I’ve been reading John McPhee’s In Suspect Terrain, originally published in 1983. His work has been published in The New Yorker since 1963, and I have long been a fan of his relentlessly inquisitive mind and his laser-sharp writing style. While he writes on a vast smorgasbord of topics, geology is an ever-recurring theme. Four of his books on the subject were published in one volume and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, so I’m far from being his only follower. I’d read portions of In Suspect Terrain as they were published in The New Yorker, but reading the whole book now, years later, has a new and deeper resonance.
Our culture is now obsessively attuned to the 24-hour news cycle with a 24-second attention span, and I’m not innocent of this myself. So there’s something magnificent about reading this: “Some geologists have attempted to isolate the time in all time that runs ten thousand years from the Cro-Magnon beside the melting ice to the maternity wards of the here and now by calling it the Holocene epoch, with the implication that this is our time and place, and the Pleistocene—the ‘Ice Age’—is all behind us. The Holocene appears to be nothing more than a relatively deglaciated interval. It will last until a glacier two miles thick plucks up Toronto and deposits it in Tennessee. If that seems unlikely, it is only because the most southerly reach of the Pleistocene ice fields to date stopped seventy-five miles shy of Tennessee.”
The movement of tectonic plates, the gigantic march of glaciers, the presence of oceans in Utah and rivers that run west, then east, then west again, all these are measured in geologic time. Historic time, what we reckon is important from our newly-arrived human perspective, is a tiny modern hiccup. You don’t get this by watching Fox News.
But we are the ones we have, and our tiny square in the quilt of time is all we’ve got, all we can grok. How to recalibrate? Conrad and I do what we can by visiting the ocean as often as possible. This Sunday we had our usual picnic at our usual place, and when the sushi had been eaten and the sake sipped, Conrad took stuff back to the car and offered me, as usual, the chance to linger.
Which I did. I sat like a contented joey in the pocket of the Mother, my own private space with all the amenities: warm sun, soft breeze, murmuring surf. In that half hour I let my boundaries dissolve and came as close as I ever get to the majestic slow pace of geologic time. Then I picked up my chair and came back to the rest of the day.
And I was blessed by the wonders of Facebook. Our daughter Johanna had linked to science writer Ed Yong in the Atlantic, an article about hagfish. In my imagination, it put our current political scene into the perspective of geologic time. Hagfish are an ancient marine animal, very odd, with no spine and no jaws but an incredibly efficient gut. Their claim to fame is their ability to excrete vast quantities of slime in an instant.
The Atlantic article is well worth reading in its entirety, as Yong is quite a writer. In the process of reading, I had an awful suspicion creep up on me. “Hagfish produce slime the way humans produce opinions—readily, swiftly, defensively, and prodigiously.” “Even a shark was forced to retreat, visibly gagging on the cloud of slime in its jaws.” We elected a hagfish.