It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story – the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it – is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story. The Old Story sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with a life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. – Thomas Berry
In his life’s work, Thomas Berry called for a new story, one that can reorientate us to where we come from – our origins, our purpose. A story that combines the latest scientic insights with the deep reverence inherent in our perennial traditions that bind us to life and the cosmos. The Deep Time Walk is one such story experienced as a 4.6km walk, inspiring wonder and reverence for Earth, and galvanising positive action to encourage each of us to contribute to the ‘mutually enhancing human-earth relationship’ that Thomas Berry so often called for as part of the Great Work needed in our times.
A short history
The Deep Time Walk app is the result of the amalgamation of two projects; the ‘Walk Through Time’ in California and the ‘Deep Time Walk’ in Devon. The Walk Through Time is a physical display of 95 illustrative panels laid out over one mile. This portable exhibition system (made up of three sets, two in the US and one in Europe) now travel around the world to international conferences, major museums and universities, giving a new perspective to the immense age of our Earth and the key developments across time. In a similar way, the Deep Time Walk tells the story of the living Earth over 4.6km and has been led by ecologist Dr. Stephan Harding for the past ten years. This Deep Time Walk still happens on a regular basis on the south coast of Devon as an integral part of the pedagogy at Schumacher College.
Over the years, many people who have experienced the Deep Time Walk suggested it would work well as a mobile app, enabling anyone with a smartphone to experience this transformative walk, anywhere in the world. I was one of the people involved in these early discussions and proposed a partnership to bring the Walk Through Time and Deep Time Walk projects together.
Walk across geological time
The result of this exciting partnership is the Deep Time Walk app. Similar to the experience on the south coast, users walk 4.6km – covering the 4.6bn year history of our Earth – with each metre representing 1 million years. The app works by silently calculating how far and how fast you move and, depending on your speed, adjusting the delivery of a specially written audio narrative.
It provides an opportunity to viscerally fathom our infinitesimal place in space and time, and to ponder how humans have become a sudden, perilous geological force. This is not about human exceptionalism, but how we are part of a wider web of sacred life.
As you walk across geological time, you hear how our moon formed, encounter the meteorites of the Late Heavy Bombardment, meet volcanoes, learn about plate tectonics and get to know key developments such as the first appearance of oxygen-producing photosynthesis, the Great Oxidation, the appearance of planet-wide temperature regulation, the evolution of the first nucleated cells, the appearance of multicellular life and much more. At the end of the 4.6km walk, you are invited to stop and witness the last million years as one metre spread out in front of you. The final 20cm represents 200,000 years – roughly the time our species, Homo sapiens, has been on Earth. The last ice age (13,000 years ago) is just 1.3cm and, in the concluding 1/5th of a millimetre (200 years), you experience the miniscule time that has elapsed since the start of the industrial revolution. You learn where you came from and what you are a part of. It provides an opportunity to viscerally fathom our infinitesimal place in space and time, and to ponder how humans have become a sudden, perilous geological force. This is not about human exceptionalism, but how we are part of a wider web of sacred life.
A holistic narrative
There is no viewpoint that can’t be visited. Scientific, mythological – they keep on walking and talking. They don’t always agree, it isn’t all easy-going.
As participants listen to and ‘walk within’ the latest scientific evidence, the deep life story of Earth is experienced, revealing the long geological processes and patterns that have produced the conditions for the evolution of life. The narrative for the walk, written by Stephan Harding (Resident Ecologist, Schumacher College) and Peter Oswald (previously Playwright-In-Residence, Shakespeare Globe), combines science with humanities to weave together a compelling drama of a Fool and a Scientist as they walk across geological time. Users of the app are invited to accompany these characters on the journey, hearing two perspectives; one scientific and one more philosophical, which together provide a rich, thought-provoking and sometimes challenging dialogue between these often disconnected fields. Describing the relationship between the characters as ‘rich in possibility and open to interpretation’, Peter Oswald states: “both agree that they emerged from the Earth … there is no viewpoint that can’t be visited. Scientific, mythological, Gaia or not Gaia – they keep on walking and talking. They don’t always agree, it isn’t all easy-going.”
FOOL. I don’t know what I came from!
SCIENTIST. You came from this!
Every one of your senses
developed in relation to this Earth, and no other!
You have a sense of smell
because the Earth is smell-able
and you see because the Earth is visible
and you touch because the Earth is touchable,
and you think because – the Earth is thinkable!
