Gaia and the First Plant

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Quote of the Day

Bare rock ... still ... bare rock.
And then ... <gasp> ... Green!
    —SolSeed, "The Opening Words of the Viriditas de Terra Sabbath Ritual"

Contemplation for the Day

Let us imagine

You are walking across a barren red landscape. You space suit resists your every step. The cold leaks through at the joints, making your shoulders, elbows, knees and hips ache. Your feet actually hurt despite your thick heated boots. Beside you, your elephant is walking in his gigantic space suit equally tired.

You reach the broken down autonomous hopper truck with its precious load of water ice ore. You work quickly because you don't want to have to return to your rover for more air before the job is done. The front left wheel is cracked. Hit one too many boulders. Your elephant pulls the pneumatic jack from its storage locker on the side of the truck and places it below the truck. You position it carefully under the jack point on the truck's body and your elephant flips the switch to start it lifting. You carefully angle it so that as it touches the underside of the truck it connects to the right point and then watch as the broken wheel lifts off the ground. As soon as it is clear of the ground you switch off the jack.

There is distant popping sound and then a hiss. You look at the jack and see the air blowing from a crack in its side, carbon dioxide crystals forming in its freezing blast. The pop and hiss sounded distant in the thin air, but they were right there. The jack drops and the truck crashes down onto the red regolith smashing the wheel further. The truck tilts toward you and for a second you fear it will topple onto you.

Not quite that bad. Instead a shower of rock hard ice blocks slides off the top. One slams into your back. You hear another pop and hiss but this time it sounds much closer. Your heads up shows your air supply dropping fast.

You and your elephant race back to the rover and the safety of the airlock. You make it in time, but it is a close thing. Stripping off your space suit, once inside, you see the damaged regulator on your air tank. You check the parts log. You don't have any regulators. You must go back base to get one before you can continue. A day wasted.

You want to cry. It seemed like such a great adventure, going to Mars, building a colony on the frontier. But it's so hard. So exhausting. Always cold. Never enough equipment. You started out with so much redundancy. Anything went wrong, and you could just switch out a part or sometime not even notice because there was already a redundant system in place. But as stuff breaks down it is expensive to replace it. Everything was supposed to be automated. It seemed like it would be a life a leisure and adventure at the same time. But maintaining all the automation is so hard and the automated maintenance has almost completely broken down.

You and your elephant curl up on the rover floor and wallow in self pity for a few minutes. Then you will get up and start the drive back to base. But as you lie there suddenly you hear someone knock on the airlock door. It makes you jump. You thought you were a hundred miles from the nearest other person. Maybe another rover was nearby, and they thought they would say hello. Maybe they would have a spare regulator! But why wouldn't they have just radioed to say hello?

You get up to have a look. There is a red woman standing outside your rover and she isn't wearing a space suit. You cycle the airlock to let her in. "Hello Little One." Ares enters the rover and sits beside you, "Why aren't you preparing to get underway. You need to get back to base and replace that regulator."

"Ares, " you cry, "what is the point? This planet is too difficult to live on. We will never survive. We will just be worn down until entropy takes us."

Ares looks at you doubtfully as if you just said something foolish, "Little one you need a lesson from your history." She gives you a shove and you fall back onto the rover floor, bumping your head.


You awake in a different barren landscape all black and blue. The air smells of dust and stagnant water and rot. In the distance, you can hear crashing waves. The surface is uneven, formed of piles of black rounded rocks fused together. In the crevices there are puddles of water and small ponds filled with algae, dying and rotting as the water evaporates.

You climb over one heap of black pillows and find a hollow filled with broken pieces of coral. Over another and you find a beach, dry, the sand blowing away in the wind. You walk along the beach for a while and then climb higher onto a tall pile of black pillows. From the top you can see the ocean, wave after wave coming towards you and disappearing behind and below a distant rocky highland. Somewhere down there they are crashing into the rocks. You can see great sprays of mist rising above the rocks and blowing on the breeze over the landscape.

