Category Archives: New cosmology

Centration: the universe and the doughnut

 

The power of centration: the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Hubble Heritage Team, N. Scoville (Caltech)

The universe seldom operates in straight lines; certainly not for long, and only in details. A twig may be straight for an inch or so before hitting a node and angling off on another line. But the whole bush is likely to be a glorious circling of twigs, leaves, and flowers. Tree trunks can be beautifully tall and straight, but they radiate out into branches, twigs, leaves, needles. A flower stem may make a delicate line, but it, too, radiates leaves and ends with gatherings of round, tubular, or conical flowers, each creating its own center.

From birth, the cosmos has been turning in on itself, creating these centers: the early clustering of the original elements into stars. The swirling arms of galaxies gathering them together, then continuing to create more centers as new stars formed. The dust of the universe collecting itself into planets around those stars, and they, in turn, pulling matter into moons and rings. Centered planets within centered solar systems within centered galaxies. Without these gravitational formations, the earliest matter of the universe would have floated off into infinite space, and we would never have arrived and found a place to stand and contemplate it all.

A cell is an example of the power of centration

Microscopic photo of a skin cell by Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco via Flickr

There are more: cells are centers, gathering together disparate working elements within an intelligent membrane. They then form into one nexus after another, getting more and more complex until conglomerations of centers — brains, lungs, stomachs — turn slowly into bacteria, algae, plants, fish, animals, birds, us. Water vapor gathers and falls as rain, or as snowy crystalline centers. The currents of the great waters flow in curves around the globe. The winds do the same, sometimes sweeping into great storms, with whirling water and wind, centers of great intensity.

In his series on the Powers of the Universe, cosmologist Brian Swimme calls this the power of centration. This is the second of my essays exploring what these great energies can teach us about how to move forward to the regenerative future we all desire. ‘The role of the human,’ Brian says, ‘is to enable the creative powers of the universe to proceed in a new and more mutually enhancing way.’ Even our desire for such a way forward, he feels, is a centering around the basic focus of animal life: to nurture ourselves and our young. We do this by gathering into families and communities. ‘The universe is aiming to bring forth…life that will carry life forward.’

The power of centration shows in seashells

Centration is everywhere! Photo by Paul Brennan via Pixabay

Given nature’s minimal interest in lines, it’s intriguing that we humans have, unlike any other species, surrounded ourselves with them, creating a built world of squares and rectangles. This, Brian suggests, extends to our thinking about the entire cosmos: it’s ‘a box with a lot of things in it…and a lot happening.’ The society inside the box has ‘become like a machine, a vast network of interactions focused on its own perpetuation.’ 

One line that we’re particularly attached to is the idea of linear progress. We have created a culture in which our measurement of prosperity is that we create and get more and more. If the more is nutritious food, comfortable shelter, and useful education, then the gain is positive and potentially sustaining. If by more we mean tons of things in larger houses, more cars, vaster shopping centers, then the gain is going to overwhelm the planet. But this is the line we measure in the gold standard of progress: gross national product, or GDP.

The power of centration shows up in the Fibonacci curves at the center of the sunflower

Swirling Fibonacci curves can be found throughout the natural world, showing up vividly in the centers of sunflowers. Photo by Casey Pilley via Pixabay

This linear view of progress is insidious. Thinking that because we have more things we are better, more civilized, more advanced than those with fewer things fosters the idea that some people, species, places are worth less than others, and beyond that, expendable. This attitude underlies the idea that people living in poverty have done something to deserve their state, that species protection is incompatible with human endeavor, that the resources of the planet exist for our use.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because of an economist and firecracker-in-human-form named Kate Raworth, who has written a riveting and delicious book called Doughnut Economics. The shape of her economic model, with its circling double lines of permeable membranes, enfolding a well of conditions for human prosperity, is a perfect example of using the power of centration as we proceed into the 21st century.

A view of the doughnut from Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics

From Doughnut Economics; image by Christian Guthier

In the ‘hole’ of the doughnut are twelve things that are required for a just and humane presence, living within the bounds of the planet, such as housing, equality, a role in politics, peace, health, food, and water. Falling into the center of this hole means we have a shortfall of these basic necessities. Outside of the doughnut is where we go into overshoot, using up the resources we have faster than they can be replenished, and discarding more than can be absorbed by air, water, or soil. 

