IN the beginning of things, life here on earth must have been, after all, Adamite — a single, simple kind of organism.
Whether that first-life was bacterial, or algal, or some sort of spontaneous colloidal protein system that began to live, this planet in Archæozoic times (estimated at one to two billion years ago) was so impoverished as to variety that a full account of its flora — and fauna, if any — would make a paper so concise, so lacking in disputatious matter and naked of footnotes, that a rightthinking college faculty would scarcely accept it as a doctorial thesis.
A billion years, or more, is old. It is literally older than the hills. Geologically a short time ago, Switzerland had no Alps; it was a marsh full of palms, spice trees, and other tropical Asiatic types. Alps are new; and so are Himalayas, Andes, and Rockies. Appalachians are venerable, for mere mountains; they go back to the time of the fall of the great Fern Dynasty. But if you want to see really old mountains you must travel to the Laurentians of Canada. Look carefully — you will observe that there are no mountains there any more; just a stump, a boss on the continental shield. The stuff of them has found its grave under the seas. The grave of something that was never alive.
But that which lives is less mortal. Plants there are to-day made after the image and the very mould of plants half a billion, and a billion, years ago. When you look at a pond scum, a seaweed, a club moss, as at a jellyfish or a slug or a scorpion, you are gazing upon a form, a plan, an idea, a working mechanism that not only is older than the hills, but has remained essentially unchanged by all the forces of geology and the ravages of time.
Precisely because life is pliant and fluid, it is also, like water, most difficult to maintain in any shape it does not wish to take. And very hard it is to turn life from the channels that it has itself grooved deep. The resilience of life is probably the strongest thing in the universe. For though the mineral kingdom is vast and mighty, with the abrupt flinty hardness of all reality, it is for that very reason rigid. And because it is rigid, the mountains can do no other than stand still and let the lichens leach them, the delicate mosses pry them open with exquisite fingers, the invisible bacteria riddle them, and the rain and wind reduce them to dust.
But you can batter a seaweed on the reefs for twice ten million years without changing its inner convictions. All that the surf has been able to accomplish in these eons is to knock the spores out of the slippery fronds — and so set them adrift to colonize some other reef.
Yet there have been changes in the Green Kingdom, sweeping changes, farreaching in their consequence to all of us animals, to the very crust of the planet we inhabit and, literally, to the air we breathe. Were it not for these changes, which we call evolution, no lily would rise from the muck, no alder shake pollen from its curls in the March wind.
The significant fact is that all the really great changes have come from the inside out. They are born of the inner nature of the organism itself. They must have lain there, inherent as a possibility (more, as an irrepressible necessity) in the first Adamite organism, just as a tall pine is potential in a soft pinyon seed no larger than a child’s tooth.
These changes are the history of the Green Kingdom. It is a history with as many dynasties and disasters as the history of China, though I find it much easier to remember than the long singsong of the wars and rulers of Cathay. But, like the history of a very ancient people, the story of plants on earth shows the antiquity of things called modern. As China invented tools of civilization and forgot them again, as it piled up annals and archives for hundreds of years, and lost them in a dark age or through the whim of a bibliophobe ruler, so in the plant kingdom almost every scheme has been tried once, or many times.
In every part of the sea and on every continent, life has set up one green stage set after another, taken it down, shipped it elsewhere, put up a new one. Giant seaweeds were rolled into beach wrack, fossilized sometimes into great stone dumplings, where now the corn of Illinois stands high, the chaff of threshing blows in the hot sun, and the soul longs for the sea. Sixteen times the sea came and went there, alternating with lofty fern forests. A resinous grove of pine-like trees thrust deep, reached high, where now the Papago Indian cuts a cactus to cup in his dark hands one lukewarm drink against the Arizona sun. And the petrified slab of a vanished tree that lies on my desk shows its every smallest cell exactly replaced by a crystalline mineral, as if the Medusa had looked upon that classic wood.
