Thursday, November 29, 2012


Moon and Light (Maine, 2012)

A few months ago, my husband was reading aloud to me a description of time from John McPhee's Annals of a Former Time.  It is a marvelous book (actually five books in one) that McPhee wrote from 1978 to 1998 about his travels across the United States with geologists. In this epic text, he explains the natural history of the land we now call United States beginning 4.5 billion years ago. What interested me was the dual depictions of time: geologic and human.

Consider this section Rob read aloud to me:
When a volcano lets fly or an earthquake brings down a mountainside, people look upon the event with surprise and report it to each other as news. People, in their whole history, have seen comparatively few such events; and only in the past couple of hundred years have they begun to sense the patterns the events represent. Human time, regarded in the perspective of geologic time, is much too thin to be discerned— the mark invisible at the end of a ruler. If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, on the other hand, sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away. Yucatans and Floridas would be under the sun one moment and underwater the next, oceans would swing open like doors, mountains would grow like clouds and come down like melting sherbet, continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks down an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden full of fireflies. At the end of the program, man shows up— his ticket in his hand. Almost at once, he conceives of private property, dimension stone, and life insurance. When a Mt. St. Helens assaults his sensibilities with an ash cloud eleven miles high, he writes a letter to the New York Times recommending that the mountain be bombed. (p. 171).
Reading John McPhee helps me to better understand how so many human concerns, dramas, and perspectives appear shallow, less substantial when they are resettled alongside the long sweep of geological events. This way of seeing gives me pause--a necessary one and helps me to reconsider those perspectives I cultivate in which my concerns, largely manufactured dramas and needs are given centrality. Yet beneath the drama, some truths remain.

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