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‘No Vestige of a Beginning, No Prospect of an End’: Learning to See the World in Deep Time

Inspired by Northlands, this month’s Ignite story explores the concept of “deep time,” the massive, almost incomprehensible timescale on which the natural world operates. By situating ourselves in this grand history, we might just remember the world was not made for humankind alone.

At 117 years old, Kane Tanaka of Japan is the oldest living person in the world, followed closely by the 116-year-old Lucille Randon of France and the 115-year-old Francisca Celsa dos Santos of Brazil.1 Tanaka, Randon, and Celsa dos Santos have lived far beyond the average human life expectancy of 72, bearing witness along the way to more than it seems a single life could contain: two world wars that reshaped civilization, the first man on the moon, the birth of the internet, and a whole lot more.

But that’s nothing compared to Methuselah. At more than 4,800 years old, Methuselah — named for a Biblical figure said to live a comparatively scanty 969 years — is the oldest living thing on the entire planet. It’s also a tree — a bristlecone pine, to be exact.2

The Methuselah Grove at Inyo National Forest. Methuselah’s exact location is a closely guarded secret of the United States Forest Service. Source: Methusalah

Somewhere in the White Mountains of California — the exact location is kept secret for the tree’s safety — Methuselah has been standing for literal millennia.3 If the lifespans of Tanaka, Randon, and Celsa dos Santos boggle the mind, Methuselah’s age is downright incomprehensible on a human scale. This is a tree that lived through the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, and then from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Rome rose and fell within Methuselah’s lifetime. Mammoths went extinct and horses were domesticated. Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, and Muhammed were born, began world-changing movements, and died while Methuselah grew peacefully inside Inyo National Forest — a national park that itself wasn’t formally established until 1907, well into Methuselah’s fourth millennium.45

The 500-Year-Old Shark and Other Tales

And Methuselah’s not even the only organism that has seen so much.

Take Pando, named for a Latin word meaning “I spread.” While Methuselah is a single tree, Pando is a colony of clonal quaking aspens, all grown from a single original seed and a shared rootstock. Today, Pando’s colony contains more than 50,000 trees, occupying an area roughly as large as Vatican City in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest. Because Pando’s individual trunks have all sprouted at separate times, it’s tough to estimate the exact age of the colony. However, by extrapolating from the size of the colony and the growth of its individual trunks, researchers estimate Pando may be as much as 80,000 years old.6

All of the quaking aspens pictured above are part of Pando. Source: Forbes

In terms of animals, Antarctic glass sponges may be even older than Methuselah: researchers estimate these sponges, found on the ocean floor around Antarctica, could live as long as 15,000 years. No precise method of measuring the sponge’s age has been developed just yet, so this is more of an informed guess than an exact dating. For now, Methuselah still holds the confirmed crown.7

The oldest living animal with a precisely measured lifespan may be the ocean quahog clam. In 2007, scientists discovered a 507-year-old specimen off the coast of Iceland. They named it Ming, after the Ming dynasty, which ruled China at the time of the clam’s birth.8 That said, the Greenland shark does give Ming a run for its money. This slow-moving, Arctic-dwelling creature has an average lifespan between 300 and 500 years. It doesn’t even reach sexual maturity until about 150.9

“Cold-climate animals tend to live longer because they, in effect, live more slowly.”

(Noticing a trend? All the longest-living animals seem to occupy frigid waters. Scientists aren’t quite sure why lower-temperature environments are correlated with longer lifespans, but they think it may have to do with the fact that important biological functions like DNA repair and gene transcription happen more slowly in the cold.10 Essentially, the idea is that cold-climate animals tend to live longer because they, in effect, live more slowly.)

Greenland sharks may be the longest-living of all vertebrates; Irish Times

It’s astounding, really, to consider the multitude of timescales by which life operates on this planet, each creature experiencing time in a very different way. And yet, it all pales in comparison to the grand geological scheme of deep time.

‘The Abyss of Time’

In 18th-century Scotland, geologist James Hutton was carefully observing his farm fields. He had noticed that, when it rained, soil washed from his fields into nearby rivers, where it then flowed out to the sea. Hutton wasn’t sure what happened to the soil after that, but he had a hypothesis: Out in the ocean, that soil might accumulate somewhere, forming new rocks and lands. Hutton also noticed that, despite soil washing away with every storm, the soil never eroded completely. Surely, he posited, there must be some kind of cycle by which the soil is replenished.11

“[Hutton] was describing a slow-moving process of erosion and regeneration that would require millions of years of activity and reshape the landscape dramatically over time.”

If Hutton was right, that would mean the conventional wisdom of his time was very wrong. In Hutton’s Scotland, as in much of the West at that time, people largely believed the Christian Bible’s account of Earth’s age to be accurate. In the 17th century, Irish Archbishop James Ussher had carefully studied scripture to determine that October 23, 4004 B.C., was the precise birthday of the world. Even Isaac Newton, a trailblazing scientist in his own right, concluded Earth was made in 3988 B.C.12 According to the prevailing Biblical account, the world was no more than a few thousand years old, and it looked roughly the same at the time of its creation as it did in the late 1700s. Hutton, on the other hand, was describing a slow-moving process of erosion and regeneration that would require millions of years of activity and reshape the landscape dramatically over time.13

In search of evidence to support his theory, Hutton undertook a wide-ranging geological survey of Scotland, during which he found what we now call the Hutton Uncomformity, a geologically significant rock formation in Jedburgh.

