Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world

In this episode...

When my son and I trekked on a 42-mile backpacking trip from rim-to-rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon, COVID-19 had just shuttered the public school system in Maryland. 

My backpack weighed in at 63 pounds and I was going to have to carry it for the next 42 miles down the Bright Angel trail of the Grand Canyon, all the way to the other side, and back.

Despite the heavy pack I took along my kindle. It’s full of books, but I brought it to read only two each night beneath the bright milky way under the canyon walls. 

One was Timefulness by geophysicist Marcia Bjornerud.

In Episode 10 of The Soul of Life I have the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bjornerud to talk about her book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World.  

At first hearing of this new word, timefulnes, it’s easy to think of mindfulness. They both rhyme in sound and in definition, but are different. 

“For a society it’s not so good to be preoccupied with the now. In fact it’s the root of many of our problems…social, environmental, even spiritual, to be in the immediate, narcissistic moment and not understand our place in time.”

As a geologist, Bjornerud, has a breathtaking view of the world and our Anthropocene era—an ominous distinction that means we live in the age where humans are changing the planet’s finely balanced ecology and geology.

She teaches about how much of our society runs on chronophobia, the fear of time. It shows up in our disdain for aging and the aged while we are enamored with the new and young. Chronophobia is like a religion every human seems to practice but few are willing to acknowledge. It dissociates us from the awesome and powerful nature of earth and keeps us from remembering our insignificance.

Treasuring our place in time

Instead, modern life keeps us captivated by the siren’s call of eternal growth (capitalism) or eternal life (religion) that makes being fully human – being appreciatively aware of our bit role – into an enemy that must be conquered. Bjornerud sounds the alarm, saying how we must transcend our impulse to be time-illiterate. She doesn’t want us to miss a spiritual fork in the road that can lead to abiding sensitivity to the treasures of life, which deeply envelope us every moment of every day. 

Timefulness is a call to wake up to the staggering mystery of life here on Earth, become time-literate of our storied past to live sustainably, in tune to the magnificent movements in nature that took eons to choreograph.

Rocks are verbs

Like the captivating landscape of the Grand Canyon, I was mesmerized by Bjornerud’s ability to synthesize geophysics with our felt experience of the natural world.

Geology can enhance whatever spiritual journey you’re on.

Like some of the rock formations she studies, Marcia is a non-conformity herself. She offers not only fascinating knowledge about the land beneath our feet (for example, the Appalachian mountains of the East Coast were once joined with mountains in the U.K.), but she implores us to have an emotional and spiritual connection to the land.

"As a scientist, my sense of awe in the natural world is only enhanced by my scientific understanding. I’m reverential of the complexity of the natural world, the creation—however you want to imagine it came into being. I do have almost a spiritual response to my scientific understanding of that.

“Rocks,” she says, “are not nouns.” They are moving in a fluid cycle that the very chemistry in our blood mirrors. “Rocks are verbs.”

Seventh-generation thinking

Thinking about our existence beyond our next meal or our next email or text is a challenge for us sometimes. Never mind thinking beyond the narrow focus of an election cycle.

That’s why Marcia says thinking on long time scales is something we must do if we are to move out of our adolescent relationship to the earth.

What would it look like if we could somehow weave 7th generation thinking into our economical and pollical systems? 

"The earth is complicated. We need all hands on deck and all minds, many different types, to contribute to this work. There’s so much exciting science to be done."

We talk about projects engineered with timefulness in mind. Like a clock that can keep time for 10,000 years, or an organ composition of John Cage’s that’s being performed on a church organ in Germany of a really, really, long song that lasts 639 years. 

We should all carry two slips of paper in our pockets: one that says 'I am ashes and dust,' and one that reads 'The world was made for me.'

Marcia Bjornerud, author of Timefulnes: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world Tweet

Marcia Bjornerud is Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton. Bjornerud’s research focuses on the physics of earthquakes and mountain-building, and she combines field-based studies of bedrock geology with quantitative models of rock mechanics. Bjornerud has done research in high arctic Norway (Svalbard) and Canada (Ellesmere Island), as well as mainland Norway, Scotland, New Zealand, and the Lake Superior region. She’s worked for the Geological Survey of Canada and the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Dr. Marcia Bjornerud
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Episode 10