This tale of the rise and fall of the dynasties of growth must be pieced out. of the rocks and fitted together with a strong and cementing likelihood. Fossil records make up our fragmentary evidence. It is all held together by the assumption that life began as something simple and adapted to easy conditions, and progressed toward fitness for the conquest of more hostile environments. The inferences from this assumption are borne out by the fossil record, such as it is.
What that record is, and is not, Darwin expressed when he said that the story of life is written in a book whose language or code changes with every chapter, and of which all but a few pages have been lost, the little that remains being scattered to the ends of the earth and senselessly jumbled.
So every fossil on a museum shelf is a threefold miracle. First, the plant had to die under the most exceptional conditions remote from the normal course of events, which is swift decay, dissolution, and reworking of the mould into new forms of life. Then, by a wildly fortuitous set of circumstances, the fossilized evidence must not be washed into the sea, or buried several miles under sedimentary rocks, but had to come to light, be bared by erosion, or deprived of its Stygian privacy in the course of mining or excavating. And then, as the most unlikely chance of all, a palæobotanist (a very rare fellow even in a densely packed congress of botanists) had to pass by and collect the specimen before it was burned for coal, ground up for cement, washed away, or otherwise hopelessly obliterated.
The longer the time elapsed, the less the likelihood that some tangible record will have survived. For that reason, and because the very earliest life was so sparse, so minute and fragile, the first rocks that could have borne life have almost nothing to tell us. They are nearly blank. But not quite. They speak, from their staggering thickness, of a measure of time that lasted longer than all the time that has gone by since — perhaps twice as long. But they speak of life.
To judge from the bacterial traces in them, life was tediously slow in gathering momentum. The little earth flew round the sun in its annual course millions and millions of times, and the sun on its unguessable track had plunged unthinkable distances into space, before much change had come about in those first vital experiments. We were in some other quarter of the universe; our sun appeared, from the viewpoint of other stars, to belong to some constellation from which it has now fallen, while the bacteria were leisurely taking the calcium carbonate out of the sea water and depositing it in the oceanic oozes, as the minute and brief lives perpetually and vastly died. And, as they laid down the great limestone beds, over the acid and sterile granites, so on land they were, surely, delving into the rocks. Bacteria have been brought up from borings five hundred and even fifteen hundred feet below the surface. So they have riddled and mollified the rocks and prepared the loams.
And as surely as they were altering their environment, the bacteria were themselves changing. Not that they were, as a race, departing, for their seed is still upon earth, the most numerous, important, and likely to outlast the ages. But they were giving rise — there seems little doubt of it — to the blue-green pond silks you see today still in stagnant waters.
These Blue-Green algas, just visible to the naked eye as shaky strands in a ditch, or the merest cast of jade across a lily pond, are the second chapter in plant history. It can be read only with a microscope, and it happens that I opened at its pages, in those primer days when I was given my first fine lens. This microscope was not new, nor particularly convenient, but it was originally the best from a good factory of lens makers. It was given me, in those young plant-hunting days in the Carolinas, by a woman naturalist who had used it to study bees and pollen. I remember how she put it in my hands with a silent blessing on my enthusiasm and a dry smile at its scope.
As soon as I got it home, I gently opened that case so like a traveling shrine, and drew forth the stately and intricate image, itself the god that sees what is hidden. Then I went out to the ditch across the road and scooped up a saucerful of pond silks. With pipette I snuffled up a long drop of water and green tress, lowered a little on a slide, and sealed it with a cover glass. I was very serious about my technique, and I knew enough, at least, to realize that the Algæ are a great and a right beginning.
My eye to the shaft, I lowered the lens by the big wheel almost to the slide, peered in rolled it slowly up, and saw the algal jungle come clear but distant. Then I snapped in the high power and began, with the fine wheel, to hunt for the focus again.