Though we’ve largely ignored it in the linear make-use-trash market we have today, the idea of a circular economy isn’t new. This is what Raworth calls the butterfly economy, a cradle to cradle model, where resources used to create goods are recycled back into the same goods, as with modular pieces, recycled into other goods, or repaired. Such ideas have been a touchstone of sustainable thinking for years and are excellent examples of using the power of centration. 

The power of centration is illustrated in Kate Raworth's butterfly economy in Doughnut Economics

From Doughnut Economics; image by Marcia Mihotich

But the doughnut is different. It’s not only an economic model, it’s a place. One where the planet can live comfortably and the thriving of our species doesn’t threaten the flourishing of any others. A circular economy is part of the doughnut, as is building a robust commons. Freeing intellectual rights from overuse of patents on knowledge collectively developed. Looking to nature to learn from its billions of years of experimentation and know-how. Creating cooperative businesses and endeavors. Understanding the utter interdependence of everything on earth. Designing equitable distribution and regeneration into the economy.

The “fundamental question,” Raworth writes, is “what enables human beings to thrive?” What will create “a world in which every person can lead their life with dignity, opportunity and community…within the means of our life-giving planet?” What allows for all humans to prosper, not just those blessed to be in situations that favor them, at the expense of those in less favored circumstances? And what is prosperity? Merely the accumulation of money and things? Or a world where everyone’s basic needs are met by design, not just a few by default?

The power of centration gives prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) centers curving around a central stem. Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) with centers curving around a central stem. Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Economic growth has proven to be effective for relieving deep poverty. But it’s based on the idea that we can just keep making things forever, with its concomitant mountains of garbage and overuse of earth’s supply of water, clean air, and resources. Even if we could keep this pace with a completely renewable, circular economy, recycling everything, leaving nothing to foul the earth, measuring our wellbeing by GDP “only values what is priced and only delivers to those who can pay.”

If you have asthma from a nearby toxic dump, every visit to the doctor counts toward the GDP and is thus included in ‘progress’. In our current economic thinking, there isn’t a usable measurement for no asthma and no toxic dump. Health and the ability to enjoy your neighborhood literally don’t count. By law, a corporation is responsible for maximizing profit for shareholders, not for creating and maintaining a living, prospering world.

The power of centration delightfully displayed by these curving petals of columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Centration captures one of nature’s few straight lines. Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia

Raworth points out that since the 1970s, the word consumer has replaced the word citizen, losing the far broader values, roles, and responsibilities the latter word invokes. The unpaid work that goes into our households, families, and neighborhoods — the foundations of our ability to thrive in the world — has no recognized worth. The doughnut changes this by “shifting our attention from merely tracking the flow of income to understanding the many distinct sources of wealth— natural, social, human, physical and financial— on which our well-being depends.”

This will require a radically different way of thinking, a different set of values. “Reversing consumerism’s financial and cultural dominance in public and private life is set to be one of the twenty-first century’s most gripping psychological dramas,” Raworth says. Even those of us who wish ardently to live within the means of the planet and want all beings to be able to blossom may well be thrown by the need to recalibrate what we cherish and desire. To decide what we’re willing to live without in order to live with our fellow creatures and the earth we share.

The power of centration: doughnut economics means more community, as in this garden

A community garden in Glendale, California. Photo by Melissa Wall via Flickr

It will be a challenge in our culture, in particular, to subsume the modern version of the mythic rugged individual — the larger-than-life entrepreneur — into the need for communal centering. As Raworth notes, “Suddenly the words ‘neighbours’, ‘community members’, ‘community of nations’ and ‘global citizens’ seem incredibly precious for securing a safe and just economic future.”

The universe itself tells us that our current approach is unsustainable, and guides us forward. For all its long life it’s been gathering information about what works and moving past what doesn’t. It provides us with its incredibly flexible, generative energy, continually centering, gathering elements of itself for the creation of every new being or mode of being. This intelligent, vital force, Brian Swimme says, ‘has been roaring for 13.7 billion years and now it’s roaring into our lives. It’s been shaping the universe all this time, and it’s inviting us into the shaping itself.’

The power of centration: a solar system in the making

A solar system in the making, via NASA

Both of my mentors here, while acknowledging the vast destruction we’ve wrought and how much work there is to do, are excited about our opportunities. Kate Raworth recognizes that a regenerative economy must be supported by regenerative economic design, which “is currently sorely missing. Making it happen calls for rebalancing the roles of the market, the commons and the state. It calls for redefining the purpose of business and the functions of finance.” But, she says, “taking on this redesign task is surely one of the most exciting opportunities for the twenty-first century.” 

