the biographies of rocks : on Timefulness

The brilliant Ella Saltmarshe, co-founder of The Long Time Project, hosted a thought-provoking conversation with geologist Marcia Bjornerud, author of Timefulness. How can geology inform how we live, how we design our culture, integrating the dimension of time, especially time horizons that our current systems don’t honor? Humans suffer from short-termism, especially our politics (with its re-election-term timeframes) and business (with its annual reports to investors).

We’d been invited to bring a rock to the Xoom gathering. Marcia reminded us that any rock or stone has a biography. It has a story. Even if you can’t read that story, it still exists. When you encounter a smooth, rounded rock–a pebble–(she held one up, exposing swirls of black and grey layers)– you know it’s a traveler. That’s a rock that’s seen some things, had experiences. I always respect a smooth rock, she said.

My rock, which was fished out of a wild hot springs pool near Granada, Spain, by my BFF.

After the talk I thought about my relationship to longer time horizons.

One thing that came to mind was how– beginning about 5 years ago–I started keeping cut flowers for much longer, after they were wilting, fading, dropping petals. I noticed a whole other beauty in their new forms and colors. I joke that it’s a reflection of being in my 40s… that decade when my own form and succulence as a being drifts between high summer and autumn…

I also find the forms of bare branches–winter branches– really lovely. I’ve got a big branch suspended on a wall in my bedroom. I rescued it from the street after a winter storm brought it down, years ago.


Some people will call it a dead thing. It is still so alive to me, dynamic, playful, inviting. It is alive and dead at the same time. My spirit tree.

Maybe if humans had better relationships with death we’d have better relationships with time.

Then I thought about all the old objects I live with. About half the furniture is from my mother, stuff from the house I grew up in. Most of the rest is second-hand. After vehemently protesting how much time I had to spend around them as a kid, I grew up to love antiques–not elite-status-type antiques, just old stuff with stories.

old painting

Not long ago I found this watercolor by searching for old art on ebay. It was painted by a Frenchman who was born in 1871. 1871! I bought it (for a couple hundred euros, if you must know) because it so beautifully captures the magic I feel when I’m in the forest. I often stand in front of it and marvel at the thought that the man who made it lived a century and a half ago. But here is his work. Dead and alive. Or, alive again when I contemplate him–maybe time is not linear at all.

tree painting chest
Here are tree and watercolor on the wall in my bedroom they share. Below, a chair from my parents’ bedroom when I was a girl, and my chest now filled with bed linen, from around 1910. It must have been a toy chest, based on the crayon scrawls.

I have a feeling that if we all only surrounded ourselves with stuff with stories–and treated it with reverence, invoking the long life it has lived, dreaming of its former homes and relationships–we’d all have a more timeful experience. It won’t quite be time on the scale of geology, but it at least gets us thinking in terms of the Seven Generations upon whom Native Americans would consider the impact of any action.

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