First there was a green blur; then, as a falling aviator must, I saw the green tops of the forest rush upward, come clearer, nearer, till I was in it and plunging through the top story into lower tiers. I held my hand — and suddenly there was life: the first living microscopic forms I had ever seen, and green with the good green of the great kingdom. No bacteria here, no unearthly and devious modes of living, but chlorophyll, and clear cellular form. As it was a water forest, a sargassum, it was horizontal, the jetsam of a micro-sea. I began to revolve the stage itself, and felt like a Magellan.
That day of my first glimpse, I fondly resolved — if I remember rightly — to become the historian of the whole algal flora of the Blue Ridge. This proposal never went far to actuality because I undertook first to collect its entire flora of mosses, ferns, fungi, and flowers. The fact remains that nobody, I think, has ever done anything much with the algas of that ancient mountain chain, laced with ten thousand streams.
What one might do, almost anywhere, with the Algæ, came to me years later, when I picked up an old brochure, on the stalls of the Seine bank, about the Algæ of a seaside parish in Brittany. A priest had written it, and it had taken him his lifetime. It ranged ambitiously, this parochial list, from one-celled specks of green living to the giant tangs of the surf. For the Algæ, as a province of the Green Kingdom, embrace both plants so small they are studied with the microbes, and seaweeds that attain the dimensions of forest trees. I can imagine the old curé’s album of seaweeds, all labeled in Latin with a spidery handwriting and bad brown French ink. Fishermen, it seems, brought him the great lathering ribbons of the sea, as if perhaps he would intercede for their sins with Peter the Fisherman. And country children must have dug him the mosslike algas out of the damp walls of his villages, and stripped them from the lee side of beeches where they blot moisture from the very mists. The priest himself had been a tireless and intuitive hunter; he had found algas in the cracks of the gargoyles on the church, and lifted them out of the soil from a depth of a decimetre. He drew the translucent, red seaweeds from the tidal pools and the desmids out of the tarns in the woods. He had scraped the spiral purples from the barnacled wharves, and green felt from the backs of turtles and the bottom of the beached boats. Where the old women hunt snails, he had seined the pond scums from the foul ditches. Oh, yes, a fine green wet misty moisty coast for algas was his Brittany, gull country, heron country, a parish where the tolling of the buoys answers the tolling of the cold stone steeples.
For the Algæ love the damp, the stagnant ponds, the roiling ocean. They are, historically speaking, children of the sea, ancients of the first watery world, so much older than the Rockies that when those mountains were buckled up in a continental cramp their limestones carried up with them fossilized seaweeds two miles into the air. Even to-day, whether they go down into the earth or up to the glacial snows, the Algæ are still — wherever you find them — aquatics. Somehow they divine a thread of water or a mere film of it. So, from that primal fresh-water sea in which they were born, they have invaded the modern brine and the drying continents. They are found in snow and on flowerpots, in the coruscating soda of shrinking desert lakes, whether in Tartary or Utah, in hot springs of New Zealand and Iceland, in sponges and the toe hairs of tree sloths and on the legs of a Russian tick. They are collected on Antarctic ice and from the roots of cycads in tropical rain forests. I have seen them where they form an unholy fluffy felt in the muck of slum yards, and I have looked down from the top of a skyscraper, in a wilderness of steel and stone, and seen their flagrant green in the lily pond of a penthouse terrace.
Once you begin to think about algas, and to look for them, you see them everywhere. The Blue-Green Algæ look, and are, slimier than the Green. Many are poisonous; most are associated with polluted water; their presence indicates something unhealthy—for us. They are the sort of organisms that Aristotle, peering into his ‘primordial slime,’ conceived as originating from the mud itself. But all these qualities only serve to show from how far they have come — from a fabulous age and an earth that would have been uninhabitable for us, when the seas were not salt and the continents were brimstone, and the very sun looked down with a different light in its eye.
For the blue pigment of the BlueGreens, adapted no doubt to capture solar energy also in a different part of the spectrum, masks the raw green chlorophyll. True that the Blue-Greens flourish in modern sunlight — but only in their gelatine sheath. Deprived of that, they are killed by direct light, just as bacteria are. Indeed, these BlueGreen Algæ are next in seniority to the autotrophic bacteria, and resemble various of them significantly. In their filamentous or spherical shape, for instance, their slimy sheaths, their slow creep or oscillation. Too, they are devoid of starch, that stored wealth for man and beast, which pervades most of the rest of the plant kingdom. And the BlueGreens, be it noted, are, like the bacteria, devoid of any sexual type of reproduction.
