Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Clock of the Long Now

A while back I read about a clock being constructed within a limestone mountain near Van Horn, Texas.  To reach it, visitors will have to climb 1,500 feet above high desert scrub and find an entrance hidden in a rock face.  Those who know where to look will find a jade door, rimmed in stainless steel, and a second door beyond that, serving as an airlock and keeping out dust and animals.  At the end of a long passageway, they will find a 500-foot vertical tunnel with spiral stairs winding up along its edges.  As they climb, they will pass the giant clockworks—counterweights, a winding station, massive gears—before finally reaching a chamber containing the clock’s face, which will measure the hours, days, years, centuries… millennia of our future.

The 10,000 Year Clock.  The Clock of the Long Now.

I love this thing.  I love the dreams it stirs inside me.  I love the way dreaming about it slows me down, makes me stop, stretches my mind into a future that I don’t reflect on nearly enough—a distant future in which there will be children—real, living, breathing, feeling children who are tied to me in a chain of parental nurturing and human experience that stretches back through the ancient plains of Africa and into some forgotten primordial soup.

I love that a group of individuals are building this thing for that very purpose and nothing more, to inspire people like me to step outside the hurried patterns of our daily lives and ask that crucial question once posed by Jonas Salk.  “Are we being good ancestors?”

The Long Now Foundation was established in 1996 to counterbalance today's accelerating culture and encourage long-term thinking.  Its founders, a group of intellectual heavyweights, include polymath inventor and computer engineer Danny Hillis, cultural pioneer and biologist Stewart Brand, and British composer Brian Eno.  The clock is being built on property owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.  These are people that have played a real role in shaping culture, and I love that they’ve taken it upon themselves to build this modern day Stonehenge for the rest of us, to remind us that there is something bigger than our own fleeting lifetimes, our daily appointments and hassles.  We are stewards in a long line of people who have always inherited the present moment, and someday our descendants will also inherit this Long Now. 

As Danny Hillis explains it, “I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it.  I know I am part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me.  I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well.  I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.”

10,000 Year Clock
I like to think that 10,000 years from now some small group of people will journey up the mountain to visit this clock.  The morning sun will warm their skin.  They will spot a scrub jay, flashing through the brush in a blue-gray streak.  The air they breathe deeply into their lungs will be clean, scented by sage. Perhaps they will stop to look out over the plains and pass around a container of clear water to wet their throats.  When they reach the passageway leading into the mountain they will walk quietly, reverently, thinking about the ancient ones who built this place of mystery, thinking about their own offspring and children who will inherit the earth even further on our journey towards eternity.


Of course, it won’t happen exactly like that.  I’m imagining.  But I do hope that 10,000 years from now Earth is still a place that human beings call home, and that it is still a beautiful and wondrous place, full of life and worth living in.  I hope somebody hears the clock chime and thinks about the descendants we’ll share with them, living in some future even more remote and unimaginable.  I hope the clock succeeds in its mission to foster responsibility in the framework of millennia. 

But will it?  Will people really live on this planet in 10,000  years?  Or will we have fouled our nest and flown the coop into oblivion?  I have to admit, I sometimes lose hope when I see the current trajectories of extinction, human population growth, and chemical pollution in the atmosphere and biosphere. 

Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon pondered this very question, and I like his answer.  “But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now.  They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006.  If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children.  If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free.”

10,000 Year Clock
Just knowing that the 10,000 Year Clock is being built, that there is a group of people alive right now who care enough to create this thing, gives me hope.  In fact, there are a lot of people, working in their own ways to make human existence sustainable.  And their stories lift me.  They inspire me to cast off the dark robes of apathy and rise to the occasion.

I watch my sons Noah and Kai at the beach and in the mountains—exploring tide pools, finding crabs, climbing trees, staring awestruck at a sky full of stars, discovering and falling in love with their astonishing world—and I cheer for the Clock of the Long Now.  I’m glad it will be here in the world with me, inspiring me to step away now and again from the hustle and insignificant emergencies of daily life and instead keep time with the rocks and the wind. 

I’m with Michael Chabon.  I’m betting on my kids and the 10,000 Year Clock.  I’m doubling down on the Long Now.

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.