How to Get Lost in Deep Time
And why the underworld is a time machine.
Public discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have vanished in a thick haze of wildfire smoke, and fever dreams of normalcy. Despite the fact that we don’t talk about it much anymore, COVID has nevertheless permanently altered life here, in the US. Nothing works anymore. Everything is at least a little bit broken.
We knew this was coming. Prophets had given us all kinds of warnings of imminent forms of systems collapse: pandemics, glacial melt, wildfires, resource wars, mass species extinctions. I could keep going, but I won’t. I’ll just say, again, that we knew it was coming. And yet before COVID, it felt more possible to deny it. COVID just made it more obvious that things really are falling apart. It made an already elusive sense of existential comfort even more difficult to find.
Comfort can be a cheap word. We all need it, and we all want it. But too much of it, like sugar, isn’t good for us. Our economy presents us with endless opportunities to buy some paltry form of it. We need it, we want it, we can’t have too much of it, most of the comfort we can get is likely to destroy us. I feel like we should be a little more angry about this. We should be thinking about how to be a little more comfortable in the world!
But there’s some masculinist residue in intellectual life that turns comfort into a weak word, a bad word. I’ve learned to avoid the word, in my professional life. I’ve learned not to reference it as a possible aim. It would be absurd, in contemporary academic life, to present a theoretical argument whose aim is essentially to provide readers with a sense of comfort. By this discomfiting logic, comfort is where we end up when when we are lazy, or soft, or we lack courage, or we don’t want to fight for change. Comfort doesn’t do or change, or perform, or reinvent anything. It’s that thing our mother wanted to find for us, that we had to reject in order to Become Men. But I’m fine with good deals, and cheap words, and the comfort of mothers. I want to know how to find comfort, and how to provide it. So existential comforts matter to me, both practically and theoretically.
I thought that I started writing about underworlds because it was a logical extension of my book on death. Underworlds have long been the world of and for the dead, after all. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s because, after writing a book about death, I needed some existential comfort. And I found it in the deep time that the underworld houses and protects. I wanted to write about the underworld because I discovered it was a time machine that could transport me into a deeper form of time, a deeper experience of time, where I could wander and get lost for a while.
This was affirmed for me, recently, as I wandered in caves looking for Paleolithic art. I felt as if I were part of deep time: immersed in it for a brief moment. I’ve spoken, in recent weeks, of how this cave art deepened my sense of time. And I want to think with you, this week, about deep time itself—this phrase I find myself using, more and more, to think about underworlds.
It was Robert MacFarlane’s book Underland: A Deep Time Journey that made the connection between underworlds and deep time clearer to me, recently. If deep time is kept, not by watches or calendars but instead (as MacFarlane puts it) by “stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates,” then of course it makes sense that the underworld—a world of sediment, stone, and deep seabeds—would be its keeper. It pleased me, to think about the underworld this way. But this wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase, deep time.
I don’t recall the first reference I ever witnessed, to deep time. But I do remember that it struck me right away as the sort of time I am always lost in, in my own research. I study theories and ideas that are genealogically bound to medieval and ancient conversations, scriptures that are even more ancient, and the oral traditions that pre-dated those texts on a time scale we can only guess at. When I read and think, I am always diving back into these deep histories, and the deeper forms of time they harbor. But the theories themselves—the speculative ideas that I’m always doing the work of digging up and dusting off—are about divine things, including temporalities. They are theories about how things began, and why, what those lost origins could even mean to us anyhow, and how we might attempt some form of access to them in real time. I think of religious and theological ideas as ones that are bound to deep time, formed in deep time, and that give shape to deep time.
So imagine my surprise, when I learned that theologians are often cast as the villains in stories of deep time (cue the sarcasm; I’m actually never surprised to see theologians cast as villains.)
According to these stories, deep time is a feature and discovery of science. Especially geology. Deep time was a discovery of the bold and brave adventurers whose methods were empirical, and pulled from the earth itself. Figures like James Hutton stand at the origin point of a genealogy for a radically new sense of time: a form of time that is spoken to us (or to modern scientists) through the rocks. The mountainous more than human figures of deep time dwarf our puny human time scale with their almost immortal scale of change. They leave us lost in an expanse of time we can barely comprehend, and will always fail to capture in a timeline.
