a fresh breath of poison, or, the oxygen holocaust

April 21, 2009

“Oh, you mean the oxygen holocaust,” he said, almost glibly, glad for the occasion for a startling phrase, as he rested his fiddle and elaborated. Doug was sitting just in front of our new pellet stove, its red flame and hot air bathing his back. I love high school biology teachers, especially those that also play old-time music. Big picture people– who know about time. Really big picture, old picture.

Between tunes I had asked him about sex, about when it had appeared on the planet, and one thing led to another and pretty soon we had tumbled back to the first billion years of Earth’s existence. Of course it wasn’t called Earth back then, but it was already teeming with life, uncounted zillions of tiny microbes bonding with uncounted jillions of nucleic acids, proteins that were forming in the churning hot seas (though of course they weren’t called microbes or acids, or proteins back then…).

For hundreds of millions of years (imagine that) these little cells were splitting and gobbling/cobbling protein chains, splitting and gobbling, splitting and cobbling, until one cobbled together a new molecular chain that reacted to sunlight and was able to create its own energy inside its cell. A new process, a new kind of microbe that had an easier go of it, didn’t have to work as hard as his/her (whoops, no sex yet) its grandparents, it could just laze around in the sun and sea and produce its own food, incidentally breaking apart water molecules and farting a terrible poison into the air.

It would take more hundreds of millions of years (microbial farts are very tiny) but eventually these newfangled microbes would fill both the ocean and the air with this toxic gas, killing off most of themselves as well as most of their non-photosynthetic cousins. The first life crisis, the first mass extinction, though some did survive, and still exist, living in sulfur springs, crowding around hot steam vents beneath the sea, in what we would call hostile environs, what they would call home sweet home. Some even burrowed into the more complex creatures that came later, living in their gills, their gut. Here’s an interesting fact from a biology textbook: there are more microbes living in one human mouth than the total number of human beings that have ever drawn breath.

It wasn’t until 1777, a couple billion years later, that that poison gas got named — oxygen – by the French chemist Lavoisier, but by that time many extinctions had occurred, many “holocausts,”and organisms had evolved chemical processes to protect themselves from the highly reactive, explosive, corrosive gas. Some organisms even developed ways to exploit oxygen’s qualities and learned to harness its power to actually fuel their own cellular life processes. Nowadays we think of oxygen as necessary for life, but early in Earth’s history it almost destroyed all life.

Lavoisier used oxy in his new word because its root meant ‘sharp’ the same root gives acid and acute. Gen is related to generate. Oxygen basically means ‘acid-generating’ since it is the gas that causes so much corrosion, oxidizing, rust. (Oxymoron is an interesting example of itself, meaning ‘sharp-dull’.)

Holocaust is an older term, from at least the Middle Ages, meaning literally ‘entire-burnt’, ‘whole-caust’, as in caustic, totally consumed, first used to describe a sacrifice to a god, an animal burnt to uselessness on an altar, later it came to mean a great fire that destroys vast numbers of people, often one group of European Christians destroying another group of Christians and, more often, European Christians destroying Jewish communities, by some twisted theology believing that killing the people who produced Jesus was an act of service to their god.

Since Hitler it has become a deeply charged term, capitalized and controversial, since its core meaning comes from pagan and Christian sources and revolves around sacrifice and the divine, yet it has been assigned to the genocide of Jews and the worst excesses of European Christian/Pagan Nationalism. In response to that awkward contradiction Jews increasingly use the word Shoah, a Hebrew term that translates as catastrophe (from the Greek, meaning down-stroke, struck-down).

We picked up our instruments to play again, the oxygen sucking pellet stove blasting heat, our lungs breathing in time, our oxygenated blood feeding our finger muscles and ears and neurons, we the descendants of survivors of one mass extinction after another, survivors of holocausts, adapters and perpetrators, living in a new time of crisis, of new and larger scale and faster farting, the filling of the air with carbon. Ten million years from now, a hundred million, will our descendants/replacements take a break between tunes and speak of a carbon holocaust?

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