Photograph by Stefan Dotter / Connected Archives
“The Earth is big. There are huge natural forces that have worked over geological time. But it turns out, when you look carefully at the geological time, you can’t find anything like us.”
We tend to assume that the ground beneath us is static, but when we step outside of our human timescales, we understand that is hardly the case. Even the Earth moves—and I’m not only referring to its axis and axels around the Sun. The continents that hold us together and apart have arranged and rearranged themselves in varying shapes and configurations across epochs. In early geologic time, nearly all of the landmass on this planet was united as one supercontinent known as Pangea, derived from the Greek pangaia meaning all the Earth.
During the Devonian Period, between 300 and 400 million years ago, the Earth’s paleocontinents were on a collision course. It was then that Laurentia (made up mostly of North America) fused with Baltica (Eastern Europe) to form Euramerica. As the Permian Period dawned, between 250 and 300 million years ago, Euramerica joined with Gondwana (South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica) and Angara (Siberia) not long after. From all that chaos, amid a singular ocean called Panthalassa, the crescent-shaped Pangea emerged.
From the perspective of geologic time, this consortium was short-lived. Around 200 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangea began to break up. A trident-shaped fissure fractured South America, North America, and Africa. As magma welled its way up through the fissures, a volcanic rift zone emerged. Volcanoes formed and erupted, ash scattered, and shards of the shattered supercontinent started to rift apart. Oceans opened up between them. Over the following millions of years, our world began to take the shape it does today. And as dramatic as that all sounds, it happened both slowly and in fragments.
It’s possible that this wasn’t the only time the phenomenon of Pangea has occurred; scientists posit that the continents may have come together and broken apart many times as life flourished and faltered atop them. All of this is caused by larger forces than we can perceive. The Earth’s outermost layer is composed of 20 tectonics plates, massive fragments that float freely within magma. Heat and radioactive activity from deeper within the planet pushes these plates and the continents they contain toward and away from each other, contouring our world in the process.
It’s along the borders between these massive swaths of land where the Earth truly comes alive. As tectonic plates collide, due to them being of comparable weight and thickness, neither will rise above or submerge below the other. Massive amounts of pressure causes them to fracture and fold, driving earth upward into mountain ranges that grow as the titans continue to converge over time. If cracks or vents occur and magma is able to rise to the surface, the mountains that form become volcanic. In other cases, the plates will push up against each other in a way that causes the Earth to bend and buckle, forming fold mountains, or break apart into chunks as block mountains. At our boundaries, we find friction, yes, but also new formations.
Earth as we know it was etched over eons. Homo sapiens have only roamed it for 300,000 years. Globalization—the modern socio economic interconnectedness that shapes our world today—has only occurred in the last few hundred years. At times, it feels as if our species has never been so fractured. We draw borders, cast faults, and cause eruptions. At other times, I believe this to be the messy work of us coming back together and learning how to be whole again. Our species is an evolutionary marvel; it’s time we apply our intelligence to forging a new, figurative Pangea.
So I’m interested in the edges, the boundaries where we meet. The ruptures that form our rugged terrains, that give rise to our peaks and valleys. The mountains we all must climb, the way they change us and the wisdom offered by their views. The ground that moves underneath us imperceptibly and the moments when we can feel it shaking us awake. The quiet stillness in which we see that by geologic time our lives are nothing but an inbreath, a pregnant pause, all the Earth whispering: everything must change, and you are part of that change.