‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.
There is dangerous comfort to be drawn from deep time. An ethical lotus-eating beckons. What does our behaviour matter, when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the Earth in the blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human morality looks absurd – crushed to irrelevance. Assertions of value seem futile. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of eventual ruin. The extinction of a species or an ecosystem scarcely matters in the context of the planet’s cycles of erosion and repair.
We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us. When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert.
New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.
This extract is taken from ‘Underland : A Deep Time Journey’ by Robert Macfarlane, shared with permission from the author.