Time, like comfort, is a relative thing. Only in the recent centuries of human existence have we stretched ourselves enough to imagine truly deep time. Understanding the history of any rock or cave leads inexorably to the origins of life, and the origins of our world before it, and the origins of our universe before that.
Individuals both daring and careful have paved the way for us to not only see such things, but to understand. Slowly, the great scientific minds of humanity have reasoned and tested their way into a world much larger and older than even the most exotic flights of imagination. Not content with a hand-waving dismissal of history before History, we have asked ourselves “why” and “how” so many times that we can now trace back the creation of our world to its temporal horizon: the big bang. This event is the current edge of our knowledge, and beyond it, time itself seems to have no meaning.
When we project our understanding of history into the infinite future, it reduces our world and species to a nearly insignificant blip in the vast expanse of time. For some, the knowledge of our smallness is exhilarating, evoking a multi-dimensional universe that teases us with hints of something mind-bogglingly larger than ourselves. For others, that same smallness sparks discomfort and fear, and they rebel, rejecting the wilderness of deep time and an infinite universe in favor of a small, short, human-centered view of otherwise vast creation. We can sacrifice deep time on the altar of our comfort if we so choose, compressing wondrous infinity into a few thousand years, or we can step beyond our preconceptions and seek to replace our conjectures with verity. For the curious, the infinite universe is there to be explored, wherever that exploration leads.
I know from experience how easy it is to ignore the evidence of antiquity; it takes care to stop and see. Driving at high speed through the constructed world, the evidence of what came before is drowned out by billboards, roads, bridges, buildings, people, and the edifices of humanity. The wilderness of deep time only seeps through the cracks; but now that I know where to look, I see it in every road cut, every river, and every hillside.
When I travel from my home in Vermont to my former home in Virginia, I pass many of the signs of deep time. The sheep-backed hills of Vermont are evidence of ice a mile thick that ground across this place fourteen thousand years earlier. The fossil-bearing red sandstones of the Connecticut River Valley tell of dinosaurs that walked here seventy million years ago. The rolling plains and ridges of the Appalachian mountain chain bear witness to the end of a continental collision 350 million years ago. The limestones of Pennsylvania and West Virginia were laid down one hundred million years before that in an inland sea. Half a billion years of deep time, and we are not even one eighth of the way back to the formation of the earth, and that is not even one third of the way back to the formation of the universe.
The wilderness of deep time is an irresistible to me as any other. We can only see so far, but there is something mystical about unreachable places that spurs both the imagination and a connection with the infinite. The highest summits of mountains, the blackest depths of the Earth, the farthest reaches of space. Throughout history humans have strived to go farther, deeper, and higher, until we touch the very corners of the universe.
Standing on the tiniest sliver of the point of time’s arrow, I cannot help but peer back as far as I am able to catch a glimpse of the bow, or even the archer somewhere beyond the horizon.
Photo Credit: Me