Sketch of the Hutton Unconformity by John Clerk (1787). Note the top layer of smooth horizontal rocks and the bottom layer of vertical rocks. Source: Wikipedia

In geological terms, an uncomformity is “a break in time in an otherwise continuous rock record,” as the Utah Geological Survey puts it. In other words, an uncomformity occurs when one type of rock of a certain age is overlaid with a different type of rock that arrived at a much later time in the geological record. The unconformity denotes a gap in the record. The accumulation of rock was not continuous, but interrupted at some point.14

It was such an uncomformity that Hutton discovered in the bed of the Jed Water River near Jedburgh. A running river should deposit sediment in simple, horizontal layers, which Jed Water did — but in an exposed section of the riverbed, Hutton found a lower layer of vertical rock formations beneath the top horizontal layers.15

Hutton’s explanation for this: Those vertical rocks once were horizontal slabs, but through the upheaval of land, the rock beds were raised and turned vertical. They remained exposed in this position long enough to be weathered by erosive forces, before another upheaval thrust the rocks below the water again, where a new, horizontal layer of younger sediment could be deposited. Yet another period of upheaval occured, thrusting parts of the riverbed up out of the river, which is how Hutton could see the unconformity in the first place.16

Geological formations, like rock strata, can teach us a great deal about the slow-moving processes of "Deep Time." Source: Quora

Hutton was not the first to notice unconformities, but he was the first to explain the geological processes underpinning them. In doing so, he introduced an earth-shattering scientific revelation on par with the Copernican Revolution. John Playfair, a scientist who accompanied Hutton on his expeditions, described the sensation of looking at an unconformity at Scotland’s Siccar Point thusly: “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time.”17 In a 1788 paper, Hutton spoke of his research in similarly transcendent terms: “The result, therefore, of this physical enquiry, is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”18

‘The Everlasting Universe of Things’

Hutton himself never used the term “deep time” — that would be invented 200 years later by American author John McPhee — but the dizzying geological timescale he discovered caught on, even without a catchy name.19

“The result, therefore, of this physical enquiry, is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

Durdle Door, one of the most famous natural stone arches in the world, is estimated to be 140 million years old; Source: Jurassic Coast

The Romantic poets were particularly keen on the concept. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” an ode to the eponymous Alpine mountain, finds the geological realm to be awe- and fear-inspiring in equal turns:

The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep
Holds every future leaf and flower; the bound
With which from that detested trance they leap;
The works and ways of man, their death and birth,
And that of him and all that his may be;
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind.20

As Shelley’s poem makes clear, it’s hard to take an anthropocentric view of the world when “the works and ways of man” simply “revolve, subside, and swell” as the primeval mountains persist in their serene power. Better, Shelley suggests, to let “the naked countenance of earth … teach the adverting mind.” Hutton’s work also paved the way for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which, like geological change, operates on timescales that would be thought impossible on a planet that was only a few thousands years old.21

Of course, Hutton was not the first person in the history of the world to posit a much older Earth than the Biblical model. As the contemporary geologist Andrew Alden notes, “Many ancient traditions asserted that the universe is not only much larger than what we see but also much older. The Hindu series of yugas, for example, employs lengths of time so great as to be meaningless in human terms.”22 What Hutton did was show the Western world that, actually, those traditions which supposed an almost infinitely old universe were closer to the scientific truth.

“Nations are taught to respect the world in which they live, as they are borrowing it from future generations.”

The concept of deep time also adds even further justification to those intellectual traditions that exhort us to consider how the consequences of our present-day actions can reverberate throughout time. Take, for example, the “Seventh Generation” core value of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a union of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca peoples in what is today called North America. According to this value, Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy make decisions based, in part, on how those decisions will impact those yet to be born, and “nations are taught to respect the world in which they live, as they are borrowing it from future generations.”23

View of Mont Blanc, the second-highest mountain in Europe and the subject of much adoration from the 18th century Romantic poets; Source: Wikipedia

Reevaluating the Anthropocene

Yet there is something slightly paradoxical about deep time. It paints a picture of the world in which we humans — so used to centering ourselves — are but a blip on the grand radar. As we’ve learned since Hutton’s day, the universe is roughly 13.7 billion years old. Earth formed about 4.56 billion years ago. We didn’t come along until 130,000 years ago.24

At the same time, however, Hutton’s notion of deep time is part of the same Western scientific lineage that has often been regrettably deployed to bend the world to our human will. We live in an era christened the “Anthropocene,” a name meant to reflect just how much human activity has shaped the ecosystem we inhabit. While we may be insignificant on the scale of deep time, we’ve still managed to significantly alter how the Earth functions, much to the detriment of nearly everything that calls this planet home, including ourselves.

Earth’s natural carbon cycle was established over millions of years of activity, but we’ve totally upended it by extracting and burning fossil fuels. Tasked with absorbing more carbon, our oceans are acidifying, killing off much of the life below the waves. We’ve deforested vast swaths of the plant’s surface, driving animals from their habitats and to extinction. Through dams and other forms of river engineering, we’ve redistributed enough fresh water to actually slow the Earth’s rotation.25

Three Gorges Dam, located in Sandouping, China, is the world’s largest hydroelectric plant. When the dam’s reservoir is full, it displaces enough water to slow the Earth’s rotation by .06 microseconds26; Source: Wikipedia

In light of all this, it’s time to remember the original lesson of Hutton’s discoveries — time to recapture the sense of reverence Shelley felt as he gazed upon Mont Blanc. The Anthropocene is, in many ways, the result of anthropocentric thinking left to run unchecked. But if we can recontextualize human civilization within the scale of deep time, we might just remember that this planet wasn’t made for us — we simply happened to be born upon it, well into its timeline. We could act as its caretakers instead of its exploiters, with the understanding that we owe this not only to the plants and animals who currently share our home, but also to every organism to come.

Methuselah would probably breathe a sigh of relief.

— The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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