July 31, 2009
Natessa is twenty-three so it must have nine years ago, in the deep past before every 14 year old carried a cell phone, when I walked through a Main Street Middle School science fair and came upon a booth inside a booth, a white-walled box about seven feet tall, three feet wide and deep, with a door, a chair inside, and an alert eighth grader with a clipboard, pen, and invitation: “Please step inside, sit in the chair and I’ll close the door. After a while I’ll open the door and let you out. And then I’ll ask you how long you think you were in there, oh, and I need your watch, so you won’t cheat.”
It was five minutes, always five minutes, that was the experiment, but the volunteer wasn’t told and would have to guess. As it turns out, children consistently guess high, 10 minutes, 12, 9. Old folks consistently low — 2 minutes, 3. Young adults guess the closest — 5, 6. I forget the explanation the student gave. Something about brain development? the speed of synapses synapping, changing as we age? We experience the moment-to-moment at differing rates. We experience time itself differently, each of us inhabiting our own temporal field, the young racing, the old plodding.
You can see something like that illustrated, exaggerated, in movies, and TV commercials, when one character moves at an extremely fast speed while everyone else moves normally or in slow motion. The person, maybe it’s Superman or a really high-speed housemaid, can whisk around from place to place arranging things or fixing and changing things while no one else seems to notice; or maybe the main character moves slowly, glacially, sipping tea at a table while everyone else whirls around her in super fast motion, becoming nothing more than a blur of color and clothing and hair. Or butter.
I think of scenes like that whenever I see a turtle begin to cross a road, the cars hurtling by, swerving, the turtle moving in turtle-time, entering the edge of human-time, a death-zone, but not knowing it’s a death zone, just feeling some urge in its belly, some heaviness that says it’s egg-time, time to go to that place other there, and wham, no more urge, no more twisted feet lifting hard shell, but ripped flesh and bone and cracked shell and everything burst. The human sighs, or swears, or didn’t notice, following some urge of its own, racing to work, chasing money, a cup of coffee, or trying to get to the gas station before it closes. Gas. Gasoline.
The driver, the turtle dying in the grass, the grass, the tree by the side of the road, the gas, they’re all built on scaffolds of carbon. Chemists will tell you that an atom of carbon has four electrons in its outermost shell, a shell that has the capacity to hold eight. That half-filled, half-empty shell, makes carbon very, very good at bonding, and releasing, at saying hello, and then goodbye, becoming this, then that, every time a cell divides it can do so because of those easy-come easy-go half-filled shells “sure, I’ll bond with you, okay, now let’s change into something else.” RNA, DNA, proteins, lipids, practically everything dancing in a grand catch and release, oxygen, hydrogen, potassium, nitrogen skipping about in a game of musical carbon chairs, carbon structures embracing and passing on everything, until the tree dies, the fern collapses, the human lies still, and the tiny dead plankton drifts slowly to the sea floor, piling there in the North Sea for centuries, for millennia, for thousands of millennia, for tens of millions of years until the dead weight of all that ocean squeezes and crushes and compresses those little carbon skeletons and then, hundreds of millions of years later, oil, reconstituted, fossilized plankton.
The coal in Kentucky is older than oil, formed around 400 million years ago, not from plankton, but from ferns and ancient plants, back before land animals, before the first fish walked along the shore. It took about 90 million years for the carbon in those dying plants to harden and cook into coal — some hardened into diamonds — imagine, that forever diamond on your had was once a rotting fern. Carbon.
And up on the surface of the planet carbon lived on, growing legs and feet, saying hello and goodbye, bonding and releasing and evolving into reptiles and mammals, and, extremely recently, humans, a life form that has learned how to dig and use fossil carbon to heat their huts, speed their machines, fuel their factories. They, we, bonded to this carbon with strong bonds, hello-hello, not goodbye bonds; we have learned to depend almost entirely on these fossil ferns and plankton, and we are using them up at a frantic rate, harvesting the power of those half-filled shells. We are burning, living at a speed which is completely out of joint with the temporal field of our chief energy resources. What took tens of millions of years to form is being consumed in centuries, decades.
The word itself, carbon, comes from a root meaning to burn, and we are burning it up, and its burning is causing the earth to heat up, effecting what might sound like a tiny change in temperature, only a few degrees, but which could none the less wreak unimaginable havoc on ecosystems all over the planet, including our own.
We can try to live in our white-walled booths a little while longer, our cities and towns and cars, in our tiny and super speedy personal time frames; it may be too late for us anyway. Or we can slow down, open things up, loosen our grip on fossil carbon and learn something from the deep flexibility of the molecules that structure every cell in our bodies, our brains, our hearts, learn a new way of bonding — and releasing, living in the present, in the sun that shines today, the wind that rustles the living trees today. Can we broaden our temporal fields? Can we learn to see the living carbon-forms all around us, who are at risk because of us, learn from them, our living, breathing, egg-laying, seed-spraying fellow-travelers? Will we let the turtle pass? Or will we crush it (and ourselves) on our way to buy gas?