The Business of Being Human

We just got here, and look what we've done to the place!

The coming of spring, more than the coming of the new year in winter, marks for me the most significant time to put things into perspective. If a new world is possible, it seems more likely in April than in January.

It’s good to stand in my own future garden-to-come and consider the earth under my own feet. But I also begin to spend more time outdoors at sunrise and sunset, and even under the night time sky to enjoy the dark skies before the haze of summer sets in. My cosmology expands in springtime.

And this year, the time-framing is going far beyond one human’s single year, and space beyond the bounds of his garden. In thinking about how to mark time and place at this year’s Land’s Sake event (which has supplanted “Earth Day” as it holds potential to interest perhaps a wider Floyd demographic) I’m going up, up, up past the thirty-thousand-foot view. Let’s go all the way out to view the Blue Marble that the Apollo astronauts sent back 40 years ago. And I’d hope to put “modern times” in a similar perspective by looking at a timeline of Earth, life on Earth, and mankind on Earth.

Even knowing that only two of you will actually go there to see, and only one will think it enlightening, I offer you this USGS Timeline of Earth–a most remarkable bit if integrative info-art that I have already spent a hour gazing at. (The poster-sized pdf is best for this.)

To put this in perspective, I read this way of thinking about these vast stretches of time, and this plays nicely with my personal fantasies: Take one image of earth every century (from maybe 500 miles in space). Create a video that plays at 25 frames per second. It would take almost 24 hours running at that rate, 25 centuries a second, to reach 200 million years ago. In the beginning of the film, you’d watch the supercontinent Pangea begin to pull apart into today’s continents, and have wait about 10 hours for anything like dinosaurs to show up. Human civilizations (inside the orange square on the graphic) appear in the last 4 seconds.

And the take-home from this is to find mankind beginning to aggregate in “civilizations” and tame the land and his fellow creatures only after the end of the last ice age about 11 thousand years ago. At the end of this coiled spiral of time spanning 4.5 billion years, guests have arrived. And we have trashed the place in less than 200 years.

And at the same time, we’ve gained mastery over much of the knowledge and technology necessary to protect the future from the impact of our numbers and our resource footprint. We will get the future we choose.

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred: I read your blog every day, even though I don’t
    always post a comment. Your research and your blog posts are insightful, educational, and very much appreciated. Thank you for keeping us informed.

  2. Fred, I just came in from watching the dawn turn the colors of a nursery. Pink clouds blowing east over a bluing sky. The robins have been chanting their morning prayers for over an hour. I wonder if everyone went out into the first light of morning, if we might fall in love again with this earth as I do every day in spring, enough to choose the future that will save the place and ourselves. Thanks for the spiral history. Our perspective is so short sighted most of the time.

  3. Thank you, Wendy, for keeping your senses and soul open, and bringing that spiral of time into your peripheral vision. Yvonne, it helps to know that from time to time, there’s some resonance out there when it otherwise seems futile to talk to the trees (though the new puppy is a better listener.)