Unpacking Deep Time in Our Living Present

The living presentClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews the Deep Time Walk field kit’s latest addition — an attractive and engaging set of cards that explores our planet’s 4.6 billion year timeline and offers us thoughtful paths into the living present.


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


The same creative team who brought us the innovative Deep Time Walk app in 2017 has now released this beautifully illustrated pack of cards, laying out the timeline and the story of the development of the Earth and its life over our full 4.6 billion years. It’s a mini-encyclopedia and pocket guide to the origins and meaning of being human in our home world.

Deep Time Walk cards
Deep Time Walk cards

From Earth’s origins (4,600 million years ago) and Late Heavy Bombardment (4,100 MYA), through the arrival of the first RNA molecules (3,800 MYA) and life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor (3,700 MYA) to the oldest fossils (3,400 MYA), this is a story of great detail and complexity that the pack’s writers — Geoff Ainscow, Dr Stephan Harding and Robert Woodford — have done a remarkable job of condensing into captivating and compelling prose. A whole team of artists have produced images to complement a narrative that could at times overwhelm us with technical ideas — ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (2,600 MYA), ‘Ediacarans / Cambrian explosion’ (500 MYA), ‘energetic mitcochondria’ (1,800 MYA) — but which never holds up the story. Many of the cards also come with very short quotations from scientists, thinkers and artists:

“The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we will read in them all of past history.”

– Rachel Carson

“The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.”

– Nan Shepherd

“The world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

– Thomas Berry

“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures — bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful — call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”

– Richard Powers

Showing our ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth
Ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth

Each card covers 100 million years and, in around 150 words, does an admirable job of relating the known facts and the theories that give us our current understanding of where we’ve come from, just how far life on Earth has travelled in a succession of staggering biochemical novelties, biotic explosions and mass extinctions, and the humblingly brief span of time that is the story of our own species within this slow-fast-slow dance of the living planet.

The dawn of humans arrives 47 cards into the timeline — with the very next card bringing us to the present and into the Anthropocene. Breaking the steady pace of 100 million years per card to allow for this sudden explosion of various human species, the domination of Homo sapiens and our accelerating growth as a species and a world-shaping force, those last two cards in the sequence cover just 1 million years — “By about 500,000 years ago, early humans were making clothing to keep themselves warm, building shelters, creating fire and utilising hand axes.” If the card makers had stuck to the prehuman timescale of around 150 words per 100 million years, I reckon Homo sapiens — and the invention of words themselves — would have merited only the last syllable of the final word in the Anthropocene Epoch’s card: ‘extinction’.

The living present — a future on the cards

Fortunately, the story does not end there and the cards themselves continue, posing questions of our common future — ‘stabilised or hothouse Earth?’ — and offering suggestions for positive action and radical hope. The idea of these cards is itself an offering of action and hope in what it encapsulates as ‘the living present’: an opportunity to pause after the 4.6 billion year journey of the cards’ narrative and “take time to ground yourself again amidst the emotions that may be arising.” It’s an invitation to breathe with a renewed awareness of what the oxygen in your breath actually means in the long story of a living earth, what its exchange with carbon dioxide in your lungs means for our collective moment on Earth, and the work that your own particular community of microbes is doing with you here and now — inside the entity that you regard as ‘you’ — and your place in the community of beings now, as well as past and future:

“The influence of the deep past and the interdependence of the living present is all around you: it is your wider body, your greater self, our common home.”

Showing our life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion
Life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion

Fittingly, then, the model for the cards — though complementary to the app itself, which is most likely to be experienced solo, whether on your favourite walk or in an encounter with some new place (either way, revealed as a localised but globally connected assemblage of soil, water, rock, sky and living beings) — is as a communal exploration, a conversation with others. You might share the pack with a friend or group as you walk together: perhaps taking turns to read out loud through the timeline; perhaps, stopping to consider some of the science and what it reveals in the living scene around you; maybe leafing through some of the illustrations and seeing what comes up in reflection on some of the questions you might share about the ecological and climate crises of our time.

Humanity’s place on Earth

The Living Present card poses a few ready questions to get just such a discussion started. “How do you feel about humanity’s place and impact on Earth now? … What strikes you about Earth’s long evolution?” My favourite question is probably “Has your sense of time shifted?”; whereas the ultimate challenge of “What can you do to help humanity shift towards a deep ecological consciousness?” is probably too daunting for most of us, even (or especially) after such an encounter with the immensity of Deep Time. It’s hard to feel at one and the same time the great immensity of the living planet over timescales vastly exceeding the brief flicker of our own existence, and to conjure the sense of the needed difference that one moment of thought in one lifetime among so many billion human lives can help to create. That is the paradox of our present times and of our personal time on Earth, however. And, as the cards neatly demonstrate, the resolution to the paradox and the key to avoiding a feeling of despair at the sheer scale of the challenge is that we are not alone. Immediately after posing that possibly overwhelming question, the card wisely advises: “For group work we recommend Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects and the book written with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope.” These cards are stepping stones within a much larger landscape and offer us that necessary bridge to action.

