A child’s history of time
Sometimes when I drive the boys around town I take intentionally circuitous routes, thinking they won’t notice an extra five minutes tacked on to their journey. It’s an extra five minutes of peace for me, keeping them in their car seats, contained, controlled, unable to leap out and run away or start smacking each other about the head.
But lately, C has been on to me. We are taking the long way home from an after-school trip to the supermarket.
“You’re taking the long way! You’re doing it on purpose, to make me tired!” He knows a few extra minutes in the car will push him into nap territory, which is fine with me. “We live the other way! Turn around!”
But sometimes he is in the mood to relent, to relax, to stare out the window for a while, only to be interrupted by T screaming when he sees a bus or a fire truck. Amid the yelling, C waxes philosophical:
“The first people who ever lived,” he starts, “who were their mommies and daddies? If they were the first people, whose tummy were they in?”
That’s a hard one. “It’s a mystery,” I tell him. “We can’t know for sure, because none of us were there. But scientists can look at clues they find in nature and guess.”
The back seat is quiet. There are no buses around. I can almost feel C thinking back there, trying to unravel time. Another thought:
“So, how did all of this get here?” He flaps a hand toward the window. “Who put the trees here, and the houses? Did the first people do that?”
A lot to wrap my head around while I’m wheel-to-wheel with lunatic Boston drivers. “When the world was new, many many years ago,” I begin, “none of this was here. There were no streets, no houses, just nature. Trees, and rivers, and animals. And when humans came around they slowly started adding things to the land, like farms, then streets, and buildings, so over a long time, things began to look how they look now. Does that make sense?”
“I think so,” he said. And he nodded off.
C, Kindergartener, is really ramping up on a lot of crucial topics that are set to become his everyday schoolboy occupations. He’s getting the hang of writing, a bit of math, and stringing letters together to begin to read. But he is still trying to grasp the the concept of time. Even the true length of five minutes is hard for him to comprehend. When he needs to wait for me to do something for him, like get him a snack or put on his favorite show, five minutes, by his reckoning, is just a count to five. But when he’s only got five minutes to play before we leave for school, those brief counts turn into hours. “That wasn’t five minutes!” He’s admant. “That was five seconds!”
So it’s no wonder that history, stretching back into the fog of time, is something he has a lot of questions about. That’s a lot of seconds, minutes, and hours for him to hold in his head. And so many of his fascinations are in the realm of long ago. So in C’s personal timeline, history looks like this:
First: Dinosaurs, of course. Then pyramids, and mummies.
Immediately followed by: Pompeii. His favorite.
Up next: Castles and Playmobil knights.
Which brings us straight to: The Revolutionary War.
Then: Papa is born. Poor Papa.
My own childhood fascination timeline looked something like this: Trilobites. Mummies. Ancient Rome. Barbarians and the Dark Ages. The 1950’s. And then you’re Back to the Future.
I must have also asked my parents constant questions about time, because on a trip to the Smithsonian, they bought me a book called Life Story, by the great Virginia Lee Burton (most famous for The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel). I still have the book, and when C asks his questions about the Earth, and what came first then next, and how we got here, we read it together. I still love reading it.
It has my name in fourth-grade handwriting inside the front cover, and it’s worn. Published in 1962, it presents the history of the earth as a theatre production, set on a stage, in acts and scenes, beginning with a time when the earth was a “red-hot fiery ball of matter,” and ending in the present, as the seasons change on Burton’s family farm in Massachusetts.
The book beautifully unwinds the tight coil of time into a long, gently turning ribbon; it’s a perfect metaphor. At the beginning of the ribbon is a tiny question mark – the very dawn of everything. The ribbon uncoils, introducing our Sun, and Solar System, and then the book zeroes in on Earth, our home, that fiery ball which cooled and shrank, making mountains like wrinkles. A Geologist on the stage hands over narrator duties to a Paleontologist, who announces the Rains, and the tiny creatures that lived in the great seas that washed over the entire surface of the planet.
Page by page, new players are continually added to the theatre of Life on Earth, from trilobites and cephalopods, to the plants of the ancient forests. I remember, as a child, my favorite page was Act I, Scene 4: Life on the Devonian Shores. From about 350,000,000 years ago, to about 315,000,000 years ago.
“Land plants flourished, clothing our once bare Earth in green…The long Age of Invertebrates had come to an end. Seas, lakes, rivers, and streams swarmed with fish — big fish, little fish, and medium-sized. A few even developed lungs and crawled from puddle to puddle on land.”
In the accompanying picture, strange, curling ferns stretched toward a huge sun, while undersea fish with wide eyes and blunt teeth hunted smaller ones. After I got the book, I was fascinated by the sight of ferns. I tried to imagine that plants very much like the ferns I saw around my town lived millions of years ago, and if I looked at them, and tried to block out everything modern surrounding them, I could take myself back to that long-gone time. I felt like I was trying to recoil all of those ribbons, and hold all of time in my head in a little ball, trying to grasp it all at once, and feel its enormity. It was a great feeling; like a mysterious trance.
[C’s current favorite page is Prologue, Scene 4: Introducing first rocks, Igneous rocks. Featuring the world as one giant Vesuvius]
I decorated the inside cover of the book with Pterodactyl ink stamps that my parents bought me on another trip, also when I was about nine. We rented a house in Watkins Glen, on Lake Seneca, in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. When we got to the house, the yard and every tree in it was covered in black caterpillar-like things, about an inch-and-a-half long. A plague of gypsy moths. They were everywhere. And they were inside the house, too. Knowing my mother, I am shocked we did not get back in the blue station wagon and go immediately back to Long Island to spend the week in the sprinker on our smooth, concrete driveway. But we stayed.
We went to Watkins Glen State Park, where we bought the stamper in a gift shop at the end of a gorge trail. I don’t know if it’s still there, but at the beginning of the trail, I remember a railing with a timeline on it that took you further and further back into history with every step: past the fifties, the birth of Papa, Lexington and Concord, the plague, and the pyramids. To 350,000,000 years ago. And at the end of the railing, you emerged onto the trail, in the gorge, and back at the dawn of time.
This wasn’t like looking at a backyard fern and blocking out the garage and the concrete and the chain-link fence. The primordial world was all around us, without interruption, unbound. There were fossils in the huge walls of Devonian shale that formed the sides of the gorge, which was cut into the earth by a gentle creek flowing on and on over eons. There were plants – huge trees, as well as ferns and mosses, that had been growing there always. And the sounds – rushing water, wind in leaves – were the same sounds the first people must have heard as they walked through that same place thousands of years ago. All that was new were the railings that contained us, stopped us from falling down below, to a bottom I couldn’t see. And the gift shop, that was new too.
I was enrapt, there in the gorge. I felt like I was actually winding back the clock, seeing what life was like before there were streets, and towns, or even foot-beaten trails in the woods. It was amazing. And now, as I listen to his questions, his car-ride conversations, I see C trying to to get to that same place, trying to wrap his head around history, or rather, wrap up history in his head, just like I used to do. I can sense him entering that wonderful trancelike state, playing with the ribbon of time between his fingers.
I need to take him to that gorge. And Pompeii. And a million other places.
As an adult, how do you get that back? How do you let your mind become unbound, unconstrained, uncoiled? How do you allow yourself to imagine the hugeness of the earth, of time, of everything? How can you keep that nerve that lets you believe you can hold it all in your head? Can we do this, can we thread it between traffic jams, and to-do lists, our grown-up cares? Or do we need to achieve this through our children, let them out of their restraints, watch them as they try understand the world into which they were dropped?