Some people refer to parts of the Dorset shore as the “Jurassic Coast”. I’m writing this sitting close to the spectacular coast of North Devon. I use the term “spectacular” since, around here the rocks are tilted and twisted from the horinzontal strata in which they were laid down millions of years ago into bizzarrely contorted shapes. This deformation results from the application of immense forces over geological time and one is inevitably led to ask how long that time might be and hence what nickname we might give to these rugged rocks.
From the window, I can see the huge forces of the sea at work, industriously reducing this seemingly invulnerable material to the finest of sand. This process, though relatively slow, takes place within a span of time that is at least comprehensible in human terms whereas the bending of strata requires inconceivably deep time. Geologists analogise the process by using toffee as a model for a material that, while being naturally brittle, can, through gradual application of consistent force be deformed in the dramatic ways that I see before me now. What we forget is that time is similarly analogised in this model and that it takes millions of years to bend a rock.
So how old is the land in which I sit? The rocks are sedimentary which means that they were formed gradually at the bottom of antediluvian seas and, hence, that they were created over an inhumanly long period before they began to be subject to the elemental forces that distorted them so hugely. Once formed and then distorted, the effects of external environment – wind, waves and weathering – began slowly but surely to erode and change them until what I now see before me was brought into being.
So I argue that this coastline has no age and even that it has no single existence. Rather, we are witnessing an ongoing process that, today, has reached a certain stage. The process is far from complete, indeed even the grains of sand that we see being born today will not be the end of the processs: they too will be changed, aggregated and processed into other forms. The play of forces over a diversity of timescales makes the coastline dynamic at a number of levels. In some, the timeline is humanly comprehensible but in others it is all but inconceivable. We have only the capacity to apprehend that which is reasonably close to our own mortality and events and processes that lie outside of this range are neccessarily perceived as either impossibly transient or so slow as to not be dynamical at all. We and the worlds that we create for ourselves are inescapably as bounded in time as they are in geography. The aeroplane or the spaceship can stretch our horizons by a substantial factor but, on a cosmic scale, we remain pitifully close to home and distances not easily measured in miles or kilometres are, to all intents and purposes, meaningless: who can grasp the scale of an angstrom or a light year when they can see neither within a useful frame of reference?
As with space, so with time. To a one year old child, twelve months is a lifetime but to a septugenarian, it is a brief period indeed, the pages of the calendar blowing away with alarmingly cinematic speed. The perception of time is far from fixed within our mortal span and, in this respect we have much in common with the nature (if not the durational aspects) of many natural processes.
As these cliffs have formed, been transfigured and wasted away, so it is with our experiences and memories. Like the cliffs, our memory is not a fixed entity but rather a process in which change inevitably occurs. Take for example our memory of spaces and particularly of rooms that we have known in past times. Even when our recollection is of an adult experience, a revisitor will always experience a room smaller than that of memory: perception has not changed in such a case but, slowly and inevitably, time has worked a transformation upon the data. Whether this is a result of movement between short, medium and long-term memory or whether, even when in the ostensibly stable state of the latter, some processing still occurs is uncertain. However the observed reality tends to suggest that our memory is not a passive thing but that it too is subject to change and, indeed, that it should rightly be regarded as a dynamical process.
My argument is that, if we are the sum of our experiences and these are part of the content of memory and hence are far from immutable, we must regard not only seaside cliffs but ourselves as processes rather than objects: all that stands in the way of this realisation is our inability to understand things that take place over non-human durations.
In short, it’s just a matter of time.