According to stories like this, religion and theology appear as the source of resistance to the discovery of deep time. They are the very things that need to be overcome, in order to uncover deep time in the first place. Religion and theology are the source of our dreams of timelessness: our source for a time out of mind, and out of this world. The language of the eternal (an unearthly form of time) was created as an escape from the deep time of the earth. In this way, religion and theology present a denial of nature, and a denial of our relationship with more than human worlds. Deep time liberates us from this imprisonment.
People typically attribute the phrase “deep time” to the writer, John McPhee. It appeared in his 1981 book, about geologists, called Basin and Range. But, as literary studies scholar Noah Herringman argues, deep time has a bigger history. It may have gone by other names, but the concept of deep time is far from new. Indeed, it predates the formal science of geology. Harringman references, in particular Ibn Sina (alive between 908 and 1037 CE) whose principles of geology clearly articulated long and deep cycles of time. But there are also many indigenous forms of knowledge contained in figures such as the Aboriginal Tjukurpa, which contained figures of deep time rooted in the earth’s world of rock. Herringman’s point, in essence, is that deep time is not “identical with geological time as it is currently understood.”
Of course, deep time as it’s referred to and spoken about (especially in geology) today does have a very particular shape and form. In other words, science offers us a very specific sort of take on deep time. Initially, it was a natural form of time that existed beyond and outside of history. It was far bigger than the minuscule time of human culture. This is what helped to liberate the time of the earth from the temporalities of religion and theology in which they had been imprisoned. This is why, as Herringman argues, “the modern, post-Darwinian understanding of deep time rests as much on ethnographic disruptions of the Biblical timescale as on any recognition of nonhuman nature.” More than anything, perhaps, the deep time of contemporary geology is a way of seizing temporality back from religion, and handing it to science.
Interestingly, it’s this particular and scientific narrative of deep time, this natural and functionally ahistorical form of time, with its origins in the 19th century, that’s falling apart today. Why? Because the onset of the Anthropocene has made humans a part of deep time. Whatever you think about the idea of the Anthropocene, the fact is that it’s fomented new kinds of conversations. And these conversations have located humans within geological time, as a geological force. Nature and culture, natural and historical forms of time, collapse into one another in the Anthropocene. Deep time is now part of human nature and history.
Part of what this means, in a purely scholastic sense, is that it’s becoming much clearer where religion and science actually resonate and collude on the matter of deep time.
Stephen Jay Gould’s 1987 book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time may have been the book that did the most to popularize the concept of deep time beyond geology. It was probably also responsible for tracing the etymology of deep time back to John McPhee. Gould is keenly aware of the tensions that history poses to the geological concept of deep time. In fact, as Gould tells it, the story of the discovery of deep time is very much a story about a theoretical rejection of linear, historical narratives of time, embracing instead the temporal cycles that have appeared in myths since perhaps the beginning of the idea of time itself. Gould relies on scholars of religion, like Mircea Eliade, to narrate his history of geology’s deep time.
Gould carefully traces the work of James Hutton in order to argue that he was not (as the geology textbook legend presented him) an empirical fieldworker whose theory arose out of the hard evidence he discovered in the earth. Rather, Gould argues, Hutton’s claims about deep time were deeply theoretical and ahistorical in what can only be called an ideological manner. Hutton, Gould argues, “discovered” deep time by “imposing his rigid view of time’s cycle upon a complex earth.”
Reading Gould’s book was obviously interesting to me, as someone who works in the field of theology, because it opens up the conversation about deep time in interesting ways. It locates deep time within a more complex mythical cosmos. But I also found it clarifying to understand how much cycles of temporality matter, in the formation of deep time. I’d been a little mystified by my own attraction to deep time. I didn’t quite understand why I felt so inclined to get lost in it. But Gould’s analysis of the importance of deep, massive, almost endless cycles in the formation of the idea of deep time seemed to make something click, for me.