Understanding our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present
Our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present

Some of that action will be new thinking, questioning, conversation and further reading. Take the cards out again with a new group and see what emerges in your walk together through the woods, along the river, through the city park, beside the coast.

Some of it might be assembling with others — for street action, for political opposition, for culture-changing proposition. Take your appreciation of Deep Time into this present moment of crisis and opportunity.

Some of it might be working alone — creating stories, art, video, music or poems from your encounters with the cards and with the living world, putting the two into dialogue — and then coming together to share these artistic expressions in a public space, a private venue, a platform like ClimateCultures or a new site of your own creation.

Some of it might be devising and organising new walks with others in your communities, using these cards and your previous experiences with them or with the app as a means to simply share space and time and a little breathing room in the world.

Joining the Scientist and the Fool

As the introductory card explains, “We hope the pack empowers others to express Earth’s deep history in a multitude of forms, with the openness to imbue them with meaning to connect hearts and minds across different cultures and traditions.”

Whether you’ve already used the app or have yet to try it, I recommend you also (re)immerse yourself in the story told there by the Scientist and the Fool and introduce it to someone else. How might the two of you retell the journey? What questions arise, and who else might you find to explore them with? The app also works as an audio book for a sedentary journey, though travelling far with your own brain. And the script is now available as a short book. So there are many ways to explore Deep Time ideas and to bring them to life in your encounters with the world and with others. Many ways of thinking through and discovering your next step.

“What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour”

– William Blake


Find out more

The full field kit — app, audiobook CD, script and cards — is available at the Deep Time Walk site. And you can read the ClimateCultures review of the original app, Taking the World for a Walk; the app itself has been updated since then, with a range of new features described here.

Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects was republished by New Society Publishers in 2014 in an updated version, as Coming Back to Life. You can explore Macy’s work at JoannaMacy.net and the ideas that the book explores and the work it inspires at The Work That Reconnects Network.

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy by Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy was published by New World Library in 2012.

Taking the World for a Walk

Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews the Deep Time Walk app, taking its blend of geology and biology on a walk into local woods, guided by its Fool and Scientist, to explore 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history towards Now.


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


“We will see how one thing jumps out of another thing, the second thing completely different from the first thing. We will see impossibility. Second steps may be unlikely but first steps are impossible! But impossibility isn’t a problem. It doesn’t stop anything, it only maybe slows it down. It is a weak wall; everything is always pushing it down, striding straight through it.”    – The Fool

“You came from this! Every one of your senses developed in relation to this Earth. You smell because the Earth is smellable … You touch because the Earth is touchable. And you think because the Earth is thinkable. You and the Earth are two ends of the same thing. Only you can split them, by imagination. Or rather, by a failure of imagination. Failing to imagine what is actually the case.”   – The Scientist

 

 

3500 – 3400 million years ago

This is a walk through 4.6 billion years of Deep Time of Earth’s history towards Now. A walk taken by a Fool and a Scientist, trading insights, knowledge and deep questions as they go — and along the way they bring us into their explorations of life and our world. This blend of geology and biology is the story of us and all the others that have made the long journey before and beside us. Of how non-living and living matter shape and adapt to each other, freighting oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and other essential elements through their loops and feedbacks. Travel is important to this story – it is the story – and a walk with expert guides is the perfect vehicle.

The team behind the Deep Time Walk App has just celebrated reaching their crowdfunding target, matching Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the project further. But the app is available now and is well worth exploring. The first interactive mobile app of its kind, Deep Time Walk accompanies you along Earth’s entire geological timeline (so far), and can be taken anywhere in the world — in countryside or urban settings. Moving at a scale of 1 metre to 1,000,000 years, its two guides and a third narrator take in the cosmic beginnings and shape-shifting early aeons of the planet, through the mysterious emergence of life and the long struggle to multicellular organisation, and the coevolution of life with oceans and atmosphere and land. This is a creative and expert overview, combining sciences and humanities to take in the grand and the minuscule scales of what we are made from and who we are: the biosphere amongst hydro-cryo-litho-pedo-atmo-spheres.

Deep Time Walk App 2017
Deep Time Walk App 2017 © Deep Time Walk team, http://www.deeptimewalk.org

A new walking companion

If you want to enjoy a walk of a few miles then you’ll probably choose a new walking companion with some care – especially if they are going to do all the talking! So a guide like this requires good writing, sympathetic narration and a high quality production. Fortunately, Deep Time Walk boasts all three and will enhance your stroll through either a familiar landscape or a first-time encounter. I’ve listened in full three times: on a walk through my local woods; a trek to my nearest train station and then on the journey itself; and as a conventional audiobook at home. There was something new each time, such is the wealth of knowledge packed into the story. And the app team’s decision to involve three voices — three characters in narrator, scientist and fool — enhances the impact of all that information. And the conversational tone engages the listener as a fourth character, which is key to making an experience that rewards repeated listening. No surprises that the text is brought to life by professional actors: Peter Marinker, Chipo Chung and Paul Hilton are voices you may recognise from many radio and TV productions. 

