An annotated reading of your world.
DEEP-ENOUGH TIME | “Numbers do not seem to work well with regard to deep time,” John McPhee wrote in Basin and Range, published in book form in 1981 after initially appearing in the New Yorker. “Any number above a couple of thousand years—fifty thousand, fifty million—will with nearly equal effect awe the imagination to the point of paralysis.” Basin and Range was the first in a series of books in which McPhee described his jaunts across North America, along Interstate 80, often in the company of a geologist, “to suggest the general history of the continent by describing events and landscapes that geologists see written in rocks.” Ultimately the books were combined in a single volume titled Annals of the Former World.
McPhee, who should have been given the Nobel Prize in Literature ages ago, writes as a great-great-great-grandchild of the American Enlightenment. Old words like “sin” and “grace” are alien to him. There is so much to see in the world, so much to understand, so much to be described in lucid sentences deftly concealing the immense labour that went into their construction.
Near the end of one extraordinary chapter in Basin and Range, after conveying the way geologists think about and think in time (“Geologists, dealing always with deep time, find that it seeps into their being and affects them in various ways”), McPhee writes, “In geologists’ own lives, the least effect of time is that they think in two languages, function on two different scales.” That sentence I’ve just quoted is a paragraph, all by itself. It’s followed by six very short paragraphs, in each of which a geologist is quoted, musing about “geologic time.” No speakers are identified, nor is there any additional commentary by McPhee; the effect is a bit like overhearing fragments of conversation at a very interesting party where most of the guests are unusually articulate geologists. Here is the quotation that concludes the chapter: “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”
In the roughly four decades since McPhee (with a rather sardonic twist) put “deep time” into circulation, that simple but potent phrase and its cousin, “deep history,” have become keywords in an ever-ramifying conversation that includes books as varied as The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (1999), by Stewart Brand; Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (2011), by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail (with nine other scholars collaborating); Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Save the World (2018), by Marcia Bjornerud; and Richard Powers’s novel The Overstory (2018). Some books in this line, such as Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2008) and, less polemically, Bjornerud’s Timefulness, are framed explicitly in opposition to Christian understandings of time and our place in the universe. (Awe for the Creator, if awe persists, is shifted to the immensity of what exists, and “human exceptionalism,” which quite naturally privileges the span of time in which humans have existed, is a joke.) An appreciation of “deep time” is incompatible with young earth creationism, but there’s no need for Christians to shrink from these vistas. Our history is longer and stranger than many of us had been taught to suppose.
This conversation, as conversations do, has mutated over time to take forms quite different from its origin. Two new books that exemplify such swerves are worth your attention: Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey (already published in the UK and out in the US in June) and Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land (also out in the UK and coming to the US in August). And, if you haven’t done so already, you might check out Craig Childs’s Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice-Age America, my favourite book of 2018. (I wrote about it in the Advent 2018 issue of the Englewood Review of Books.)
THE LESSON | In his preface to the 1984 English translation of The Land of Ulro (published in Polish in 1977), Czeslaw Milosz says that his decision to write this book “was an act of perfect freedom in the sense that I didn’t aim either at pleasing, convincing, conquering, or seducing my contemporaries. It was as if I said to myself that a writer can afford to produce in his lifetime one maverick work. In a way, it was my rebellion against the reasonableness of my essayistic prose, in which I felt much more constrained than in my poetry.” One example of that “rebellion” (there are many in the book) comes at the beginning of chapter 26: “To speak of Swedenborg is to violate a Polish taboo that prohibits writers from taking a serious interest in religion. The penalty is already preordained in the form of the parroted cliché: ‘He succumbed to mysticism.’ Naturally you were always free to declare yourself a Catholic writer, but only at the risk of being classified as ‘lowbrow,’ on a level with outdoor or juvenile literature—with a literature, moreover, politically allied with the Right.” Here endeth the lesson.
WHERE ARE WE? | The title poem of Diane Glancy’s new collection, The Book of Bearings, is unsparing:
They fed us with stories of their world
that would include us
if we followed their God
who shuffled over those who would seek him
on other terms than his.
The changeableness of knowing.
In the meantime, the unused land is ours.
The animals their pelts and cries.
In a handful of lines, Glancy gets across the hypocrisy of the European invaders and the disorientation of the Native peoples they bargained with and preached to and displaced. And yet the poem doesn’t limit itself to recording a historical wrong or calling for redress. It seems to suggest—and this impression grows stronger as the book proceeds—that we all come up against “the changeableness of knowing,” that we are all seeking to find our bearings, and that we can do so only by reference to the inscrutable God of the Bible: “I believe Christ is the Savior of the world when my howls and the howls of the world are one.”
Though you might not guess from the bits I’ve quoted, The Book of Bearings is often funny, if you have a taste for irony and sardonic wit—not least in the choice of Bible passages that serve as epigraphs to many of the poems. Get a copy of the book and install it near your bed, to read when the Spirit moves.
8054 AD | Yes, it should be “AD 8054,” but that isn’t the way it was in the prologue to Andre Norton’s Star Rangers. I was about ten years old (I turned ten halfway through 1958) when I began to read a lot of science fiction, and that continued for about five years. Then, pretty suddenly, I stopped reading science fiction, as if a switch had been turned off, and for the next fifteen years or so I read very little of it, picking it up again around the age of thirty.
I wasn’t, in that first (adolescent) phase, reading only or mostly science fiction—on the contrary—but it was important to me, not only providing countless hours of pleasure, but also changing my understanding of the world in ways I wouldn’t have been able to articulate until much later. My younger brother, Rick, and I were raised by our mother and grandmother in a strongly Christian setting where (as I mention briefly in this issue’s editorial) there was a good deal of speculation about the end times. For the most part this didn’t seem to have a strong or even an observable impact on everyday decision-making, but there was a widespread assumption that the World as We Knew It would probably be ending before too long.
In science fiction, of course, I encountered a radically different sense of the future. It has become conventional to say, as the superb novelist William Gibson has remarked, that science fiction isn’t about the future (unknowable); it’s always about the present. There’s a partial truth in that aphorism, but not the whole truth. Those evocative dates—8054 AD, for instance—gave me a shiver, over and over again, a sense of the largeness of things, comparable to but also distinct from the effect of mind-bending stories of encounters with extraterrestrials in our own time.
One of my favourite science fiction writers in those early days (along with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and others) was Andre Norton. I had read four or five of her books when I discovered, by accident (in the Pomona Public Library’s card catalog), that she was a woman, born Alice Mary Norton. This didn’t in the least diminish my enjoyment of her books; on the contrary, it fit with other discoveries (if that isn’t too grand a term) about “fiction,” discoveries which (again) I wouldn’t have been able to put clearly at the time: the way in which fiction depends on duplicity, on a doubleness that can be more or less benign, more or less perverse. It was an uncomfortable discovery, but one that came with a certain frisson.
If you ever read such stuff, or if you have a son or daughter roughly age ten who might be willing to try an old book, consider Star Rangers. Yes, it creaks with well-worn devices, and the prose—serviceable at best—is larded with clichés. And yet I’ll never forget (never until I’ve lost my faculties, at any rate) finishing the book for the first time, circa AD 1958, about five years after it was published. When I reread it most recently, several years ago, traces of the magic still lingered.Subscribe