Above the really old rock was a sign that read “This is the oldest thing you will ever touch.” I don’t know what techniques allow you to date a lump of iron-nickel to 4.5 billion years old, but if it was remotely accurate, then I can hardly argue with the sign. The large rock was displayed in the entrance hallway of the astronomy building at the National Maritime Museum in England. Most people walked by it without even noticing it; but I sat for very long minutes in awe of this thing, and touched it several times.
This, to me, was easily the most impressive thing in the building. According to the information accompanying the rock, it had formed before crashing on earth I don’t know how long ago.
It may interest you to know that current scientific understanding dates the beginning of life to about 3.5 billion years ago. That means that if this rock was a 45 year old man, then it was already 10 years old when life began. By the time I was 10 I already knew how to say bad words, and had attempted telepathy, casting magic spells, and finding the Holy Grail (it is ironic that some conspiracy theorists place its last known location somewhere in Quebec).
Some of you may not be familiar with the long and winding road that led from the first self-replicating cell to life as we perceive it today, but it’s a long fricken time, and there are many excercises students will perform in early Biology or Geology classes to appreciate the scale of time under consideration. I will spare you the examples, but will say that as I sat on a bench, looking at this really old rock, I was trying to appreciate how old it really was, and how long it had existed, and what it had seen.
If you or I were to exist on a timescale of this magnitude, it is very likely that we would perceive time much more slowly than we do now, in the same way that a fly perceives time much more quickly than we do. Should a fly look at something like an old television screen, it might simply see a dot of light moving quickly, while we see things slowly enough so that this dot blurs to make a picture. The fly would be incapable of seeing this picture unless it had managed to smoke a lot of weed – which may be why you find a lot more flies in the tv room of a stoner’s house (and not just because of all the food left on all available surfaces).
We perceive things quickly too, though – we can barely watch ice melt while perceiving the changes occurring. We cannot see glass slowly flow downward, or watch a tree grow. But this – this rock, that has held its form longer than the unbroken chain of life has existed – it could watch mountains rise and fall. It could watch rivers carve canyons, and islands rise from the ocean. How exciting geology would be to such an entity. What was it thinking, when oxygen began to populate the atmosphere and rust the iron cliffsides?
And what would we be, to this rock? How quickly would we come and go? All the people walking by, not realizing this rock was sitting there; would the rock even see them? Would we not be invisible for all our speed, or would it not be effectively blind to all of our actions? My hand, resting on its cool surface, even for the duration of my lifetime, would be so brief an instant for it, the rock may not even know it had happened.
And so I sat, looking at this rock that could not see me. It could not see the sky, from where it was, and so could not watch the gentle migration of the constellations among the imperceptible flicker of day and night. Indeed, the rock would see the sun and the stars at the same time, and day and night would be one. The building around it would crumble to dust so quickly that the rock would not be sure it had ever been there, and it would have never doubted that it was always under the sky.
In France, I discovered the Power of Bread and Cheese. I never really appreciated the baguette until I realized it is the perfect travelling bread. As far as cheese goes, a good hard cheese doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and together, they can keep you going for quite a while.
A good picnic doesn’t require much more than a sword-length baguette, a good wheel of cheese, and a bottle of juice. If you have ever read Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (a wonderful book to read in the jungle with a monkey at your side, I assure you), you’ll know that the yeomen walked around with bread and cheese in their pockets all the time, and it worked out pretty well. It has certainly changed my life. And as I pondered the Power of Bread and Cheese, I realized that I had almost forgotten that I had previously subsisted on very similar fair on previous journeys – for what could one fail to accomplish with a sac of buns and a jar of peanut butter? How could I have ever forgotten this?
I do not know; but the spirit of the peanut runs deep within me, apparently, for not long ago, my friend and I acquired a bag of peanuts. She was disappointed to find they were raw, and not roasted, but I assured her we could easily roast them, and flavour them, to boot!
This woman, an accomplished cook, seemed to doubt me for some reason, but the day before a hike, I roasted up the peanuts with some salt, oil, and harissa (the popular hot sauce, here in Tunisia – did I mention I was in Tunisia?).
A note to the active peanut enthusiast, the salt seems to allow the peanuts to dry out a bit quicker, and the oil allows the salt and harissa to stick to the peanuts. So, we bring these peanuts amongst various other snacks on a group hike which included a bunch of Tunisians and a few Italians. The hike was meant to be a pleasant stroll to some natural hot springs…
The trail, however, was overgrown, and sometimes non-existent, so we ended up bushwacking for about six hours (why do I go anywhere without a machete!?), and the hot springs were too hot – apparently 50°C, and so you were meant to bathe where they met the sea – but the point of contact between the hot springs and the sea coincided with the union of big waves and jagged rocks.
I did not venture in there – those that did alternated between being scalded and frozen, and I have already been locked out of my car in -30°C with less clothes than I’d have liked, and all for the sake of a hot soak early in the morning somewhere in Yellowstone National Park thank you very much YANETTE (considering this with various instances involving undercooked beef and being shoved onto hornet nests, it occurs to me that my life expetancy may be considerably lengthened as a result of our no longer being together…)
The point is that halfway through the long bushwacking hike, we stopped and ate, and I brandished these spicy peanuts we’d prepared, and man were the Tunisians impressed. It was surprising to me that it had never occurred to them to prepare peanuts in such a way, because Tunisians put harissa on everything, and they eat a lot of nuts: you’d think it would have at least happened by accident by now.
I was the subject of much praise, and they encouraged me to pursue a business with the product. It is certainly nice to have something to fall back on.
And with that I am satisfied that I have induced you to spend a significant portion of your Groundhog Day in reading about an old rock along with some frivolous commentary about various staple food items.
Forever Dwelling in the Power of Bread and Cheese
and Friend of All Things Nut
1.There persists to be some ambiguity with the term ‘billion’, for the British have historically carried a different mathematical representation of ‘billion’ than the rest of the world. Despite their apparent conversion in the 70s to the generally accepted definition of ‘billion’, the conversion was apparently not universal, so I will clarify here that the rock was 4 500 000 000 years old. ↖
2.But using our previous analogy, if the rock was indeed a 45 year old man at this specific point in time, then we would have existed as a species (using one of the current estimates of 2mya) just over a week ago (7d7h12m) and the cave paintings would have been put up about three and a half hours ago (~3h30m assuming the paintings were done ~40 000 years ago). The crash in Roswell, New Mexico would have happened just 20.7 seconds ago, and Elvis would have (supposedly) died just 11.2 seconds ago (<– raise eyebrow here)↖
3.At this point we did not even know which state we were in, since Yellowstone falls over state borders. This led to a difficult conversation with AAA and no shortage of grief.↖