She sees many examples, worldwide, of a new, emerging paradigm. The power of centration tells us that these energies can be drawn together and strengthened into nurturing ways of living on and with our planet and our fellow beings. There is a great, sustaining joy in such a task, Brian says, in ‘feeling part of a greater self, rooted in energies that go back to the beginning of time…Feeling the partnership and participation.’ This exhilaration is ‘what the primordial energy of the universe feels like.’

The power of centration is obvious in this siberian aster (Aster sibiricus) along the road in Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibiricus) along the road in Alaska

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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The power of radiance

Radiance: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with butterflies in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada by Betsey CrawfordWe humans have brought ourselves to a fascinating and challenging point. By our numbers and our choices, particularly in the last 200 years, we’ve grown into an equivalent of the geological forces that have shaped our planet over its 4.5 billion year life. Our effect on the thin layer of atmosphere blanketing the earth means that we are potentially altering the ability of every living thing to prosper, or even exist. Our use of resources — forests, water, air, minerals, soil — is far outstripping the earth’s ability to replenish them. Millions of people worldwide are grappling with these challenges, which represent not just things to do but require new ways to think.

Radiance: checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Now that we have become this force, where do we look for inspiration on how to act in our new role? To the universe itself, suggests cosmologist Brian Swimme amplifying the thinking of Thomas Berry, with whom he collaborated for many years. In 2005 Brian recorded a series of talks on the powers of the universe, the modes the cosmos itself operates by. These are the processes that gave birth to everything, including us. He chose ten of them: seamlessness, centration, allurement, emergence, homeostasis, cataclysm, synergy, transmutation, transformation, interrelatedness, and radiance. 

In 2007 I attended the earth literacy intensive at Genesis Farm, a Berry-inspired ecological and spiritual center. One of our projects was to choose a power and, after pondering it for a couple of weeks, create a presentation for our final evening together. I made a beeline for the CD that held the talk on radiance. 

Swallowtail butterfly and purple coneflower mandala by Betsey CrawfordJust before going to Genesis Farm, I had been at an art workshop where a fellow participant shared her mandala journal with us. So inspired by this magical way of responding to our world, I sat down to do my first mandala as soon as she closed her book. I brought this happy zeal with me to Genesis Farm and combined listening to Brian talk about radiance with this new way of meditating. From a butterfly to the stars, all was held in its shimmering essence. So, even though radiance is the tenth listed power, I’m going with the time-honored and delicious principle of eating dessert first.

Radiance may be the sweetest of the powers, but that doesn’t lessen its immense importance and complexity. We wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for the most radiant of all local beings: the sun. She, blazing wildly from the depths of her fiery furnace, sets our standard. She also has a lot of company. Since the primeval flaring forth, everything in the universe has been giving off light, in the visible spectrum and out, in the form of electromagnetic and quantum energy. ‘Radiance is the primary language of the universe, the way the universe communicates with itself.’ The way that it speaks to us. The sun and the earth, with all its emerging forms and beings, are part of the cosmos’s ongoing conversation. 

Radiance: monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our task, Brian says, ‘is to become the human form of radiance.’ We didn’t evolve to become consumers, or cogs in an industrial machine, or to allow the sublime beauty of this world to be destroyed for trinkets. We evolved to manifest 14 billion years of radiance. 

For this, we can turn first to our most luminous organ: our heart. Our most crucial organ, nourishing every single cell, every moment of our lives. But it’s not only an exquisitely designed pump. It receives, and radiates. Look at a mother watching her baby, he suggests. ‘You don’t need to talk her into the idea that she’s holding a magnificent beauty.’ And we, looking on, recognize the glowing love flowing from her, and our heart opens in turn. ‘What comes forth, what reverberates out, feels like it’s completing the beauty that’s there.’

Radiance: staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

Our heart’s radiance is both effects and science, body and spirit. It’s a sublime biological system and an electromagnetic field 100 times stronger than the brain’s. Its rhythms convey information to all systems, functioning as the information hub of the body. It synchronizes the brain, giving us deeper access to our frontal lobes, helping us process the world and make sense of our emotional experiences.

The heart’s effects — warmth, aliveness, love, compassion, joy, forgiveness — both reach into and receive the world. These capacities are the essential qualities of all spiritual traditions, which recognize them as the way into our kinship with all other beings. They are the traits that have always made life worth living, and are why turning to our hearts now is crucial to our complex path forward. 

