Enter Deep Time

I’m not opposed to the philosophy of “staying in the moment.”

And find it particularly useful in the context of human endeavors and relationships.

However, I’ve also found that there is more than the moment. Much more.

There is Deep Time.

And just what is Deep Time?

That’s simple. It’s a place we humans rarely go.

It’s a bearing. A labyrinth. A haunting.

It’s the lair of geologists, evolutionary biologists and certain poets.

Such people are members of a handful among us who spend hours loitering beyond human time. Way beyond human time.

But for the rest of us, the basis of life is far more constricted. The hour is the ruler of our days. While our entire timescape exists primarily within the breadth of our own lives, that of our family, and, occasionally, our country.

Respected science writer John McPhee describes this tendency in his book Annals of a Former World:

“As creatures of animal time, human beings tend to walk around in a bubble of five generations: two back; two forward. Occasionally, we may stretch a rung or two beyond this construct, but generally speaking that’s our comfort zone.”

From this comfortable perspective, then, one might suppose that Deep Time resides somewhere in the realm of ancient history. Or among the dinosaurs.

But no. Deep Time doesn’t take its shape from human history. Nor even prehistoric beasts.

When you’re ready to shed animal time and enter the more spacious (and hence more unsettling) Deep Time, try this:

“Throw your arms wide out to represent the span of all of Earthly time. Our planet forms at the tip of your left arm’s longest finger, and the Cambrian begins at the wrist of your right arm. The rise of complex life lies in the palm of your right hand, and, if you choose, you can wipe out all of human history in a single stroke with a medium grained nail file.”  

-Lee Billings, Five Billion Years of Solitude 

Well. That certainly puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

But to go one step farther, we’ve only described here the Deep Time of the planet Earth.

And, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not nearly as deep as it gets.

Because if you were to stretch out your arms again, this time to represent the span of Cosmic Time, and imagined the enormity of (Earth’s) Deep Time on the tip of one finger, then, just as handily as all of human history was erased, so could all Deep Time be removed from Cosmic Time with “the single stroke of a medium-grained nail file.”

Sobering, I know.

Yet it’s really not so much that we haven’t all heard this reality of time (or something like it) before. It’s that we rarely bring it back into remembrance. Or reflect upon it. And this is unfortunate, I think, because there’s meaning for us within it. And implications. And a shared kinship that would seem both wondrous and powerful.

But that’s for another (hopefully not too distant) time.


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