But they have chlorophyll, they have set up in the great photosynthetic business, and, like all green water plants, they give off bubbles of oxygen. As presumably the Blue-Greens throve in the warm, fresh seas of ancient time, so some to this day live only in hot springs, whether at Rotorua geyser in New Zealand or our own Yellowstone. Endlessly rising and dying, they deposit the weird sinter that makes the basins of the geysers so picturesque, and they build up a sort of rubble or tufa, or become solidified to an onyx-like travertine rock.
Or some Blue-Greens cause the ‘waterbloom’ on pools, sometimes identified by botanists as Aphanizomenon but known as ‘Fanny’ by the engineers who try to get rid of it, for it is fatal to cattle, with an unknown poison. Some Blue-Greens are more red than green, and one of them, prodigiously multiplying in the water between two deserts, has given the Red Sea its ancient name.
It is like crossing the frontier into a friendly country to leave the BlueGreens for the true Greens. As they form part of the grazing for so many aquatic small fry that feed the big ones, they are indirectly useful to us; they are the pasturage — biologists call it the plankton — of all waters that can sustain them. And the Greens are, as they leave the reaches in which they resemble the bacteria-like Blue-Greens, honest plants such as we can better understand. They do their work by clear chlorophyll, and store starch and fats as higher plants do, and are built up of cellulose and pectin just as are the most aristocratic trees. And, save for the most primitive, the Greens have sex. They may be said, indeed, to have originated it.
That plants share sex with the animal kingdom is one more proof of the oneness of life. Yet mankind was a long time in perceiving the obvious. The ancients grew figs and olives, apples, peaches, and chestnuts, as well as daughters, and saw that in youth their trees were barren, that they came to flower at a certain age, and fulfilled their purpose when they bore their fruit. And still men did not draw the simple parallel. The idea of sex in plants was scarcely proposed until the seventeenth century and accepted in the eighteenth only after furious opposition even from scientists.
And its purpose appears (since there arc many, and very effective, non-sexual ways in which plants can reproduce themselves) to be the renewed vigor that comes with the conjunction of individual strains of protoplasm. Along with that refreshment of vital energy, there is implied the commingling of separate hereditary strains. Non-sexual reproduction endlessly multiplies the old individual, with all its virtues or weaknesses. But in a world of beings sexually divided, sexually united, enrichment is infinite, permutation endless. So evolution, slow to gather momentum, discovering the device of sex in the Green Algæ, swept forward upon its indomitable and unpredictable flood tide.
Over my study mantelpiece, where the barometer and the great triton shells repose, is stretched the big sailing chart of this California coast on which I live. Worked intricately as a thumbprint with soundings and fathom lines, it shows the edge of the continent cutting across the upper right-hand corner, and off shore, in the currents, the islands of the Santa Barbara Channel. On clear days from my veranda, through an arch of live oaks I can see them rise, abrupt and purpleshadowed. For they are the tops of an old mountain chain, and so upon the map they lie singularly alike in shape, very much like a flight of cormorants migrating parallel to the mainland. My eyes, so often lifting from my desk to seek them, find them there stretching out long goosy necks that bear small heads, or, as if foreshortened, they appear to sail upon wings edge on. They hold the Channel in a light embrace; outposts of terra firma in the wilderness of sea, they temper it to inhabiting life.
On a fair day the Channel glitters azure, emerald-streaked where the sea is so thick with the life it bears that it refracts the sunlight, red with the moiling kelp beds, purpled by a passing cloud. Shallow, as biological fathoms are reckoned, deep as the angler thinks of depth, dark with the Kuro Shiwo stream that has crept here in a mighty arc from Japan.
