"But a Watch in the Night"
A Scientific Fable
James C. Rettie
Out beyond our solar system there is a planet called Copernicus. It came into existence some four or five billion years before the birth of our Earth. In due course of time, it became inhabited by a race of intelligent people.
About 750 million years ago the Copernicans had developed the motion picture machine to a point well in advance of the stage that we have reached. Most of the cameras that we now use in motion picture work are geared to take twenty-four pictures per second on a continuous strip of film. When such film is run through a projector, it throws a series of images on the screen, and these change with a rapidity that gives the visual impression of normal movement. If a motion is too swift for the human eye to see it in detail, it can be captured and artificially slowed down by means of the slow-motion camera. This one is geared to take many more shots per second-- ninety-six or even more than that. When the slow-motion film is projected at the normal speed of twenty-four pictures per second, we can see just how the jumping horse goes over a hurdle.
What about motion that is too slow to be seen by the human eye? That problem has been solved by the use of the time-lapse camera. In this one, the shutter is geared to take only one shot per second, or one per minute, or even one per hour--depending upon the kind of movement that is being photographed. When the time lapse film is projected at the normal speed of twenty-four pictures per second, it is possible to see a bean sprout growing up out of the ground. Time-lapse films are useful in the study of many types of motion too slow to be observed by the unaided human eye.
The Copernicans, it seems, had time-lapse cameras some757 million years ago, and they also had super powered telescopes and they made a movie of our earth on the scale of one picture per year. The photography has been in progress during the last 757 million years.
In the near future, a Copernican interstellar expedition will arrive upon our Earth and bring with it a copy of the time-lapse film. Arrangements will be made for showing the entire film in one continuous run. This will begin at midnight of New Year’s Eve and continue day and night without a single stop until midnight of December 31. The rate of projection will be twenty-four pictures per second. Time on the screen will thus seem to move at the rate of 24 years per second; 1,440 years per minute; 86,400 years per hour; approximately 2 million years per day; and 62 million years per month. The normal life span of an individual person will occupy about three seconds. The full period of Earth history that will be unfolded on the screen (some 757 million years) will extend from what the geologists call Pre-Cambrian times up to the present. This will, by no means, cover the full time-span of the Earth’s geological history, but it will be enough to embrace the period since the advent of living organisms.
During the months of January, February and March the picture will be desolate and dreary. The shape of the landmasses and the oceans will bear little or no resemblance to those that we know. The violence of geological erosion will be much in evidence. Rains will pour down on the land and promptly go booming down to the seas. There will be no clear streams anywhere except where the rains fall upon hard rock. Everywhere on the steeper ground the stream channels will be filled with boulders hurled down by rushing waters. Raging torrents and dry stream beds will keep alternating in quick succession. High mountains will seem to melt like so much butter in the sun. The shifting of land into the seas, later to be thrust up as new mountains, will be going on a grand scale.
Early in April there will be some indication of the presence of single-celled living organisms in some of the warmer and sheltered coastal waters. By the end of the month it will be noticed that some of these organisms have become multicellular. A few of them, including the Trilobites, will be encased in hard shells.
Toward the end of May, the first vertebrates will appear, but they will still be aquatic creatures. In June about 60 percent of the land area that we know as North America will be under water. One broad channel will occupy the space where the Rocky Mountains now stand. Great deposits of limestone will be forming under some of the shallower seas. Oil and gas deposits will be in process of formation-also under shallow seas. On land there will still be no sign of vegetation. Erosion will be rampant, tearing loose particles and chunks of rock and grinding them into sand and silt to be spewed out by the streams into bays and estuaries.
About the middle of July, the first land plants will appear and take up the tremendous job of soil building. Slowly, very slowly, the mat of vegetation will spread, always battling for its life against the power of erosion. Almost foot by foot, the plant life will advance, lacing down with its root structures whatever pulverized rock material it can find. Leaves and stems will be giving added protection against the loss of the soil foothold. The increasing vegetation will pave the way for the land animals that will live upon it.
Early in August the seas will be teeming with fish. This will be what geologists call the Devonian period. Some of the races of these fish will be breathing by means of lung tissue instead of through gill tissues. Before the month is over, some of the lung fish will go ashore and take on a crude lizard-like appearance. Here are the first amphibians.
