Discover more from The Understory
Contours of Time
The Understory: Issue Twenty-Five
I’m pleased you found The Understory—my biweekly essays on consciousness during the climate emergency. If you’re here for the first time, hello! Enter your email below to get issues to your inbox, free.
“Follow me along the western coast of Iceland. Do you see Reykjavik, the capital? Yes. Good. Work your way up along the countless fjords of these shorelines eaten by the sea, and stop a little before the line of 65° N. What do you see?”
The destination that Professor Lidenbrock directs our attention towards in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) is the glacier-capped stratovolcano, Snæfellsjökull. As the story goes, Lindebrock discovers a twelfth-century Icelandic book, Heimskringla by Snorre Turleson. From out of the book falls a small piece of parchment with “mumbo-jumbo style characters written on it.”
After significant efforts to decode the runic characters, Axel (the nephew), discovers that the document is a note from Arne Saknussemm who invites the “audacious traveller” to travel through the Snæfellsjökull crater just as he did. Intrigued by the idea of volcanic tubes that reach to the very center of the earth, Lidenbrock and Axel depart for Iceland and “undertake the strangest expedition the nineteenth century has ever known.”
Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is an invitation to traverse what John McPhee calls “Deep Time.” When we get to bear witness to billions of years of creation over the span of a few hundred pages. As Wiliam Butcher writes in the Introduction to the Oxford edition,
“One apparent scientific example central to the novel is the time-space equivalence: by going down into the Earth, the heroes go back through the layers of past time. They leave the nineteenth century, pass through the successive geological ages, and become 'prehistoric' or 'fossilized.’”
The irony that would likely not be lost on Verne is that it is no longer necessary to descend into the centre of the earth to travel through the layers of geologic time. That temporal journey can now be experienced above the earth’s surface within the span of the glacier (or what is left of it) due to the new “geology of mankind” as coined by Paul Crutzen. Marcia Bjornerud acknowledges the anachronism in describing one of the most rapidly shifting bodies of the natural world, glaciers, with the “imperceptively slow” glacial pace. Glaciers are no longer changing at a glacial pace. The loss of Iceland’s glaciers is “a collapse, an explosion in slow motion...We are living through the Great Thaw, the Big Melt. We have to remind ourselves that this is not normal,” writes Andri Snær Magnason in The Guardian.
Through the writings of Verne, Bjornerud, and Magnason, we experience Snæfellsjökull as temporal whiplash. In August 2012, the 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano was ice-free for the first time in recorded history. The glacier is likely to be gone from Snæfellsjökull for good in the next 30 years.
Issue Twenty-Five seeks to expand our capacity to think beyond the present—what Bjornerud calls developing “a depth of field about time.” This issue dares to imagine the ways in which being a time-literate civilization, a “Chronotopia,” would change the way we inhabit Earth. To feel what it is like to eschew notions of linear time for a state where the past, present, and future co-exist and interact. Just as Verne gave his imagination full rein to maximize “the potential of blank areas on or off the maps” (Butcher), we too can alter our sense of time to build a greater depth of understanding and reverence for what has been created and for what may emerge in the future.
In its essence, climate change is a story about and of time. As we touch the periphery of Deep Time we contextualize our own being and actions into something far larger and more important than what happens to direct our present gaze. Here we find the continuum rather than the edges that connect us to the whole.
As someone who seemed to always be just on the short side of tall, I recall as a child mild befuddlement when having my pants altered. More often than not, pants that I tried on were exercises in imagination to foresee them fitting once cut, darted, and sewn. While this part of trying on clothes became normal, I found myself conceptually at odds with the little reserve of material the seamstress would stash away for later during alterations. There was an affordance for the passage of time within the space of leg length or the tuck of a waistband.
It turns out that my alterations were a small part of an expansive history of clothes as time machines. In the nineteenth century, women frequently sewed pouches with money and jewelry into the hems of their skirts so as to be invisible to the outside world, particularly when travelling. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Beatrix Whittaker sewed dozens of pockets in her travel dress to smuggle tulip bulbs swaddled in moss out of the Netherlands into Philadelphia where she would be building a new life. Our clothes are often polytemporal—serving an immediate present, forecasting forward to a possible future, and embodying a past through their materials and labour.