You and the Earth are two ends of the same thing – only you can split them,
by means of imagination, or rather,
by failure of the imagination –
failing to imagine what is actually the case –
the Earth is you and you are the Earth.
FOOL. And that’s science is it?
SCIENTIST. It will be.
The dialogue is packed with a combination of challenging science and beautiful poetry to tell a new story of Earth. In doing so, there is no separation between the science of the theory and the living mythology of Gaia. As Lawrence Hatch, author of Myth and Philosophy, has pointed out: “myth and science do not represent two different worlds or a competition for the proper account of the world but rather different ways of properly disclosing a single, multidimensional world.” With the Deep Time Walk, therefore, the unified mythopoetic provides an embodied, somatic, kinetic experience to raise conscious awareness of what we are a part of. In David Abram’s words, the walk brings “one’s own organism into resonance with the organic Earth”.
Myth and science do not represent two different worlds or a competition for the proper account of the world but rather different ways of properly disclosing a single, multidimensional world.
Brian Swimme, writing in support of our initial crowdfunding campaign writes: “The change in consciousness from the discovery of an evolving universe is far deeper than what took place with the Copernican revolution. The revolutions in science that have come from Einstein’s theories of gravitation, quantum mechanics, and non-linear dynamics amount to a radically new vision of reality. But even though we have the mathematics, the real challenge now is to take this new understanding into the body, into our emotions, into our hearts. At the present time, the Deep Time Walk is the most efficacious process we have for initiating ourselves into this radical transformation of human consciousness.” As such, this is not a story comprehended in the head, but a sensorial engagement which puts the rational and philosophical insights into motion with the body and relationship with the heart. The walk provides a pathway into a greener spirit that has the potential to shift consciousness and stimulate a new worldview.
When designing the app, we made a number of important choices regarding how technology could be used in the most appropriate way – having Thomas Berry’s wise words close to hand: “until technologists learn reverence for the earth there will be no possibility of bringing a healing or a new creative age to the earth.” So, whilst the original Walk Through Time prototype used video, we decided instead to use an audio-only narrative. At the start of the Deep Time Walk, the narrator instructs the walker to put their device in their pocket. We did this specifically to shift the focus away from the smartphone screen toward the sensorial presence of the living Earth in which the participant is walking. As Fred Adams, art director for the project states, we did this “to break the paradigm of an isolated and abstracted digital world. Let’s pop the paradoxical use of smartphones as sedentary bubbles and use them for deeper experiences.”
Let’s pop the paradoxical use of smartphones as sedentary bubbles and use them for deeper experiences.
We also designed the app to run on older smartphones in order to avoid any requirement for the latest technology, and we refrained from using in-app advertising to ensure no distractions. Another design decision was to engineer a ‘mobility-assist’ mode enabling those not physically able to walk 4.6km to experience the Deep Time Walk audio via a simulated mechanism.
Our hope is that the experience evokes a profound shift in perspective, awakening us to our magnificent ancestry and to the wisdom embedded in deep time; we hope the design choices ensure technology is not a barrier to the natural world but instead inspires a curious, active presence to augment the walking experience. And for those who don’t have a smartphone, we are working diligently to provide a resource-guide to enable people to lead their owns walks and to list them on our website. We also have a book of the script available, as well as new ‘Strata Cards’ in development – a set of 46 cards which summarise the Earth story and can be used by schools and universities. We hope, along with a discussion guide for groups, this suite of resources will help ensure anyone can experience a Deep Time Walk, with or without the added narrative of the mobile application.
We hope the design choices ensure technology is not a barrier to the natural world but instead inspire a curious, active presence to augment the walking experience.
When the narrative for the walk finishes, the users are invited to enter a ‘What’s Next?’ area of the Deep Time Walk website, which allows the continuation of their journey and become more active participants in change initiatives – particularly in their local area. We encourage users to join partner organisations such as 350.org, to become a member of the Transition Towns movement and to sign the Earth Charter (which Deep Time Walk uses to guide operations and is a signatory of). This element of the project is perhaps the most important, for it channels the strong emotional responses stimulated by the walk into positive action and collaboration.
The Deep Time Walk tells the story of the living Earth in an embodied and kinetic way, using technology to fuse together science and humanities into a new narrative that inspires wonder for our beautiful home, and encourages energised action toward the goal of a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship. We don’t just need a new story; we need to walk it.
This article first appeared in the magazine Green Spirit.