Ten Sights (I Wish I’d Seen)

Purple ocean’s majesty, the dodo, and other wonderful things

A picture of the moon


I wish I’d seen the Moon shortly after it formed, 4.5 billion years ago. That was in the Hadean Eon—Earth’s first eon. The Moon was three to five times closer to Earth. Big. A storybook moon. Like the one in Italo Calvino’s story “The Distance of the Moon.” In the story the Moon had an elliptical orbit. When it came near, you could go out in a boat on the ocean, put up a ladder, and climb up to it. And why do this? Because. On the Moon, moon-milk could be obtained.


Pterosaurs. Flying reptiles with long beaks, brightly colored crests, and membranous wings. Some species were small but some—azhdarchids—were as large as giraffes! They were hollow-boned and light, and they flew fast. They lived in flocks. I wish I’d seen them coming in to land. I wish I’d seen the males dancing and bobbing their crests to wow the females with their beauty. I’m glad I wasn’t around to witness Chicxulub, the asteroid hit that 66 million years ago wiped out—along with all non-avian dinosaurs—every species of pterosaur.


The making of the Mediterranean, that “epic-famed, god-haunted” sea, as Thomas Hardy described it. The Mediterranean Sea happened 5.3 million years ago when the Atlantic Ocean breached the high ridge that once connected Europe and Africa—where the Strait of Gibraltar now is. Behind the ridge lay a vast expanse of low-lying land. Subsidence in the seabed caused the land ridge to collapse. The ocean surged in. A column of ocean water hundreds of meters deep descended the slope at 100 kilometers an hour, within months filling the Mediterranean Sea. It was the greatest flood Earth has ever known. I wish I’d seen the ocean rushing in, the waters rising 10 meters a day, dry land fast becoming Homer’s wine-dark sea.


The blue-green griffinfly—similar to a dragonfly—with its 30-inch-wide wingspan. This beauteous creature (well, the fossil is beauteous) lived during the Carboniferous period some 350 million years ago. Meganeura monyi could grow fairytale big because Earth’s air contained more oxygen (35 percent versus our 21 percent). Light must have touched its gauzy wings, as the poet Louise Bogan wrote of the dragonfly, “only to shift into iridescence.” I wish I’d been sitting by the pond above which two or three of these huge beauties were hovering, seeking to eat or to mate.


The ocean when, three billion years ago, it was the color purple. At the time, air consisted mostly of carbon dioxide and methane. Life forms existed (and still exist) that could photosynthesize, but instead of using the pigment chlorophyll, which absorbs red and blue light and reflects green, they used the pigment retinal, which absorbs green light and reflects red and blue. Result: the purple ocean.

Later came cyanobacteria, which use chlorophyll to photosynthesize and which expel oxygen as a waste product. Thus came the Great Oxygenation Event. Thus we can breathe. But, oh! That purple ocean. I wish I’d seen it.


The supernova—that massive stellar explosion—that Chinese astronomers saw on July 4, 1054. They called it a Guest Star. All officials congratulated the emperor. SN 1054, as we term it, remained visible in daylight, as bright as Venus, for 23 days and visible by night for nearly two years. Its remnant, the Crab Nebula—strands and filaments and hazes and blobs of gases, 10 light years wide—is still expanding. The NASA image of the Crab Nebula, a collage of 24 shots taken by the Hubble telescope, is a thing of astonishing beauty. The elements oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur are colored orange, sea green, and an eerie vaporous blue. Abstract art exhibited by the cosmos.


The Newberry Volcano the time it blew 75,000 years ago. Located near Bend, Oregon, Newberry Volcano is 75 miles long and 27 miles wide, an active, dangerous volcano the size of Rhode Island that has 400 vents. During the eruption in question, the volcano ejected so many tons of hot magma that the mountain became a hollow shell and collapsed. The resulting Newberry Caldera—a pit four miles wide and five miles long—contains two lakes, Paulina Lake and East Lake, separated by igneous rock, the hardened lava flow. I wish I’d seen those fireworks. Next time it blows, though, I hope I’m not in Bend. I don’t care how good the beer is.


The dodo, that three-foot-tall, flightless, long-extinct bird we think of as a dumb-dumb. What a dodo! we say of a person who does something stupid. The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was endemic to the island of Mauritius east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It was last seen in 1662. Sailors found they could herd the birds onto ships for food. Dodos had never seen a predator such as ourselves and had no fear, no defense. Also, the island became infested with cats, dogs, and rats. So much for the dodo. The quite intelligent pigeon is its nearest living relative, and it turns out that dodos had large brains and were not in the least bit dumb. Just gullible.


Ancient humans painting in the Shaft of the Dead Man, in the cave at Lascaux, 17,000 years ago. Painted there: a human figure with a bird head, splayed out and dead, with a broken spear lying nearby. A speared bison, also dead. A bird on a pole. What would I learn, if I’d seen it painted? Was the painter a man or a woman? How many painters were there? Were they hallucinating, having some sort of shamanistic experience? Was this a sacred space? Who were these ancestors, these fellow human beings, these artists?


The 29 Somei-yoshino cherry trees in peak bloom on the quad at the University of Washington in Seattle with nobody there but me. I go every year. Set amid old buildings, they bloom ivory and rose, lush petals against mossy craggy trunks and old twisted branches. You walk along crooked brick walks under the 86-year-old trees or sit on a wooden bench and let petals drift upon your head. At this writing it’s late March—peak bloom. I make the mistake of going on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It’s crowded, Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. People shriek and laugh, peer at their cell phones, take selfies, climb the old trees, notwithstanding signs that read, “Please do not climb the trees.” I wish I could see the cherry trees at peak bloom at six A.M. with nobody there but me, or maybe a few others with the same brilliant idea. Next year this is the sight I will see. Earth’s utmost beauty—in the silence of dawn.

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Priscilla Long’s latest book is Dancing with the Muse in Old Age. She is also the author of two books of poetry, a collection of essays, and the how-to guides Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators and The Writer’s Portable Mentor.


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