What these massive cycles of time allowed a thinker like Hutton to emphasize was the way that renewal arises out of decay. It was an affirmation of renewal, on a time scale that we can’t quite comprehend. Of course I was drawn to a figure like this! In the face of what feels like constant and endless conversations about extinctions of all sorts, and the end of the world as we know it, nothing can provide an existential sense of comfort like massive cycles of renewal that are too big in scope for me to comprehend. It’s a way of reassuring me that renewal is real, in a grand and cosmic sense. In a bleak environmental landscape, deep time promises a form of change that is something other than totally destructive.
The geologist Marcia Bjornerud believes that thinking like a geologist—taking deep time into account—can save the world. She argues that religious thought (primarily in the form of creationism and apocalypticism) has historically done the most to give us the sense that history is short, and the future is even shorter. But today it’s our politics and economics (feeding us the idea that—more than anything—our human essence is to be consumers) that feeds us this temporal vision. Bjornerud doesn’t appear, to me, to be a longtermist (which Émile Torres has called the most dangerous fringe philosophy and secular credo). Instead, I think Bjornerud is simply trying to convince people of the power and value of this earth that houses us, and that can still surprise us (even as it’s clear that we’re destroying it).
Can living and thinking in this form of time—living with a deeper sense of deep time—save the world? Bjornerud is convinced that it will provide us, as humans all across the globe, with the sense of shared value that we currently lack. We can put aside the many things that divide us and, instead, protect what we share: the earth itself, which holds us together in deep time. I’d like to believe in a vision like this. But I have to admit, I’m a little skeptical. The cry to love the earth is nothing new, and it seems as if it hasn’t been broadly convincing.
I suppose there’s a part of me that feels like Bjornerud has picked the wrong theological message to emphasize. I don’t think she would call herself a theologian. In fact, as a scientist, she might resent such an “accusation”. But I see her emphasis on the vision of salvation as fundamentally theological. It’s not about a god (theologies aren’t always about divinities per se). But this idea that thinking like a geologist can save us does introduce a fantastic figure of hope, a dream of what our rational mind tells us is impossible, a spiritual aim that doesn’t feel bound to take evidence into account. That’s what makes it theological to me.
But as someone who thinks regularly about theology, I have to admit that salvation narratives are never the ones I’m drawn to. They always seem so distant, so futural, so heroic, and so abstract. I’ve found other theological narratives far more alluring, like the strange experience of imagining ourselves intimately related to profoundly alien agencies, like the dead and the divine. I’m more interested in the preservation of dream and fantasy spaces, against the utilitarian pressures of life’s struggle to survive, than I am in salvation narratives. These kinds of theologies, as I see them, throw us into wild forms of relationship, and preserve a wilderness of dreamscapes.
As I see it, “thinking like a geologist”, or getting lost in deep time, is a way to preserve this space of fantastic wilderness, and to keep it hovering just at the inaccessible edge of our lifeworld, so that it can continue to provide us with a sense of existential comfort. Not only because we can take comfort in the irreducible, ever-renewing, wildness of our dreamscapes that deep time preserves. Not only because the humility we find in deep time can be a comfort. But also because it can remind us that these dreamscapes are housed and protected in the underworld: these underworld dreamscapes don’t need to take over our waking life. They can remain partially hidden, in the underworld, just below the surface of things. There is a kind of comfort in that hiddenness, in its burrowed secrecy.
I felt something like existential comfort, in those 20,000 year old galleries of art that I recently had the privilege to stand in. I felt more of a sense of existential comfort than I had in a long time. More than I’d felt since the onset of COVID. I didn’t necessarily feel the hope of salvation. But I did feel the powerful effect of the preservation of dreamscapes (the way that the earth herself tenderly held these galleries of art in her belly for tens of thousands of years). There’s more than one way to get lost in deep time. Perhaps the first thing we have to do is be open to a little underworld exploration, because the underworld is a time machine.
Thanks for reading Galactic Underworlds! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.