2000 – 1900 million years ago

Time and the body: working on a human scale

Pacing is important here, and although the walk takes you at a steady one-metre-to-the-megayear rate — calibrated to your pace when you enter your height into the app — it is able to take in varying rhythms of geological and biological change. Partly this is down to well-timed pauses along the way, as you’re encouraged to stop and enjoy the view while the characters explore key transitions in detail or they review the journey so far to emphasise key points. Mainly, it’s down to the quality of the writing and the interplay between the scientist and the fool, which strikes a balance between ‘informative’ and ‘entertaining’ as the content requires. Fool and scientist are far more than the stereotypes they could easily have been cast as, showing emotional depth and at times either supporting the other through doubts or picking up on their assumptions. In other words: human beings. And, throughout, the changing planet is itself treated as a personality. Only very occasionally does this risk straying into ‘Mother Earth’ speak, but never steps too far. And this is, after all, the territory of Gaia — the Earth-System-as-lifeform metaphor, which can sometimes revert into Goddess talk. If that’s your thing then you will find the occasional references to her pleasing; if it’s not, they are too occasional to get in the way of the fascinating science and the real wonder of how and what this world is, and how we have come to understand so much and yet so little of it. If you can’t take a good metaphor for a walk, who can you take?

1600 – 1500 million years ago

The app comes with a glossary, which you can access at various points through the story to learn more about the terms you are hearing. As far as I could see, there’s no way to scroll through this independently of the narration, which would have been handy at times when I wanted check with something later. So, if you want to know more about the solar system’s Gas Giants then you’ll need to check that when they crop up during your few metres walking through the “arrival of liquid water” (partly on asteroids swung into Earth through the orbital slingshots of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune); the glossary then moves on to consider this Late Heavy Bombardment in more detail. But you won’t want to keep interrupting your walk to check the screen and pause the narration, so the glossary is best explored later on; you can set the app to ‘walk free’ mode and just sit back to take the tour with an eye on the screen. With that in mind, it’s a shame the glossary can’t be searched independently on the app, and doesn’t appear on the website, because it provides a lot of extra detail in a concise and very readable format. Maybe that is an area that the new crowdfunding support will help the team to develop.

1300 – 1200 million years ago

I’d also have liked to see part of the narration encouraging me to connect what I was hearing to what I could see around me on the walk. That couldn’t be truly interactive of course — at least in this phase of the app’s development — but it would be possible to pose questions or give pointers to things we might encounter on a typical urban or rural walk. Thinking of the natural geology that we’ve transformed into buildings, roads and other infrastructure, for example, do we ever stop to consider how long ago the rocks and minerals were laid down, the journeys they have been on as volcanic, tectonic and weathering activities have shaped and reshaped them? And my woodland walk sparked off many associations with what I was hearing about the development of photosynthesis and the accelerating diversity of early life. 

Deep Time Walk App
Deep Time Walk App © Deep Time Walk team
http://www.deeptimewalk.org

But these are very minor issues compared with the ambition of the project to bring Deep Time to life or, as the creators say, “make the unfathomable, fathomable”. It’s an ambition that this beautifully designed app delivers on. I will be very interested to see how it develops further with the new funding – and how artists and others make use of it as a creative stimulus or maybe a tool in their own explorations of time and change.

And the last section of the walk? The final metre is a million years, just like all the others, so that’s a mere 20 cm for the time our species has been on Earth, give or take. We leave the last Ice Age just 1.3 cm behind our Now, and we’re just a fingernail deep into shaping the Anthropocene… Where next?


Find out more

You can read about the history of the app and the team of scientists, writers and artists behind it, at deeptimewalk.org and watch their Crowdfunder video. You can download the app for IOS or Android via the Deep Time Walk website or direct from Apple Store or Google Play.

In this Aeon article from October 2016 David Farrier, a literary scholar at Edinburgh University, explores the meeting of Deep Time and the Anthropocene, where our “need to imagine deep time in light of our present-day concerns is more vital than ever. Deep time is not an abstract, distant prospect, but a spectral presence in the everyday.”

Back in 2014 — or about a micron or two ago —  the Smithsonian magazine reviewed Imagining Deep Time, an art exhibition then showing at the US National Academy of Sciences, and you can see a gallery of the images.

Questioning Deep Time? Space for creative thinking... 

"For you, how is Deep Time revealed most clearly in the human body - your body? Through its interactions with the physical world - moving, breathing, sensing? Through its development over your lifetime, or its prehistory (and future history) across generations? Through its consciousness, and the dreams and visions you create with it?" 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.