Here off the tawny continental flank, in the lee of Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, sleeps the Pacific from May until December. The broad ruddy band of the kelp beds, well off shore, never changes place. These giant kelps of the California coast are the largest in the world. Elk kelp and sea-otter’s-cabbage and the iodine kelp have dimensions of forest trees. Forty and sixty feet deep they are rooted by suckering holdfasts; their stems, flaccid but tough, may attain two hundred, three hundred feet in length. Their foliage is ample and heavy as the leaves of a rubber tree; they are buoyed up by double rows of bladders, or sometimes by a single float the size of a grapefruit. Some, like the trees of earth, are permanent perennials; in others which are annuals this leviathan growth is the work of a single season. Upon these towering, wavering Algæ — the Browns — perch countless others, as the lianas and orchids cling upon the boughs of the over-earth tropical forests. For the most, these clinging frailties are Reds, and there are others of them, membranous and filigreed, that tremble on the ocean floor beneath the shelter of the lofty Browns, like moss and ferns that hug the ground between great roots. Such is the ocean jungle. It hangs such leathery curtains of foliage in the water, and is flung abroad like an undulant carpet so wide upon the surface, that the fall and swell of the ocean’s breathing are stilled by it. Within this breakwater, the seas lie harbor-calm.
Beneath, in the depths of the great kelp forest, the small fry dash for shelter, in terror of swordfish and albacore and tuna. Here the crabs nibble the algal pasturage, and the sea slugs, which mimic the colors of the vegetation, crawl and mouth, and the kelp fish builds her nest of woven weed. Above these beds, all summer, in a leisure that gives thieves time to fall out, the gulls quarrel and rise, to settle again with a twinkling of sunlit wings. Brown pelicans plunge there; black cormorants from the wild Farallones fish these banks; loons dive with an oily ease, and sometimes a heron stands upon the buoyed kelp tops, gazing morosely into the water. Day after day — only calm and sunshine, kelp and fish and birds. Boats give the beds a wide berth, for fear of the weed in their propellers; fishermen hate it in their nets. No swimmer who loves his life would dive in that sargasso of the great Browns, nor could he endure the pressure of the deeps where the most fragile of all the Reds delight to live. The Browns, with their special pigments masking the chlorophyll, go down in the sea water till the orange and the yellow light has been filtered out. But the Reds can carry on their photosynthesis four hundred feet below the surface, where even the green and blue light fails, and only the violet rays still reach the delicate mechanism. In such secrecy dwell fragile perennials and summer annuals that live and die and are not seen by men, it may be, for years.
But halcyon weather, even here, cannot always endure. The winter rains come finally, and some night, after a day of grey brooding, they begin as a scamper of drops across the roof, a wind-blown hail of acorns, then a dance of rain, that becomes a ceaseless march. It rains till the dry arroyos run again; it rains till the rocks roll down the brooks; it rains till the hills begin to slide, and yet it has only begun to rain.
In January the first storm approaches. It gathers on the north Pacific, and sweeps down even into the Channel’s shelter. It troubles the seaweed forest, then twists it and tortures it, and pulls it by the roots and breaks it. The annuals come up, then the permanent growth. The living breakwater is broken with the waters; it is dragged up to the top, rolled in the green jaws of the combers, and flung, fighting and slithering back in vain, on the rocks, and pounded there. The rising tide carries it, a helpless wrack, to the high beach where it must bleach and rot.
After such a storm I lately came to the shore. The sea was mild in a warm sun; sails languished on the fishing banks; gulls were back on the kelp, and the kelp was back in its place, off shore, all but the loot flung up, not yet reclaimed by an incoming tide.
High up under the rocks, the giant kelps and tangs were thrust into an untouchable mound of decay that was waist high. Lower on the strand lay the lighter jetsam, the small Browns and the many Reds, in windrows tangled with eel grass and surf grass. Already these frail lives of the deep were passing swiftly, blanching or blackening. For them, this sunny air was a world too harshly illuminated, too arid for life.
