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Tony Vagneur: Enjoy Earth while you are still here

If you look closely, the dancers tend to go counter-clockwise, round-and-round to the left, as long as the music lasts. Why this is, no one knows, and so it was many millennia ago, longer than anyone knows for certain, that the animals of Asia began to continually graze to the east, one bite at a time. They were the musk oxen, shaggy mammoths and others. Hard behind them came the predators, large cats, wolves, the cave bears and other predators, including man, following along because that is nature's way.

The last Ice Age, the one we're grasping the tail end of, had slowly sucked much of the water out of the oceans, lowering sea levels by as much as 250 feet. As the ice sheet increased, sometimes as thick as a mile in depth, land, submerged under the seas, reared its muddy head above the waves, and at the confluence of the Bering and Chukchi seas, there was created a veritable bridge of green grass, brush and shrubs between Russia and Alaska. This was not a typical bridge as we think of it, for although its length was only about 55 miles, its breadth spread out to almost 1,000 miles.

Man (undoubtedly descended from Australopithecus) had worked his way north, out of Africa, and as he approached the gray fog bank and coldness of the land of forbidding ice, he either turned west into Europe and became Cro-Magnon, or he turned east, toward the land bridge, and eventually worked his way to the Americas, from Alaska to as far south as the tip of South America. These human hunters and gatherers were the first American Indians.

This sounds so simple, but it took millions of years just to get that far. The families of man, who had no permanent homes, followed the herds ever eastward, and it might have taken as long as 15,000 years for some of them to completely traverse the Bering Land Bridge. To be sure, there was circulation in the other direction as well, but only eastward was there human traffic.

Living in America already were horses, camels and pronghorn antelope; trees of every description, fish in the streams; moose, elk, deer and bison swarmed over the enormous grassland; and there were beautiful blue skies. And all this bounty just from the normal snowmelt that came from the land of much ice, to the north. The hunters had found a home of plenty, where scarcity would never be a concern.

And then, whether the Earth shifted on its axis, the sun roared hotter, or exactly what, atmospheric temperatures began to rise and the huge ice sheets began to melt. As this ice returned to liquid form and the oceans began to rise to their pre-Ice Age levels, the all-important land bridge between Russia and Alaska began to gradually submerge. The twain nevermore shall meet, not for a very long time, if ever.

But interestingly, with everything seeming to be in perfect symmetry, a huge die-off began. It could have been climate change, a change in vegetation, or any number of other reasons. Species native to America as well as those in Asia began to die off, slowly to be sure, but relentlessly. Horses, camels, long-horned buffalo and many more in America became extinct. It was relatively sudden, this die-off, but in geologic time, it took thousands of years. One species unquestionably remained: man.

The rest of us came later, by boat, for it was no longer possible to walk to North or South America (the tropical land bridge, the Isthmus of Panama, also became submerged), and the story of the boats is an engaging history, as well. Names like Columbus, Coronado, Pizzaro, Cartier, Ponce de Leon, Cabot, Sir Francis Drake and Champlain roll off our tongues with familiarity, those men who sailed this way, finding what to them was "the new" land.

Why, you ask, would I be writing about this old, old history? In this age of disharmonious politics, acrimony, concerns for the environment, arguments over climate change, questions about where it's all headed, it feels intellectually refreshing to look back, to envision and vicariously experience the development of the continent (or continents, depending on your view) upon which we live.

We are fortunate to live here. There is really nothing more to say other than, "Have a nice day."

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.