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3:AM in Lockdown 68: Russell Persson

The Giant Sloth of North America
By Russell Persson.

Looking back as upon the stretches of tiles who in surface become our maps the ones skipped our lost or never laid ashlar. Filling in these pauses with the measurements of others — books nearby and raw footage of space and seas and some of it untrue. The place our unquiet eye leads us. Or bored or somewise unsated we take a few slow steps and decide to learn about geologic time and how the moon came to be.

On geologic time there were the periods of heavy bombardment. Millions of asteroids and debris impacting earth which at the time had not yet cooled and was itself a ball of molten minerals. There is also the giant impact hypothesis. Something planetish the size of Mars hits earth head on. Some believe there was an ocean of magma. What would become the moon spun off from this collision and became debris that orbited earth and over centuries coalesced. There is today no consensus on the details.

On extinction events apart from what this season visits us we sift a full catalog. Permian-Triassic or the Great Dying brought about it’s possible in solo or in a clutch of pulses some drawn in oceanic methane yet some hold to account the Siberian Traps. Eighty three percent of all genera extinct and this was the end of the Paleozoic Era. Two hundred million years later an asteroid eight miles wide impacted earth near what is now the Yucatan and this is the theory of Alvarez. Almost eighty percent of all plant and animal life erased. The Mesozoic Era came to an end and teleost fish with it, so many of them sequential hermaphrodites.

The giant sloth and the camels of America. Giant armadillos weighing two tons each and American horses, mammoths, oversized cave lions and rodents the size of bears. The giant sloth reaching a height of twenty feet and weighing eight tons. These all exterminated over the course of about a thousand years after evolving and thriving on the continents of the present-day Americas for thirty million years.

Crossing from Siberia to Alaska and south past melting glaciers into North and then South America. The Holocene. An interglacial period of the Cenozoic. This is the original migration of humans from Africa to Asia to North America. Making many of ourselves. Moving on to settle in continual moving. Gathering and killing what was nearby until that too was gone. Continuing East to the wetlands of Alabama and south to the deserts of Central and South America, the jungles of Central and South America. Here in our blink.

Over the course of fifty million years of mutation and selection brought about the horse. The horse was then killed off in one millennia. On the arrival of humans, homo sapiens. On this the fossil record is not ambiguous.

Columbus and his boats who on false math augured into an unknown continent. He called them Indians even so and so began the first of four exterminations of the inhabitants of North and South America. Violence and disease against which there was no natural immunity.

India, once an island continent, moving inches a year toward Asia and causing on its arrival the upheaval of the Himalayas.

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Two hours of an afternoon on the front porch. There is a breeze. Three tall sycamore trees near the house and growing through the railing of the porch is a honeysuckle vine and climbing up the front porch column is a Cecile Brunner rose bush that has started to bud. On each new rose bud are twelve or twenty aphids about the same shade of light green as the buds. The blind dog this afternoon moves from one spot of sun to a spot of shade and back again every ten minutes or so. There is often an afternoon breeze here. The wind chimes at the far end of the porch are almost too loud this afternoon. Three birds are on the lawn eating dandelion seeds. Four birds, sparrows maybe.

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Australia, unconnected to any other continent, left to its own millions of years of disparate evolution. Mega fauna, unlike any other on the planet, killed off to not return coinciding with the arrival of Asiatic homo sapien. And so the homo sapien — a sentient plague, a cloud, the summary of five hundred million years of vertebrate radiation.

The measurements of others. Two hundred and forty thousand miles from earth to the moon. At an average speed of ten thousand miles an hour a ship can arrive in near twenty four hours. Three men. Weightless. Hours earlier on land in Florida.

After any period of even general research into the history of mankind it becomes clear that our earth is under no pact to let us in on why we exist at all.

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There was a time when time began more recently. Before the Enlightenment, when sacred time led us to believe the beginning of our history was in the Garden of Eden. This was later revised to Armenia, where it was believed Noah and his boat came to rest after the flood. And floods were understood to be the cataclysmic events that marked the primary epochs of human history. If there was a flood and this flood killed off all mankind, including any written record of their existence, then this new postdiluvian world must be the true origin of civilization. There was a time when it was believed the earth was about six thousand years old. Calculations were made by biblical scholars who looked deeply into the passages of the old testament to determine how many years had passed since the creation of the earth. It was not until the Enlightenment when it was proposed that the earth was much older than previously imagined. Based on calculations of the cooling of molten metals, Kelvin proposed that earth was roughly a hundred million years old. This number also lent credence to the theories of Darwin and Lamarck, giving the once unfathomable spans of time required by these theories the millions of years to play out.

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In fifth grade, when I was ten years old, for extra credit I baked a mixture of flour and water in the oven after putting it into a baking tray and pressing grooves in it with my finger. When it was cooked I painted in those grooves with blue paint to look like irrigation canals and next to those irrigation canals I painted green lines to indicate the food crops being nourished by the water diverted there. This was the cradle of civilization. Sumer. Mesopotamia. The Fertile Crescent. Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Where civilization began, or so. There was no mention of African humans or how at all humanity appeared in Sumer. Looking back it seems even then, when I was ten, there was a kind of sacred or mystical quality to the cradle of civilization. Echos of bible study must have filled in the cracks for what was missing in the narrative I received. But none of us ever mentioned that out loud and our teachers never said as much. Men with robes, camels, walking across vast landscapes of sand and dunes. This must be where the bible left off and where our school books picked up the story. In Sumer, with men pressing small shapes into clay tablets and diverting water from rivers off to where the crops were grown. It is believed, from the results of the most sophisticated scientific methods of dating potsherds and human remains, that Sumer was first settled about seven thousand years ago. This cradle of civilization.

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The parietal art inside the Grotte Chauvet is estimated to be about thirty thousand years old. Shark teeth and ancient mollusks and trilobites have been discovered on mountaintops. Potsherds. Lithics. Debitage. What these are are gussied-up words for garbage. Coprolite is the word for prehistoric turd. There is a reason why midden heaps are so important. The archeologist carefully brushes away the dirt to uncover one more piece of broken pottery, one more obsidian chip left behind from the building of an arrowhead, tiny bones of what was eaten, thousands of shells carefully separated and examined for clues on how they might have been used for something at all other than nothing and charcoal tells the story of what fuels cooked the flesh of what was run off cliffs to death. The bones of infants decorated by intricate costume jewelry and the crushed skulls of scoliotic elders. The story of a people and their deeds sung through the vibrant record of garbage. What’s cast off defines us. What rots becomes our message. What remains after we’ve consumed all there is to consume within our practical reach, an unimaginable shelf of trash that sings the odd story of a typical human. So we continue, and we bury our brightest stories for them only to be misread by the next.

First posted: Sunday, May 31st, 2020.

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