(Pair this post, if you dare, with a listen to my absolute queen Joanna Newsom’s album Divers, which is all a meditation on time and what it means to love another person in the face of the temporary span of a life. It’s a ton of fun. Here’s a sample:)
And what lies under now the city is gone. Look, and despair.“Sapokanikan,” Joanna Newsom
I recently spent a week with my parents in some of the National Parks of the Southwest. We went to the Grand Canyon (very grand indeed), Zion, and Bryce Canyon. These are all fantastic places to spend time, and I would highly recommend them. The views, man.
Of my parents and me, two of us arrived in a new decade in the last year. We thought, in not quite so many words, that a trip to the parks would be a good opportunity to mark the passage of time. Our trip also happened to coincide with All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’,) and All Souls’ Day, when quite a lot of people are considering all those who have come before us.
So that’s fun.
But you don’t have to be in landscapes like these long to understand that the kind of time you can count in birthdays, or even in entire human civilizations, is nothing in comparison with the kind of time that is cleaved open and on display in a canyon.
You learn at the Grand Canyon that, even though you’re looking a mile down into a few billion years of rock history, which the river has carved through in the last five million years (give or take!), there are a casual 270 million years of rock history that eroded clean away before the river had a chance to cut into them. Just—270 million missing years, and what you’re looking at is the rest.
You see these amazing landforms that basically defy logic. It’s rock behaving as rock has no business behaving. You know better (because you watched the video in the rangers’ station and you read the plaques) but it looks like rocks are growing like trees. It looks like rocks are flowing like molasses. It looks like rocks are flopping like pancakes, one on top of the other.
The whole thing is just time and mutation. Volcanoes beget flatlands. Marshes give way to oceans, which give way to deserts, which rise thousands of feet to become mountains, and then rivers file them down into chasms, revealing the history from within. This happens not at all silently, but wordlessly.
And even though it all took a few million or billion years, depending on how you count, it’s also changing every year. The spooky hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are inherently temporary. Every winter, ice pushes them apart more, and every summer their rocks fall. I saw it happen: a dozen or so rocks the size of my fist tumbled quite mundanely off a cliff as I hiked below. This, day after day, is how plateaus become walls, walls become windowed, windowed walls become towers, and towers crumble into hillocks, then into flatness. The high land will erode, 1-4 feet every century, who knows how far back? Until the infrastructure of the park, which sits atop the plateau looking down over the canyon, will be eaten away and gone.
We happen to be able to see it now, but it’s anything but permanent.
It’s enough to make you wonder what “conservation” is all about. We wouldn’t be wise to attempt to conserve a hoodoo. We’d do more damage to the park by trying to freeze it in time than by letting it be. What it is is something that exists for a time, maybe a few decades, and then collapses. It wouldn’t be conservation to turn it into something else entirely—something that lasts forever. That would be transformation. (Appropriate for Halloween, perhaps, when zombies and monsters of all kinds roam, but not for All Saints’ Day, when we peacefully remember those who have come and gone before us.)
Maybe conservation is, instead, giving all the entities that make up the Earth a chance to make their own story, in rock or tree or fur or desert.
So it would seem to be true:
when cruel birth debases, we forget.
When cruel death debases,
we believe it erases all the rest
But stand brave, life-liver,
bleeding out your days
in the river of time.
time moves both ways,“Time, As a Symptom,” Joanna Newsom
On long walks out there, I started to think about sandstone. You’re surrounded by it in that environment. Sand is everything: it’s the desert, and it’s the ocean floor, and now it’s the canyon. But it’s just sand. Walking along the canyon bottom you feel it underneath your boots, just as slow and yielding as a beach. What’s beneath your feet used to be the canyon walls above you. It’s the bits that have disintegrated lately.
If you touch the walls as you pass, you might rub off some sand. It comes easily, when it’s ready. But underneath the loosened part, there’s hard sandstone. It’s not ready, not yet. But give it a year or a thousand and it will blow away too.
That’s stone, and we’re people. We live on different time frames, by a factor of many zeroes. But like rock we always change, even until we die. That’s the wonderful thing about being alive. The change doesn’t all happen at once, and it doesn’t happen in an orderly way. We’ll find that there are places that are a little looser, a little more ready to give. We can be grateful for those. The rest might be a little tougher. That’s okay. Give it time. Because the loosening of what’s easy, the letting go of the stone that’s ready to be sand already, makes room for more change. And the loosening of that loose sand is what slowly, imperceptibly, loosens the hard stuff.
And Time, in our camp, is moving
as you’d anticipate it to.
But what is this sample proving?
Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do.“Anecdotes,” Joanna Newsom