Last updated: September 19, 2016
Stare into the ancient abyss by yourself for a while –come on, give it a shot. You have time, don't you?
"Deep Time" is a genuine geologic term, although it sometimes sounds as pretentious as "deep thought". Don't need any more of that! It's the multibillion year time frame science postulates as the earth's age, deduced by observation of natural phenomena.
"The ages have been at work on it, man can only mar it."
You probably know Teddy Roosevelt's famous quote about the Grand Canyon. Poetry, of course, is a classic human answer to the face of unfathomable time.
This planet has revolved around the sun for 4 ½ billion days and 4 ½ billion nights. The light reflected from the sun, and that from Earth's fiery history, shone out during all those days from here across "Deep Space" (that is, beyond the limits of the Solar System). Is all this Deep enough for everyone?
Distance and Time of this magnitude is of course far beyond our comprehension. To add insult to injury, they go together –while our planet was being formed, the sun was whirling through the Milky Way galaxy somewhere else, on its path to here (and now). I think this is OK, though. Parts of the world that seem so vast they are unknowable, like the Grand Canyon, remind us of our limitations. There should be things beyond our understanding. Spirituality, religion, dreams - and the arts, thankfully - are ways to reach past the bounds of these frail bodies. Even our own hearts and minds are unknowable, a truth it is too easy to forget.
Remarkably, though, because Earth is made of rock, here we have a souvenir of deep time we can actually touch, one that is half as old as our home planet –the 1.84 billion year old layers at the bottom of this canyon. Whoa.
A sense of time can only be understood through our own experience, what we perceive in our own bodies. The mind conceives of longer periods of time, but the body rarely feels anything longer than its own lifespan. With great effort, we grasp the fact that our own grandparents were children, that they were familiar with the aroma of roasted chestnuts on an open fire. Your children cannot feel the times of your early life –it's as long ago to them as World War One. A child feels but the hours and days. Maturity brings us that questionable gift: the ability to comprehend the briefness of the years we are given.
But we'll never feel the centuries that a mountain knows, just as we cannot know the split-second awareness of a hummingbird, safe because all else in its world (except other hummers) is in slow motion. Almost standing still, in fact. Perhaps to a hummingbird, we are as a mountain, moving with tectonic tediousness.
We cannot feel the time it took the Colorado River to eat its way down to the rocks half as old as Earth. "Inching downward…" - there aren't words to describe such slowness. We don't feel the much, much longer time those rocks were lifted infinitesimally toward the sky. And how about the sky, and beyond it?
Space is a concept almost as difficult. You could toss Long Island into the Grand Canyon and lose track of it. Throw in Manhattan - with the new World Trade Center –whoops, all gone down there somewhere. One spring runoff release and they both wash down into the mud of Lake Mead. In fact, standing on the rim, the vast open sky - below us! –seems to have a palpable force.
Drive across America. No matter how many times you've flown from coast to coast, you won't get a sense of the actual distance until your body rolls over all that earth at eye level, mile after mile. Afterwards, you might wake with a start some night as your body remembers how that long road felt. In dreams our consciousness sometimes stretches.
Loren Eisely explained in his book "The Immense Journey" how he briefly, miraculously, became the Platte River, "sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent." Lucky guy.
But why does all this matter?
... Continued in Part 2
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