COLUMN: Time and Space -- Seeing the past and shaping the future

David Suzuki
By David Suzuki
April 20th, 2022

It’s not science fiction to recognize that the landscapes we encounter daily, and whatever is in them, can be at various points in a time continuum. Put another way, most of the things we see are stamped with information from years gone by, and the way they are stamped differs greatly.

A wooden table was once a tree. So too, most likely, were the rolls of toilet paper in your bathroom.

Less obviously, some stars in the night sky may have actually burned out years ago. It takes time for light to travel long distances. The photons that reach us from Sirius, the brightest star visible to the human eye, have taken more than eight years to meet our eyes.

In his book Imperium, Ryszard Kapuscinski interviews a 10-year-old girl in Siberia who says you can tell who has walked down the street by the patterns they leave in the air: “One can recognize a great cold, she explains to me, by the bright, shining mist that hangs in the air. When a person walks, a corridor forms in this mist. The corridor has the shape of that person’s silhouette. The person passes, but the corridor remains, immobile in the mist.”

Some people work to visibly knit the unseen past to the present. This can be done by unearthing historical artifacts or by examining the governing systems that shaped our current world. This occurs through archeology, paleontology and history, but it plays a role in the conservation movement too.

For example, some conservation organizations find creative ways to document what has been lost. Along the Don River in Toronto, an art duo spray-painted blue rivulets and the words “Don was here” onto cement patches where the river and its tributaries had been paved over.

In Bamfield, British Columbia, a wooded area has been dubbed the “ghost forest.” Stumps of old growth, logged 100 years ago, still softly stand, returning to soil amid the rows of planted trees.

Some caribou still exist in landscapes where industrial impacts have fragmented their habitat beyond its ability to support them, but those effects haven’t caught up to them yet. Scientists have dubbed these caribou “the walking dead.” (They bore the moniker before the TV zombies.)

Along the same lines, but hopefully less dire, past decisions (or lack of decisions) we’ve made about climate emissions not only affect us now, they also stretch into the future. Current efforts aim to tamp down the edges of changes already set in motion.

In unlogged B.C. forests, on the other hand, one can find “culturally modified trees” — cedars that were not logged, but from which Indigenous people stripped triangle-shaped sections of bark, leaving the trees to continue on, though marked — living historical records of cultural practice.

Our current world was built by both materials and ideas. The foundations of our cities, towns and farmlands are the results of both labour and ways of thinking that are sometimes less visible.

At the time of settlement, governing policies dispossessed Indigenous Peoples, the land’s original inhabitants — in most instances, relocating them to reservations, so that trees could be cut, fields plowed and metals harvested from Earth’s core more readily. It stands that our current displays of wealth are not merely reflections of hard work; accumulation of assets has a long history of benefiting from invisible structures that favour a select few — often colleagues of those in power — at the expense of many others.

When we look around today, we see the results of thousands of small decisions, made in town halls and parliament buildings, decades ago or last week, that continue to privilege economic growth — and usually the status quo — over values to maintain ecological and cultural health.

To some extent, time is a collapsible spectrum. On one end, our human epoch is a mere flash in the journey of the universe. On the other, a decision made in mere minutes to, for example, bury nuclear waste, can have impacts that extend far beyond Indigenous planning for seven generations.

Like the light from stars, our actions cast forward, shaping the future. The atmosphere and ecosystems that we move through will continue to hold our shape long after we’ve passed through, as does the freezing Siberian mist.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Boreal Project Manager Rachel Plotkin. 

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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