Radiance: fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California

I might also say turning on our hearts. Since everything is connected, it makes perfect sense that our heart’s energy field would interact with the universe’s many interwoven fields. For the past ten years the Global Coherence Institute, part of the Institute for Heart Math, has been studying just this. A recent study “showed that human heart rhythms of participants synchronized with other participants, even in some cases…hundreds of miles apart. This indicated that the participants were all synchronized to an external signal in Earth’s magnetic field environment.”   

This is utterly fascinating, and Heart Math’s research, devoted to the science behind our most radiant organ, is full of such gems. But we don’t need studies to know we are in the presence of a big heart, or a tender heart, or a joyful spirit. Or that the heart leaps with joy at the sight a velvety sky full of stars, or a loved one’s face. Brian calls radiance a mode of perception as well as a power. The heart gifts us with the intuition to read other hearts, to read the earth itself. Our response is a reciprocation. When we see with compassion, or hope, or joy, when we recognize and react to beauty, we don’t spend those capacities, we enlarge them. 

Radiance: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

We’ve been operating under distorted perceptions — that the earth is merely a resource, that some humans are less worthy than others, that economics is more important than love. All of these come from the basic distortion that everything is separate. When we allow the radiance of the universe to speak through our hearts, we can both perceive and radiate our deep interconnection with every manifestation of the unfolding cosmos.

Of the heart’s qualities, scriptures the world over tell us, the greatest is love. We have thousands upon thousands of poems, songs, paintings, stories of love. I think most of us would say it is the most important element in our own lives. We are passionate about, even obsessed with love. And yet the culture we have created devalues it, just as it is capable of trashing so many other manifestations of radiance. 

Radiance: autumn peach leaves, Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Autumn peach leaves, Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

The recent outpouring of love-fueled outrage in response to the border crisis reassures us that love is powerful. But the decades of policy leading to this crisis in all the countries involved were, and continue to be, fueled by greed and domination. The disconnect between the depth of feeling in our hearts and the crushing power of corporations and governments makes love seem like a weak force. 

And yet we feel — in our hearts — that it’s not. It’s there that we know, as Brian says, ‘that something glorious is streaming into us.’ Knowing that the radiance of the universe is beating through our hearts can give us the strength to move through the frantic constructs of our time toward the vivid future we yearn for. This is not a ‘love, sweet love’ invocation; it’s not limited to that dimension. The sun doesn’t set us an example of placid radiance. Hers is wildly fierce, life-giving, life-altering. It makes everything possible.

Radiance: sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

But the universe also tells us that sweet radiance is powerful. Plants turn the sun’s ferocious energy into sugars, nourishment to feed themselves and to sustain the millions of years of evolution that radiated out after the appearance of photosynthesis. Out of this sweetness, plants create luminous petals, delicious fruits, aromatic essences to nurture other beings, including us, whose brains and senses have slowly evolved to hold consciousness of the beauty of life, and lives. 

Loving this incandescent bounty anchors us to the earth we rose from. We seek to create it, live it, share it, save it. We derive courage, strength, dedication. We respond with loving radiance. We are emboldened to take action. ‘We discover who we are in the midst of the deep voices of the universe.’

Radiance: wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Eostre and the Universe Story

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Humans are story-making animals. We have a story for everything, and many, many stories for the same things, depending on where and with whom we found ourselves when we arrived in this life. Our tales explain where we came from, how we got here, why we’re here at all, how to behave now that we are here. As science expands our knowledge of how the universe, and our tiny piece of it, came into being, how our DNA links us, how we migrated out of Africa, we create new stories, layering evidence on metaphor, while still cherishing the old and familiar ones.

Easter connects me to many stories, especially those of my childhood tradition of Catholicism, where the ancient lore of fertility goddesses, ushering in light and renewed growth, became entwined with the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whose last days were embedded in the story of the Passover, which was in turn embedded in the story of how a tribe became a nation, one of thousands of stories about how tribes cohered, and how that made them special in the eyes of their gods.

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Western houndstongue (Cynoglossum grande) King Mountain, Larkspur, California. The individual flowers would barely cover your thumbnail.

