My Million-Year-Old Back Yard

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.

Back yardThe first squirrel fossil dates from 36 mya. Squirrels are part of a huge group of rodents with big, continually growing teeth. The chipmunks are in the same category.

An oak tree dominates 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 flowerless plants 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 carried feathers for warmth, 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. Conifers reproduce through exposed seeds (on pine cones) and pollen. Protected seeds, enclosed in nuts and fruits, came later.

Two other back-yard inhabitants go back as far as the conifers: 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’m realizing, as I finish hunting through Wikipedia for these dates, that my intentions have become a little muddled. The “birth” of these species was more process than event, a long interweaving with their early kin. The age of a rose depends on whether you look at it as a rose or a seed-bearing plant or a land plant.

Still, I savor the majestic history here, the story of life.

Hindus Seek Detachment. Have Plants and Animals Already Found It?

Here in suburban New Jersey, next to a glassy corporate office, sits an almost-new Hindu temple, its white, ornate façade surrounded by parking lots. I had never stepped inside it until the other day when I removed my shoes and walked into the large room. I expected chairs or benches but found instead a bright, marble, white and gold room with altars placed throughout. Worshippers of all ages strolled from one garlanded deity to the next, sometimes circling them several times, or standing before them with hands together, eyes closed, heads lowered.


Is the detachment and steady-mindedness of the Hindu temple…

Along the walls was a frieze of quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the god Krishna and a warrior about to enter battle, Arjuna. I was drawn the most to Krishna’s words about detachment:

He who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving…is dear to Me.

He by whom the world is not agitated and who cannot be agitated by the world, who is freed from joy, envy, fear, and anxiety—is dear to Me….

He who neither rejoices, nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, renouncing good and evil, full of devotion, is dear to Me.

He who is the same to foe and friend, and also in honor and dishonor, who is the same in cold and heat and in pleasure and pain, who is free from attachment, to whom censure and praise are equal, who is silent, content with anything, homeless, steady-minded, full of devotion—that man is dear to Me.

I left the temple soothed by the place and the people and especially by the words, by the invocation of a calm that does not take sides or react or pursue.

In my backyard that afternoon, I wondered whether nature sends us the same message of the value of steadfastness that Krishna proclaims. As science has unraveled the survival strategies of plants and animals, has it uncovered—in any way, in any form—a version of the Hindu-like indifference to circumstance, a practice of detachment? Can the non-theist find in other living things a model of that calm centeredness that rises above dualities?


…present also in plants and animals? (

I’m not sure. I’m watching the life in the backyard. It’s a calm place but even in winter the creatures there are hardly without their “attachments.” The birds are busy moving around looking for food and for each other, always high-energy and nervous. The trees and bushes and grass seem to respond with patience to snow and rain, cold and heat alike. But maybe they are simply enduring their own cravings and fears at their own slow speed.

On the face of it, nature seems to demonstrate just the opposite of Krishna’s ideal: plants and animals don’t hold steady at all in the face of hostile or friendly events. They die sooner when attacked by drought or disease and they multiply like crazy when the environment is kind. From one perspective, they are no lesson at all in being “content with anything.” They are different in good circumstances and bad, very different. What would Krishna say?

On the other hand, from a different point of view, plants and animals may indeed meet Krishna’s ideal of benign detachment, at least part way. They go about following their genetic program without any individual superstructures of plans, preferences, or judgments. Except for humans and some animals, they may struggle and even kill but they don’t hate, they may shy from danger but they aren’t riven by anxiety, they may react differently to cold and heat but only at the basic physiological level. Perhaps looking out in the backyard I am seeing an imperfect but good lesson in how beings can do the work of staying alive and yet remain undistracted and unconfused.

Can the non-theist find a model of detachment in other living things? Partly, yes.

Dinosaurs in the Backyard


Utahraptor, up to 7 feet long, with early feathers

Not dinosaurs exactly, but their descendants for sure. Look outside for the creatures that lay eggs and walk semi-upright on two legs, with a stiffened tail. Imagine that that robin is many times larger, without feathers but with scales, with a large jaw instead of a beak, with long forearms instead of full wings, and you have a creature out of Jurassic Park. A topic of speculation since Darwin’s time, the descent of birds from dinosaurs has been confirmed by recent fossil discoveries. Natural selection works in wondrous ways.

How did the dinosaurs of 200 million years ago get feathers? The feathers first appeared because they helped a dinosaur stay warm. But they had a second, accidental benefit. When a dinosaur was running, its feathers provided balance and lift. Eventually, according to the most widely accepted theory, lift became lift-off. (The familiar Pterodactyl flew on wings of skin and membrane; it was neither bird nor, officially, a dinosaur.)


From dinosaur to bird. Archaeopteryx lived 150 million years ago and was about the size of a crow. It had both a dinosaur’s sharp teeth and a bird’s feathers. This 1880 photo shows feathers that were later removed. (wikipedia)

And where were our own ancestors, the mammals, while all this was going on? Early mammals were small and stayed  out of the way of the meat-eating reptiles. They bore young that had grown inside the mother instead of inside eggs, reptilian style.

early mammal

Juramala, a mouse-size mammal living 160 millions year ago. Like humans, it had a neo-cortex and nourished its young until birth through an umbilical chord. (

And they carried a brain more complex than the old “lizard brain.” The bigger brain, with its neo-cortex, improved their sensory perception and movement. We also use it to think and imagine.

Feathers and wings, and the new brain—all of them selected for survival and adapted for soaring.