The above photo is, of course, an image of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, an extrusive volcanic area of great natural beauty. The processes and substances that form these basalt columns seem very far removed from the processes we would associate with life. However, the question I pose is that of the degree to which we, living organisms, are really that separate from the Earth.
Firstly let us define life and earth, probably a more difficult task that you’d first imagine. A biologist would deem them biotic and abiotic - two polar opposites. In simpler terms, one is living and one is not. This seems pretty logical at a first glance, but when you get into the knitty gritty of it there are one system, or at least two very closely linked ones.
If you think about it at an elemental level, everything is made up of the same stuff -atoms. Of course there is a infinite variety of combinations, shapes and sizes these molecules form, but fundamentally it’s all electrons and protons and neutrons (and even smaller stuff if you’re an adamant physicist). All these elements came from the same place too, stars - though I won’t go into that as I’m no astrophysicist. But I know that this is over simplifying it way too much, obviously in living organisms these molecules act as cells where as in earth they more or less clump together in, often geometric and interesting, but nonetheless lifeless shapes.
Maybe then, if we look at it from a geological perspective where time passes in eons rather than seconds. As any good geographer knows, sedimentary rock is largely composed of dead animals and plants, and soil is nutrient rich thanks to various decomposition processes. In fact, all kinds of rock and precious gems stem from the metamorphosis of sedimentary rocks under the extreme heat and pressure within the earth. These processes transform a dead fish into a diamond, or some old seaweed into marble used for an elaborate carving. In a similar fashion, nutrients in the soil become part of a newly grown plant, which might then becomes part of an animal. Of course when I say these things become each other, on a molecular level they do but on a more observable level it isn’t quite the same.
Although no one is quite sure about it, it is theorised that the first lifeforms on earth came from microscopic bits (and well I say microscopic I mean seriously like atoms) of the earth’s crust, floating around in, as Dawkins calls it ‘the primordial soup’. The story of how these bits became complex organisms like us, or that tree, is that of evolution, but of course that is another topic entirely.
Finally, I hope that your dignity as a higher life form has not been insulted by my insinuating that you are no more than, well, a rock, crumb, speck or dust. I think it’s really pretty cool and a bit of a crazy concept to get your head round. To quote Tim Flannery (whose excellent book gave me the inspiration for this post) “Indeed, we are naught but earth: ashes to ashes, dust to dust”