I learned years ago not to start talking about the endlessly fascinating nature of time (and the often outrageous things people say about that subject, apparently in all seriousness) except in certain settings (walking with my wife, Wendy, at the Morton Arborteum, say, or curled up with her in bed at night, the conversation set in motion by a fleeting memory that suddenly surfaced, for no apparent reason, with an uncanny vividness). Maybe I get carried away—maybe that’s why people often nodded their heads, as if pondering, and then sidled away when I derisively cited that endlessly parroted quotation from Einstein (taken from a letter he’d written in 1955 to console friends over the death of a loved one). You know how it goes: “the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one.” I invited my listeners to marvel at such folly, given credence in scores of conferences and scholarly books devoted to the philosophy of time and disseminated to general readers in “nonfiction” and fiction both.
I’d love to have a conversation with Marcia Bjornerud, whose latest book, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Save the World, was published in September. While it’s clear that she and I see our common world quite differently (and not only because she is a geologist whose knowledge of her subject towers over mine the way the Himalayas tower over an anthill), she is passionate about our need to “develop the habit of timefulness—a clear-eyed view of our place in Time,” and this makes us kindred spirits in at least one important respect.
“I’ve written this book,” Bjornerud says, “in the belief (possibly naïve) that if more people understood our shared history and destiny as Earth-dwellers, we might treat each other, and the planet, better.” It does seem odd, and contrary to what we know of “our shared history,” to assume (for instance) that among those people who understand this history there will not be many who compete in how best to exploit their knowledge for their own advantage—as if lack of “knowledge” were somehow at the root of our deepest human ills. But even if “timefulness” won’t save the world, we should cultivate it.
Very early on, “Young Earth creationism” appears in Bjornerud’s account as an enemy of “timefulness.” I don’t think that’s unfair, having been raised in a setting where many (though not all) held to this understanding. It’s generous of Bjornerud to say that she “empathizes with the distress” of “students from evangelical Christian backgrounds who earnestly struggle to reconcile their faith with the scientific understanding of the Earth,” though she quickly adds the observation (“to be deployed with tact and care”) that “compared with the deep, rich, grand geologic story of Earth, the Genesis version is an offensive dumbing-down, an oversimplification so extreme as to be disrespectful to Creation.” In short, she misreads Genesis in the same way Young Earth creationists do, but from a different angle. She takes the Creation account to be doing something it was never intended to do, while failing to appreciate what it quite magnificently does.
Next, in four concise chapters—clear, well-paced, witty—Bjornerud gives us a geologist’s sense of Deep Time. (I feel sure from reading this book that she is a superb teacher.) In the concluding chapter (“Timefulness, Utopian and Scientific”), she returns to the big picture with which she started. I found this both invigorating and maddening (in my copy of the book, Chapter 6 is a thicket of Post-it Notes). I love her description of the way she feels when she teaches “History of Earth and Life,” a semester-long course “(at a clip of about 400 million years a week)”:
We arrive at the present (if I’ve paced myself properly), with a feeling of exhausted exhilaration, mindful that this world contains so many earlier ones, all still with us in some way—in the rocks beneath our feet, in the air we breathe, in every cell of our body.
My own sense of timefulness includes a specifically Christian orientation to the future, which I tried to express in a piece some years ago in Books & Culture. I’ll quote from that here.
When I was a boy, growing up in churches where muted talk about “the end times” was routine though not obsessive, science fiction suggested the possibility that history was stranger than I had been led to believe, that rather than being near the end we might be only in the early chapters. Maybe; maybe not. But of this we can be sure: we await the restoration of all things promised in Acts 3:21. Every day, in all times, that incredible promise holds.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.