Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Tincture of Time or the Geology of Healing

Among life’s aches and pains, this discomfort in my Achilles tendon earns just an honorable mention, but it’s strong enough to curtail my running, voluntarily at first and now under doctor’s orders. Some visits to a physician can be lengthy out-of-body experiences; during some visits, such as my latest, that experience is only momentary. I was prepared to be confrontational – why was this taking so long to heal – and certainly prepared to veto any significant intervention to deal with it. Yes, I was going to be a wholly rational patient. In the face of my concern about meager progress, the doctor paused and then counseled patience with these words,
I think we need to rely on the tincture of time.

As that alliterative phrase – the tincture of time – sparked along some of my neural paths, anything else he said was relegated to distant echoes. There I was, reveling in the poetry of the phrase.

The tincture of time – a healing solution of time. Tincture is an “alcohol solution of a nonvolatile medicine.” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, 1996) Given the other meanings of the word, it’s certainly appropriate that it is derived from tinct, meaning a color or tinge. (Some of the medicinal tinctures do a grand job of coloring – think of that red rust tint that decorates your skin after applying tincture of iodine, stains that often far exceed the scope of the wound.) Ah, there’s more, consider the Middle English meaning of the word – “a transforming elixir” – that’s perfect. Give it time, be transformed.

Despite its poetry, the phrase appears to be used most often in medical literature and among medical professionals. I suspect it’s a phrase reverently handed on by many generations of medical mentors (but clearly not all). Dr. Mary Pauline Fox, who practiced in Kentucky, recounts the advice she received from her great-uncle when she first joined his practice many years ago. Among other things, he counseled her,
Never let the patient know you don’t know what they’re talking about; always remember to collect your fee; and tincture of time will cure more illnesses than you ever thought about. (Tales from Kentucky Doctors, by William Lynwood Montell, 2008, link here)

Cross-training? Biking? I asked my doctor. Sure, that would be good. So, acting on doctor’s orders, I stimulated the local economy and acquired a new road bike.

Soon, maps of local biking trails were spread across the dining room table as I plotted my first outings. The trails within easy striking distance follow local streams as they flow south and southeast, ultimately to join the Anacostia River and then the Potomac.

But, dear bike rider, why consult just road and trail maps? Bring out those geologic maps of the local counties, lay them side by side with the biking trail maps. Watch as those trails from my home head southeast, leave Late Cambrian metamorphic rock, and drop through the Fall Zone that marks the transition from the Piedmont Province to the Coastal Plain Province. Recognize that, though there are numerous waterfalls along the Fall Zone in a line stretching to the northeast that punctuate the change from the harder rock of the Piedmont to the sand and gravel of the Coastal Plain, the trails you might ride follow streams with steep drops, but no waterfalls. Ponder the words of the Maryland Geological Survey’s Physiographic Map of Maryland (2008, draft, link here) describing the Fall Zone Region:
Transition between crystalline Piedmont and unconsolidated Coastal Plain; many hilltops are capped by Cretaceous gravels and sediments that thicken to SE; rivers flow across the Region in steep-walled valleys incised into crystalline rock.

So, once through that zone, the rider is into the Coastal Plain proper. And here’s where the paleontology beast stirs, stretches paws forward, arches its back, and takes a portion of the stage. Look at those geologic maps for a tinct of dark green.

According to the geologic map, there and there and . . . over there, along some of the banks and land that abut the streams, sit outcroppings of silt-clay from the Potomac Group Formations. This material of the Lower Cretaceous may harbor treasure, to wit – “Rare dinosaur bones and teeth have been found in Potomac silt-clay, as have plant fossils.” (Geologic Map of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Maryland Geological Survey, 2003)

And so the rides begin guided by colorful maps. Not to hunt fossils, a dubious enterprise in these specific areas (“rare” does mean rare). Rather, the maps are used to understand where the bike trails and I are going as we mark a path alongside rushing streams that have taken countless generations to incise their way through rock. This is the tincture of deep time, a powerful transforming elixir.


  1. Call me weird, but quite provoking.

  2. Provoking in what way? Thought provoking?

  3. I love this read! Really interesting.

  4. Crystal:

    I'm very happy that you liked it.



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