“What time is it on the clock of the world?” ~Grace Lee Boggs
I am cleaning out a closet to make more space for kids’ art supplies when I come across a length of thick rope tied at intervals with colorful string.
I recognize it instantly.
Each time I taught the final session of Peace Grows workshops, we talked about how the practice of nonviolence applies on the global scale — between ethnic groups, religions, entire countries. We reviewed the many little-known ways nonviolence has impacted, even turned around national and international problems. No matter how eager participants might have been in earlier sessions as we learned about applying active nonviolence principles in our personal lives, people said they felt hopeless when it came to national and worldwide issues. That’s when I got out this rope.
I would ask for two volunteers to stand on either side of the room, each holding one end of the rope. One side represented the emergence of the first modern humans in Africa, sometime between 280,000 to 200,000 BC. That end of the rope had nothing tied to it until around 62,000 BC when bow and arrow were first used. By 18,000 the beginning of clay pottery was noted. Around 10,000 BC the Neolithic revolution began, when some hunter-gatherers took up agriculture, although it wasn’t until 4,500 BC that people begin to use the plow. At 4,000 BC the wheel was invented. Writing was developed around 2,600 BC. The strings got closer and closer together, entering A.D. centuries, and ever more thickly marked by discovery, scientific progress, and war. Lots of war. The farthest end, less than a hair’s width from the invention of the printing press, represented our current era. (The exact years marked on the rope may not be current with what we now know, but the distance between these advances is likely similar.)
Of course, if we look at earth’s entire timeline, the presence of modern humans is far punier.
Dinosaurs ruled the world for 165 million years. Homo sapiens showed up 200 to 300 thousand years ago. We humans are truly, in Earth time, a newly arrived species. As Tim Urban shows, over at Wait But Why, recorded history itself is a tiny blip of our time here.
By any measure, we are still engaged in the ongoing experiment of living differently than our hunter-gatherer roots. The hunter-gatherer era made up between 90 to 99 percent of our species’ time on earth and continues among some groups today. This way of life was and is much more interdependent, typically shaped as gift economies, and centered around craft, ritual, story, and arts with intimate knowledge of the land and its beings
We lived in small bands of nomadic people until the advent of agriculture, when communities grew to hundreds or thousands of people. Only then did our relationship to place and possessions change to one of ownership, gradually cleaving people into haves and have-nots. Not coincidentally, before this massive change there’s no convincing archeological evidence that we engaged in war.
About five thousand years ago we humans developed written language, currencies, and empires.
Around four to five hundred years ago we began more forcefully shaping our lives thanks to the printing press, industry, and the passionate pursuit of science. Modern capitalism emerged in the early nineteenth century, commodifying time in ways unknown until then.
We are now in the Anthropocene, when human activities are having a massively detrimental impact on Earth’s ecosystems and climate.
Yet biologically and emotionally, we are still hunter-gatherers. We evolved to be a compassionate and collaborative species. We are still learning how to live in populous cities rather than nomadic tribes of around 60 people. Our technological advancements and our weapons have developed more quickly than our ethics around their use. We have yet to grasp just how dangerous rigid economic and political systems can be, particularly when war, crisis, and division benefit the powerful.
The rope timeline I used in nonviolence workshops put our place here in a larger planetary frame of reference. Even from that distance, it seems both astonishing that we’re here at all and obvious we need to get some perspective, but it’s hard to put this into words, especially standing in front of a class. So I read a poem instead, this one by Denise Levertov.
Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla
“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“
But we have only begun
To love the earth.
We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
— so much is in bud.
How can desire fail?
— we have only begun
to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision
how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.
Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?
Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?
Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,
too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.
We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.
So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,
so much is in bud.
~ Denise Levertov
9 thoughts on “What Time Is It?”
This is wonderful, Laura. We so need this reminder of our place in the world. Thanks.
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Hi Laura, I tried to comment on your site, but for some reason it kept asking me to login even after I logged in to wordpress (tech is not my thing) so I’m just replying to the email instead. I hope you receive this, but no need to reply :))
whoa. wow. oh boy.
This is one of those goose-bump moments when you feel proof (or as much proof as I personally need) that there’s an underlying unity holding us all.
I’ll explain: I’m homeschooling my two children and have recently been grappling with what I want to give them under the arbitrary subject headings of “History” and “Pre-History.” I knew I wanted to give them the timeline you’ve just described, AND the perspective you’ve just shared on our peaceful origins and our current entanglement with conflict and war.
You’ve just given me the EXACT framework I was looking for, all in a succinct 700 words + resources. As a writer I’m wondering (rhetorically): how do you do that?!?
