Strike a Pose

When I was young and we were on a summer vacation in Lesbos, Greece, my parents took me to see the ultimate 3D fossil: a petrified forest. It was a scantily advertised attraction mentioned only in the fine print of the island’s brochures, and a far cry from the stereotypical image of emerald-coloured coastlines flanked by pristine pine tree forrest. This tourist attraction was one for the geeks. We were fascinated to go and see, with our own eyes, the “trees that had turned into stone”. It sounded like a story out of Greek mythology, where there are multiple examples of angry gods turning each other into stone in just a flick of their finger, or mortals becoming petrified (a word which, in Greek literally means “turn to stone”) because of a wrong move or act of temptation. Ancient Greeks seemed to see petrification as a punishment, often as some sort of karma for bad behaviour. Fossilisation meant that you had been a bad apple. It was time to recycle you back into raw materials, and metamorphosis, the transformation across various forms — human, animal, plant, stone — was often a curse for the mortals, but a superpower for the gods: whether it was Zeus turning into golden rain so that he can seep in quietly through the roof of his beloved Danae’s house, or Daphne turning into a tree to avoid her stalker Apollo.

When it comes to petrification of mortals, there is the story of Medusa, the snake-haired goddess, a symbol of temptation. Don’t dare to look straight into her beautiful eyes, you’ll turn to stone immediately. Don’t be vain, like Lethaea, as the gods will turn you into stone. Be careful not to boast and brag about your children to the gods. Niobe did just that, and was turned into stone by Zeus. Then there is the story of Midas, the greedy king who wished nothing more than being able to turn everything into gold, simply by touching it. He died by eventually touching himself, becoming a gold fossil. 

So we drove to the area, parked the car, and began walking the long 5-kilometer distance to the site. As we got closer, the landscape began to transform into something resembling the surface of Mars: full of rock and no vegetation. As if a Greek God had suddenly made their appearance, clouds gathered and the wind picked up. We suddenly felt cold in the middle of the summer, as a fierce dust storm kicked off that lasted a few minutes. When the dust had settled, we could see that we had arrived: scattered across the barren hillside, there were what appeared to be stumps of massive prehistoric trees. Except that as we got closer we saw with our own eyes that they were in fact, made completely out of stone. The entire tree stump had turned into marble, but bizarrely still retaining all details such as the tree rings, and even petrified insects that lived inside the wood. Apparently details can be seen even at the cellular level when sections of these petrified fossils are studied under the microscope. It is literally as if a Greek god has just waved their hand and turned the tree into stone.

Petrification, or petrifaction, is a process of mineral replacement. Under rare conditions, over time, the tree’s tissues are replaced by minerals such as manganese, iron and copper. This is done in a way that largely preserves the original structure of the tissue, which makes it look almost like there has been an actual alchemy, a transformation from one substance directly into another.

Without knowing the science, Greeks, much like many other ancient civilisations, seemed to have had a pretty good intuition about how interconnected everything is on the planet, because there is so much truth in this mythology after all. The myths demonstrate how recyclable we all are. They remind us of the fluidity and circularity in earth’s natural systems and the materials and chemicals that comprise them: everything is temporary, and everything sooner or later is transformed into another material. These myths represent earth’s wisdom, and a warning to all of us: earth is telling us that “at any point, I can turn you back into stone if I want to. I can turn you into a fossil”. We have built an entire civilisation that is run on fossil fuel, the scientific definition of which is “petrochemicals” i.e. the petrified remains of plants. It is easy to see that humans are only the latest stage in the chain of petrifications. Once we have used up all the fossil fuels, we will become fossils ourselves. We will become the fossil fuel for the next civilisation. In fact, we are already fossils: after turning all other species into products, we have been productising ourselves: selling our identity, our personal details, our dignity, trading in our humanity and mental health for a salary that goes back into buying more products. We are hardly a living being anymore. The transformation is almost complete.

I think it is a terrifying “coincidence” that we already fit the description of all the petrified mortals above: we are succumbing to Medusa’s temptation through our hedonistic lifestyle that destroys the planet. We are vain like Lethaea, thinking that we are better and smarter than the planet. We keep having children like Niobe just so that we can brag about them, without thinking of the impact on the planet, not to mention the children themselves. And just like Midas, we are trying to turn everything into gold: we are trying to monetize anything that moves and breathes on this planet, as we commercialise sacred species and their sacred habitats, driving thousands of them to extinction just so that we can turn a profit.

Vanity will be met by punishment. As humans try in vain to surpass Nature as the greatest scientist and greatest artist, they will meet the fate of Arachne, the mortal who was turned into a spider for her audacity to be able to weave better than the gods themselves. As our orangutang leaders fail to see themselves for what they are, they will meet the fate of Narcissus: the young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and died from a broken heart.

As we become the Midas who turns everything into shit, I think we need to consider our position. No, I mean literally, consider our position. We need to strike a pose, because we are about to be forever fossilised into shit. Suggestions are welcome.

To be continued…(or not)

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , read his books or join his mailing list

One thought on “Strike a Pose

  1. Aw, this was an incredibly good post. Taking the time and actual effort to
    make a superb article… but what can I say…
    I hesitate a whole lot and don’t manage to
    get anything done.

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