But in the tide pools where they had been flung with sea urchins and starfish, they still lived, floating out with a vitality like the moving hair of the drowned. There I lifted wavering membranes of the edible Porphyras and the scarlet tousle of Plocamiums, filigree and point lace, fluted ribbons and lappets, sea mosses as dark as the branching stains in agate, filmy ferns that lay upon my palm as insubstantial as the impress of a fossil growth. They were so unbelievably thin that when I had mounted them on stiff white paper they passed, with those who saw them, for the stroke of a watercolorist’s brush.
For I carried home a vasculum full of seaweeds, and with my fingers under water coaxed them all apart. When I had disengaged every filament and swept it clean of grit and parasites with a fine brush, my ocean algas emerged as lovely as are flowers. Botanically it was possible to assort and classify them among the major types, called roughly the Greens and Reds and Browns. But the colors were subtler than that. They were seashell pink and sunset rose, saffron and Tyrian and smoke-velvet, tannic wood-red, lake, carmine, verdigris, Spanish green, olive, maroon, garnet, and emerald. Only cathedral windows have such soft and glowing stains.
Weeks of work went to these specimens, to clean and mount and label them, a hundred species and more. I could only wonder how many others the sea had taken back in the first insuck of the ebb tide after the storm. It has happened more than once that a hurricane has cast ashore some species not seen in decades, or never known before. Almost half a century has elapsed between the finding, for instance, of the female plant of some seaweed, and the discovery of the male form after another storm. So the scientist who loves seaweeds must watch the skies and read the tide tables; even so he must be quicker than the waves and the ebb flow, swifter than the swift decay upon the beach.
Old mariners’ narratives abound in mention of these California seaweeds. When the ‘Manila ship’ that once a year sailed from the Philippines to the Americas of the Conquistadores’ days ran into the longitude of 96 degrees, she regularly met with the porra, or sea leek, floating far at sea, and this was a sure sign that the coasts of the western world were near. Then the whole ship’s company would chant a Te Deum. Speaking of our iodine kelp, that greatest of all botanical explorers, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, wrote in his Botany of the Antarctic Voyage, ‘The Macrocystis is so conspicuous, and from its wandering habits occurs so unexpectedly that the attention of our earliest voyagers has been directed to it . . . for these weeds often prove his unerring guide towards land as they surely are to the direction of the currents; or become of more importance still . . . for it is, where growing, not only the infallible sign of sunken rocks, but every rock that can prove dangerous to a ship is conspicuously buoyed by its slender stem and green fronds.’
Of all algal morasses — and there are great ones on the north coast of Norway, in the fjords of Alaska, around New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef, off Good Hope and Cape Horn — the most fabulous is the Sargasso Sea. Sargassum, the Gulf weed, is not, individually, a conspicuous plant. It looks rather like a sprig of holly, with crinkly leaves and gas-filled bladders that might be mistaken for berries. Rather, the sheer mass has given rise to the legend that ships, from the time of Columbus, have become entangled in its gigantic eddy of stagnation and are still wedged there, rotting at Lethe’s wharf. It is certainly so dense at times that a rowboat is unable to make progress and has sometimes to be hauled back to the mother ship.
It harbors untold billions of microscopic animals and plants, hydroids that look like feathers, colonial creatures that resemble moss, and molluscs, crabs, shrimps, sea horses, pipefish, and other small fry without end. Above all the Sargasso has been discovered to be the long-unknown resort of the eels, who migrate here, mate, and die, and here their young mature to the elver stage before they begin their incredible journey to their parent rivers and ponds in the interior of Europe and America.
The sheer weight of the Gulf weed in the Sargasso Sea has been computed at ten million tons. It is a free-floating raft of plants, torn by storms, perhaps, from its mooring somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and caught in the eddy of the Gulf Stream and equatorial counter-current. Yet one looks in vain for gigantic gardens that could supply such an assemblage of weed. More, this vast plant drift sometimes utterly disappears. So that several scientists, sailing by at such a time, have ‘disproved’ the Sargasso Sea as a myth. Others who have seen it say that it sinks below the surface, to rise again at certain seasons. But no man knows. The Sargasso remains one of the ancient secrets of ocean, and it gives us some suggestion of what the seas were like in that period of geologic time that has been named the Age of Seaweeds.
