65 Million Years is a Long Walk

As it appears that my manuscript (currently at 150,000 words, give or take) would benefit from a substantial trim, I am sharing a passage that was a late addition to the novel and that I’ve since excised. (There will likely be a few more of these in the coming weeks: there’s a lot to cut.) It’s actually based on a lesson I once gave to a group of school kids, with the idea of providing them with a very rudimentary but tangible understanding of what geologists call deep time, that is time as measured in thousands of millennia.


Dad had a great way of getting his students to understand deep time.

He used the tiles on the floor of his classroom, which conveniently measured about a foot square. Each linear foot, one tile length, would represent 1000 years of history, so six inches would be 500 years, three inches would be 250, an inch and a half 125 years, and (again, conveniently) one inch would be about an average human lifespan, about 83 years. He would then populate that line with events that came up in History class. So for example, when I was 12 in 2006, if you went back one inch or so you’d be in 1923; three inches would take you roughly to the Acadian Deportation and the fall of New France to the English; six inches was around the time of the Spaniards landing in the New World; and a whole foot would take you roughly to the time of the Norse in Newfoundland, the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, and the first Crusades.


(placement of events is approximate)

Obviously, the more a person knows about history, the more significant landmarks you can place on the timeline. Two feet and you’re already at the time of Christ and the Roman Empire; three feet (one adult stride) and you find yourself in 1000 BC: you’ve just missed the Trojan War and the reign of Ramses the Great in Egypt. Four feet and Stonehenge is built; the Great Pyramids of Giza are at four and half feet, and at five feet writing is invented. If you go back 10 feet, a third of the way across the classroom (a bit more than 3 strides), you’re at the end of the last Ice Age: the last of the mastodons and giant ground sloths and sabre-toothed cats become extinct in North America, and humans in the Middle East have just begun to cultivate plants for the very first time. The famous cave paintings of Lascaux in France are 17 feet away, while those of Alta Mira in Spain are at 36 feet, about the length of a typical driveway.


“So class,” he’d say “At this rate, with 1000 years going by with each foot you walk, how far would you have to go before you got to the extinction of the dinosaurs?”

Answers would vary. To the door? Out the door and down the hallway? All the way outside to the parking lot? Maybe one brave soul would suggest down St. Joseph Street to the Centre Street intersection, which would generate a few muffled snickers. The correct answer never failed to surprise.

“In fact, you’d have to go 12 and half miles, or 20 km.”


… and now you know where I live.

Of course the dinosaurs were around for 165 million years, appearing in the Triassic about 230 million years ago. If you wanted to go back to their beginning, you’d have to travel 43.5 miles, exactly 70 km. And as far as life on earth goes, you’re just getting started: 60 miles (96 km) to the first reptiles, about 90 miles (144 km) to the first land plants, 100 miles (161 km) to the first fish, and more than double that again to the very first bacteria.

Finally, if you have time for a bit of a trek, you can go back to the formation of the planet 4.5 billion years ago, about 852 miles (or 1,371 km). To put that in perspective, it would be like walking in a straight line from downtown Toronto to eastern Nova Scotia or, alternatively, to the Ontario/Manitoba border.

“It’s an old, old world folks,” Dad says. “Humans have only been around a short time, just long enough to get comfortable. But the earth takes its time and it has no plan. There’s no particular way things are supposed to be: the world is the way it is until something happens, and then it’s different. And it’s not going to ask our permission.”

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