the oldest mountains in the world

Isn’t time a weird concept? Like, at some point, human beings decided that our commercial needs were more important than the sun’s own rhythm, more pressing than the earth’s very rotation, and put numbers on the hours, created a false “high noon,” and then convinced everyone around the globe to just…go with it. Instead of allowing our creaturely bodies to follow the ebb and flow of the days and the seasons, we imposed a rigid structure – that doesn’t even work very well – and then invented the clock and set it to our own human-created idea of time. We’re stuck in it, now, this made-up idea that 6am means anything, while the sun and the moon just go on, ignoring our precocious death-march, rising and setting according to planetary rotation and seasonal needs. I can’t think about this too long, or else my mind gets very, very messy.

We are very caught up in our own human-made ideas of time, though. Are you someone who arrives early, late or on-time? Do you have a particular kind of calendar or detailed planner that keeps you tethered to your life’s plan? How often do you scribble sunrise or sunset into that datebook? How often do we take time to consider the pattern and tempo of what’s going on in the ground or sky, instead of inside our cell phones and smart watches?

I’ve been thinking about this as the sun takes a break for winter, as our planet leans over and sends us into these months meant for hibernating, re-grouping, gathering ourselves in. I’ve been thinking about time. It started by wondering about all the people who have lived through global catastrophe before – floods and flus, urgency and upheaval. And then, I started thinking about the earth itself. Talk about upheaval.

I grew up in the midst of the oldest mountains on earth. The Appalachians first formed over 480 MILLION YEARS ago. That number is so big that my brain can’t even grasp it. They grew for 200 million years, then Pangea broke up, the mountains unfolded, and it took another couple hundred million years before volcanoes erupted and plates banged together and the mountains I know were thrown up into the sky. 65 million years ago.

For millions of years, those mountains stood, subject to wind and rain and rivers that carved routes across and down and through them. Ancient plants grew. (Did you know that the Magnolia evolved BEFORE BEES? It grew to be pollinated by beetles, because God hadn’t created the bee just yet). Animals evolved, and thrived, and then went extinct. (did you know that Appalachia is the Salamander Capital of the World?) It wasn’t until 16,000 years ago that humans started hanging out in my mountains, native peoples like the Cherokee who were summarily killed and evicted when European colonizers arrived thousands of years later.

I find that geologic sense of time, in which humans barely register as a blip on the graph, to be hopeful. My mountains – the peaks that have cradled my heart and formed my faith – existed so far before me, so long before humanity, even, that I can’t begin to imagine all that they know and all that they hold. What power does my Google calendar, the tyrannical digital ruler of my days, have in the face of such longevity? My despair over day to day challenges pales in the light of tectonic ruination and volcanic rebuilding. There’s this line from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that is something like my life verse (and Annie Dillard has always been something like my life force, Pilgrim something like my life’s source):

“Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

The mountains are home. I’ve always known that. When I finally launched myself off to college in the flatlands after a year of false starts, my Mom drove up on the Blue Ridge Parkway when the leaves started turning that fall and took panoramic photos with a real, film-based camera, had them developed and sent them to me in the mail. Those mountains lived on my cinderblock dorm wall as long as I could keep them from fading. But what home actually means has changed over these decades. The mountains are still where I want to be, where my soul is oriented, the true north of who I am.

These days the mountains are also something bigger, richer, more cosmic and geologic, not just my own individual home, but part of the underlying and reassuring reality that human existence is created and contingent, a blip on the timeline of the world, part of an existence that we did not construct and do not determine. We can fill our calendars til the cows come home, fiddle with Daylight Savings Time all we want, hem and haw and fuss and worry about fitting it all in, but none of it changes the stark reality that we are not in control, here, that there is another orogenic plan at work and we are tiny, powerless subjects suspended in its wake.

And given all the damage that humans are doing these days, all our self-important apocalyptic predictions and pleas, I find that hopeful. That the oldest mountains in the world aren’t buying our bullshit or suffering us fools. They’re just looking on from their Paleozoic perch, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues at our Anthropogenic hubris.

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