The Romance of Deep Time
For two years I've been working on a picture book about Chinese dinosaurs called Forest of the Feathered Dragons. It's a way for me to think about the major themes of my creative life: history, memory, ruins, lost worlds, and most especially deep time. So much of this can be summed up in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias":
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Deep time was a term coined by John McPhee in 1981 to describe the vastness of our planetary history. When Shelley wrote "Ozymandias" in 1818, he lived in a world where very little had changed in century upon century. To conjure a sense of vast time the Romantics went as far back as the Ancient World of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Theirs was the first generation to be aware of time--and some of that had to do with the revolutions of the 18th century in politics, art, technology, and science. Long before Darwin unsettled Biblical literalists, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier discovered extinction and mentored Richard Owen, the man who invented the term "dinosaur."
Five years after Cuvier published his book on extinction, Shelley was grappling with the thought of not just the mortality of an individual like himself but of the entire human race, imagining that someday everybody and everything winds up in that limitless desert of time, a "colossal wreck, boundless and bare." But if Shelley felt terrified confronting the sublime reality of centuries, I wonder how he would have felt when, a generation later, Britain gave the world its first knowledge of dinosaurs--creatures that lived and died not thousands but tens of millions of years ago. Long before humans possessed the ability to grasp the cosmic scale of galactic space, they were forced to confront the vastness of earthly time. Before this moment, people never thought about time very much--it had no mysteries, meanings, or messages. It was measured in a seemingly eternal cycle of seasons and reenactments of sacred events, dissolving the boundary between past, present, and future. Then, suddenly, everything changes. In the industrial revolution, the past becomes a raw material from which to draw conclusions, create allegories, and ponder the human condition. People had long been inspired by past events or past figures. But this was different. Time itself--and the effervescent nature of human life--began to obsess writers and painters, philosophers and poets. Everything decays, is lost, withers, and swallowed up by desert sands or jungle vegetation--not just an individual life but life itself. It was a new thought--something humans had never really had to think about.
I wonder what it was like for Shelley to live in a world without dinosaurs. He never had to think about deep time--a time so vast that it stretches billions of years to the moment when the earth was born, and billions and billions of years before that to the moment the universe first appeared in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, inconceivably hot, dark, and lifeless. He never had to imagine the countless days in which fish slowly evolved from sliding to walking animals, straining to breathe air into lungs made for water. He did not have the ability to dream of dinosaurs long extinct, fluttering their feathers deep in a rainforest of a continent that itself is lost in time. There are times when I envy him--because he never had to face the horror of humanity's inevitable extinction. But at the same time, Shelley never knew what it felt like to cast his consciousness into cosmic reaches of time and and space. He had just an inkling of how that boundless adventure would feel. Deep time is everything Shelley and his Romantic cohorts thought of when they talked about the sublime--a concept that unites awe and terror, beauty and horror, dread and wonder.