Ancient Time in a Shark's Tooth

By Thomas Urquhart Suddenly, there it was: a fossil shark's tooth, a perfect shape amidst the chaos of sand and shells. In that instant, I felt the fulfillment of a lifetime of beachcombing. But even more, I was overwhelmed by the sense that a particular creature, dead for millions of years, had swum through the ages to meet me and that I was its first human contact.

This tooth, even as it shredded some prehistoric creature, was destined to be discovered by a species that had yet to appear on Earth. As I rubbed the sand from its shiny surface and cradled it proudly in my hand, time fell away, and in some way I knew that fish. In the next few days, I found over a hundred shark's teeth, and for each find, the instant of recognition was as exciting as the first time: the gleam of a patina created by millions of years, the flawless design, the beauty of the black triangle lying on the sand like a diamond on velvet in a jeweler's cabinet.

How do we measure time? I cannot comprehend a span of millions of years; the nearest I get to it is a feeling like the wonder at my encounter with that ancient fish. Perhaps the metamorphosis of flesh into stone cuts geologic time adrift from my sense of history. At the other end of the spectrum from the all but infinite recesses of geologic time lies the blinking of an eye. Early this morning I startled twenty eiders that had spent the night in the shelter of a little headland. At my approach, the flock took flight—as if it were a single organism—out of the darkness into the aqueous light of the bay. It was impossible to tell which was the first to give the alarm. Our human brains cannot detect the infinitesimal lag between warning and response that must have taken place in an instant.

And yet we can turn a matter of seconds into an age. Fear and impatience do that. So does hope, and the contemplation of a blade of grass. When the mind is as still as the surface of a pond in early morning, these miniature miracles fill both time and space as if they were under a magnifying glass. Perhaps continuous absorption of many tiny details is what life is like for the eiders in my cove. We humans have been separated from so direct a relationship with the natural world by the evolution of our mind and by values that are imposed on nature rather than a part of it. When we open ourselves once again to that vestigial sense of wonder, we see through eyes made wiser and more aware, and so endow perception with a depth it could not otherwise have attained.

I revel in the little signs that mark the advance of the day. The hands of my wristwatch go round its face, impervious to the arbitrary figures that tell me what time it is. But the frost that lingers midmorning in shady pockets of grass neatly etches the course of the sun's rays across the meadow. These days the rhododendron leaves, tightly curled when I take my son to meet the school bus, are open ten minutes later on my return. After a night's snow, the pristine path through the woods is crisscrossed by more and more animal tracks until the bustle of time and motion swells to a crescendo one can almost hear. To us they seem like snapshots; but these little rituals are going on continuously, and like the clouds in time-lapse photography in old movies, they signify the passage of time. So must wild animals, with senses so much more acute than ours, experience it, but as far as we know, without the reveling. With our added aesthetic and spiritual burden, could we stand the sensual onslaught of such nonstop stimulation?

We can construct our own continuum out of building blocks of revelations, some smaller, some larger, from our daily experience of nature. Moment by moment—a sweep with my rake uncovers a stash of nuts left by a chipmunk; year by year—with the same sweep I send last year's leaves flying; decade by decade—returning to a familiar place to find it changed, the yew trees that I climbed as a child cut down; even millennium by millennium—I stood last summer before a yew tree 2,000 years old, planted by some unknown person on the west coast of Scotland, far north of its natural range.

Now we approach the border beyond which my mind can travel only in fantasy. The scars across a boulder on a cobble beach bear witness to the unimaginable weight of the glaciers as well as the inexorable rate of their advance. Alone in a desolate landscape, one feels for a moment the chilling breath of the primeval. At such times we could almost believe that a dinosaur might step out of some black lagoon. Reality soon resumes its hold, poorer maybe, but more comfortable. To venture so far back in time, our habitual ways of keeping track are useless. We are not capable of fathoming time on an evolutionary scale, nor the complex interplay of species and their adaptations, such as a shark's tooth. Through the mists of impossible eons, we can put a face on time via the miracle of species. Considering biodiversity is like fast-forwarding through the ages. As with millions of years, it is hard to accommodate the millions of species, some yet to be discovered. But even if we cannot count them, we can measure their loss.

As a species, we have stepped outside the march of evolution, seriously discombobulating it. However, having gazed into the heart of the process, reverence for what we have seen can get us back into the stream of life. The true reason to protect biodiversity is for the spiritual and aesthetic values its mere existence bestows upon us. Our species has been loose on the planet for only a few thousand years, a flash in the pan of geologic time. Some say we will go as if we had never been, in the end just one more extinction on the way to the death of the planet millions of years hence. But the reverence we feel for other species and our planet is unique to humans and may be our saving grace. Without this unique, divine spark, there will be no way for us to move into the future.

Thomas Urquhart, Executive Director of the Maine Audubon Society, attended the retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh for environmentalists in 1991.

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