Fallen_leaves

This autumn, Elizabeth and I found a break in the wet weather to rake up leaves from the lane to the garden and from the grass. We made some big piles and barrowed them to a corner of the orchard where we stacked them in a container to make leaf mould—although there were far more leaves fallen than we could sensibly collect. It’s a very simple activity, but each phase of it has different qualities. Raking is a gentle, rhythmic movement, working systematically over an area, building piles of leaves at regular intervals. Picking up the raked leaves between gloved hands is awkward: each time I tried to capture a good sized two-handful the leaves flew away from my grasp. Wheeling the barrow is a wonderful integration of the human body with a manufactured implement that evolved through centuries of civilization. We filled the container with leaves, knowing that it will be a year, maybe two, before they have turned to mould. I felt immensely satisfied that my immediate actions had their place in a longer time span.

Gardening draws our attention to the cycle of the seasons. Building an orchard, as we have done this past year—clearing away rubbish, repairing two hundred year old walls, planting fruit trees—invites us to reflect on longer times spans: Who first cleared these hills around Bath? Who built these walls? How long before the trees bear fruit? Who might tend the orchard after we are gone?

But we are located in even longer time spans that this. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations reputedly required that “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation.” The recent phases of the Holocene have been particularly stable and the climate suitable for the development of complex civilizations. Beyond that is the long evolutionary history of Earth and of the universe.

On a recent visit to the Cairngorms Elizabeth and I visited the ‘parallel roads’ of Glen Roy, lines along the hillside we now know to be the marks left by the shores of glacial lakes tens of thousands of years ago and which drained catastrophically with the melting of the ice. As I wrote in my blog of November 15, I realized we were standing on the spot where these earth-shaping events happened. Again, I felt a strange satisfaction in locating present experience in the evolutionary story of Earth.

But that is relatively recent history, beyond which we might call “deep time”. A while ago I joined Stephan Harding and course participants at Schumacher College on a walk down the coast of South Devon, the purpose of which was to experience the profound age of Earth. The walk is designed over 4.6 kilometres representing the 4.6 billion years of the age of the earth. Each stride represents a million years, every millimetre a thousand years. We walked and we walked and we walked. At around one billion years we passed the emergence of life in the form of single-celled prokaryotes.  Again we walked and we walked and we walked with nothing much happening in evolutionary terms, until at around three billion years we passed the point were complex nucleated and multi-cellular organisms came into being—eukaryotes. And still we walked and we walked and we walked. And then everything speeded up. Suddenly we came upon the Cambrian explosion of biodiversity, the emergence of complex life in the sea, the colonization of land by mosses, ferns and eventually trees, and the extinction spasm caused by “Snowball Earth” when ice gripped the whole planet. In the warming phase that followed we traced the emergence of flowering plants and insects, and coming and the going of the age of reptiles. Then, right at the end of our walk, Stephan laid a ruler on the ground and pointed to the last 30 centimetres, or 300,000 years, when hominids first appeared; the last 1.3 centimetres since the last Ice Age (reflecting the dramatic changes we saw in Glen Roy); the two millimetres at the very end that represent the modern calendar; and the scarcely perceptible 0.3 millimetres since the Industrial Revolution.

Pascal said of the universe, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.” But we need to place our human experience in its immense evolutionary history. Our vision of our world is often through the narrow time-lens of human life, a vision that is shortened by the immediate gratifications of consumer culture and by short-term economic and political cycles.  We humans are as old as the universe, Joanna Macy tells us. Opening ourselves to a sense of deep time will help “build ourselves back into the fabric of the universe,” experience ourselves as part of our world. Our ability to act effectively to slow down and reverse the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems depends at least in part on our ability to step out of this temporal trap.  

 

Joanna Macy’s comment on deep time can be found in our forthcoming book, Stories of the Great Turning, edited by Peter Reason & Melanie Newman (Bristol: Vala Publications). I borrowed the phrase “build ourselves back into the fabric of the universe” from Helena and Nora Kettleborough’s contribution to the same book.