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#62 On the topic of time
Now what? With the festival over, I’ve had some time on my hands this week for the first time in months. I took the kids to a local amusement park that apparently hasn’t changed in decades (the best), had a drink in a bar during the day, and consumed some content.
One email lingering in my inbox was a 1994 article by my father-in-law on Uncertainty and the Communication of Time.
Having spent months creating a project to stir a rebellion against time, I discovered I know surprisingly little about time. Sure, time is a dimension on the space-time continuum and thus (interwoven in) the fabric of everything. Yet, probably, I had taken our system of thinking about time for granted. A year is a year, a day a day. Once, the French tried to mess with the structure of time by creating a ten-day week, but that didn’t end well. So there we are.
To be sure, our notion of time is entirely random. A day is only a day because of the rotation of the earth. A year a year, thanks to our orbit around the sun. We’ve had some influence, as humans, on the length of hours and seconds and have been allowed to create arbitrary extra units such as the fortnight. Nonetheless, how we measure time is specific to us earthlings. It will be impossible to use our notion of time if we ever meet aliens. To them, our years may be just days or whole millenniums.
And not just aliens have a different perspective on time. This week, my extra time allowed me to finish “listening” (audiobook) The Hidden Life of Trees. One recurrent theme in the book is that trees live life in the slow lane. Some species easily live to be more than a thousand years old. For example, quaking aspens can easily live for ten thousand years or more.
While to us, the universe is a mind-boggling 14 billion years old — a number so huge it’s beyond my comprehension — for such an aspen, by comparison, it is a mere 140 million years old. Suddenly, the beginning is within reach. Imagine if the sun was sentient. It has been around for one-third of the total existence of the universe.
Today, I chaired two sessions on the role of cultural organizations in the sustainability agenda for the Dutch-Russian Sustainable Dialogues series. The organizers at Dutch Culture had gone out of their way to invite exceptional guests. Time was a theme here as well. Sjoerd Bootsma of Arcadia spoke about being a good ancestor, Michael Huijser about sustainability in the maritime world, and his museum. Yet it were the Russian speakers, with their stories from parts of the world I may never visit, that surprised me most.
There was Yulia Glazyrina of the Perm Regional Museum, “A museum in a region that has given the name to the Permian geological period, as well as to the greatest mass extinction of the past.” She showed us their “time telescopes” that highlight geological heritage from historical periods. In her words, they show that “Geological history is quite close.”
Andrei Golovnev shared his research into Arctic nomadic communities and the profound lessons we can learn from them, such as creating a “reindeer mentality.” From his experience as a researcher and filmmaker, Andrei shared unique insights into the indigenous knowledge of the peoples living in the Russian North.
Closer to home, Zippora Elders, director of Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen, told us how they treat the animals and plants living in their site as members of the community.
It was a pity we didn’t have the time to explore all these beautiful places in person. I hope a future trip to Russia may bring me to these places, ideally by train.
Now that we’re on the topic of time and deep time, I was glad to have the time to listen to Sean Carroll’s conversation with Betül Kaçar on paleogenomics and ancient life. Kaçar researches the origins of life and critical moments in our evolution. She also reverse engineers ancient life forms — very Jurassic Park!
What continues to amaze me in stories like this is that 1/ life started on earth almost as soon as the planet was formed. Almost like it had to happen. And that 2/ life was created only once (as far as we know). All living things share one common ancestor, Luca.
Peter Wohlleben of The Hidden Life of Trees concludes his book with a request for a bolder approach to wilderness. I concur. I think we may also take a bolder approach to time. In his presentation, Sjoerd Bootsma reminded us of Kairos, ancient Greek’s other god of time. Unlike Chronos, who is about sequential, chronological time, Bootsma presented Kairos as qualitative time. Time well spent. Whether it’s an hour or a lifetime or the lifetime of a quaking aspen.
I hope you have a lot of Kairos before our next chronological meeting. Until then, take care and all the best,