The Easter stories of death and resurrection, and their ties to the seasonal changes from birth to fruition to death to rebirth, go back to our earliest records: those on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Sumer. Inanna, Queen of the World in the Sumerian pantheon, traveled to the underworld, was stripped of her clothing, tortured, and crucified, while the world above shriveled in response. Though she was rescued in three days, her ordeal was just the beginning of a journey to explore the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The embodiment of the planet Venus, Inanna became the Babylonian Ishtar, and in turn the Canaanite Astarte. Her spirit eventually metamorphosed into the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, perhaps the Germanic Eostre, who may or may not have presided over the celebration that bears her name. The lineages are not pure and direct; many stories and energies are merged and scattered among them, and traits are bestowed and then changed. Ishtar was also the goddess of war. By Aphrodite’s time that title belonged to Ares, and Hera had become the queen of the Greek pantheon.

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) King Mountain, Larkspur, California, another tiny, dainty flower

The hints we have of Eostre don’t suggest the mighty energies of Inanna. She is most likely representative of any number of fertility goddesses, bringing with them light and fecundity, heralding the spring avalanche of green growth, renewing the promise of survival. She may be related to Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn.  The etymology of the word Easter is traced through the Proto-Germanic word for dawn, ‘austron-,’ but is only used in German and English. Most other European languages derive their word for Easter from paschas, or passover.

I love all of this: the layers of meaning, the tellings and retellings of the same basic human tales, the bequeathing of characters from one civilization or culture to another. These interweavings speak of the depths of our connection to other human beings, even those living many thousands of years ago. To me, it doesn’t challenge the Christian beliefs in the teachings of a holy man named Jesus to know that his story was couched in literary structures inherited from venerated traditions. The idea that our great narratives are echoes of more ancient ones isn’t a limitation to me. It’s a sign of the universality of our fears, our longings, our loves.

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are about an inch long.

Our stories provide us with energy and motivation. They place our feet on the ground of our culture. They entertain and explain and nourish. But our love of story also has a long history of darkness. There has been a lot of carnage over whose story is the ‘real’ one, and many stories to justify the mayhem: that one group is chosen and another not, that we can never have enough, that the earth is ours to use up, that my story justifies killing people with a different one. A narrative can burn a forest, enslave a people, destroy a planet. So often it’s only after protracted battles that we wearily sit down and listen to the shared longing under the destruction: I want to be safe. I want to be loved. I’m afraid of my vulnerability. I want the comfort of abundance. I’m afraid of death. I want my life to be meaningful. I want my children to be happy. I want the light to return after a stretch of darkness.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California

One of the reasons I am so drawn to Thomas Berry’s work is his call for a new story. His is a way to see the world around us, and including us, not as an accidental cascade of carbon atoms, but as a constantly evolving expression of enormous creative power. We are not the end result, beings perched on a planet put here for our disposal. We are one of many, many manifestations of this continual, billions-year-old generativity, beings emerged from the earth itself. Related by the very elements of our cells to all the other forms that have developed with us. Connected in the most profound way to the living landscapes we walk among.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken in Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California

Though Berry’s universe story is grounded in the advancing science of the history of the cosmos, he saw its connection to many indigenous creation stories, where beings — animal, plant, rock — rise from the soil of their sacred places. Not long ago, we were all indigenous to a place we held sacred, and when I was tiny I lived for a while in a place that rooted me to the earth. But later, hunting Easter eggs in suburban New York in the 1950’s, that deep connection was more elusive. I sensed it in my love of the wind, of the violets growing in the cracks of a rough patch of sidewalk, the smell of our neighbor’s lilacs. I felt it in the tunnel my father cut through a massive tangle of honeysuckle, allowing us a home among the branches and roots. I once sat in awe at a mysterious jack-in-the-pulpit that showed up in the tiny woodland separating our house from our neighbor. These wisps were among the many threads of love and longing that Berry’s message wove together for me, connecting me to a story that places my feet and my heart securely on the planet that created me.

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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The solace of deep time

Comb Ridge along Butler Wash, Bluff to Blanding. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordIn his 1981 book, Basin and RangeJohn McPhee gave us a good analogy for the scale of deep time. Stretch out your arm sideways, and imagine that the 4.55 billion-year timeline of earth’s history runs from the tip of your nose to the tip of your middle fingernail. A quick swipe of a nail file would wipe out human history. So, a lot happened before we showed up. Vast seas came and went. Continents formed, coalesced, split apart, regrouped. Mountain ranges were pushed up and eroded away. More peaks were shoved up out of the remains. Volcanoes spewed untold amounts of lava and ash.  Great ice sheets advanced and retreated for eons. Plates moving over the surface of the earth met and groaned as one was forced under the coming edge, or crushed against it. Running water slowly eroded everything it passed over, forming great rivers that cut deep-walled canyons over millions of years. Life startled into existence and began its long evolution.

