by Mary Hrovat
Everything in the universe that’s visible from your location on Earth passes by overhead every day. We’re usually able see only the stars, galaxies, planets, and so on that are in the sky when the sun is not; we become aware of them when the sun sets and Earth’s shadow rises from the eastern horizon. But all of them are there at some point in the day. We picnic beneath the winter constellation Orion in summer and walk beneath the Summer Triangle on the short days of winter. The moon also crosses the sky every day, sometimes in the daytime, and sometimes too close to the sun to be seen.
Because we associate particular constellations with each season, and because the position of the sun on the sky indicates the time of year, in a sense all of time is up there in the sky too.
The past is always arriving at Earth’s surface. All the visible light and other electromagnetic radiation reaching Earth comes from the past. The light from the sun and other bodies in the solar system is minutes to hours old. The light from the stars is ancient; some of it is older than Earth and the sun.
The oldest light you can see without using binoculars or a telescope may be that from the Andromeda Galaxy, which arrives from approximately 2.5 million years ago. Sensitive instruments can detect light much older than that, from more distant galaxies. The echo of the Big Bang, the cosmic background radiation, is the oldest light to reach Earth. You could say that some of the electromagnetic radiation reaching Earth is as old as time itself.
All of nature is saturated with the past. The moon carries its history on its cratered face. In fact, one of the reasons we send spacecraft to planets and asteroids and comets is that they embody the history of the solar system. We’re learning how to read Earth’s history in its rocks and ice and sediments and fossils.
Every living thing carries its species’ history in its DNA, which represents the circumstances its ancestors faced and how they responded to them. Our bodies carry our histories: scars, stretch marks, memories, laugh lines. Trees carry their history in their rings and sometimes in their shapes. In Edward Abbey’s beautiful essay, “The Crooked Wood,” he describes aspen trees he saw on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, at 8000–9000 feet. The lower parts of their trunks had peculiar bends and curves because they grew upward through snowdrifts that lingered into the growing season: “Under the creeping weight and pressure of these snowdrifts the young aspens—seedling and sapling—grow as best they can, in whatever direction they must, through spring after spring, seeking the sunlight that is their elixir, until they reach a height where their growth is not affected by the snow.”
The future is always here too. The constellations we associate with each season appear in the evening, but each day they set a little earlier, and you can see the stars of the coming season rise late at night and early in the morning; each day they rise a little earlier. Closer to home, trees carry their buds through the winter, ready for spring. Because deciduous trees in temperate climates are dormant in winter, they must form buds in the summer growing season so that their first leaves and flowers are ready for the next spring.
The future is also underground, in roots as they grow or die, in the spring ephemeral wildflowers that spend most of their year underground preparing for their brief time in the sun. It’s there in insects that live underground or otherwise sheltered, for the winter or for years, passing through various stages before emerging when their time comes. The future is present in eggs and chicks and seeds.
Past and future overlap. My yard contains last summer’s grass and fallen leaves and this spring’s buds, embryonic leaves and dogwood flowers folded away, ready for spring.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “There is no time, all past and future is contained in this moment.” I’m not sure what he meant by that, but when I ran across his words recently, they rang true for me in a way I’m not sure they would have earlier in my life.
There are times (more frequent as I get older) when some small thing—a photograph, a scent, a random memory or long-forgotten object that used to be part of my everyday life, perhaps something as insubstantial as the angle of sunlight on a certain type of day—will recall the past with an astonishing sense of immediacy. A past episode of my life feels vivid and recent. And yet it also seems incredible that I really used to be that person, living that now-distant life.
The Christmas just past was the first since my sister died. As I browsed through old photos, a black-and-white snapshot of the two of us when we were eight and five, standing in front of a long-ago Christmas tree, was especially compelling. My sister at that moment had half a century of Christmases ahead of her. I remember being the child in the photo, who knew the view out the living room window well, who wore those clothes for church every week, and who couldn’t conceive of the future much beyond the next Christmas. At the same time, I’m the adult who has lived through those Christmases and yet can’t quite grasp that all of them have come and gone.
My memories are not as accessible as those of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, for whom “All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance.” Still, I’m sometimes astonished at how easily I can slip back to an earlier time while remaining embedded in the present. No one told me growing older would be this rich (or this sad; perhaps the richness and sadness go together).
The future is present in our hopes and plans. Sometimes I feel that I’ve outlived hope. One of the manifestations of depression, for me, is the sense that I’ve followed a dead end and can no longer believe that my life will change. When I’m in the grip of it, this feeling can seem self-perpetuating. But I can’t help but see that change and movement are implicit in every moment, whether or not I’m aware of them.
“The Crooked Wood” appears in Edward Abbey’s book The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West.
I found the quote from Rabindranath Tagore in a book that cited his story “Balai,” although I couldn’t find the quote in either of the two translations of the story I found online.
The Kurt Vonnegut quote is from his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
You can see more of my work at MaryHrovat.com.