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Reflections on Issue Twenty-Five
Contours of Time
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.
Thank you to everyone who had a chance to read Issue Twenty-Five over the past week. For those who have yet to read the issue or subscribed after it was published, the reflections from other readers below may be a good starting point, or you can read “Contours of Time” first.
Reflections between Understory issues share thoughtful comments from subscribers that expand upon and challenge parts of the previous issue. Thank you to Mitch, Peter, and Drummond for the comments this week. I hope they provide further value for you (as they did for me) in considering how an enhanced depth of field about time can result in us being better stewards as the Long us.
Celebrating One Year In
It was serendipitous that Issue Twenty-Five came out a day before the first anniversary since The Understory launched. It’s a fitting example of living polytemporally. As I was writing about the 4.5 billion years of geologic time, my attention was redirected to a temporal milestone that represented the tiniest speck in our planetary history.
I often describe myself as a reluctant celebrant. Thanks to the training with Megan Sheldon & Kate Love and the nurturing community that continues to emerge here, I’ve come to appreciate celebration as a practice of presencing in time. To celebrate not just the passage of time but rather the relationship to it. To reflect on the undercurrent always in motion that runs beneath our lives.
It’s difficult to sum up in words my gratitude for the community that is The Understory. The contributions of so many subscribers have made this publication what it has become. I wanted to specifically thank those who have posted comments as I realize how difficult it is to find the time to do so. Without all of these comments, The Understory would have been a far less replete publication. In particular, I want to thank Peter Tavernise who has commented on every issue of The Understory. I also want to particularly thank Britt Wray for the mutual exchange between The Understory and her publication, Gen Dread. Thank you to Musa Nxumalo for wading into collaborative writing with me on Water. Lastly, I want to thank the hundreds of authors who laid the thematic terrain on which the past twenty-five issues have been built atop.
I started The Understory in June 2020 as a practice to deepen my own engagement with the breadth of writing and thinking about our planet and its myriad species. The project began a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and what we will hopefully see in hindsight as the peak of the climate emergency. I continue to write into what I am both interested in and what I think is largely missing from the landscape of climate communications—deep questions and thinking that inspire us to broaden and perhaps even reshape our worldviews in how we can steward the flourishing of all life.
I don’t know what the next year will bring for The Understory. I whole-heartedly thank everyone who is along for this journey and all you do to support me and the growth of the movement for a healthier living planet. We’re all here, together.
As Shared by Mitch Taylor
“The fact that our precious earth is only halfway through its 10 billion year life cycle and that when humans finally appeared they immediately started destroying its bountiful liveability in the briefest eye blink of time is just unfathomable. I am not a negative person but the poor dodo bird comes to mind.”
Reference to the Law of Matter and the fact that matter does not diminish, it just becomes another form of matter that will not necessarily be good for any life, should help inform the current search for new renewable energies. Meaning that the next big round of depletion and exhaustion of the earth’s resources as we rush headlong into batteries and solar panels etc. should bring with it more serious consideration of what form of matter will haunt earth next.”
I align with the many scholars who provide evidence that the overall tendency of humanity directs towards goodness. Therefore, to be a species that has brought about so much damage to our planet must result from some combination of blindspots, narratives, worldviews, and psychological ambivalence as written and spoken about by Renée Lertzman.
Through the work of Marcia Bjornerud, Andri Snær Magnason, and the chronicles of division between geologists about the precise dating of the Anthropocene, I came to appreciate the exponential compression of humanity’s impact on Earth within an extremely short timescale. It is exactly this exponential timescale that we’re invited to revere. Shall we celebrate the Great Acceleration? How is it that the 10x investment hurdle rate of venture capitalists is unconditionally better than the 2-3x growth rate of an unworthy venture investment? Or that the two seconds “improvement” in getting to 60 MPH of an electric vehicle over its combustion engine competitor defines it as a worthy substitute? Or even the ever-shortening time span from the moment of desire to consumption with hastened delivery times of our packages and food?
We’ve absorbed a contemporary narrative about temporal speed as a proxy for improvement while simultaneously developing convenient blind spots for the planetary boundaries where speed begets damage: biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, atmospheric carbon dioxide, access to clean water, soil erosion, and social inequality. Reflecting on the seminal text, Limits to Growth, sixteen years after publication, Donella Meadows writes,
“This summer’s drought, dying trees, and polluted waters may be a small hint of what planetary limits are like—enough of a hint, I hope, to get us to ask some hard questions about growth. Growth of what? For whom? For how long? At what cost? Paid by whom? Paid when?”
Meadows provides us with the guiding questions to pause warp-speed. Much like Meadows, Bjornerud marvels at the irony that our feats of technological advancement have simultaneously created a society that is more blind to planetary forces than the pre-industrial world. Our moment of greatest isolation from nature temporally overlaps with our greatest alteration of nature. By disrupting the Holocene with our anthropogenic forces, we’ve expanded rather than controlled nature’s influence on our lives.
As Shared by Peter Tavernise
“How many more of the "[TITLE]: How X will help save the world" books will we see in the coming years, I wonder. Many modes of thought and modes of being can help inform and support us, like Tyson Yunkaporta's writing, and now this geological frame of time-sense.
Reading Malidoma Some's The Healing Wisdom of Africa these past two weeks. He outlines the five-fold cosmology: Earth is in the center of a wheel shape, with Water as the wide North, and Fire as the narrower South, Nature is the lower South East and Mineral is the lower South West quadrant. In the context of your article this week, what is interesting to note is that Mineral is the element that stores memory, story, and here you are journeying to the center of that Earth memory.”
