the calendar points to a different conclusion about organic life itself.

Sagan included “The Cosmic Calendar” in The Dragons of Eden in 1977. The first voyage to Mars had lifted off two years earlier. NASA, with Sagan’s help, began listening for and sending messages to other intelligent beings who might have been out there. Sagan, while asking readers to appreciate our amazing intelligence, at the same time believed that we were not the only creatures in the universe who were so endowed. The Cosmic Calendar helped him show that because it took eons to produce human civilization, the eons might have led to similar results elsewhere.

On the Calendar, one month represents about 1.1 billion years, one day equals 38 million years, and in one brief second, 438 years fly by. The Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, explodes on January 1. The Milky Way takes shape around March 11 (dates are from the Wikipedia version) and our Sun first shines on September 2, with planets soon after. The first living cells stir on September 21. October features photosynthesis, the gradual oxygenation of the atmosphere, and the persistence of simple bacteria and their cousins. In November, those single cells develop nuclei, complexity, and greater energy, leading to the first multi-celled organisms in early December. From then on, the variety of life emerges swiftly: fish and land plants in mid-month, dinosaurs at Christmas, then birds and flowers, and humans in the last hours of New Year’s Eve.

 

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But this late appearance of humans may distract us from another date. September 21 marks the date for the beginning of organic life itself, only a few “short” weeks (about 700 million years) after the formation of the planets. From that date on—for more than a quarter of the duration of the universe—life has existed on Earth. While humans may be newcomers, living things are not. Our chain of ancestors are long-time participants, old-timers in the cosmos. We humans are fully part of the long cosmic process, not just because our atoms are star-stuff but because our cells have their “months” of cosmic history.

What is new in us, with our nearly-New-Year’s intelligence, is that we are aware of all this. But our living spark is nearly as old as planets.

Shall we celebrate September 21 each year as the “Birthday of Life”?