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“The human consciousness may have begun to leap and boil some sunny day in the Pleistocene, but the race by and large has retained the essence of its animal sense of time. People think in five generations – two ahead, two behind – with heavy emphasis on the one in the middle. Possibly it is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it. At least, that is what geologists wonder sometimes, as they have imparted the questions to me. They wonder to what extent they truly sense the passage of a million years. They wonder to what extent it is possible to absorb a set of facts and move beyond them, in a sensory manner, beyond the recording intellect and into the abyssal eons. Primordial inhibition may stand in the way. On a geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about.”
-John McPhee, p.127 Basin and Range
Are we humans really stuck in an evolutionary eddy? Are we really cognitively incapable of comprehending deep time? Maybe it’s just that up to this point, our species’ survival has never depended on having the cognitive capacity to think beyond a generation or two in either direction. But now, our material existence requires that we reach into deep time. The very fabric of our daily lives depends on mining resources that took millenia for the earth to form. And our actions have created “waste” that will most likely outlast our species. Perhaps it’s time to evolve ways of imagining time that equal the reach of our grasp.
What if aesthetic experiences could help us recalibrate our imaginative capacities? What if everyone did what geologists do: stretch imaginations to recognize signs of worlds that preceded us? I could imagine that the red sandstone on the building outside my New York apartment is from the Triassic, as suggested by geologist Anita Harris in John McPhee’s In Suspect Terrain on a drive through Brooklyn, “Our first apartment there was a sixth-floor walkup. The building was from the turn of the century and was faced with red Triassic sandstone.” Materials, colors, and textures on my street are not from the world I inhabit. They’re from former worlds that existed millions of years ago, as strange as any in science fiction. The Manhattan Bridge for example stands as a message from Pre-Cambrian times (570 million to 4.7 billion years ago). The deep geologic memory and future of its iron ore communicate to architect John D. Martens:
“That bridge is alive, and in more ways than one. [It responds] to its environment, albeit at a different frequency than we humans usually perceive. It is also alive on a microscopic level as molecules are changing over time: oxidation, and the progression of a certain amount of fatigue… These things are all occurring simply but inevitably at a different scale and time period than we humans are accustomed. And what about the geological memory of the materials that have gone into it?” -architect John D. Martens
A foundational rule of the game of recalibrating your imagination for deep time: What you see is not what always was or what will be. What you see is actually a complex culmination of dynamic and multi-layered events–still unfolding. Thinking in and through deep time is thinking wide and deep at the same time: it’s a shift into dimensional thinking–from 3D to form as motion in real, slow time.
Pleistocene Lake Bonneville did not simply vanish, leaving the Bonneville Salt Flats or today’s Great Salt Lake as its traces. Lake Bonneville is still unfolding, now into its fifth stage of transition and on its way to the deep future.
In June of 2009, FOP transported a watery remnant of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, in the form of a polaroid, 80 miles west to the floor of the present-day Bonneville Salt Flats. Two epochs of Lake Bonneville, separated by 10,000 years, co-existed momentarily on a sunny morning in a present-day Pleistocene landscape.
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