Life Beneath the Rock

Mothers always knew, didn’t they? “Don’t eat the mud”, they kept telling us -well, mine did anyway. “Because dirt is dirty,” my mother would answer my puzzled expression before I was old enough to use words. Then she would perform a theatrical eye-roll -as if everybody knew that. She was just doing her job, I guess. But apart from tautologizing, she seemed unable to parse her firmly held belief any further. She was like that with religion, too: “Some things, just are,” she used to tell me, with a Pauline face. So, there you have it, virtually ex cathedra: sufficient unto the ground is the evil thereof.

And, of course, with the sure and certain logic of a child, I was able to extrapolate her wisdom beyond its intended confines: I figured from a very early age that the further down you dug, the dirtier and the more unhealthy it got; I realized you probably shouldn’t go there -that would explain Hell, after all. And it’s ironic that even the Indo-European roots of the word hell mean to cover, or to hide; we should have suspected all along that there was something hiding down there.

But later on, when I had slipped unnoticed through my uneventful youth and suppressed any thoughts of a retributive afterlife, I merely pretended to subscribe to her world of germs squirming just under my feet. And when pressed, in her later days, to swear that I had not eaten any more dirt, I would only admit that I was no longer tempted to feel under rocks and anyway, I washed a lot.

And yet, despite my reservations, I had to admit that she was on to something. I mean, where do germs come from anyway? There has to be a place where they hang out when they aren’t able to find organisms to infect. Like hibernating bears, they have to have a plan B. Before humans came along, I imagine life was pretty tough for germs; in those prehensile days they were only microorganisms, or whatever -you’re not a real germ until you infect a person, because I think animals call them something else…

Anyway, can you imagine living off methane, or whatever? I mean, how could they stand each other? It’d be like being trapped in a room with septic tank employees, although I suppose you can get used to anything. But you can see why some of them might have wanted to move.

That’s where my mother comes in, I think. Who knew that she would turn out to be so prescient? Anyway, I’m glad I don’t hang out with the old mud pie crowd anymore; an article a while ago in the Guardian newspaper by Jonathan Watts puts paid to any lingering doubts about her early augury:

‘The Earth is far more alive than previously thought, according to “deep life” studies that reveal a rich ecosystem beneath our feet that is almost twice the size of all the world’s oceans. Despite extreme heat, no light, minuscule nutrition and intense pressure, scientists estimate this subterranean biosphere is teeming with between 15bn and 23bn tonnes of micro-organisms, hundreds of times the combined weight of every human on the planet… Samples were taken from boreholes more than 5km deep and undersea drilling sites to construct models of the ecosystem and estimate how much living carbon it might contain. The results suggest 70% of Earth’s bacteria and archaea exist in the subsurface… [S]ome organisms can exist for millennia. They are metabolically active but in stasis… Rick Colwell, a microbial ecologist at Oregon State University, said the timescales of subterranean life were completely different. Some microorganisms have been alive for thousands of years, barely moving except with shifts in the tectonic plates, earthquakes or eruptions. “We humans orientate towards relatively rapid processes – diurnal cycles based on the sun, or lunar cycles based on the moon – but these organisms are part of slow, persistent cycles on geological timescales.”’

Of course, ‘Mysteries remain, including whether life colonises up from the depths or down from the surface, how the microbes interact with chemical processes, and what this might reveal about how life and the Earth co-evolved.’

Despite the advance warning from Hamlet -and my mother- that we might find more in heaven and earth than we expect, I still find this exciting. Especially the part about some of these creatures staying alive for millennia. Would they be able to cope with all the changes they’d find up here, or would they find cell phones more confusing than helpful? And, after their Spartan existence, would they simply think of surface life as a holiday cottage at the beach? Once the pressure was off, would absolutely everything up here just be a 24/7 all-you-can-eat strip mall restaurant? Let’s face it, anything raised on a diet of highly compressed rocks would probably just laugh at soap. I think we have to be very careful who we invite to dinner.

Mind you, I suppose it would take them a bit of time to adjust, eh? Most of them might not even survive, but think of the tricks the few successful ones could play. And we’d have to rethink our policies. I mean should we try to find ways to identify any good guys in the group so we can cordon off the rest in the mountains, or should we just call them all germs and invent some expensive new antibiotics for them to adapt to?

In a way, it’s rather Sartrean, don’t you think? Do you remember his play No Exit (Huis Clos)? There were three characters all locked in the same room -all different, all damned for different reasons, and all three annoying one another but unable to leave each other alone… for eternity.  Okay, it’s a stretch, but a real-time melange would be no less existential.

Of course, if I ever came home with some on my face, my mother would just sigh and stare at me, arms akimbo. Out would come the hot water, the scratchy facecloth and the dishwashing detergent -she was always convinced it was stronger than soap- and she would scrub my face until it was red. “You have to get right down into the pores,” she would say in defense of her seemingly unmotherly sandpapering. I’m pretty sure nothing could withstand that.

Like I say, mothers know stuff that science is only beginning to unravel.


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