It was upon reading Andri Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water and Marcia Bjornerud’s Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World in succession that I felt compelled to expand my own thinking about time and its relationship to our changing climate. Reading these two works reminded me of what it felt like to be suspended in pools of time. Pools where the significance of their timestamp came not from their dislocation from the broader context, but rather being in situ with the long span of history. Bjornerud describes polytemporality as feeling like:
“I stood at the center of a circle, equidistant from all stages of my life, past and future. The sensation spills over to the landscape and rocks; immersed in their stories, I see that the events of the past are still present and feel they could even be replayed again one day in a beautiful revelation. This impression is a glimpse not of timelessness but timefulness, an acute consciousness of how the world is made by—indeed, made of—time.”
Bjornerud speaks of where she lives in Wisconsin as concurrently many Wisconsins due to the natural and human histories that linger through its landscapes. “Where rocks are not nouns but verbs” as they represent the processes of the planet that unfold over long stretches of time. Writing in his notebook in 1979, Brian Eno articulates the desire to live in the “Big Here and a Long Now” which is so beautifully captured in the writing and thinking of Bjornerud and Magnason. As Stewart Brand writes in The Clock of the Long Now (1999), the Big Here and the Long Now “merge as Long Here, which is no longer just occupied but managed by what might be called the Long us.”
Most pre-modern cultures and some spiritual traditions endure today as polytemporal and embrace the responsibilities of the Long us. The past is embedded in the realization of the present such as in Aboriginal Songlines (see Issue Nineteen) and Indigenous cultures of reciprocity (see Issue Seven). Both Hinduism and Buddhism share the Deep Time concept of kalpas, which are unfathomably long periods of time that can span million- to billion-year cycles of creation and destruction. Similar to the concept shared in Issue Four by Larry Littlebird of walking backwards into the future, the Ghanan proverb of sankofa—“se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi" or “sankofa w’onkyir”—translates as “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The symbol of sankofa is either a heart or a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back to represent bringing the past forward.
Bjornerud writes that for most people in affluent and “developed countries,” there is not just a lack of polytemporality, but also little sense of geological time: whether the periods of Earth’s history, rates of change during times of instability, and timescales that created our “natural capital.” She describes this as the root of our time illiteracy:
“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established travel patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws.”
Humanity in Context
It is hard to conceive of now, but it was only in 1956 that Clair Patterson fixes the age of Earth that we understand today: 4.55 billion years +/- 70 million. It was in the late eighteenth century that Scottish scientist James Hutton determines he can use present-day rocks to deduce the age of the world. Rather than the generally accepted Western culture worldview by way of religion that Earth was about 6,000 years old and would only last another 1,000 years, Hutton realizes that Earth was unimaginably old and there was no reason to forecast it would end (now predicted for around five billion years when the sun burns out). He also determines that the past and present are not governed by different geological rules, but rather connected by continuous geologic processes which came to be known as uniformitarianism. As you can imagine, Hutton’s concept of time was not welcome by Abrahamic religions as it exposes the creation story of Genesis as out of sync with the scientific record. Furthermore, Hutton’s science was at odds with the idea that we humans are exceptional, as we were not part of creation’s beginning, but rather emerge quite recently in an evolutionary cycle that connects us with all other species (see Issue Twenty).
Building off the work of Hutton, Charles Lyell publishes the Principles of Geology (1830-33) decades later which identifies the natural processes of modern geology. He determines that sedimentary rocks and fossils can help us understand past climates, which many recognize as the beginning of climate science. Lyell identifies that the present is key to understanding the past through countless small changes occurring over vast periods; a concept that has dramatic repercussions for understanding time and more specifically influencing Darwin decades later in his theory of evolution. Lyell also proposes the name we use today, Holocene (“Recent Whole”), to describe the post-glacial epoch of relative stability.
Hutton and Lyell’s new ways of understanding geologic time radically diminish the importance of humans in shaping Earth in ways that we are still grappling with today. Undoubtedly, there is a psychological effect of humans being understood as adjacent to and a product of rather than central to the planetary narrative. Bjornerud suggests that as a general species, we humans “have a childlike disinterest and partial disbelief in the time before our appearance on Earth. With no appetite for stories lacking human protagonists, many people simply can't be bothered with natural history.” As our distance from the long history of Earth increases, we found consolation in the story of the Earth’s consistency. The uniformitarianism that Hutton first identifies as characteristic of the Holocene Epoch brought a time of exceptional geologic stability. This stability enables humans to build the foundations of civilizations—agriculture, written language, science, technology, government, and fine arts. It is both in the subconscious disbelief of the long history of the world before humans and the hubris of a neverending, stable Holocene that has in part brought about the psychopathic behaviours responsible for our climate emergency.
