It was Avalonia, but it could as well have been Shangri-La, or Conan Doyle’s Lost World. The vanished nursery-ground of our pebble—the land-that-once-was—is now terribly distant from us. Epic journeys are needed to reach it, back into deep Earth time. It is not a physical journey, as such, to be taken using helicopter and dug-out canoe, by explorers in pith helmets, wielding machetes. Rather, it is a journey of the imagination, albeit one grounded in the physical reality of this lost continent, and the traces of it that remain. Touch the pebble, and you are touching Avalonia, in the form of the mineral grains that represent its destruction, a continuous dismantling accomplished by half a billion years of wind and rain and flood. It is through those grains that one needs to search back for the landscape that they once represented. Or rather, landscapes. Avalonia was not a single unchanging entity, which we can hope to picture in ever-more-faithfully captured detail as we study its ancient past. This lost continent ceaselessly changed, mutated, renewed itself. And the tiny mineral fragments that now form part of the pebble are not so much fragments of it, as fragments of them, of its many changing faces. One might, for comparison, take tiny relics from each of the seven successive cities of Troy (and sample, too, the modern buildings that now stand above their buried remains). Grind, then, those fragments into a fine powder. Then, give a handful of this dust to an archaeologist, and say ‘now, bring those cities back to life!’ Landscapes are transient. This is a concept that does not come easily to us. In our brief lifetimes we see the Earth’s landmasses as things of massive permanence, the bedrock of passing civilizations. And yet even in these human lifetimes we can see masses of rock debris piled up beneath mountain crags—and, as we walk nearby, hear the fall of new scree fragments, dislodged from rock faces by wind and water. We see sand move along a river floor, driven by the flowing water. Occasionally, we might see villages smashed by floodwaters, the wreckage littered with mud and boulders carried from miles up the valley.
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