Deep Time

The cob house community House Alive!, in Jacksonville, Oregon

The cob house community House Alive!, in Jacksonville, Oregon.

“If this world were a tree, then the other world would be the roots — the part of the plant we can’t see, but that puts the sap into the tree’s veins. The other world feeds this tangible world — the world that can feel pain, that can eat and drink, that can fail; the world that goes around in cycles; the world where we die. The other world is what makes this world work. And the way we help the other world continue is by feeding it with our beauty.” – Martin Prechtel, in “Saving the Indigenous Soul”

“All these plants that we see, that we grow, that we eat, they are growing into the past.”

I was bent forward, examining the broad leaves and soft blossoms of clary sage, listening to the words of Chris Reynolds, the gardener for the small community at House Alive! He called my attention to the soil beneath the plants, soil that has accumulated over the years from dead and decaying plants and the leavings of animals. This soil is, quite literally, the past. And it is the ground into which new life grows. Over the seasons of a plant’s life, it digs into this old earth, rooting itself and reforming the past with each spurt of fresh growth.

As Chris spoke, I traced the sensations of my body, feeling into my own past, and experiencing as well the past of my ancestors. In Chinese medicine, there is a space, a subtle energetic center, located between the shoulder blades. This place is often a locus of tension, of the stresses and trials we have accumulated over the years. It is known as the Gate of the Ancestors. Here in this small depression we encounter the past, our history, our own personal inherited earth. Here I carry trauma, exploitation, fear: the heavy weight of my ancestors. And it is perhaps into this past, into the trauma of generations before, which I will grow.

The eco-philosopher Joanna Macy holds that we can access this past within our waking lives, that we can, as stewards of the Earth living in the twenty-first century, come into mindful contact with the generations that came before, and with those of the times to come. She calls this work deep time.

Looking at these plants, the broad-leaved clary sage and the slender spikes of wild arugula, I see a model of the interconnectedness we hold between our past, our present, and our future. As with the soil of the Earth, our human and non-human past has provided us with support, with nutrients. It has given us the potential in which we grow. And, strange though it may seem, these leavings of our ancestors, the joys and the sorrows of their unknown stories, are as pliable and as present with me today as they have been through the centuries of their decay. As we reconcile ourselves with the heavy loads we have inherited through the gate of our ancestors, we shape the stories of the past, accepting an uncertain future.


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