Escaping the pandemic into deep time

How histories of the Earth have become our new secular origin myths

This month - October 2020 - has been challenging, chaotic. Covid cases here in the UK are surging, with the prospect of a grim winter ahead. The global disruption of the pandemic shows no sign of abating. Wave after wave keeps rolling in.

We all said it back in March, but it's starting to sink in emotionally: the world has changed, and life won't go back to the way it was. We're already living in the new era, even if we can't yet see all of its contours.

The human brain is not well equipped for these kinds of abrupt paradigm shifts. For me it's been easy to feel overwhelmed by the news, or else to switch off entirely and go numb.

Amidst this pervasive, ongoing uncertainty, you take your comforts where you can get them. And this month, I've found myself taking comfort in deep time stories, in tales about projects and entities that exist far beyond human lifespans.

A 4,900 year old bristlecone pine in Nevada. Cave art in southern France or in the Pilbara in Western Australia. Land art like the chalk horses in Britain. The Brewarrina fish traps in northern New South Wales, cared for and maintained for tens of thousands of years.

In particular, I've been returning to my favourite sub-genre of science writing: histories of the earth in simple metaphors. I have a deep fondness for any attempt to communicate the story of life on Earth through some familiar image - a clockface, or a handspan. What follows is a selection of some of my favourites.

Brian Walker's Finding Resilience compresses the history of the Earth into a year.

'For the first three days in January, the Earth is a boiling mass in which denser substances sink into a molten core. As the atmosphere thins and cools, the surface crust forms. Water vapour accumulates in the atmosphere, condensation leads to rain, and on 4 January the oceans form.'

In this narrative, life emerges at the end of January. The first chloryphill happens at the end of May, leading to the great surge in planetary oxygen. The first fish crawl on to land on 1 December. Dinosaurs appear around 15 December and rule the planet until a huge comet hits the earth late on Christmas day.

At around 4.30pm on 31 December, the first bipedal apes emerge in subtropical Africa. Finally, 2 seconds before midnight, the Industrial Age arrives: 'Forests disappear, vast swathes of cultivated land appear. As the number and size of cities explode, so too do the intensities of fires, crammed together like a fireworks display.'

In his tree novel The Overstory, Richard Powers compacts that history even further:

Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. Even then, it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning—a million million years of branching—nothing more exists than lean and simple cells.

The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Nine p.m. brings jellyfish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout—backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. Plants make it up on land just before ten. Then insects, who instantly take to the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures.

By eleven, dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Somewhere in that last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Animals learn to hold rituals. Anatomically modern humans show up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to grow crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.

Peter Brannen in The Ends of the World uses a spatial metaphor rather than a chronological one:

Imagine each step you take represents 100 years of history. We’ll start in the present and head back. As you lift up your heel there’s no Internet, one-third of the earth’s coral reefs reappear, atomic bombs violently reassemble, two world wars are fought (in reverse), the electric glow on the night side of the planet is extinguished, and—when your foot lands—the Ottoman Empire exists. One step. After twenty steps, you stroll by Jesus. A few paces later the other great religions begin to wink out of existence: first Buddhism, then Zoroastrianism, then Judaism, then Hinduism.

With each footfall, the cultural milestones get more staggering. The first legal systems and writing disappear, and then, tragically, so does beer. After only a few dozen steps—before you can even reach the end of the block—all of recorded history peters out, all of human civilization is behind you, and woolly mammoths exist. That was easy.

You stretch your legs and prepare for what couldn’t be much longer of a walk. Not so. In fact, you would have to keep walking for 20 miles a day, every day, for four years to cover the rest of the planet’s history. Almost all of that walk would be through a forbidding landscape with no complex life on it whatsoever. Not in the deep sea, not atop the mountains, not in the tropics, nor on the endless barren granite interiors of the continents. Save for the wind and the waves, ours was a silent planet for the most part during this nearly eternal preamble to animal life.

Why do we find these images such as these so satisfying? For me, they do two things.

First of all, by telling history as a story, they play to our cognitive strengths, activating what Tyson Yunkaporta calls our Story-mind. In the form of a narrative, we're able to make sense of these events in a way that we could not if we were simply given a list of dates millions of years in the past.

Secondly: in many ways, I feel these deep time histories have become our new creation myths. Like traditional origin myths, these tales help us to understand who we are by telling us how we - and our world - came to be.

Unlike religious myths, these secular scientific stories don't usually have an explicit moral - geologists generally stop short of telling us how we should behave. But when I hear these stories, I can't help feeling a sense of something sacred. By placing our present struggles in this larger context, I feel a sense of humility and a sense of comfort.

These stories say to me, 'Don't be arrogant, you're a tiny speck, your grand ambitions and achievements don't matter at all.' But also, 'Don't worry, you're a part of this vast story, a drop in the flow, and this crisis will pass like countless others before it.'

Amidst a chaotic, tumultuous month, that sense of perspective is worth holding on to.

I'll finish with my favourite depiction of history, from Richard Fortey's Life. He compares the history of the planet to the landscape of a remote rocky beach on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. This metaphor is vaguer, but for me somehow truer, and it summons in me a shiver down the spine every time:

The great raised beach on which I laboured, with its endless shingle retreating into the mist – the pebble to hand might mark the appearance of Homo sapiens. The farthest I could throw it might just reach to the age of the dinosaurs, while beyond that lay further beaches which could be seen more or less clearly, themselves composed of banks of pebbles, and then, into the mist, dimly perceived, more distant beaches, impalpable, remote, the outer reaches of Precambrian time. And, alongside, the sea, the eternal sea, linking pebble with pebble, framing time itself.

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NEWS AND PROJECTS

I'm pleased to say that this month I have no news or projects to announce - the last few weeks have been spent working on first drafts and rewrites of new playscripts, which is a good feeling.

Things that I've read and enjoyed this month:

Rebecca Giggs - After everything this year, what we hear when we listen to birdsong has changed
A meditation on nature amidst crisis and a beautiful sketch of the audio landscape of the pandemic.

Richard Seymour - The Twittering Machine
Seymour's psychoanalytic reading of social media and the 'death drive' that compels us to it is easily one of my favourite books of the year. This review is a lot of fun too.

Michelle Lhooq - How to trip through a pandemic
Why are shrooms the most popular drug of this moment? Honestly I think it's a pretty compelling case.

Yellow Swans - Going Places
I've returned to this 2010 record on its re-release, and it's a stunning, surging joy. If you like ecstatic noise and drone - this is the waterfall rushing through yr head that you need.

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As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have anything that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.

Peace!