“We need an introductory page for the Time section,” said the managing editor. “Why don’t you do one of your sweeping surveys of the topic?”
OK, I agreed, slightly flattered, over-confident, knowing that the material is practically limitless.
And now the deadline has come and gone, while I ponder Time.
Deadlines are a reflection of how we hammer time into straight lines, distorting it in our minds, all the while the Earth’s rhythms continue their endless circular patterns. In this digital age, we are even losing the round-faced clock which reflected those patterns. We are reducing time to numbers with no context.
Measuring numbers, we talk of progressing toward a goal, to some (usually imaginary) better place. Alternatively, we wait for the “end times” – by war, or the hand of god, or climate chaos. For our short lives, we betray an extraordinary lack of perspective. That is why Ronald Wright’s Short History of Progress is a great read. Wright looks at past civilizations and their downfalls, reminding us that those folks too lived and feared and dreamed, like we do, and not so long ago.
Long before the industrial age, cities, and agriculture, an awful lot of life on Earth had come and some of it gone again.
Then there is Time as Age. Generally, the time since Homo sapiens evolved is pegged as 200,000 years, although of course there were, and are, many cousins and branches of the family. To put it in perspective, that is only about 7000 generations.
But long before the industrial age, cities, and agriculture, an awful lot of life on Earth had come and some of it gone again. The earliest fossil records we have of the oyster, for example, date from the early Triassic age, 250 million years ago.
During that time Earth itself has changed over and over – tropical trees in Antarctica, continents moving, sea levels rising and falling. Now scientists propose humans have so changed the Earth, especially by releasing fossil carbon, that we have entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene.
But to me, that sounds a bit grandiose. Maybe it’s time to get over ourselves.
When I am distressed with our current time of human chaos, I go for a walk on a starry night. I try to project out, to consider the entire universe. I remember that many of those stars are entire galaxies, like our Milky Way with its 100 to 400 billion stars, our sun being only one. Most of those stars have come and gone, like Earth’s life forms, eons before their light reaches our eyes. The speed of light – another measure of time.
Feeling suitably awed, I then zoom in, to our few planets in the solar system, and down to Earth and to its amazing variety of life. I think how small I am, we all are, in that perspective.
Take time for a walk with the stars. Time is all there is.
This article appears in our December 2019-January 2020 issue.