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 Range, John 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

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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Valley of the Gods in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford
Moses in Utah



16 thoughts on “The solace of deep time”

  1. Dear Betsey:
    I, too, was struck by your writing about places I have seen but not in the context of knowing. And as I think about the small sliver of time which humans have been here, I think also about how little we have learned about our world and how powerful we feel about our abilities to change it.

    Every 10,000 years our world cycles again from a temperate to a cold place and we politically believe, today, that we can stop the cycling. Instead of that insane objective we should attempt to deal with the human pain that will accompany the the current cycle. How the uncounted millions of humans’ lives could be made easier as the water rises and eventually freezes. 10,000 years ago humans began this journey, I have little hope that it will end well as the cycle turns. And it will.


    1. My understanding is that the cycles between ice ages and warm periods are 100,000 years, and we should be 10,000 years into a cooling phase, which is what makes man-made warming so visible and striking. I agree that we shouldn’t overestimate our powers to interfere with natural cycles, but also feel we shouldn’t underestimate our power to interfere in profoundly unpredictable ways. And I also agree with your implied thought that we should remain humble in light of our sliver of time here.

  2. Bravo, bravo, Betsy! This is a fabulous, rich writing that I intend to read this again … and again. These posts take me away from the present to ponder the miraculous past as well as our place in this amazing universe. Eeeeeeh! Thank you.

  3. Thank you for pulling me away from my world of reactions to the disastrous election results. Civic action is heating up in the Hamptons!

    1. Thank you, Grania. I’m delighted that civic action is heating up there, as so many places. It’s the only consolation in, as you so perfectly say, our ‘world of reactions.’

  4. Wow. Just wow, which is ginormous. Thanks so much for another thought-provoking Sunday morning. Your thoughts and the way you express them are so….. deep….timely…. important. ❤️❤️❤️

  5. This is thrilling! “Thrilling” and yet comforting at the same time… How do you do that? How does IT do that is, I guess, an equally awesome question…

    I want to live near an “unconformity”…!


    1. Thanks, my dear. I treasure the idea of being thrilling. And I’m sure you live among many unconformities, there among the rocky hills.

  6. Good morning Betsey,

    Thank you for another beautifully written piece with gorgeous photos. Perfect to tip my focus from the anxiety I often wake with these days to the wonders of the natural world, it’s history and indeed the solace of deep time. You have brightened and enhanced my day. I hope yours is filled with love, light and awe. Big Hug!

    1. Thanks for this beautiful response, M. I’m honored to have enhanced your day in this difficult times. Hugs to you, too.

      1. Dear Betsey, I, too, am moved by your writing and by your insight, but I feel you have moved beyond Berry. If because we are here the universe can become fully conscious of itself, then the universe was somewhat lacking in self-consciousness until we emerged. Your ability to ground yourself in these ancient strata seems to me all the more beautiful because there is a consciousness already there, long before our arrival, and it did not need to be completed or corrected by our own consciousness of and on behalf of the universe. On the contrary, our consciousness needs to be completed and corrected by the consciousness already, and forever, and from before the beginning, permeating and expressed in the universe.
        That universal consciousness may have had a sense of time, but it knew nothing of years, that is, it knew nothing of the latter-day rotation of the earth around the sun.
        So our sense of time, limited as it is to the earth’s orbit around a particular not very bright star, needs to be competed and corrected by the sense of time embedded in the universe.
        What is that sense of time?
        I think you know, but it won’t come from the time-sense that emerged on this planet with human consciousness. It is that time-sense that gets in the way of our entering into deep time itself.
        In other words, we could not be further from deep time than when we count “the years” reflected in strata and fossils.
        So Betsey, please talk to us about the consciousness of time permeating the universe.

        1. Thank you so much, Richard, for this wonderful response. I love, and couldn’t agree more, with this: “there is a consciousness already there, long before our arrival, and it did not need to be completed or corrected by our own consciousness of and on behalf of the universe. On the contrary, our consciousness needs to be completed and corrected by the consciousness already, and forever, and from before the beginning, permeating and expressed in the universe.” Though I don’t know that I would consider this to be a ‘consciousness of time,’ as you phase it in your last line, since time is such a human construct. But I am fascinated by both our consciousness of time, and the flow of consciousness of which we are one of unfathomably many manifestations. More to come on this, that’s certain!

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