Too Long Apart

Posted on July 18, 2012

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We like to name things. We name our children, of course, so we can tell them apart. That way we know who’s due for a check-up at the dentist and which one kicked the soccer ball through the neighbor’s window. Also, when teachers tell us what a pleasure it is to have them in their class, having a name helps us verify that we’re talking about the same kid.

We also name our pets, our boats, and even our cars. If you’re wealthy you may give a name to your home, something like The Sycamores or Rosefield. We name distant stars, screwdrivers, long-extinct animals, golf clubs, and every square inch of the human skull, as well as the tiniest insects and the even tinier bacteria found inside their bodies. The Japanese have dozens of words to describe subtle differences among the various kinds of sumo wrestling moves, so while you and I may just see two big guys pushing and slapping each other, they see nuance and technique.

We even feel compelled to assign labels to things that no longer exist. About 225 million years ago, according to geologists, all the continents were connected in one giant landmass called Pangaea. Actually, it’s hard to be certain what it was called, because there weren’t any people around then, and maps hadn’t been invented yet. In fact, there would have been no need for it to be called anything. But then in 1912, along came Alfred Wegener, a German geophysicist who theorized that the continents sit on giant plates, which drift around on the Earth’s crust. He coined the word Pangaea from two Greek roots; it means all lands. As if this wasn’t presumptuous enough, Wegener also claimed that Pangaea later divided to form two smaller continents, which he named Laurasia and Gondwanaland. As the plates shifted, the land continued to break apart, and the seven continents gradually moved into their present positions, along with thousands of islands.

Wegener was a brave guy and took a lot of heat for his theory. Most scientists in the early twentieth century thought he was out of his mind, but he refused to back down. I respect him for that. On the other hand, he’s been dead for eighty-two years, and while his ideas are now widely accepted, it’s time someone challenged those names he selected.

I realize this argument is pointless, but that’s exactly the kind of discussion I prefer, because you can take any position and nobody really cares enough to disagree. If I’m on line at the post office and I turn to the person behind me and ask, “What do you think of the name Pangaea?” they’re likely to say, “Is it a boy, or a girl?” And then I say, “No, no, it isn’t a baby. I’m talking about the super-continent that existed a quarter of a billion years ago. It eventually split into two pieces, and Alfred Wegener decided, completely on his own, to call them Laurasia and Gondwanaland. Isn’t that horrible?” By now, the other person is racking his brains and trying to concoct a valid reason to bolt from the building. Meanwhile, he pretends to be interested in the shipping boxes and padded envelopes the post office has for sale.

As I said, no one cares about Pangaea. And yet, it’s the homeland of everyone who’s ever lived, and in that light it deserves a better name. So I’ve chosen to call the ancient super-continent Extravaganzia. Isn’t that better? You may have noticed that all of the continents’ names end in the letter A, except for Europe; I suspect that was a typing error made by someone in the atlas business, probably either Rand or McNally.

In order to help you visualize what the place looked like, I’ve drawn my version of Extravaganzia (see Figure 1), surrounded by a super-ocean. (Everything back then was considered “super.” This is the first known example of marketing hype.) The single body of water is shown in a bright magenta, which I believe was its real color. I call it the Enormic Ocean. I’ve included the name of this global sea in my diagram, and even put a lot of space between the letters, the way they do on real maps. Cartographers add that extra letterspacing as a way of letting you know that something is big and spread out, and that they have no idea where the edges are. This is especially true of oceans, which flow into each other and don’t have definite boundaries. If you’ve ever been on a boat and wondered why you never see a sign that says, “Welcome to the Atlantic Ocean,” that’s the reason.

I sometimes wish Extravaganzia hadn’t separated. For one thing, with the land intact it would have been much easier to travel to Europe. If you lived in New Jersey, for example, and wanted to visit Spain, you could have walked there. By bus, it would have been maybe a half hour, and that’s with the tolls. But the best part would have been that you could have driven your car anywhere in the world, even to Lichtenstein, which was once an island west of South America. In a catastrophic event that scientists have not yet begun to explain, mostly because they’ve never heard of it, this diminutive speck of land was hurled hundreds of miles into the air and fell into its present position between Switzerland and Austria. For sure, that would not have been a good day to be motoring around Zurich. And there’s no denying that living on a super-continent would have presented other drawbacks. You wouldn’t have wanted to be in central Africa and suffering from claustrophobia. Prices for waterfront property would have been even more ridiculous than they are now. Kangaroos would be everywhere.

But the advantages would have been just as numerous. We’d have fewer time zones to deal with, and far fewer national anthems to endure. We sure wouldn’t need the seven thousand languages that are spoken today, and could probably get away with four or five. The Olympics would be convenient for everybody. Humans could avoid extreme weather by migrating north and south as a group. And we’d have intriguing mixtures of regional dialects — French, for example, would be tinged with a Boston accent, and that couldn’t help but be entertaining.

Alfred Wegener was born in 1880, nine years after the unification of Germany. He died in 1930, so he didn’t live to see the division of his country after the second world war, or its reunification a decade ago. In other words, he missed all of the pivotal moments.

According to current theory, the continents will re-assemble in about 250 million years. We weren’t here for the big split, and it doesn’t seem likely any of us will be around to see the get-together, either. But it’s certain that by then, there will be many more things that need names. And with any luck, the super-continent itself will be called Extravaganzia. Or maybe Extralargia. Or Stupendia. Anything that ends in the letter A. Well, almost anything.

NOTE: As my friend Sandra Parsons points out in her comment, below, German reunification was more than two decades ago. Yikes. Time for my nap.

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Posted in: In Over My Head