A Human-Altered Planet
“Omnia mutantur, nihil interit”
(Everything changes, nothing perishes)
— Ovid, Metamorphoses
Our ambivalence to or even disregard for Deep Time is at the root of our fossil fuel-addicted society. How could we so willingly destroy ancient ecosystems and carelessly use materials resulting from long-evolving biogeochemical cycles to take a twenty-minute hot shower, shrink wrap agriculture, or assume that the only cost of air travel is the price of the plane ticket? Magnason eloquently summarizes the superpower that fossil fuels brought to the expansion of humanity in On Time and Water:
“Earth's inhabitants numbered seven hundred million when we started exploiting the coal and oil that gave us superstrength. We persuade ourselves that the basis of our society is idealistic but when push comes to shove it is fuel that undergirds everything. We're now seven billion strong, having cheated the system and dug our way down to ancient sedimentary deposits, strata from long-dead organisms. Like exorcists, we disturbed their infinite sleep, pumping them back to the surface, kindling fires and harnessing hundred-million-year-old sunshine as it lay dormant in the Earth's belly. We bent fire to our will.”
It is this asymmetry that Bjornerud describes as our existential gamble—the distinction between the time it takes to harvest and consume millions of years of biochemical processes with the time it would take to regenerate them. We’ve expanded human populations more than tenfold over the past three centuries and exponentially increased our impact on the planet and its myriad species, landscapes, and oceans with a complete disregard for limits and the laws of matter. We know from the Law of Conservation of Matter that the amount of matter stays the same, even when it changes form. It’s an illusion to think that when our automobile burns gasoline or our furnaces consume natural gas that it just disappears. We know that matter does not magically disappear. It forms a blanket of combusted materials across our planet’s atmosphere and over its surface choking everything within it.
In 2000, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen wrote an article, “The Geology of Mankind,” that introduces the concept of the Anthropocene. Eighth years later a group of stratigraphers built off that legacy in “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?” with enough evidence that the stationarity identified by Hutton and Lyell as characteristic of the Holocene had ended and been replaced by a new geologic era. We broke the Holocene by doubling rates of erosion and sedimentation, sea levels, ocean pH, species extinction, and atmospheric carbon dioxide within the blink of a geologic eye. We brought about new contours in the time horizon through the climactic, biological, and geochemical signatures we’ve left in sediment and ice.
As this article in The Guardian attests, it was quite the ordeal to concede the ending of the Holocene and supplantment by the Anthropocene. Part of the conundrum is to determine the precise date marker for this shift in the geological record. Any guess at which date they choose? There were many options in the running for primacy. Alas, it was Robert Oppenheimer who eventually garners the prize. Evoking the mythologic, Magnason writes that just as Prometheus ascended Mount Olympus to steal fire and bring it to humanity, “Oppenheimer dove down into the smallest unit of matter and brought the world's leaders the nuclear bomb. As a result, the world's leaders had godly superpowers, the ability to blow up the whole Earth.” The geological record for the beginning of the Anthropocene is July 16, 1945, when the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert bore witness to the first atomic bomb explosion. Three weeks later the United States would drop two more nuclear bombs on Japan.
Wrapping Our Arms Around Time
In his interview with Emergence Magazine, Magnason reflects on the challenges and vagaries of writing about a future most of us are challenged to comprehend. “When you talk about the future, it becomes vague because, of course, the future doesn’t have anything. The future doesn’t have smell, texture, emotions." The London design studio, Superflux, faces this challenge head-on with a project for the Ministry of Energy and the Prime Minister’s Office of the Government of the UAE. The Future Energy Lab creates myriad ways for decision-makers to experience possible energy futures. Each future has a series of artifacts to represent the lived experience of different anthropogenically induced scenarios.
In the “Business as Usual” future which seeks to portray the continuation of the fossil-fuel status quo, Superflux creates air samples from the years 2020, 2028, and 2034 with various concentrations of greenhouse gases. They invite decision-makers to inhale this noxious gas which makes visceral what data often struggles to do—viscerally experience an unacceptable future based on our current trajectory of consumption and production. Superflux also proposes the idea of “The Tomorrow Fund,” which offers citizens a payment plan to contribute financially towards their children’s future based on the generational expenses incurred by today’s behaviour. The holographic fund advisor shares deductions the family is entitled to should they behave more sustainability.
Both Magnason and Elise Boulding recognize the cultural importance of being able to wrap our arms around an expanded version of time beyond our immediate present and lifetimes. Recalling the exhaustion of the 24/7 time from Issue Three, Boulding suggests that we suffer from “temporal exhaustion...If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is not energy left for imagining the future." In her paper "The Dynamics of Imagining Futures” (1978), Boulding proposes expanding our idea of the present to two hundred years–one hundred years forward and one hundred back. Her idea is not one of prophecy but rather “an at-homeness with our changing times”—something many of us relate to as inherently challenging in embracing the horizon ahead.
