interstellar dust to volcanic islands

And the great goddess Gaia gives birth to many offspring. Among them are the demigods known as Titans who do so much to build her legacy and ensure its permanence in the cosmic drama. But one of these Titans is the defiant Prometheus who audaciously creates thinking beings. These are new and unique creatures that on the vast template of time and by virtue of their capacity to reason become more powerful than all others. Gaia is furious and envious. She sees that she is upstaged and forever after wages war against these thinking beings—Prometheus’s legacy.

From an unknown drama by Aeschylus, lost to history until its papyrus is found in the cave of a remote island in the Aegean Sea. Its title: Gaia’s War.

From the beginning, planet Earth had water—immense quantities of water.

This is understandable, for throughout the universe, hydrogen is the most common element with oxygen not far behind. Because each is highly reactive and bonds readily, boundless stretches of interstellar dust and gas contain water in the form of ice. Indeed, ice is the most abundant solid object. Not surprisingly then, when this dust and gas coalesce to form solar systems, certain planets and moons—if conditions of pressure, temperature, and gravity are fortuitous—trap huge masses of water beneath their mantles. Earth, due in large measure to size and distance from its sun, was one of those planets. And so it joined the other water-blessed planets and moons in the universe—they would be countless—all offspring of the eternally-repeating cosmic drama of stellar evolution.

After planet Earth came into being, a different form of evolution began. A volatile molten core seethed beneath her massive reservoirs of captured water; for more than half a billion years, volcanic eruptions broke through her crust and spewed superheated gasses high into the primordial atmosphere. Water vapor was one of those gasses. When it cooled, it condensed into rain, and the rain inundated the planet with water. Eventually, it reached a depth of more than two miles over her entire surface. Temperature and pressure maintained the water in its liquid state; gravity prevented it from escaping into space.

This was a blessing, for the water soothed Mother Earth, slaking her passion for violence until finally there was the relative quiet of a breathless potentiality. A new planet, blanketed by water, was now ready to define herself. Thales of Miletus, philosopher-scientist of Ancient Greece, could he have witnessed it, would have been taken by it all. He it was who identified water as the originating principle of everything else, as if he had somehow divined the above drama.

Subsequent acts in the drama confirmed his principle. Lightning bolts, striking the rich chemical soup of ancient ocean water, triggered the creation of a new stuff. This stuff was a fusion of carbon and hydrogen and other elements. The stuff was animate matter. Living matter. Matter that could replicate itself, the never-seen-before complexity of which would become an inextricable part of Earth’s history.

Earth’s animated matter was exclusively microbial for an unimaginable span of time. It was billions of years before the plants and animals evolved. But microbes had paved the way for them with atmospheric oxygen, that vital product of one microbe in particular, photosynthetic cyanobacteria. Then, as if in full circle, all life, to this day, fundamentally depends on microbes to function, survive, and thrive.

Earth’s evolution was not smooth. Although relentless, it was marked by fits and starts, extinctions and re-starts. Some were cataclysmic, and the planet’s ever-changing geology was a sweeping canvas for it all. But one portion of the canvas was especially significant. Cooler parts of the planet’s crust were pulled downwards into the molten lower mantle, and this weakened the surrounding crust. Many repetitions led to plate-like boundaries that gradually formed giant tectonics adrift on a viscous lower layer. Later, these evolved into separate land masses that eventually merged, before breaking apart again. This happened more than once in the planet’s four and a half billion years. Evidence suggests that the most recent was three hundred million years ago and was the supercontinent scientists call Pangaia—Pan for “All” and Gaia for “Earth.” Pangaia’s eventual breakup yielded today’s continents and demarcated Earth’s various oceans and seas.

One of these oceans is the Atlantic, and a small part of the Atlantic is the Caribbean Sea. This sea is a million square miles of such breathtaking beauty, that it easily rivals that of the slightly smaller Mediterranean Sea. Its depths bottom out on the Caribbean plate situated between the much larger ones of North and South America. Many islands, primarily volcanic, formed in the Caribbean Sea, products of tectonic plate movement—processes that are still at work today.

Over the centuries European countries colonized these islands and vied for dominance. War, slavery, and imported pathogens decimated native populations, but slaves imported from Africa replaced them. Because the climate was ideal, the sugar trade prevailed, and the islands became known as Sugar Islands.

But this name disguised a curse. The sugar trade was based on a savage and inhuman scourge—slavery.

Slavery is gone, but the islands remain in the stultifying grip of coercion, albeit of a different stripe. Paternal authoritarian governments keep these lush lands stopped in time—still. The islands could be hugely prosperous, but they are not. Instead, they are typically marked by various levels of stagnation and, in some cases, outright impoverishment.

Except for a rare exception . . . .