In early September, the insects will put in their appearance. Some will look like huge dragon flies and will have a wingspread of 24 inches. Large portions of the land masses will now be covered with heavy vegetation that will include the primitive spore-propagating trees. Layer upon layer of this plant growth will build up, later to appear as the coal deposits. About the middle of this month, there will be evidence of the first seed-bearing plants and the first reptiles. Heretofore, the land animals will have been amphibians that could reproduce their kind only by depositing a soft egg mass in quiet waters. The reptiles will be shown to be freed from the aquatic bond because they can reproduce by means of a shelled egg in which the embryo and its nurturing liquids are sealed in and thus protected from destructive evaporation. Before September is over, the first dinosaurs will be seen--creatures destined to dominate the animal realm for about 140 million years and then to disappear.
In October there will be a series of mountain uplifts along what is now the eastern coast of the United States. A creature with feathered limbs--half bird and half reptile in appearance--will take itself into the air. Some small and rather unpretentious animals will be seen to bring forth their young in a form that is a miniature replica of the parents and to feed these young on milk secreted by mammary glands in the female parent. The emergence of this mammalian form of animal life will be recognized as one of the great events in geologic time. October will also witness the high water mark of the dinosaurs—creatures ranging in size from that of the modern goat to monsters like Brontosaurus that weighed some 40 tons. Most of them will be placid vegetarians, but a few will be hideous-looking carnivores, like Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Some of the herbivorous dinosaurs will be clad in bony armor for protection against their flesh-eating comrades.
November will bring pictures of sea extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic in space now occupied by the Rocky Mountains. A few of the reptiles will take to the air on bat-like wings. One of these, called Pteranodon, will have a wingspread of 15 feet. There will be a rapid development of the modern flowering plants, modern trees, and modern insects. The dinosaurs will disappear. Toward the end of the month, there will be a tremendous land disturbance in which the Rocky Mountains will rise out of the sea to assume a dominating place in the North American landscape.
As the picture runs on into December, it will show the mammals in command of the animal life. Seed-bearing trees and grasses will have covered most of the land with a heavy mantle of vegetation. Only the areas newly thrust up from the sea will be barren. Most of the streams will be crystal clear. The turmoil of geologic erosion will be confined to localized areas. About December 25 will begin the cutting of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Grinding down through layer after layer of sedimentary strata, this stream will finally expose deposits laid down in Pre-Cambrian times. Thus in the walls of that canyon will appear geological formations dating from recent times to the period when the earth had no living organisms upon it.
The picture will run on through the latter days of December and even up to its final day with still no sign of Mankind. The spectators will become alarmed in the fear that man has somehow been left out. But not so; sometime about noon on December 31 (one million years ago) will appear a stooped, massive creature of human-like proportions. This will be Pithecanthropus, the Java ape man. For tools and weapons he will have nothing but crude stone and wooden clubs. His children will live a precarious existence threatened on the one side by hostile animals and on the other by tremendous climatic changes. Ice sheets--in places 4000 feet thick--will form in the northern part of North America and Eurasia. Four times this glacial ice will push southward to cover half the continents. With each advance the plant and animal life will be swept under or pushed southward. With each recession of the ice, life will struggle to reestablish itself in the wake of the retreating glaciers. The wooly mammoth, the musk ox, and the caribou all will fight to maintain themselves near the ice line. Sometimes they will be caught and put into cold storage--skin, flesh, blood, bones and all.
The picture will run on through supper time with still very little evidence of man’s presence on the Earth. It will be about 11o’clock when Neanderthal man appears. Another half hour will go by before the appearance of Cro-Magnon man living in caves and painting crude animal pictures on the walls of his dwelling. Fifteen minutes more will bring Neolithic man, knowing how to chip stone and thus produce sharp cutting edges for spears and tools. In a few minutes more it will appear that man has domesticated the dog, the sheep and, possibly, other animals. He will then begin the use of milk. He will also learn the arts of basket weaving and the making of pottery and dugout canoes.
