Musings from the Bunker 5/7/20
CONCEPTS OF TIME
I’ve been thinking about how we think about time. If you’re like me, shelter-in-place has you experiencing new sensations of time. On the one hand, it feels like things are moving slowly. Get up, work out, shower, have breakfast, start the work day, time for lunch…the days flowing into each other, often with little to really separate one from the other. There is a sense of monotony: “will this ever end?”
On the other hand, it seems like days are piling up quickly and time is slipping away too fast, with less to show from them than one would like. Dread is replaced by anxiety, “why can’t we get going again?”
I prefer to think of these days as neither long nor short—but different. Our lives have gotten simpler—smaller—and it forces us to either rage against where we are or recalibrate to gain new perspectives and joy from what we are able to experience in the moment. These are days of heightened awareness and sensitivity to our surroundings. The chirps from the birds’ nests in our yard are harbingers of Spring. The hummingbirds and the bees are out in force (and, sadly, the mosquitos are returning). Flowers are blooming all around, the sun is out, and light breezes fill the night air.
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO—AND YET SO CLOSE
The current crisis has also made me think differently of long periods of time—like a century. And we now have a convenient benchmark with which to compare these seemingly unique times. It it feels like the problems we feel are uniquely modern—a new resilient virus, powered by overpopulation, urbanization, globalization, and widespread travel. But historians and librarians are digging up pictures of people wearing masks 100 years ago during the Spanish Influenza and, when we see them, the people seem so close and so present. Whereas we have been living in a time where everything must be more modern, and feel newer, a time that heretofore seemed positively ancient now seems so close. I feel a sense of kinship with those who lived during the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20. Their eyes peering out from masked faces, the scenes of tent hospitals—they all seem so real and present. It’s humbling to realize that we will not be here forever and someday, people will look at our pictures, comparing them to those of 1918-19, both of which will be “generations ago.”
We are living in an historic moment. And we are here for but a brief time. One day, we will be the stuff of history books and retrospective analysis. Each generation leaves their mark. But taking time out further and to witness the mortality not only of individuals, but of entire societies, there are many places to look. There are entire civilizations that lived and died hundreds and even thousands of years ago, some with rich histories memorialized in literature, art and architecture. Others materialized from nomadic groups to semi-urbanization and disappeared quickly—leaving tantalizing remnants of their lives. Think of the Inca, the Minoans, the Khazars. One such civilization is the Anasazi, whose culture can be visited and contemplated in several places in the west, the largest of which is Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.
MESA VERDE AND THE ANASAZI
Mesa Verde contains several notable cliff dwellings built and populated by the Anasazi culture. They are considered to be ancestors of Pueblo Indians, including the Hopi and the Zuni. Centuries ago. Their most distinguishing characteristic was that they moved to cliff dwellings with limited accessibility (cliffs had to be scaled or tall ladders climbed to reach them) in the mid-13th century and disappeared shortly thereafter.
What drove them to abandon their cliff dwellings remains a mystery. Theories include drought, deforesting, disease, poor sanitation, overpopulation, among others. Some of these issues don’t seem so far-fetched or unfamiliar today…
As people contemplate travel to destinations that are nearer, Mesa Verde (along with Canyon de Chelly and other Anasazi monuments) offer a glimpse into a culture we rarely study. It’s a great interactive adventure. The best is the ranger-led hikes to visit the cliff dwellings. There is a palpable sense of adventure climbing ladders up to these cliff dwellings and walking among the buildings. We did it when the kids were younger. To learn more about the Anasazi and Mesa Verde, here’s an article from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/riddles-of-the-anasazi-85274508/
OTHER LOST CULTURES
The Anasazi civilization is not the only one in North America that has left a puzzle as to its disappearance. The English colony of Roanoke was founded in 1587 in North Carolina. The governor, John White, went back to England for supplies. On his return, the 100 settlers were gone, with nothing remaining other than the word “Croatoan” carved on the fort and the word “Cro” carved on a tree (apparently references to a place 50 miles away from the colony). Theories on their disappearance include disease and being slaughtered by Native Americans. The answer continues to elude scholars.
DEEP TIME—BOOK RECOMMENDATION
But time, measured by our days and our lives, even time measured by civilizations that came and went, is nothing compared to “deep time.” In light of the fact that the our human ancestors have been around for around 200,000 years, humans as we understand them for only 10,000, and written history and civilization only 5-6,000 years, they seem a blink of the eye in the history of a planet 4.5 billion years old. Driving the American West, one gains new appreciation for the forces of millennia that carved the Earth.
For a spectacular, literate, exploration of deep time on a grand scale, I suggest Annals of the Former World, the Pulitzer Prize winning volume by John McPhee, professor and writer for the New Yorker and a master of the long form of journalism. In the words of one reviewer, “this book takes my breath away and makes me feel alive.” This is a fantastic compilation of McPhee’s work on the creation of the continent, explored through in a series of drives around the country, examination of “road cuts” and other interesting methods of exploration. Beyond the science, the geology and the travelogue, McPhee meditates over the concept of geological time, which is measured in millions and billions of years. McPhee has a great writing style and youthful fascination that takes the reader on adventures with him. To understand this brilliant and prolific writer, here is a wonderful profile from the New York Times (including discussion of his most recent book, Draft No. 4, about the art of writing): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/magazine/the-mind-of-john-mcphee.html
Another of the NPR “tiny desk” concerts, taking place beside the “tiny desk” of NPR’s music critic. Here’s one by the Lumineers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysdjtyV_DuY. Pretty fun.
Have a great day. Take a walk!