The ground shakes and a shadow pass over you. You look behind you and see a black cloud of billowing smoke, lit by flashes of orange light, rising from some volcano hidden over the high horizon of piled rock and blotting out the Sun.

You continue walking, climbing down into a dry hollow then up over another pile. In the next hollow you find a deep pond edged by black beaches of dark mud and something else. Sitting in the mud, is Gaia. She is young. Not yet pregnant. Her legs are covered in tattoos of sea creatures, trilobites, comb jellies, armoured worms, giant shrimp, and sessile filter feeders. She is bald except for one short hair. She is looking intently at the mud.

You climb down onto the beach and you approach her and she looks up at you and smiles, "Hello Little one, welcome to my past. This is a wonderful moment."

You go closer and look at what she is watching. A tiny green stalk only a couple of millimetres tall is standing in the black mud. "Is that the first land plant?" you ask.

"Yes, little one. The very first. The Destiny is achieved. We can return to the sea, knowing that our job is done, yes?" Gaia replies, one eyebrow raised in question.

"No." you cry, "There is so much yet to do. The descendants of this little plant must grow into forests and cover the Earth. Open the path for the animals to follow. How can you say the job is done?"

"Oh, was I mistaken?" Gaia smiles mischievously.

The ground shakes again from the distant volcano, some pebbles scatter down from the rocks above shaken loose by the tremor. "Are you referring to my encounter with Ares just now?"

"Perhaps." Gaia looks at you as if searching for something, what you can't say, "What do you think, Little One."

"Mars is totally a different case." you begin to explain, "It is so much harsher. This place is pleasant by comparison, the air isn't poisonous. It isn't nearly a vacuum. It isn't so cold that your bones always feel frozen."

"For this plant, the analogy holds." Gaia points down at the tiny little bit of standing green. "It doesn't have a half of a billion years of evolution on dry land behind it. To it, this environment is just as hostile as Mars is for you. Even more so. It is used to a liquid environment where it can just float. It must deal with wet mud as a poor substitute and dry blowing air that gives no buoyant support. It is used to absorbing oxygen and carbon dioxide from solution in water. Now it must deal with a mix of gases that tries to suck the water out of it as it brings the air in. It's only protection is a thin skin around its stalk and leaf and pores it can open and close. It is like algae that put on a space suit and stepped out of this little habitat-pond to wander the surface of an alien world."

You look at the little plant and the landscape around you in a new light. As you steady yourself against another tremor you say, "Gaia, I think I understand something that I didn't before. This landscape that seems so welcoming to me, especially compared to Mars, is as far into this little plant's adjacent possible as Mars is into mine."

Yet another tremor and a large pillow of black basalt detaches from the rock face above the far side of the pond and drops into the water with a tremendous crash and splash. "Now you are beginning to understand, Little One." You watch in horror as a wave crashes over the muddy beach where the little plant is clinging. The mud churns and when the water flows back into the pond, the little plant is nowhere to be seen. Buried in suffocating mud, washed back into the water? You cannot say.

"Gaia, the plant, is it gone. Will there never be forests?"

"Never will there be forests, Little One. The plant has given up and returned to the water. It is too hard to bother. Time to curl up in despair and die. Nothing else to be done." Gaia smiles sympathetically as she sees the pain growing on your face.

"Gaia, that can't be." you say.

Gaia points down at the mud. The little plant is already poking through and raising its stem and leaf back into the sunshine. "Of course not, Little one, this plant is not a quitter. None of the ancestors of the life that surrounds you today were quitters. They kept trying because they were holding onto something."

"What are we holding onto Gaia?" you ask.

"That there is something green and good in this universe and it is worth fighting for, Little One." Gaia gives you a shove and you fall back into the muddy, algae rich water. You close your eyes to keep the grit out.


When you open them again you are lying on the floor of the rover looking up at Ares through tears.

You leap to your feet and sit yourself behind the driving console at the front of the rover, motioning Ares to take the other seat. "Ares, don't just stand there, " you cry, "We have work to do. Let's get back to base and find a regulator and a new jack or two."

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