Sunday, November 29, 2020

Empathy Across Time

 My recent post titled Vastly Different Timescales has been nagging me.  In that post, I quoted science writer John McPhee who posited, in Basin and Range (1980), that we human beings find it difficult to relate to periods of time that are beyond those small spans of years that encompass the two generations before us and the two generations after us.  This confounds efforts to really understand greater stretches of time, specifically the enormous expanses of time that we encounter in astronomy, geology, and paleontology.  I summed it up by writing:

As we expand our view beyond that spread of a five-generation period (covering, say, roughly 100 to 150 years), perhaps we’re back to “one, two, many” if only to maintain some sense of self and step back from the full implications of deep time.

I do think a basic aspect of that is correct.  Vast expanses of time – deep time – are extremely challenging to understand.  What understand in this context means is not clear, I guess I’ll know it when it happens.  What has bothered me in particular is that McPhee’s construct, though specific to deep time, raises the prospect that we human beings are actually unable to be comfortable with, relate to, and incorporate into our lives, periods that extend beyond the 100 to 150 years that encompasses five generations but which fall short of deep time.  Upon reflection I find I don’t believe that.  The challenge arises with periods of millions or billions of years, but perhaps not with periods of thousands of years.  That is the focus of the current post.

I think our capacity to understand spans of thousands of years hinges on whether or not those blocks of time involve human beings.  Though it’s true that we may be able to put names and faces to those generations immediately before and after us, and that we may be most concerned about them, the scope of our attention and concern is not limited to that.

My previous post focused in part on the dissonance that comes when vastly different timescales came into contact – for instance, our lifespans and fossils that are millions of years old.  I began that post with a picture of some fossil sand tiger shark teeth found in an area on the Maryland side of the Potomac River near Liverpool Point.  These teeth, Paleocene in age, are a little less than 60 million years old.  I doubted that I could really appreciate what that age meant or the world in which those sharks lived.  Well, I want to consider the implications of a different set of objects that also come from around Liverpool Point.  Here is a handful of projectile points that were found (not by me) in that area.

The  identifications I’ll gingerly put forward for these points are based on some reading, just enough to get me into trouble.  The middle two could be Lamoka points.  They are similar to those identified as Lamoka on the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory’s Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland website. Lamoka points are common through the Northeast, particularly the Potomac Valley and date back to some 3500 to 2500 BCE, during the Late Archaic period, though they may have been used much later than that into the Middle Woodland.  The points on either end of this array may be Bare Island points, based on what I find on the Laboratory's website.  These points fall into an age range from 5000 BCE to 1000 CE.  The Laboratory notes that Bare Island points, prevalent in the Northeast, are common in Maryland and “are among the most abundant points found in the Coastal Plain portions of the Patuxent and Potomac.”

I’m not sure that these identifications with their attendant ages make sense given the area in which the point purportedly were found.  This area of Maryland may have been occupied by Native Peoples since at least 900 CE (Piscataway Indian People).  (Scott M. Strickland, et al., Indigenous Cultural Landscapes Study for the Nanjemoy and Mattawoman Creek Watersheds, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, November 2015.)  I cannot even offer complete assurances that these points, in fact, were collected here.

As important as those issues are for those who study these artifacts, they’re really a distraction from the very simple point I want to make with them:  they are probably at least a thousand years old, a time span beyond the five-generation one of which McPhee writes.

The impact that these objects have on me is decidedly different from that which comes from finding fossils such as the sand tiger teeth featured in the prior post.  With these projectile points, there is a communion with the past that I experience when I handle them, one unlike the emotions that fossils inspire.  For the latter, the message that comes through is one of awe in the face of the vast expanses of time and for the dramatically different worlds the fossils signal.  For the former, those products of human endeavor, there is a strong recognition that these points connect me to people, though of a different time and culture, with whom I share a basic and fundamental commonality.  As I’ve considered this, the word that has come to mind is empathy.  This empathy extends far beyond the two generations behind me, it connects me to millennia.

Do I truly understand the people who crafted and used these points?  No, but our shared humanity means that we are connected and that is a start.  At this point, I am prompted to quote Walt Whitman from Song of Myself.  The whole of it is appropriate but this line will do:  “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

That empathy serves to bridge gaps of many years came clear to me when I read archaeologist Lisa Rankin’s chapter titled Native Peoples From the Ice Age to the Extinction of the Beothuk (c. 9,000 Years Ago to AD 1829).  (A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador, Newfoundland Historical Society, 2008.)  In this chapter, Rankin summarized the “Seasonal Round” of life for the hunter-gatherers who lived in the Newfoundland and Labrador area during “prehistory.”  Her exposition on this topic is plain and simple, there’s really nothing poetic and literary here.  Yet, her text moved me, speaking directly to the issue I grappled with when I contemplated the points from Liverpool Point.  With it, Rankin helped me cross temporal barriers and perhaps some cultural ones as well.  I will quote the passage in question at some length:

Because [hunter-gathers] did not domesticate food sources to help them survive, they had to schedule their annual activities to take advantage of the wild food sources available in different locations at different times of the year.  Generally speaking, these prehistoric culture groups took advantage of ocean resources in the spring through autumn when sea mammals, fish, sea birds, and shellfish were readily available.  At this time berries and other plant foods were also harvested.  During the summer months their sites were located along shorelines in both inner and outer bay regions as well as on islands.  In the warm months food was plentiful and people could band together at larger settlements and visit relatives and friends.  It was probably a very sociable time when social, political and economic bonds were forged.  In the colder winter months they split up into much smaller groups, perhaps nuclear families, and travelled to interior regions to hunt caribou and other smaller land mammals.  Winter settlements were usually smaller than summer settlements because winter resources were less abundant and unlikely to feed as many people.  (p. 6)

The ebb and flow of that life, as Rankin described it, is real to me.  As I read those words, I could envision the dance to the music of time that marked the lives of those Newfoundland and Labrador peoples.  Although the Native Peoples of the Liverpool Point area differed culturally and had changed from a hunter-gatherer life style to one incorporating some slash-and-burn agriculture by the time Europeans first arrived, their lives even then still involved movement to the rhythms of the seasons and the migration of animals.  Holding those projectile points evokes that circle of life.

In the end, deep time remains beyond reach in many ways for me, but those shorter time horizons that involve modern humans evoke an empathy that brings some understanding.

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