Not that then there were necessarily more, or more variety than we know today. But there was, except for bacteria, presumably nothing else. There may even have been no land above the waters for a long time, but only a world sea or Panthalassa. In this shallow all-ocean the algas could have rooted far more extensively than now. And when the continents arose, the seaweeds in that eon that was theirs, a time longer than that which has gone by since the first land plants appeared, were slowly evolving toward the mastery of their environment. They were adapting themselves to the increasing brininess of the ocean, to the conquest of the deeps and of the tidal shores. Perhaps it was they who first set green foot on shore, but of that we know nothing.
What we do know from the book of fossils is that the seaweeds in their Age were developing most of the traits of plants. Starting with the slimy BlueGreens and the mere hair-like Greens, the Algas progressed through branching, through the welding of filament to filament into a ribbon tissue, through the layer of one tissue on another so that real body and substance were established, till they had reached a complex structure differentiated into definite organs like roots, leaves, stems, spore cases, and complex sex organs. The life history of some of the highest of the Reds is as complex as that of an orchid or a pine. In beauty and color the Algæ are, indeed, flowers of the sea; in bulk and height and foliage they are the trees.
And some of these early comers have even built the land we walk on.
Their surfaces encrusted with lime, they have, by their endless living and dying, created reefs and atolls, isles and peninsulas, and even great limestone blankets of the continents. Animal corals get all the credit for such architecture; the coralline Algæ and others of the stony little seaweeds have probably done full half the work. Taking on the forms of flat, crusty lichens, of stony feathers, of brittle jointed pink lobster feelers, of minute mermaid’s fans and mermen’s shaving brushes, glove fingers and tremulous green toadstools, these calcareous masons are growing to-day beneath the clear waters of the Bay of Naples, the Great Sound of Bermuda, the reef of Funafuti, the stagnation of the old moat around the fortress at Key West. But they are only the living generation that exists delicately upon the bones of their ancestors of Proterozoic times, when layer by layer, in little swirls and knolls and bosses, they lifted the land above the sea, and left their fossil imprint in the rocks.
For the most part, other kinds of Algæ, alas, make wretched fossils. A seaweed alive is little more than an evanescent pellicle of life surrounding impounded sea waiter; ordinarily it dies and vanishes without trace, except for the rare exquisite impress of some Red of a vanished age, and, occasionally, a great brown kelp like Nematophycus, one of the giants that lolled in the seas that stood then over interior Canada. Its fossil stem was a thing so stoutly dimensioned that it was taken, first, to be some ancestral sort of yew bole.
But such as they are, the fossils of the Age of Seaweeds proclaim a tremendous story of conquest, the domination of an element by life. The sea teemed then. Yet in all that time, between half a biliion and a billion years, the face of the rock was bare. Without land plants to give them browse, animals too were imprisoned in the sea, for it is a trap as well as a world. The Age of Seaweeds was the age of Invertebrates. Every order of spineless animal we know today, and many that are extinct like the scorpion-like trilobites, flourished in those submarine gardens or ranged the deeps and the open spaces. Jellyfish and sea anemone, octopi and squids, hydroids and bryozoöns, sea slugs and sea snails and great conchs, tritons, nautili, and abalones, populated the algal jungles. The lampreys, writhing and suckering, evolved, and finally even fishes. And still life was wholly aquatic. On land was a harsher world, with drying winds, without the old maternal medium to buoy plants, to bring them all salts, all minerals, in its perpetual convection. But it was a much more stimulating environment, destined to call forth great things of life and lead it to triumph. Yet still on all the earth there was no flower, and no voice; the continents were coursed by winds that blew no one any good and carved by rains for which there was no root or throat to be grateful.