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Illustration of deer, Australopithicus aferensis, and early stone tools over a photograph of eastern Oregon landscape
CREATIVE COMMONS PHOTO BY JEFF WILCOX

Numbered Days
By Harold Toliver

On the extensive list of things in natural history that we hadn’t yet tumbled to in my 1950s undergraduate days were plate tectonics and the age of planet Earth. Alfred Wegener in 1912 and Arthur Holmes in the 1920s had laid out the basics of the first of these, but American geologists weren’t convinced, and in any case I didn’t have time for such things. The second of these depended on the radiometric dating of rock. It, too, had come along, but I don’t recall hearing it discussed at Erb Memorial Union.

Would knowing that the Earth had been in orbit for more than four billion years have made any difference? Yes, to the common classroom view of philosophies and religions and such, mostly established when the sun still orbited the planet. But forget the fifties and the curriculum for the moment. What if the study of natural history had gotten under way sooner, truly under way, not as in Egyptian alchemy and theories of the little bits the Greeks called atoms and not as in the golden age of astronomy in Gupta, India. Little that we now recognize as the civilizations that archaeologists unearth would have led some 500 generations into such deep confusion about the Earth and the cosmos. Certainly my beloved Chaucer and Shakespeare would have turned out quite different. Milton would have devoted his immense talent to something other than Paradise Lost.

I can’t complain about anyone else’s ignorance when I and most of my peers were still edging around the most amazing findings of intellectual history well after Darwin’s The Origin of Species. What had been collected on the biosphere alone before those postwar days (with World War II veterans still on campus) was enough to fill a wing of the UO library. That’s not to mention the discovery since then of diminutive things like quarks, new not just to undergraduates but to everyone before particle physicists started smashing atoms. Concerning the body of learning his training in botany had accumulated by the forties, the American naturalist Donald Culross Peattie acknowledged that after forty years in the field what he had learned was “just enough to find my way farther.” Looking across the plains of Wyoming, he found a million years, more or less, the minimal span for any topographical scrutiny worth mentioning.

Having been around long enough to bumble through these revolutionary advancements, I can put the difference they make in personal terms. When I left Oregon (also in the fifties), Oregonians were still gazing at pretty much the same mountains, desert, sea coast, and Willamette Valley that homesteaders had in their sights, to some still in the migration mode of the “promised land.” It’s to an altogether different landscape that I now return even if it looks the same except for more clear-cut patches. Let me explain.

Wallace Stegner remarks that what is imprinted on a young hatchling at the right moment will be its mother for life. Just so: the terrain we know in youth becomes home to us. We carry it everywhere with us. Realizing that billions of years of rising, erupting, and eroding earth lie behind the topographical imprint of my youth changes it like the aging of a parent. Home becomes layered and complex. Its wrinkles and folds and canyons tell tales far beyond those of myths and religions. In geologic time, spinning days and sun-circling years are insignificant until they add up to seven or eight figures. The actual age of Earth almost reaches a Brahma life or federal budget figures. An individual allotment becomes brief indeed, the numbered days running off at fast-forward speeds.

• • •

I take a drive near my current place at Black Butte Ranch in Central Oregon through terrain untouched by the plow, where Indians held their ground at least 300 times longer than Europeans, Asians, and Africans have in these parts. I knew about the Shoshone in my undergraduate years, too, though I could never quite get the Yamhills properly stationed in my mind around the family farm near McMinnville, owned a century by the English-born Smiths and half a century by the Tolivers. I had only the dimmest notion of the way of life that went with obsidian arrowheads or what the crossing of the Bering land bridge required of their hardy ancestry.

Here in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, I can better imagine that and the migration through two wilderness continents. Highway 20 from the summit of the Santiam Pass is like all sloped routes of any length in changing a motorist’s seasons quickly, accelerating the habitual calendar that accompanies any hatchling’s motherland. The forest and the basaltic peaks write their history vertically, the trees in three, sometimes four figures, the peaks in eight. Going from the high-pass winter to the spring settling in a thousand feet lower takes only about fifteen minutes. A mere forty years at that pace would produce ten million seasons.

In May at Suttle Lake, last year’s matted grass and pine needles have the damped-down look of remembered snow, but what I see isn’t just the snows of a month ago but ice ages. On the lake, rational bipeds, emerged from hibernation, are trolling for trout. Ingenious, these tool-users whose ancestry accelerated in the invention department some 40,000 years ago. A woman is holding up a very small catch. In the brief glimpse I get of her, she looks ready to polish her lying or perhaps her sense of humor. These are both as strictly human as fish hooks, practiced since language came along. Lying first got up to its current speed (I’m guessing) with agricultural stored wealth, elite classes, and city-state dynasties, patriarchal and matriarchal. City-states? Around 500 generations ago, some say. That would make my personal retrospect weigh in at a pinch over half a percent of complex societies and computations in digits.