I joked with Peter after reading his comment that perhaps I should change the strapline of The Understory to be “an exploration of how ____ will save the planet.”
The idea that Mineral stores memory is very interesting in the context of both our geological past and the contemporary thinking of how Mineral may be a vital way to preserve our human future. In a recent interview with the CBC, Magnason discusses how the rapid melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas will introduce rich minerals into the soil that will seem like a boon to local agriculture. Similar to our fossil-fuel-based society, the melting of the glaciers is its own process of exorcising long-dead organisms in ancient sedimentary deposits. When we consume the layers that undergird us, we erode our very foundation.
The other example that comes to mind of how Mineral stores memory is the current idea to use basalt as a storehouse to sequester carbon in what is known as mineral carbonation. The hope is that we can inject enough carbon deep into basalt layers of rock that it will make a substantive difference to our atmospheric carbon levels. Whether or not it will make a material difference to our climactic future, we will have injected our own memories of trauma and destruction into the rocks of this planet. And what an incredible ask that is.
“Bjornerud echoes Robin Wall Kimmerer in that all the natural world are verbs not nouns. And that concept of Deep Time is infused in everything Joanna Macy has done with her Work That Reconnects. The kalpas or Yugas—we are in the Kali Yuga, The Fourth Age, of war and chaos before the cosmic reset, more available on that here.
Not only do we in the so-called civilized West lack a sense of the cyclical nature of time, and of geological time, we spend all our moments seeking what's next and thus fail to live in the only moment that there ever is, the present moment.”
I continue to find great nourishment in the consideration of what it means to be in the “present moment”, which I wrote about in “Fixated on the Future.” Does a present moment contain past and future? As a child, I was often told that the reason we study history is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This negative framing of history and our relationship to the planet is in stark contrast to the Ghanian proverb of sankofa which reminds us to go back for that which we have forgotten. We do not harken back to recall mistakes of the past, but rather create a presencing relationship with all that came before.
“As to the age of the Earth, some of what I'm reading lately portrays the Earth as a cosmic womb for consciousness. There have been others before us, there will be others after us. The Earth herself is developing her consciousness over the billions of years. Ray Anderson, may he rest in peace, the former CEO of Interface carpet, would often give a speech in which he asked the participants of the conference hall to picture the timeline of the earth spanning all the wall space from each corner to corner, and then to reflect that the time Humans have been here is less than an inch of space on that timeline. It is important to keep that perspective, and it should be humbling to us. We are allowed to be here for the moment, but we don't get to wreck our school before we graduate.
The transition from fossil fuels to solar, renewables, and possibly boron-based fusion is going to be a watershed moment for human maturation. The universe already provides all the energy we need, if we can break the scarcity-based economic models that have made a very few far more powerful than any set of humans ought to be. Radically democratized access to power generation will come alongside radically democratized access to the Sacred. We all are waking up to what is possible, and we see the current polarization as part of the Old's last gasp of fighting what is coming next, what is seeking to be born. May we all help to found the transitional economies we need to get us to that future. Take a look at the Geoversity in Panama, founded by Nathan Gray, Dr. Tamsin Woolley Barker and others as one example of what the next generation is already doing to prepare themselves to lead in that future.”
The emerging discipline of regenerative economics is looking deeply at these questions of what a transitional economy in the short-term and a regenerative economy in the long-term mean for our common future and how we inhabit this planet (see “Material of Wealth”). The intersections of Bjornerud’s thinking with those of the regenerative economists is the shared interest in planetary flourishing. Her invocation to live polytemporally is an invitation to treat our present as timeful, rather than timeless, which is awakening to the possibilities of what Peter describes.
As Shared by Drummond Lawson
“I was thinking earlier today of Bjornrud's analogy that humanity in our current time and place behaves like terrible tourists—trashing the place, paying no attention to what goes on when we're not here, and basically trying to take whatever we can. It's basically like our job is to steal the linens and avoid paying the bill.
My mind goes to whether one can develop an aspiration towards polytemporal grace—of trying to live well, in the context not only of one's own time, but in one's epoch or beyond. Can we take on the role of being a custodian of our layer in the sedimentary record, and embrace the challenge of leaving behind a strata that shows more than just fragments of degraded plastic toys—both physically and metaphorically.”
Thank you, Drummond, for leaving us with the narrative analogy of our sedimentary legacy. How can we understand our expansive materiality in the Anthropocene? A time when we not only accumulate, dispossess, and dispose at unprecedented rates in human history, but also by which we can change the contours of time through our manipulation of Earth’s systems. What a responsibility and opportunity we hold that is mythological in scale as Magnason describes. Just as we are made of stardust, our actions and matter will become the future sedimentary layers of Earth. “Everywhere on Earth, troves of earlier epochs persist in the contours of landforms and the rocks beneath, even as new chapters are being written,” writes Bjornerud.
We have already inscribed our own chapter of plastic strata and trash mountains into the Earth. The question remains, “what new chapter will we write next?”
I hope this week between issues provides the space for further discovery and reflection. Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead. See you next weekend with a preview of Issue Twenty-Six.
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Why I Write The Understory
We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The complexity of climate change demands continued focus and 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 are presently altering my worldview. Within the words, research, and actions of others lies the inspiration for personal and organizational journeys. I hope that my work here helps to inform not just my persistent consciousness but yours as well.