Perspective on Time: Stillness

The great Scotsman James Hutton was a pioneer of deep time. His mathematician buddy John Playfair remarked “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time” upon seeing the strata of the angular unconformity at Siccar Point with Hutton in June 1788. Geology has evolved to teach us to treat time with mild contempt, with processes repeating slowly, gradually, over millions, even billions of years, ever repetitive and forceful until the odd catastrophic event happens, resetting the clock, starting over. In Orkney the richness of time becomes startlingly pervasive. The persistent strata across Orkney act as a constant reminder that time marches on, regardless, building on one another making ever new resources for species to exploit and cultivate. The rawness of nature itself, in all its glory is unavoidable presenting a new dimension of time that seemingly is lost in the busy metropolis cities globally. For a moment, it seems although time in Orkney stands still. Still enough to notice the past, contemplate the present and what that means in the abyss we stare blindly and unknowingly into. Still enough to consider the future beyond the constraints of our own selfish existence. Deep time, shallow time, the speed of time, the scope of time seems to transform from one white opaque ray into a spectrum of waves that reach across Orkney that question our relationship with time today, now.

How can we possibly make sense of our place in time? Surrounded by vast complex ancient cities with so many secrets untold, the power of the ocean constantly erodes at Orkney, threatening our capacity to make sense of the past. Pulled by the power of our obligatory symbiotic relationship, the tides relentlessly erode the isles, that have stood the test of over half a billions years. 419.2 million years ago, the gentle but persistent forces began to pull at the crust to form the grabens that would result in the Orcadian Basin. This geological process has been evidenced in countless locations and repeated untold times. What makes this basin different is that this where the lobe-finned fish evolved in the gentle warning south equatorial climates to crawl from the sea to land. These first tetrapods abandoned waters to breathe air, and develop legs forming the vertebrates that human would eventually descend from. Around 375 million years ago whilst the Tiktaalik  was making the vital fish–tetrapod transition, the flagstone facies of the Middle Devonian sequence was forming the building blocks of the neolithic empire. Soft, fragile, laminated rocks were easy to break apart and use as the building blocks for Maeshowe, Skara Brae, right through to todays architectural monoliths. Formed by Milankovich cycles over 95,000-100,000 year time scales, Earth’s orbit around the sun changed from ellipses to circular causing 110 cycles over 10.5 millions years. Beautiful and mathematical the three shifting orbits around eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession affected the Orcadian Lake, at the heart of the Euramerican continent where North America and Northern Europe were joined together in one of three major continental masses on the Devonian globe. Here between the mountains and the sea, the large shadow water lake extended from Orkney right across to western Norway, its long standing sibling. Fed by numerous rivers to fill the low lying land, the thirsty tropical climate resulted in evaporation, muddy lake margins that dried out, were drowned, and then dried out again. As the climatic changed and cycles shifted sea levels the glass and sand particles cumulated to form flagstones, the sundials of time on Orkney.

Orkney became a strong resistant elevated island that survived the millions of years of mass extinctions, dinosaurs, meteorites, volcanic eruptions, only finally being attacked by kilometres of frozen water, sculpting the land, and retreating leaving the valleys of Hoy that glisten across the West Shore, ever inviting. Geologically this absence of rock records is like a gaping hole, an unknown record of Orkneys more recent past, a place for geological imaginaries and interpretation. Whilst much of Scotland bears the scars of catastrophic events some only lasting seconds in time, but preserved for our interpretation, Orkney remains an oasis.  In this moment of time, clarity and stillness cloaks the landscape making visible the complexity of differing timescales. Preserving from the infinitesimally small events of early algal lifeforms catching floating dust, to the large scales of our galaxy charting cosmic unknowns, sailing in regular cycles for times beyond that of geological. Whilst capturing the relationships humans have had with the environment is relatively shallow in the depth of time, the littered landscape of archaeological wonders sends us messages of our prior attitudes towards the exploitation of resources, the love and need of nature, the mistakes made, the joy of life. What these messages mean, what warnings they heed, are likely to be only discovered too late.

The West Shore of Orkney highlights that whilst we try and grapple with the concept of deep time, we recognise it is an abyss, but that it also makes us giddy. Giddy enough to notice the miracle, to marvel the process, to question its existence, and to notice the now. Orkney is perhaps at its most geologically vulnerable today, a vast battleship of Devonian time that is slowly sinking, taking on water, and drowning again. The shoreline may hold the hallmarks of mud cracks and large evaporates from hot drier climates, but now it is besides the vast ocean of time, falling slowly and gradually into the depths, to be forgotten, to be rediscovered, to venture to it its next form.