For Loren Eiseley
As a teacher and a parent, I am constantly explaining things to young people, and I always attempt to answer all their questions, no matter how complex they might be. Consider, for example, the subject of time. We teach our children how to tell time, we urge them to use it wisely, and our language is filled with instructive proverbs that implore us not to waste it. Young people readily grasp such commonplaces, but time is not just an idea, and occasionally adults experience its reality in ways that are hard to convey to the young.
We watch our children playing on the lawn, notice that the grass once again needs cutting, and suddenly we appreciate that more than just summer is passing. We have all endured these gentle reminders of our mortality, but our children, who revel so innocently in the splendor of their youth, naturally have trouble understanding us when we try to explain that time is not an abstraction and that it is, in a sense, a dark river that bears us forward into mystery.
Young people can eventually be made to comprehend such matters, but I now believe that there are some occasions when it is better not to explain the nature of time too precisely, or at all. Some questions, perhaps, are better left unanswered, and I am going to relate how, on one cold evening, I declined to “tell time” to a group of adolescents.
In telling this story, I invite everyone to decide whether or not my silence was wise. But whatever the final judgment, I offer that this narrative is not about me, for it concerns an encounter with time, and that means that this tale is about all of us. Since it contains enough shadows, I will resist the dark temptation to begin it with the usually harmless and altogether conventional line, “once upon a time.”
A few years agao, I went for a summer vacation to Wyoming’s aptly-named Wind River Range, which contains a number of America’s most spectacularly beautiful mountains. I was experiencing some personal trials at the time, and I needed solitude in order to think about my life. But I also needed recreation and diversion, and I was accompanied on my travels by six teenage boys.
For several days they had cavorted through the forest, frightening every woodland creature within a two mile radius of our camp. They would bellow some hideous song, and then ask, without a shred of irony or self-consciousness, “Where’s all the wildlife we came to see?” Late one afternoon, they all decided to climb a nearby peak, and they abruptly headed up the trail. For the first time on our journey, I was alone, and so I strolled over to a nearby stream and sat down to watch the cloud shadow tracking across the face of the mountains. It was at this moment, all unexpected, that I had my encounter with time.
I have been in the mountains on many occasions, and we all know how lovely they are, but this time I saw them in a very different way. When we try to describe a strange or deeply meaningful experience, it is sometimes necessary to resort to poetic language, and there is no other way to suggest the import of what happended to me.
I looked at the glacier-scarred face of the mountain and the multiple strata of rock on the distant hills and suddenly saw them not as familiar objects but as marks on a cosmic clock that kept time by a measure vastly greater than humanity’s. This was not a moment of “understanding” – something actually changed in the very texture of my being, and I could feel time’s fingerprints on the mountains – and on me.
I am not being at all mystical when I state that everything seemed to dance – the clouds more rapidly than I could fathom, the mountains slowly in their stony grandeur, and, somewhere at a rhythm in between them, I danced, as well.
The wind rose – a cold wind, even in summer – and it was easy to imagine that the grit that it blew into my face contained the last residue of the dinosaurs, who dropped their bones all through this land and are now dust. I saw the boulder fields left by receding glaciers and knew that they, as well, were dusty remnants of time. I felt as if I were reading the world’s biography backward and peering into a book written and bound by time.
Measured by this colossal scale, the mountains had existed but a day, and I was little more than a fugitive creature of a few fleeting seconds. I looked at the time-worn landscape, stared at my own age-weathered hands, and somehow felt a gentle, sorrowful kinship with this lovely world. It seemed as if my own bones were no more substantial than those of the dinosaurs.
The wind moaned down the valley, carrying a hint of snow. I closed my eyes, and, for support, I placed my spine up against the rocky backbone of North America. But I found little comfort in the act, for I had seen that neither rock nor bone endure, and in my imagination I traveled back in time through all the great winters, back before mankind, back before the birth of this wonderful and terrible planet. I finally arrived in darkness, and I felt myself becoming a dream, a figment – to be precise, I had become airy nothing. The wind was relentless, and it bore all things down the cold river.
I opened my eyes, picked up a rock, and squeezed it in my hand – just to affirm that I was there. Looking more closely, I saw that this stone contained small fossil fragments whose swirling patterns were as lovely and delicate as calligraphy, and for the first time in my life I could read the script.
The sun had almost set, and shadows began moving down the canyon. The boys at last returned, laughing and shouting, and I followed them back to our campsite, happy to be back in time present and grateful for their cheering company. They told me that they had climbed to the top of the mountain in order to make a call to one of their friends on a cellular phone. I asked them what they had said to him, and they replied, “We said, ‘Hey!'”
Well, I thought, why not? Our Pleistocene ancestors probably yelled similar greetings to one another, and as I had just experienced, there is still the same vast stretch of dark to call across.
They built up the campfire to keep the cold at bay for a while longer, and, sitting outside the circle of light, I watched them throwing pebbles into the flames. I was still somewhat pensive, and I reflected that there are some gulfs of time and space across which no conceivable “Hey!” can ever reach. But I allowed myself to be diverted by their youthful antics which helped restore a human scale to things. In truth, I was happy to have moved out of my dark musings, and, from a brighter perspective, I listened as these schoolboys sang some of their favorite lyrics.
Suddenly a strong wind blew through the camp, nearly extinguishing the fire, and the boys abruptly stopped singing.
From the darkness, I watched their startled faces fill with wind-borne shadows. They covered their eyes to keep out the dust that was not the only thing which the wind had brought into camp. I could see genuine fear in their young faces, and they huddled together in complete silence for a long moment, listening to the wind and peering into the night. Finally, one of them said, almost in a whisper, “Where did that come from?”
I closed my eyes, thought hard for us all – and didn’t tell them.
This essay first appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, July 4, 1999. Readers who wish to sample more of my editorials, wine reviews, book reviews, and restaurant reviews should access the paper’s electronic archives at www.arkansasonline.com.