In passing Black Butte Ranch, I see aspen leafing out and glimpse through the trees goslings waddling clumsily alongside a waterway. They haven’t changed since Branta canadensis first came along, destined from the start to dirty up golf courses. I don’t see deer around just now or elk heading out to higher ground, but they won’t be far off. Sometimes I imagine them waiting patiently for the wheel-and-rifle breed to go away and leave them alone. At Indian Ford Creek, through more trees I see another gathering of fellow bipeds out of their motorized travel shells, huddled around campfires, looking like a museum diorama. Though the mornings still remember February, it is full spring here. A few more minutes will see me on the desert plateau cruising through heat-trapping arroyos that have the feel of July. I’m not there yet, though. Haven’t left the forest for the savannah.

With the seasons and the eras properly scrambled, I lift further out of the limited present. I visualize Mesozoic turtle shells in those mobile campers capable of thousands of times turtle speed. I picture the surface of Earth crunching up into mountains pressured by slow convulsions deep within. I picture the meadow behind me at the ranch as an Ice Age moraine and see channeled alluvial slopes as ancient erosion, matched around the globe with Himalayan and Alpine and African canyons. I am reoriented, not disoriented. These spans, stacked in their layers, lying broken in the debris of arroyos, are a book of ages more magnificent than anything our ancestry trivialized in their incredible myths. But as nature’s measurements go, even this compression of the seasons down from the pass, even the rock ages, scarcely register on the full scale of speeds, distances, masses, and temperatures that fill out the spectrum. That is the fuller story, the better curriculum, and that’s what I missed back then.

• • •

I retreat mentally to retrieve a little more of what I’ve just cruised by, retrospection being some recompense for missed opportunities. The doe that crossed behind me back at the 4,000-foot level was carrying 38-million-year-old genes in her stiff-legged walk. The trees I’ve sped past parted ways with our ancestry back in the Mesoproterozoic more than a billion years ago. Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor’s Tale said our evolutionary path split from theirs thirty-six stages ago. That’s too far back for accurate dating but well beyond sponges and fungi. We don’t have much in common any longer, the pines, sponges, and I, but I wish them well.

The gray squirrel that was standing alongside milepost 80 had no idea how far back it goes. Researchers at Duke calculate that the first squirrel claims to North American nuts and acorns came 36 million years before their pesky progeny started raiding campus garbage cans. During that interim, their brethren have responded to climate changes more radical than any that current or ancient civilizations have seen. An unreliable atmosphere contributed to an accelerated multiplication of squirrel kinds, which zoologists put at about 11 million years ago. Impatient to cross the highway, that particular fellow didn’t look as if he’d gained much intellect—rodent brain still unprepared for turning wheels that plant full weight on a spot no matter what’s there.

From farther out on the plain I see in the rearview mirror several peaks above the timbered ridges. The channels for snowmelt were grooved after the last volcanic outburst, within the tenure of Native Americans. Solar uplift is even now gathering moisture at sea for the return journey. Out by land, in by air. What a cycle is there! I can’t even guess how long it’s been going on, though I know it’s but a fraction of star cycles like that of our own native second-generation sun, imprinted on every earthling since creaturely life began.

To Bend and through town. Photons are arriving from distant sources. To get here at just this moment they had to set forth before the sun collected its debris and began its atomic burn. On journeys of various light years, they reach the High Desert Museum just as I do, joined by a flood of rays dispatched from the sun as I was entering town eight minutes ago. Together their kind have been lighting my way by the trillions, bouncing off every surface. They are brilliant in this dry desert air. The pine needles glisten with them. The ailing warrior raptors taking R and R in the aviary luxuriate in them and air their wings in warm comfort. Moderate, this climate, nothing at all like the millions of degrees of star cores and heatless space.

I was on the road just an hour and a half since pausing at the top to look downrange, yet in a manner of speaking I, too, have been quite a while getting here, or my materials have, if not assembled in quite the form that drives automobiles. My DNA-coded cells started splitting up into liver, brain, heart, and kidney subkinds several million years ago. The ancestry they put together was ready for steering wheels as much as 200,000 years ago, with brains as large as those of most drivers now. (They might have handled automatic. Stick shift, I-5, and urban gridlock I doubt.)

In a reminiscent mood proper for a museum with Indian displays and a familiar-looking farm kitchen from around the 1930s, I wonder if quadruped genes were ever configured for self-consciousness. Probably not. Instinct for individual survival has been around forever, but enough memory and bundled experience to make up a self? That’s not the sort of thing that shows up in fossils.

I would wager, though, that Lucy, the famous upright Australopithecus afarensis specimen of 3.5 million years ago, had enough personality to be called a self. The Pi Phi

I knew by that name certainly did, and much ego to go with it.

I’m still miffed that I wasn’t paying more attention back when. I got a late start on spans longer than those between meals, and one thing about time always holds: it goes only forward. Squandered moments pack up and leave without saying goodbye.

Harold Toliver ’54 is an emeritus professor of English at the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of seven books of literary history and criticism. Since the mid-nineties, he has been writing fiction. He and his wife Mary ’54 have written half a dozen mystery novels, four of them set in the Willamette Valley and Central Oregon—the most recent, Leave Not a Trace, is due out this spring. He is also working on two manuscripts concerning a humanist’s reaction to the adjustments modern science requires in matching human-size measurements to extremes in numbers, sizes, times, distances, powers, and so on. Those works lie behind this essay. The Tolivers split their time between Laguna Beach, California, and Black Butte Ranch in Central Oregon.

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