RSR ~ ESSAYS
Shape-shifters in Shamanic traditions morph from one physical form to another. Think of a totem pole. Human rises through raven. Raven dives into orca. Orca swims into the air again as human. What I call ‘time transing’ is the temporal equivalent of shape-shifting. I’m cast adrift in a time trance since arriving in the Pacific Northwest to explore the paradox of restoration of wild habitat in a heavily urban locale. Driving from the airport to my hotel at mid-night earlier in the week, I’d felt like I’d never left Washington, as if New Hampshire and all my years of living there had somehow been erased. Temperature was in the 50’s. A misty rain obscured perspective. Spectral lights on far hillsides dimmed in and out of view. Moment by moment portals seem to open through time; where sensory memory allows us to step outside the past-present-future continuum; where the distinctions between the three become vague. I am thinking about temporal ecology; wondering if perhaps the healing of place might somehow require a restoration of time.
There’s a little French bakery at Seattle’s Pike Place Market that I frequent when I’m in town. Pike Place, full of Northwest-oriented crafts stalls, local fresh farm produce, raucous fish sellers and simmering ethnic restaurants, represents some of the best that a modern city offers, both aesthetically and culturally. I relish early mornings there, before legions of tourists arrive, while market locals unload their trucks and banter over coffee. At the north end of the Market at 7am yesterday as morning sun broke through tattered mist, I passed a group of Native American men on the sidewalk near Victor Steinbrueck Park. No words passed between us, just simple nods. Then one of them looked at me more intently, in silence his eyes met mine and my entire perception suddenly shifted.
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It was 1985. New to the city, I was walking downtown Seattle in the earliest hours of morning. The flow of air on skin, of scents curling around corners, of vistas of water glimpsed through avenues of buildings; all felt fresh and vivid but underneath sensation coursed intimations both ancient and achingly familiar. I became keenly aware that countless peoples had wandered these same hills by the sea for thousands of years. Their footsteps and mine reverberated through the shadowy alleyways. Fog shrouded the upper reaches of the skyscrapers. Anything could have been in that air, soaring through that white shroud. No engine sound split the quiet. Gulls keened – a sound of longing and questioning.
I could not know at that moment that the Pacific Northwest would become my home for a dozen years, only that something far older than the macadam and concrete had made this feel like the only residence I’d ever known. Nor did I know that for all the times I would return after I’d moved, it would seem as if I had never left. It was like that again yesterday as I got lost in the eyes of the man at Steinbrueck Park. Everything became raw, feral, new – yet ancient beyond telling. I walked among the Kwakiutl and Tlinglet, waited for deer at the street corners, watched for bear behind the dumpsters, stumbled over a middens heap of spear points and broken clamshells at the corner of 2nd and Bell.
It was one of those passages when the membrane between past, present and future become thin. At such moments, all that has passed on a land, all that still remains, and all that yet will be are comingled. No one time is any more relevant than another. How could one choose? In Ceremonial Time, John Hanscom Mitchell’s 10,000 year natural history of the one square mile of land he lives on, he meets an indigenous elder who shows, through ceremony, how to cast off the veil of time to encounter all the humans and other-than-humans intermingled in a realm where past, present and future merge. Afterwards, Mitchell can’t walk his land without feeling the constant presence of ancestors and descendants. In the morning mist, Seattle’s present-day sidewalks lay like a thin skin over times beyond my own. [i]
It is good, I believe, to stroll across a place slowly at times, leaving aside vigorous aerobic workouts for other walks, other days. It is good as well to sit at rest sometimes and wait there till boredom disappears. Only then, perhaps, can we suspend our normal framework of present-day tasks, hurries and worries to learn what the land remembers, to hear what it anticipates. When we begin to see life and time from land’s point of view, it inevitably transforms the way we see our own place in time as well. And as we gain more sophisticated eyes in seeing through the veils of time, we might be better able to glimpse the flowing ecological processes that integrate and transform a place over time.
How might a landscape see its own place in time? Etymologically, ‘restoration’ assumes a priori that a subject or object is brought back to some former state. In ecological terms, this presumes that prior conditions can be relatively fixed and accurately referenced as a target for restoration efforts. A faithfully rendered, historically accurate landscape would be seen as having all or most of its native species. But what exactly does native mean? How long must a species be present before it can be considered an ecological citizen rather than an invasive immigrant? Not many species exist only in the place where they originally evolved. In Mitchell’s ceremonial Scratch Flat, distinctions between ancestors and descendents became erased. In Seattle’s early morning mist, there was only an enduring interpenetrating present. What does native mean when the mists of time obscure all references?
I’ve become obsessed with the role time plays in restoration processes. By this, I don’t only mean how long re-establishment efforts take, but also what choice we make about the point in time deemed the reference model. What makes any one era preferable to another? How can we presume an optimal distinction between a span of interpenetrating eras? Such questions are the province of temporal ecology, where concerns of time bear consideration along with concerns of space and speciation.
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[i] John Hanscom Mitchell, Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile (New York City: Warner Books, 1984) 47-61.