Carbon is the building block of life, and here is a phase in its never-ending journey, adapted from an essay by Primo Levi which he originally dreamt up while a prisoner in Auschwitz.
If ever you thought you were unconnected to the planet, this essay should put you right, for you have around 700,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 carbon atoms in your body (representing 10% of your mass), each of which has already performed countless dances not unlike the one you’re about to read…
“Our atom of carbon lies for hundreds of millions of years, bound to three atoms of oxygen and one of calcium, in the form of limestone not too far from the earth’s surface.
At any moment a blow of a pick axe detaches it and sends it on its way to the lime kiln, plunging it into the world of things that change. It is roasted and, still clinging to its oxygen companions, is issued from the chimney and takes the path of the air. Its story, which once was immobile, has now turned tumultuous.
It was caught by the wind, flung down on the earth and lifted ten kilometres high. It was breathed in by a falcon, descended into its precipitous lungs, but did not penetrate its rich blood and was expelled.
It dissolved three times in the water of the sea, once in the water of a cascading torrent, and again was expelled. It travelled with the wind for eight years: now high, now low, on the sea and among the clouds, over forests, deserts, and limitless expanses of ice; then it stumbled into capture and the organic adventure.
The atom we are speaking of was borne by the wind along a row of vines. It had the good fortune to brush against a leaf, penetrate it, and be nailed there by a ray of the sun.
Now our atom has formed part of a molecule of glucose. It travels from the leaf to the trunk, and from here descends to the almost ripe bunch of grapes. What then follows is the province of the winemakers.
It is the destiny of wine to be drunk. Its drinker kept the molecule in his liver for more than a week, well curled up and tranquil, as reserve energy for a sudden effort; an effort that he was forced to make the following Sunday, pursuing a bolting horse…
The atom was dragged by the bloodstream all the way to a minute muscle fibre in the thigh… and later, as carbon dioxide, was breathed back into the air.
Once again the wind, which this time travels far, sails over the Apennines and the Adriatic, Greece, the Aegean, and Cyprus: we are over Lebanon. And the dance is repeated.
The atom now penetrates and is trapped by the venerable trunk of a cedar, one of the last. It could stay in the cedar for up to 500 years but let us say that after twenty years a wood worm has taken interest in it and swallowed it.
The woodworm then formed a pupa, and in the spring it came out in the shape of a moth which is now drying in the sun, confused and dazzled by the splendour of the day. Our atom is in one of the insect’s thousand eyes.
When the insect dies, it falls to the ground and is buried amongst the undergrowth of the woods. Here are at work the omnipresent, untiring and invisible micro organisms of the humus. The moth has slowly disintegrated and the atom has once again taken wing.
It takes to the air… and eventually comes to rest on the surface of the ocean, then sinks slowly. A passing coccolithophore appropriates the atom to build its impossibly delicate shell of calcium carbonate. Soon it too dies and glides to the bottom of the ocean, where it is compacted with its trillion companions and their own carbon atoms.
In geological time, tectonic plate movements bring this sediment, now as chalky cliffs, to the surface of the earth, exposing our atom once more to the possibility of flight in the complex dance of life.”
Now look at your hand – a scar perhaps, or a fingernail. Think of it as less of a hand, more of a temporary resting place for countless carbon atoms. A place where they’re taking a mini-break before they continue on a vast never-ending journey that encompasses the depths of the oceans, the highest skies, the dinosaurs before you and creatures we can’t even dream of that will come after us.
Feeling connected yet?