The Long Tail

The seas were higher in the Cretaceous period. When last the dinosaurs walked the Earth, the Rocky Mountains were a sea dividing western North America from the east, and the inland sea flowed right into Hudson Bay, dividing the northernmost part of the continent from the rest. North America is hardly unique in having a different topography, of course — India was located off the southeast coast of Africa at the time, and Australia was just separating from Antarctica — but it is of the North American continent I speak today.

The higher seas of the Cretaceous covered the southeast of what would, 65 million years later, become the United States of America. Florida was a part of the continental shelf, as was Louisiana; most of Alabama and Mississippi were part of a bay, or perhaps a delta, that jutted into the coastline. We forget that by our planet’s lights, these lands were a part of the sea until recently; it is why the sea so often tries to be taking these lands back.


Along the ancient coastline, life thrived, as usually does. It especially thrived in the delta region, the Bay of Tennessee, if you will. Here life reproduced, ate, excreted, lived, and died. On the shallow ocean floor, organic debris settled, slowly building a rich layer of nutritious debris. Eventually, the debris would rise as the sea departed, becoming a thick, rich layer of soil that ran from Louisiana to South Carolina.

65 million years later, European settlers in America would discover this soil, which was perfect for growing cotton. They settled the land, and built plantations, importing slave labor from Africa to toil the fields, while the settlers reaped the profits. Though they did not know it, they built their plantations on the floor of the ancient seas.


It was a reasonably successful endeavor from the slaveholders’ perspective, surviving hundreds of years. It took a civil war to free the slaves from bondage, if only technically; during reconstruction, many of the slaves were given the proverbial 40 acres and a mule, and encouraged to remain on the land, farming, but this time for themselves — at least in theory.

Many of the slaves took that deal, and stayed along this rural belt in the south. While in the north, rural America was becoming a land of sundown towns, in the south, the racism was universal; there was not the same exodus of African Americans into the urban centers as was forced in the North. The population of these rural counties remained largely African American for well over a century; indeed, it remains so to this day. Today, it’s referred to as the “Black Belt,” a set of counties stretching from Louisiana to South Carolina, one that, as has been noted, voted for Barack Obama on Election Day.


It is easy to draw the line from slavery to that map, of course, but we often forget that the lines go further back than that. For all our conceit that we have become masters of our world, we still cling to places shaped long before the first primate had evolved. The farmers of the midwest benefit from the glaciers, which pushed fertile soil down from the north, and abandoned it on the plains. We power our computers with coal, laid down in fertile swamps hundreds of millions of years ago. We build cities along rivers and at seaports that were shaped long before we could write, sometimes long before mammals evolved. And we do so without thinking about it for a moment, for to consider how our lives are shaped by the great movement of continental plates, the advance and retreat of the seas and the glaciers — that is to realize that we are a species that has existed for but the tiniest second of Earth’s existence, one whose disappearance, while horrible to us, would matter not a bit to a world that has seen more species live and die than we can imagine. The Earth will go on changing itself, with or without us. And we are far more beholden to it than it is to us.

(Via Katherine Mangu-Ward)

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7 Responses to The Long Tail

  1. Pingback: The Real Third Coast « Tiny Cat Pants

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    Damn, this is a cool post. Thanks.

  3. 3
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Indeed. The only real tragedy that our destruction would have, from a global sense, is that the earth would need a few hundred million years to redevelop the fossil fuels to feed the next sapients that come along.

    That and the depletion of totally non-renewable nuclear fuels would suck for our successors.

    I always wonder what our cities would look like in a thousand years if we vanished abruptly – a million? Would the valleys cut to make train tracks still be there? Would there be even the slightest sign of New York City? Even a hint of asphalt, or glass?

  4. 4
    Jake Squid says:

    I always wonder what our cities would look like in a thousand years if we vanished abruptly – a million? Would the valleys cut to make train tracks still be there? Would there be even the slightest sign of New York City? Even a hint of asphalt, or glass?

    The World Without Us ( ) has some good answers for that. It’s a bit preachy in parts, but his research is good.

  5. 5
    ballgame says:

    Nice post, Jeff.

  6. 6
    Helen says:

    Wow. Talk about “the big picture!”

    Neat stuff, indeed.