5. Time As Vastness
As the end of a process, man is absurd. As the beginning of a process, man might be hopeless, desperate, but never absurd. We stand where the magnetic field is just beginning to orient each particle (monad). The total pattern is far off in the future but the magnet is operative and the particles will orient themselves. In reality the magnet (which stands as God) is itself self-constructing and the force field is not just undefined but also highly improbable, not absurd, just inconceivable. 1
As I go west on 84 in New Mexico from Santa Fe to Ghost Ranch, the land changes, and past Abiqui it has the vaguely familiar feeling of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. This is indeed where she lived and painted for much of her life. A sacred silence fills the sky and land as well. The large masses of rock, different colors, shapes and textures and the power of the earth before people begin to dominate. For what I am seeing is more than 200 million years of time, from the late Triassic geologic period (between 205 and 228 million years ago) at the base, brick-red to red siltstone and mudstone and white to tan sandstone deposited by ancient rivers. Outside the Ghost Ranch library is a display of the rock formations, the geologic period to which they belong and the length of time they have been present.
Such time spans are difficult to imagine. In a way, they are just large numbers. Consider, for example, the dating of the late Triassic rocks between 205 and 228 million years ago. That is a 23-million-year time span, an unbelievably vast span of time, though when written out, it just seems like a few digits’ difference. We need to write down 23 million digits, one for each year, to get a little sense of the scale of vastness involved.
I cannot imagine such times, but in order to comprehend such numbers, I have tried to scale things down to something more manageable and to see where that leads.
The age of the universe is now dated to be 13.7 billion years from the Big Bang, with the sun forming 4.57 billion years ago and the earth 4.54 billion years ago. Thus, observing a landscape that is millions of years old is, in cosmic time, relatively young. As ancient as these rocks appear, they have been present only the 5% of the earth’s time span, the previous 95% of the earth’s history occurring before they appeared.
The earliest life, in the form of prokaryotic cells (those without nuclei) has been determined to be present 3.8 billion years ago, long before these rocks were present. At the time of these rocks, dinosaurs lived at Ghost Ranch, and many such fossils have been found there. Dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago. The earliest mammals appeared in the late Triassic period at the end of dinosaur age, roughly 200-230 million years ago. The earliest members of the genus Homo, from which our species Homo sapiens descended, emerged perhaps 2.5 million years ago. Humans that looked like us arrived 200,000 years ago, long after the rocks at Ghost Ranch were in place. Neanderthals vanished 25,000 years ago, and most of what we think of as the ancient times occurred in the past 10,000 years. Indeed if we imagine for a moment that the rocks were present 1 million years ago (still an unimaginably long time ago), instead of 200 million years ago, the human race would exist in recorded history (the last 10,000 years) for 50 years. We would have had electricity for the past 6 months. A human life span would be 6 to 8 months.
An easier way to visualize these relative time spans is to imagine a long highway where one foot equals one year. Thus, the last century would be 100 feet of road and the last 10,000 years two miles farther away. By that measure, members of Homo sapiens appeared at 40 miles. Dinosaurs, who last lived 65 million years ago, would emerge at the 13,000-mile point, and the rocks at the base of Ghost Ranch would have formed 40,000 miles down the road. The planet earth, our home, would still be far off, some 1.5 million miles away..
I suppose we could feel very small and insignificant in contemplating these kinds of relative times. However, I take another meaning from it. We are a young race, the human race, newcomers in existence. We are part of some much vaster processes, processes we can only glimpse, acknowledging that it has only been 500 feet down the road when we realized that the earth went around the sun and the notions of evolution and natural selection were discovered only 150 feet down the road.