Magnason prolonged Boulding’s time frame by another 50 years. He realized that his daughter can touch 1924 through her great-grandmother, and reach 2170 through her great-grandchildren. “That’s almost 250 years. That’s the arm’s length. That’s the personal connection to people, the intimate time of my daughter." Magnason calls this exercise in 250-year visioning “pancake sci-fi”—his alternative to the flying cars and cyborg-dotted landscapes of science-fiction. Magnason’s science fiction ensures we will be able to sit around the breakfast table with our great grandparents on a weekend morning and recount stories together over pancakes. His future is one where we become more human by revering and preserving that which is most vital to our humanity—relationships to each other, other species, and the planet at large.
Magnason and Bjornerud share a reverence for deep relationality. Both authors offer concepts, metaphors, and myths that lengthen our connections to all life through time. This polytemporality is antithetical to the scorched earth process of modern-day disruption. Instead of revering “the visionaries” whose concepts of future circumvent “the irksome constraints of the natural world that have shackled hapless denizens of the past” whereby technological prowess is mistaken for wisdom (Bjornerud), the two authors bring forth a reverence for the gifts that we have been given on Earth and our custodial role in enabling future generations to share in the bounty. This is why stories of the future must connect to the land as Larry Littlebird espouses. And it is why those stories no longer require human protagonists to revere what we have on this planet. We’ve changed geologic time. It’s now time to change the human narrative.
Gary Snyder offers this short poem at the end of his collection, Present Moments (2016):
This present moment
that lives on
And Stuart Brand’s response
This present moment
Used to be
The unimaginable future.
Andri Snær Magnason can’t help but chuckle a bit in an interview when describing that his project is just to “update our sense of time.” I feel much the same way in writing this issue. Of course, time is of human importance, but is our time (il)literacy culpable for the abrupt transition from planetary time to the geology of mankind?
Most of us likely don’t consider how our sense of time affects our sense of planetary responsibilities. We’d likely refute the evidence from “Talking in the present, caring for the future: Language and environment,” that the way we use future time markers in language profoundly affect our temporal outlooks. We’re often so caught up in the eternal present that we abolish the past behind it. We “are separated from earlier times by epistemic ruptures so radical that nothing of the past survives,” writes Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern. Our depth of field about time is shortening, while the horizon seems to always be moving closer.
If we are to move from a destructive planetary force to a regenerative one (and we must), we need to dramatically alter our conceptions of time by being polytemporal. Just as Marcia Bjornerud uses the metaphor of the palimpsest on which medieval scholars inscribe new narratives atop of old on parchment, so too we need to build our temporal layering capacity that sees contours of time. We haphazardly deplete millions of years of summer that lie deep underground to provide momentary comfort while enveloping our atmosphere and planetary surfaces in combusted material. “Nothing we produce can hold a candle to the ocean itself, nothing is as magnificent as a glacier, nothing so mysterious as a rainforest at night,” writes Magnason. “If we do nothing, we will be the generation that was handed paradise and ruined it.”
I have been deeply moved by the writers quoted in this issue. And would like to conclude with the words of Marcia Bjornerud that were at the beginning of my timefulness journey:
“I've written this book in the belief (possibly naive) that if more people understood our shared history and destiny as Earth dwellers, we might treat each other, and the planet, better...It is possible for people from developed and developing countries, socialist and capitalist regimes, theocracies and democracies to cooperate, debate, disagree, and move toward consensus, unified by the fact that we are all citizens of a planet whose tectonic, hydrologic, and atmospheric habits ignore national boundaries. Maybe, just maybe, the Earth itself, with its immensely deep history can provide a politically neutral narrative from which all nations may agree to take counsel.”
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
If you liked this Issue, please subscribe. The Understory is free and will come to your inbox weekly.
In between issues I share my own reflections and those I have heard from readers. While the term community is often overused and thus abused, The Understory is a community of readers who value the comments of others. Please reply to this email or leave a comment on the website with any reflections you feel comfortable sharing 🙏.
Why I Write The Understory
We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The scale of the issue demands not only continuous focus but also the courage to take bold action. I've found that the persistence of climate consciousness improves resilience to the noise and distractions of daily life in service of a bigger (and most of the time invisible) long-term cause.
The Understory is my way of organizing the natural and human-made curiosities that capture my attention. Within the words, research, and actions of others lies the inspiration for personal and organizational journeys. I hope that my work here will help to inform not just my persistent consciousness, but yours as well.