I always felt so sorry for the deluded folks who believed they were living in the endtimes. Now I have a feeling they might be right. So, as the planet spins toward God knows what fate, I calm myself by deciding that what feels like the endtimes is just one more stage in deep time.
The phrase is all over the place these days, and it is well chosen. Deep time is mysterious; it implies the sort of reflection one does in a hammock on a lazy Sunday. Flat and prosaic words like “long-term thinking” or “distant time” would have lost the point—which is that we have to stretch our brains across the centuries and stop thinking only of our own selfish little sliver of a lifetime.
Artists get it. Jem Finer has written the Longplayer, a self-extending musical composition that will play for a thousand years. Bits of an endless poem are being embedded in a street in Utrecht—one letter at a time, a new one every Saturday. Fascinated by deep timescales, the Scottish artist Katie Paterson has given us the scent of the planet’s first trees, a phone number we can call to listen to an Icelandic glacier melting, and 364 vials of crushed dust, grains, and corals, each representing a particular moment in deep time. (The vials closest to the present contain vivid blue powder from phosphorus fertilizer, an irradiated tree branch from Hiroshima, and microplastic from the depths of the ocean. Which rather makes her point about lost perspective.)
In a collaboration with Norwegian artist Anne Beate Hovind, Paterson has also come up with a hundred-year Future Library. Margaret Atwood went first, donating a story no one will read until long after her death. English novelist David Mitchell followed, and then Turkey’s Elif Shafak, South Korea’s Han Kang, the Vietnamese-American poet and novelist Ocean Vuong, Icelandic poet Sjón, and this summer, Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga and Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.
The manuscripts are locked in a glass drawer inside a small wooden repository, The Silent Room, tucked into a corner of Oslo’s main library. Nearby, a grove of freshly planted spruce trees has begun to grow. They stand only three feet tall, but when they tower, they will be chopped down and pounded into paper on which to print the manuscripts. Their creators will never know (unless they haunt us) how their work is received.
I wrote “us” instinctively, but I will not be here either. The project extends our internal calendar past our death, a trick we urgently need to acquire. For that reason, BBC, now a century old itself, has begun The Immortality Project. Its name is not well chosen, I would suggest, because it plays to our hunger for our own immortality, which is the opposite of the point. Still, the exploration is instructive: what does it take to leave a legacy that lasts for, say, twenty generations? Journalists have found examples large and small, including a topiary garden that was designed in the 1690s. Other topiary gardens were dug up as soon as the trends changed, but the Levens Hall topiary is intact because the estate was one of the family’s lesser holdings, a Cumbrian mansion where elderly, unmarried aunts were tucked away, and they had the sense to love and preserve the whimsical garden.
This might be a clue, because endurance often requires an absence of ego. Yes, great wealth (and the vanity that almost always accompanies it) built some of the wonders of the world. But throwing power around, changing stuff just to say you did it, ripping things up for a quick buck—none of that winds up sustainable or sustained.
Why have we doomed ourselves to the short term? “Because we only care about ourselves” is the obvious indictment. Evolutionary psychologists would justify that: facing constant, imminent threats, we had no time to spare for pondering subtle indicators of the future. A softer explanation comes from sociologist Elise Boulding: “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.”
But when photographer Rachel Sussman put together a book of The Oldest Living Things in the World, she explained her interest this way: “Somewhere along the way I came to the thought that every problem—personal, societal, anything—can benefit from long-term thinking.” Taking in the entire sweep of time is not a wasted effort. It can soothe our trivial personal angst, halt some of our impulsive waste and greed, and galvanize the right response to larger problems.
We do not live in deep time. We live in shallow, human-lifespan time. But our preoccupation with our own lifespan and its short-term gains has done the world no service. Now we have enough knowledge and imagination to stretch our minds all the way back, and then forward, deepening and depersonalizing our sense of time. It is the ultimate altruism—and it might be our only hope.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.