The dawn of civilization will not come until about five or six minutes before the end of the picture. The story of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans will unroll during the fourth, the third and the second minute before the end. At 58 minutes and 43 seconds past 11:00 P.M. (just 1 minute and 17 seconds before the end) will come the beginning of the Christian Era. Columbus will discover the new world 20 seconds before the end. The Declaration of Independence will be signed just 7 seconds before the final curtain comes down.
In those few moments of geologic time will be the story of all that has happened since we became a nation. And what a story it will be! A human swarm will sweep across the face of the continent and take it away from the red men. They will change it far more radically than it has ever been changed before in a comparable time. The great virgin forests will be seen going down before ax and fire. The soil, covered for eons by its protective mantle of trees and grasses, will be laid bare to the ravages of water and wind erosion. Streams that had been flowing clear will, again, take up a load of silt and push it toward the seas. Humus and mineral salts, both vital elements of productive soil, will be seen to vanish at a terrifying rate. The railroads and highways and cities that will spring up may divert attention, but they cannot cover up the blight of man’s recent activities. In great sections of Asia, it will be seen that man must utilize cow dung and every scrap of available straw or grass for fuel to cook his food. The forests that once provided wood for this purpose will be gone without a trace. The use of these agricultural wastes for fuel, in place of returning them to the land, will be leading to increasing soil impoverishment. Here and there will be seen a dust storm darkening the landscape over an area a thousand miles across. Man-creatures will be shown counting their wealth in terms of bits of printed paper representing other bits of a scarce but comparatively useless yellow metal that is kept buried in strong vaults. Meanwhile, the soil, the only real wealth that can keep mankind alive on the face of this Earth, is savagely being cut loose from its ancient mooring and washed into the seven seas.
We have just arrived upon this Earth. How long will we stay?
# # # #
James C[ardno] Rettie (1904-1969) was an economist with the United States Forest Service at the time this essay was written in 1948. He later served as economic advisor from 1963 to 1969 to Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall. The essay has appeared in numerous anthologies and books about the skills of writing since it was originally published in The Land, Vol. VII, No. 3, Fall 1948 (New York: Harper & Brothers), including:
The cover story in the March 1951 issue of Coronet Magazine under the title “The Most Amazing Movie Ever Made”; and it was used in A Psychiatrist’s World: The Selected Papers of Karl Menninger, M.D., Edited by Bernard M. Hall, M.D., (New York: The Viking Press, 1959); and it is also in A Writer=s Reader, Third Ed., by Donald Hall and D.L. Emblem, (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1979); and The Bedford Reader, edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy (New York: St. Martin=s Press, 1982); in Purpose and Pattern: A Rhetoric Reader, edited by Elizabeth Penfield, University of New Orleans (Glenview, Ill., Scott Foresman & Co., 1982); in Patterns of Exposition 10 edited by Randall E. Decker with assistance of Robert A Schwegler, 4th Ed. (Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1986; , and
Also: The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Expository Prose, Sixth Ed., Arthur M. Eastman, et al (New York: W.W. Norton & Company); The Riverside Reader, Third Ed., by Joseph F. Trimmer and Maxine Hairston (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990); Prentiss Hall Literature Gold, Paramount Edition, compiled by The Master Teacher Editorial Board (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentiss Hall, 1994); and it is in Of Bunsen Burners, Bones, and Belles Lettres: Classic Essays across the Curriculum by James D. Lester (Chicago: NTC Publishing Group, 1996); and
It is reprinted as the Introduction to The Nature of Alaska: An Introduction to Familiar Plants and Animals and Natural Attractions by James Kavanagh (Blaine, Wash.: Waterford Press, 1997); and 75 Readings Plus, Fourth Ed., by Santi V. Buscemi and Charlotte Smith (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998); and in three "The Nature of . . ." books by James Kavanagh for Arizona, California, and Florida, all having the same title as the one covering the State of Alaska cited above (Guildford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2006.)
If a reader knows of any others, I would appreciate knowing of them. See my Home Page for an e-mail link.
The copyright is held by HarperCollins from whom permission to reprint should be obtained (Permissions Dept., 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.)
Detail added to Note: 09/26/08.
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