Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead. — World of Tomorrow
In the seventeen-minute runtime of his animated film World of Tomorrow, Don Hertzfeldt wrestles (via stick figures) with several thousand years’ worth of evolution, planetary destruction, creation, and heartbreak. But it was this passage—delivered by a time-travelling clone to her infant original millennia before— that lingered in our minds as the theme of this issue emerged.
Permanence is a contradictory idea. The moment of “now” is as fiercely urgent as it has ever been. Now is the only time we will ever live in, and the only time we can do anything about. But as with every generation, many if not most of the things that concern us in this moment will be lost to the remorseless sweep of time. When the lone and level sands stretch far away, and the Anthropocene draws to a close, our dreams of reconfiguring our bodies through gene editing, or colonizing Mars rather than fixing things at home, will seem, well, Ozymandian. When that desertful of dust finally settles, what will be left?
This is what the musician Joanna Newsom explores in her song “Sapokanikan.” Grounded in the interplay of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and the lesser-known sonnet of the same name by his friend Horace Smith, Newsom’s song un- earths a quiet line beneath the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village, a village which once bore the Lenape name of the song’s title. Smith’s poem does not contain the famous plea of an ancient king to look upon his works—now only rubble—and despair, but imagines a hunter in the distant future, wandering the wilds of what was once London, stopping to guess “What powerful but unrecorded race / Once dwelt in that annihilated place.” The song builds out from this with fragments of stories found beneath layers of paint in classic artworks, and the subterranean histories we walk on top of every day. Beneath Washington Square Park, the village’s centerpiece mecca for buskers and tourists, twenty thousand unidentified bodies lay buried in a potter’s field.
Consider that song an anthem for this issue. And consider this the thesis statement. Layers build on layers. Things return in cycles. It’s no longer controversial to argue that we’re living in the Anthropocene—an epoch in which the earth has been profoundly and irreversibly reshaped by humanity. In issue 2, we discussed Daniel Pauly’s “shifting baseline syndrome”—the danger of defining “normal” purely through the experience of the present. As Jedediah Purdy argues in his book After Nature, accepting this thinking at a geological level is dangerous:
“To the complacency-mongers, one needs to say: yes, the Anthropocene will feel normal; it already does; whatever is not actively killing you does. The loss of coral reefs and other ocean diversity, accelerating extinctions, ubiquitous toxicity: these will all feel normal, most of the time, without an active effort to see them differently. The slivers of nature that the wealthy preserve for themselves and stitch into their proudly Anthropocene neighborhoods will feel normal, and may come to feel sufficient. None of this should be comforting.”
It’s not apocalyptic thinking and it’s not doomsaying to explore the implications of this moment—a moment in which all the moments that have ever been and might ever be are at stake—a moment, in short, like any other. As Barry Lopez urges in our feature interview (p. 72), it’s a time not for fight or flight, but for a third alternative: to gather. In these pages, we are excavating the past and harvesting the present to trace the dim outline of the future. From alchemy and witchcraft to the post-human dream of science, just over the mountain range. We travel from the spiffed-up streets of Moscow, where the echoes of revolution continue, however strangely, to reverberate, to the salty shores of Orkney, where stone-age carvings still ring with teenage drama, and park along the far-flung roads of northern Alaska, teetering between the noise of the human world and the mysterious silent wild. Finally, we meet people who want to spin out still further, to Mars, and ask what this means for the home they dream of leaving behind, where we still haven’t quite solved the problem of toilets.
In her 1982 essay “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” the great Ursula K. Le Guin rifles through our ideas of utopia and forward progress, recounting how Cree stories open with an invitation, not to talk, but to listen. Inspired by the movement of the porcupine, the Cree would offer the phrase “I go backward, look forward.” And so we do.
“In order to speculate safely on an inhabitable future,” she writes, “perhaps we would do well to find a rock crevice and go backward. In order to find our roots, perhaps we should look for them where roots are usually found. At least the Spirit of Place is a more benign one than the exclusive and aggressive Spirit of Race, the mysticism of blood that has cost so much blood. With all our self-consciousness, we have very little sense of where we live, where we are right here right now. If we did, we wouldn’t muck it up the way we do. If we did, our literature would celebrate it. If we did, our religion might be participatory. If we did—if we really lived here, now, in this present—we might have some sense of our future as a people. We might know where the center of the world is.”