And as a parent I’m thinking: THANK YOU LAURA!!
with love and gratitude
https://arealgreenlife.com/: making better choices to build health for individuals, families, communities, and ecosystems.
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I’m not sure what is happening with the login screen, but I’m glad your comment showed up here anyway!
I love goosebump moments. I swear I get them all the time – the opening lines of a song new to me, blackbirds flying in a swoop over our pond, witnessing a kindness. It feels, as you say so well, “that there’s an underlying unity holding us all.” I’m thrilled my post gave you one of those moments.
And I’m thrilled this helps you find a framework for learning with your children. This look at who we are as a species is one of my long-time passions and I’ve written about it many times, hopefully not in a redundant way. For me, when I run across something that connects to everything else, it feels like capital letter Truth. This is one of those things.
Glad to connect Kate. Wishing you every joy.
It’s been a very short time since an attempt at equality and social justice began again in the 1960’s. There has been some progress but it is now collapsing again. There have been a few false starts in history that began with equality and voting among elite peers when a tyrant became weak. There seems to be a pattern of the aberrant family model of fear and anger being much stronger and insidious than the loving family model. Aberrant families or no family leads to aberrant gangs, tribes, countries, tyrants. The balance between the analytical mind and the emotional mind, conscious versus subconscious thinking seems to be very delicate and fails easily without a benevolent guidance. In our very short history benevolent forces have failed over and over. There have been a few accidents of history that led to changes. The Black Plague leading to the Protestant Reformation. The Magna Carta to Jury of One’s Peers etc. Science only just began after WW2 and is becoming extreme and out of control. Social Science has become an aberrant joke at best, a coercive force at worst, mostly becoming a reaction formation — even people doing “good” actually being very angry at the people they are “helping.”
I just remembered something about our mythological stories that is very strange. You were talking about the problem of the agricultural revolution leading to problems with territory. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is a farmer, and God rejects his offering of some of his crop. That makes Cain very angry. On the other hand, Abel who raises sheep and kills them for food is following the predator model. Abel offers his killing for no reason because he’s not eating to survive but doing a ceremony. Cain kills from blind rage. Abel kills for ritual. Neither the rage nor the ritual seem like good ideas.
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Really good point Doug. I looked up what theologians have to say and ran across this: https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/manly-lessons/shepherds-vs-farmers-two-necessary-masculine-archetypes/
In the Jewish historian Josephus’ interpretation of the tale, the brothers’ divergent occupations breed divergent sets of virtues.
As a shepherd, Abel followed the “way of simplicity,” wandering where he pleased, and being content with “what grew naturally of its own accord.” As a result, he was “a lover of righteousness” and “excelled in virtue.”
Cain, on the other hand — whose name means “possession” — was a “covetous man” who was “wholly intent on getting.” His desire for gain led him to look beyond what grew spontaneously and to invent the practice of farming — to “force the ground” to bear fruit. The more he grew, the more he wanted, and the more desirous he became to protect that which was his. Cain became “the author of measures and weights” and the founder of commercialism, ownership, and divisions between public and private life. He “set boundaries about lands; he built a city, and fortified its wall, and he compelled his family to come together to it.”
His progeny in turn further established a more settled existence, and invented things like metallurgy and music.
But in tandem with this “civilizing” process, Cain and his subsequent lineage became more and more sinful. The original farmer “only aimed to procure every thing that was for his own bodily pleasure, though it obliged him to be injurious to his neighbors.” His love of luxury developed a moral softness in himself and in his posterity, so that each generation became “more wicked than the former.”
In other words, Josephus theorizes that Cain’s offering was rejected by Yahweh, because it was the offering of a farmer, and farming would lead to commercialism and civilization, and civilization would bring both greater complexity and greater temptation and depravity. Farming symbolizes the beginning of vice — a fall from the innocence, generosity, and primitive simplicity represented by pastoralism.
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That’s interesting how vital it is to know who is in a powerful position to write history. I’ve heard opposite theories about how agricultural societies were peaceful and benevolent until barbarians who were skillful with weapons and war, but not with producing food when prey were sparse, attacked them and forced them to defend themselves. So in this scenario the farmers are the good guys. War in self-defense is good. And there was the principle of “the divine right of Kings” where the King was God’s assistant and the King demanded human sacrifice for the protection of the Kingdom and the people were like sheep to be herded, some for wool, and some for slaughter. The wolf packs wandered on the borders, the pack leader waiting for an opportunity. Actually, it is the sociopaths or psychopaths who rule because they are the strongest with weapons and propaganda and they force everyone to build dams that form lakes for Narcissus to gaze on his accomplishments.
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The point about us still being hardwired to live in small communities living a comparatively simple lifestyle is a good one. I feel that very keenly.
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