My Doorway Between Ordinary and Deep Time

We measure ordinary time in ordinary ways, without the need of any clock. Our breath ticks off our seconds. Time spent lost in thought becomes our minutes. A walk or a meal becomes an hour. And what else can an ordinary day be but the time spent between waking and sleeping. Our bodies measure ordinary time, and our minds, arising from our bodies as they do, follow along. A twinge of remorse, the duration of a laugh, the time it takes to have a conversation – these are the ordinary ways we measure ordinary time.

Five years’ worth of ordinary time has elapsed in between my planting a vegetable garden this past spring and when I last planted one at the house where I used to reside. Five years’ worth of seasons transitioning one into another has gone by. Five years spent breathing, working, and sleeping have elapsed. Five years of love, joy, grief, upheaval, and calm have tumbled past. For five years I’ve prepared meals and eaten them. For five years I’ve collected the scraps in a three gallon bucket stowed away beneath the sink, and emptied it onto the backyard compost pile when it got full.

For five years I pondered the best place to plant a garden. I watched the sun move across the sky, past the trees, over the house, and beyond the horizon. Which spot got the most sun? Which spot had the best soil? Which spot could be readily served by a garden hose? Which spot would be out of the way of some future backyard game of some sort? And all throughout those five years the compost pile grew larger, supplemented from time to time with layers of yard clippings and finely mowed leaves.

Raised garden beds
Raised garden beds

Ordinary time inexorably accumulates into deep time. But whereas ordinary time is lived by all who’ve ever lived, deep time is lived only by the universe itself – or by God, if you are so inclined to think in such terms. Deep time is the measure of the universe, planet formation, the accumulation of rain into oceans, and the rising up of mountain ranges from the collision of tectonic plates. Deep time, for us ordinary beings, is usually only experienced as a backdrop against which our ordinary time is lived. More poignantly, though, for those who allow themselves to become so attuned, is that deep time can be felt as the ground of being itself.

Any discussion of deep time prompts me to recall a solitary cross-country bike trip that I took some years ago on which I meandered back home to the Midwest after starting out on the West Coast. I was fairly seasoned by the time I made it to Wyoming’s Wind River Canyon, having weathered the Coastal Range, the Cascades, and the Blue Mountains of Oregon, the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, and, of course, the Rocky Mountains. Such trials open up the traveler to seeing things perhaps otherwise overlooked.

Triassic mudstone beds outside of Thermopolis, Wyoming

The Wind River Canyon is about fifteen miles long and a half mile deep in spots. Picture, if you will, the many layers of the earth’s crust deposited over millions of years. Now picture those layers tilted at a relatively steep angle as one end is lifted up by forces deep inside the earth. Finally, picture a river – a recent arrival on the scene – flowing down this sloping landscape and slicing through its layers. Since the Wind River flows at a shallower angle than the layers of deposition, a journey upriver through the canyon is like a journey back in time. Whereas the mouth of the canyon opens up onto the relatively recent red mudstone beds of the Triassic period, ending some 200 million years ago, it begins higher up by cutting through Pre-Cambrian granite that is nearly a billion years old.

As I made my way up the canyon – through the grayish-beige of the Permian Period, the yellow, peach, and creamy rust of the Pennsylvanian Period, the creamy buff of the Ordovician Period, and the gray-brown of the Cambrian – I became more keenly aware that my very existence is supported by and the result of all life that came before. From the single-celled life forms to the first flowering plants, from the invertebrates to the lunged fish to the stem reptiles – if each and every one of these beings had not strived to its fullest, doing its part to fill in the web of life as completely as it could be filled, would we even be here today?

This realization becomes even more profound when one considers the fact that the Triassic Period marked a brand new blossoming of life after some catastrophic event caused the vast majority of those aforementioned life forms to become extinct. On one hand, we might wonder what those now-extinct lives amounted to – evolutionary dead ends that they are. On the other hand, we might ponder how the genetic codes capable of surviving such a catastrophe could have been assembled if each and every life form had not lived out its ordinary time as fully and completely as it did.

I contemplate deep time whenever I turn the compost pile out back, feeling as though my activity is akin to that which took place on the primeval forest floor over the course of eons and eons. Dead vegetation accumulated and decayed there, to be mixed and churned by the forces within and upon the ever-changing earth. Volcanic ash and that of forest fires was added to it. Mineral silt from flood and glacial activity was thrown in for good measure. I can’t help but marvel at the nature of deep time whenever I reflect upon the fact that, after five years of ordinary time, I have a couple of raised garden beds containing about a cubic yard and a half of rich soil giving rise to a wonderfully crowded mess of edible plants. Compare that with an entire continent covered with life-giving soil!

And so it is that my vegetable garden, and the compost pile from which it has sprung, provide entrée into deep time. It connects my lived existence – my ordinary time spent conditioning the soil, as well as growing, harvesting, and eating its fresh food – with those geological actions that allow for the very existence of life of any kind on this planet. I again can watch the food that becomes me arise from and return to the soil that I helped make. I again can see my own life in a similar context: arising, living as fully possible, receiving sustenance from and, in turn, providing sustenance for a world yet to come. My ordinary life, my ordinary time, is but a fleeting instant in the expanse of deep time. It is humbling and awe-inspiring all at the same time.

Parts of this post were first published in 2010 as Doing What We Can, and then again in 2011 as Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can.

All images are the property of the author.

Copyright 2010, 2011, 2021 by Mark Robert Frank