Rock tunnel along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordIt was wild. And I’m sorry I missed it, though the 300 million-year stretch of meteor bombardment would have been harrowing. The wonderful news is that we can still see into earthly deep time; all we have to do is look at rocks at any road cut, on any mountain or desert trail, along any coast. One of my favorite places for reading earth history is southern Utah, where you can literally drive through deep time. It’s not only an open book but it’s in vivid color. It’s almost in pages: layers of sandstone, limestone red with hematite, white limestone without, volcanic ash, volcanic tuff, tidal-flat mud, dinosaur footprints, ancient conifer and fish fossils.

Mancos Formation shale erosion along Route 24 in southern Utah. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe photos above and below were taken on the same drive, a couple of hours apart. Above is the lunar landscape left by the erosion of the Cretaceous era Mancos Formation. Some 95 million years ago mud quietly sifted out onto tidal flats, between the toes of dinosaurs, on the edge of an inland sea. The white rock in the picture below is Navajo Sandstone, laid down by wind in a vast desert of sand in the early Jurassic Era, which began 201 million years ago. It sits on top of the Kayenta Formation, whose layers were deposited in rivers, also in the early Jurassic. There was plenty of time for both. The early Jurassic lasted for 27 million years.

Trail in Calf Creek Recreation Area, Grand Staircase Escalante. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordIn the eleventh century, two widely separated but equally brilliant polymaths, Shen Quo in China and Ibn Sina in Persia, theorized about the geologic upheavals that might have formed the mountains surrounding them, and the seas that had apparently left behind the fossil-laden strata at their feet. They also conjectured about the vast length of time these processes must have taken. Shen Quo postulated that climate changed over time when he saw fossil bamboo in an area where bamboo no longer grew. But in Europe — where, despite many dissenters, the biblical account of creation held sway — it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century, with the writing of Scottish geologist James Hutton, that a more modern view of the formation of the earth began to take shape.

White, red and brown stone layers in southern Utah but Betsey CrawfordHutton lived near the Siccar Unconformity. Looking at stratified rocks at a 45-degree angle lying over older strata, tilted to the vertical, he saw something we now take for granted: the inconceivably long history of an earth where layer upon layer of silt sifted to the bottom of whatever sea was current at that time. In the ebbing and flowing of these ancient waters, layers were added onto lower layers, weighing them down until they hardened into stone, sometimes separated by breaks called unconformities. Hutton guessed that geological forces, which we know as the meeting of tectonic plates moving on the surface of the earth, pushed these strata off their horizontal axis. 

Mount Zion National Park. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordJohn McPhee is credited with the modern use of the expression ‘deep time,’ but I’d never heard it until the work of Thomas Berry entered my life. Both meant the same thing in scientific terms, though Berry was concerned with even deeper time — the 13.7 billion years since the universe came into existence. Berry’s thought was also infused with his spirituality and his deep appreciation of indigenous wisdom. The beauty of his philosophy is that he didn’t look at our eyelash-sized sliver of human history as an accident or addendum to the vast forces that had existed for so long before our arrival. Nor did he see us as a culmination of such forces. Rather, we are another manifestation of these great energies. Our unusual consciousness was not meant to set us apart from — and certainly not over — the rest of creation. We hold a way for the universe to see, feel, and ponder itself. 

Mount Zion National Park. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordI wish I could say that this billions-of-years perspective means I’m not buffeted by day-to-day affairs, either personal or political. But I am, whether from private concerns about my loved ones, or public fears for people I will never meet, but nevertheless cherish. Too much suffering is at stake. The damage to the earth, with more to come, is heart crushing. I mourn my former confidence in the strength of our institutions. For the first time since childhood I’m worried about nuclear war.

And yet, under the wash of day-to-day anxiety, Berry’s vision of deep time offers me a sense of strength and an underlying peace. When I stand on layers of stone in Utah, or indeed anywhere on the planet, I’m grounded into those molecules and the forces of those unfathomable years by the simple fact that I am part of them, made of the same stuff, here for the same reasons. I bring to them the gift of being able to reflect their beauty and mystery. They bring the literal ground of my being.

Along Route 12, through Grand Staircase Escalante. Deep time in Utah by Betsey Crawford

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