On the Other Hand, We Are Here Now

May 22, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- This cool gray May has set back spring work on a lot of Maryland farms, including ours, but in return it's also provided an unexpected bonus -- some spare time.

While waiting for the weather to clear I was able to spend a day with a group of fifth-graders on an outdoor-education field trip to a well-run nature center. The various sessions were predictably enjoyable and instructive, but one was especially memorable, as it provided a striking new perspective on the meaning of time.

To understand natural history, it's obviously important to understand something about the age of this planet on which so many interesting species have appeared -- and disappeared. So, across the asphalt parking lot, an instructor unrolled a spool of twine.

Let's say it's been about four billion years, he said as he clipped the end of the twine to a post, since the earth first congealed out of orbiting cosmic dust. The string represents that length of time. Each inch is a million years. And so he began to walk, all history unwinding behind him. Spool in hand, he walked past parked Volvos and Toyotas, with an exuberant crowd of 10- and 11-year-olds following at his heels.

''There's the first billion years,'' he said after unrolling about 83 feet. There was a tag on the string. ''And here comes the second billion.'' When that tag appeared the unrolled twine stretched more than half the length of a football field. ''No life on the planet yet.'' He unrolled another 40 feet, to the time when the first bacteria, algae and fungi evolved.

Still another billion years' worth of twine unrolled. Now the far end of the string, and the beginning of geologic time, was just under 100 yards away across the parking lot. There didn't seem to be much left on the spool.

''Here the dinosaurs appeared,'' he said, still unrolling. The fifth-graders looked hard at the tag on the twine. ''And here'' -- he was only about 10 feet farther along -- ''the dinosaurs disappeared.''

It was only in the last six feet of the 110-yard string that he reached the era when birds and mammals appeared, only in the last inch when something like man began to evolve. What might be called human history, 10,000 years or so, was represented by a little more than one one-hundredth of an inch on the string, a barely-visible mark a pinprick wide.

The fifth-graders, who have strong ideas about the prominence of their own individual places in the great scheme of things and who had assumed that ''prehistoric'' referred to their parents, found this time-line concept quaintly curious.

They were polite about it, but they were obviously eager to be off on the next activity, which promised greater opportunities for running and shouting.

On the whole, probably, the fifth-graders' instincts are the right ones. Sometimes, in considering the overwhelming, it's best just to take note and move on. The time-line illustration of global history is dramatic, but too much emphasis on the earth's great age, and on mankind as a Johnny-come-lately, can lead to intellectual paralysis and a sense of pointlessness.

When all human experience -- Christ and Mohammed, Shakespeare and Confucius, Kurt Cobain and Oprah Winfrey -- is viewed as a narrow smudge mark at the end of a long piece of string, its inconsequentiality is magnified. And while this may inoculate us against smugness, it also diminishes appreciation for the achievements of the human past, fosters indifference to the human future, and erodes any incentive to make one's own individual hours and minutes count.

Humanity and its place in global history are easy enough to disparage. ''Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat,'' said Mark Twain. He meant it as a quip, but today it could pass for gospel among those who see every human footprint as an affront to the earth.

A sounder perspective, or at least a more practical one, was articulated by the novelist Iris Murdoch, who observed that while human affairs are not serious, they have to be taken seriously. This is something the fifth-graders know instinctively.

No matter that mankind occupies less than an inch on that football-field-sized time line. It's on stage now, and had better make the best of it. While it may be useful to us to understand geologic time, we can't set our watches by it.

When I returned from the field trip I had hoped to start cutting hay, but it was still cloudy and threatening rain, so I started in on various other little jobs. I rebuilt and rehung a gate, moved a pile of rocks, filled a groundhog hole, and set out some tomato plants. These weren't great undertakings, but getting them done at least made me feel I hadn't wasted the afternoon.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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