Whenever I’m in Los Angeles, I have to stop by the La Brea Tar Pits (well, asphalt seeps). Actually, NEED to stop by is more appropriate. As odd as this may sound to some people, La Brea is my “Happy Place”. For whatever metaphysical persuasion you are so incline, my soul is filled whenever I walk amongst those American giants. When it comes to my biogeographic sensibilities, nothing clarifies and centers it like La Brea.
But for the purposes of this post, La Brea really highlights my… intuition when it comes to Deep Time. I think for many people, they look up at these fossils and think “Wow, look at all these ancient, prehistoric fossils! I can’t even fathom the world that they lived in.” To me, these fossils, are our contemporaries. Their world is our world. It is fathomable to me.
Another, perhaps more poignant way to look at it is with recent extinction. We lament that the po’ouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma) and the baiji (Lipotes vexilifer) went extinct as recently as 2004 and 2007 respectively. We wonder if we could have done more so that they could still be around today. The fabled Tasmanian Wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was alive within living memory; the last known individual died in 1936. It tugs particular hard at the heartstrings to know that it was sooo close to surviving to the present day. When I look at that Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) at the Page Museum, I feel exactly the same way. The amazing American Megafauna, so taxonomically diverse and unique, was sooo close to making it to the present day.
I live in Hawai’i, a place were the biota has gone through unbelievable turnover in the past few hundred years. How has that awareness plus my nostalgia brought on by Deep Time not crushed my soul? Why am I not crying everyday, lamenting about the birds we lost? Because intimacy with Deep Time works both ways. If 10,000 years ago is now, then 10,000 years in the future is also now. Can we work to rehabilitate native ecosystems in 20 years? It will be awfully hard. What about restoring a native forest within a modern grant cycle of 2 years on average? Probably not. But 10,000 years? Now we’re on to something. When you’re working in conservation and you’re liberated of time constraints… it is pretty damn hopeful.