The Matter with Time

fossilized whale hone erected on a cliff

This essay on how fossils, plastics, and symbiotic organisms prompt humans to confront deep time is part of the Troubling Time series, which interrogates environmental ideas, spaces, processes, and problems through the lens of temporality. Series editors: Rebecca Laurent, Rudy Molinek, Samm Newton, Prerna Rana, and Weishun Lu.

Smaller than a fingernail. I look at my hands, trying to decide which fingernail it would be. The thumbnail, the index finger, the little finger? I decide it would probably be the smallest of these and look closely at the tiny moon and the underlining cuticle of my right pinkie. Minute. 

In January 2024, a group of scientists found a shred of fossilized skin—smaller than a fingernail—belonging to an early tetrapod, Captorhinus aguti, in Oklahoma. They estimated that the fossilized fragment was around 289 million years old, twenty–one million years older than previously described skin fossils. The splinter of skin was from an amniote. These early four-legged vertebrates could have been preserved thanks to hydrocarbons from ancient marine organisms, which combined with “geologically younger” terrestrial vertebrates.

The time span confounds human imagination, or mine in any case. 

These early four-legged vertebrates are reminders of geologic, deep time.
Artist rendering of Captorhinus aguti. Image by Nobu Tamura, 2008.

The reified skin fragment highlights the enormous temporal scales that resist human comprehension. How do we adjust to the deep time revealed through such findings? How do we collapse human and geological timescales? This temporal vastness transcends human understanding. There is an impossibility of apprehending experience through reason and discourse contrasted with the finitude of human life. 

Quentin Meillassoux’s “arche-fossil” concept denotes the fact that science is now capable of explaining events that occurred before human awareness. Such extensive timescales—geologic scales of deep time uniquely beyond most human perception—demonstrate the limits of human encapsulation in temporal and geographic scales. They probe the possibilities of life before human emergence and encourage thinking “to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is, whether we are or not.”

Buried Deep in Time

Geologic timescales give us metaphors for different types of narratives that are not immediately anthropocentric. Narratives constrained by anthropocentric perspectives, which typically span only a few thousand years, are replaced with narratives that embrace the expansive timescales of geological processes. Without the capacity to reconcile these seemingly disparate temporal frameworks—“knowledge that defies historical understanding”—most humans are unable to fully comprehend the scale and scope of millions of years old questions and narratives. A shred of skin becomes a reminder not only of its past existence, but also of all other worlds buried deep in time. The tiny fossil joins the constellation of other relics left behind by vanished animals, forming a series of traces now readable by humans in their absence. 

Illustration of the sperm whale while attacking fishing boat
A whaling hunt from 1839. New York Public Library, enhanced by Rawpixel.

When I read about Captorhinus aguti, I think again about the temporal extensiveness of flesh and bone. Of matter that morphs, transforms, metamorphoses, thick with past and future lives. The materiality of mutability. Circumnavigating the earth since about fifty million years ago, whales form stories of temporal entanglement between nonhuman animals, humans, and technology. Being in the presence of creatures that evolved millions of years ago offers a glimpse of human rhythms by reflection, enclosed in multiple temporalities. 

Living whales in the sea are haunted by whalebones violently deposited by human or stranded on beaches, placed on hills and cliffs all around the world. From the Shetland Islands to Alaska, to the Falklands, these monuments are transformed from once–living beings into lifeless mementos.

When the Dust Settles

Weathered and corroded, whalebone artifacts become a matter of time—the matter of time. They partake in the exchange of matter with other forms of matter. Their cracks seep oil and layers of dust settle, gathering for years in constant change propelled by the weather’s equalizing powers. 

The longue durée is not long enough to conceive the anthropogenic change unfolding around us.

The sea wears at the bone, and the elements continue the process on land. In their organic physicality, bones are a remainder of the past and a reminder of the time to come. And they remain to be read and reread. Reified as detritus, the whales are more than the sum of their components, decentering human subjectivity and imagining nonhuman narratives. An immersion into nonhuman things. Each has a story to tell. They offer narrative forms that can evoke an understanding of the collapsing boundaries between human history and geological epochs. Temporal and material traces in the landscape include anthropogenic deposits suggesting human occupation, the land as reliquary. With the remnants of other animals placed by human hands, they become a form of memento, possibly a celebration, a way to mark the place.

There is a whalebone placed on a hill on North Berwick Law that differs from all of the others deposited there over the past three centuries, as described by the poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie. The urge to put the bones on display persists even when there are no whales at hand, as a reminder of human power perhaps, and with that, an act of disowning culpability for the mass killing of cetaceans. It replaced the old bone display, which became too weathered and altered by processes of time. Instead of putting another whale jaw there, a fiberglass replica replaced the animal original.

a white arch on top of a hill, blue sky in the background
Replica whalebone on North Berwick Law. Photo by John Knight, 2022.

Future Remains

The uncanny timelessness of the faux-whalebone defies the value of erosive materialities. It points to the haunting semiotics of plastics. Replacing a real whalebone with a whalebone-shaped piece of plastic is an ambivalent act. Instead of a meaningful symbol, it is a hollow simulacrum. Produced using human technology, it is another anthropogenic construction rather than the story of a marine creature.

Forever lifeless, in contrast with the real bone, the fiberglass replica cannot gesture to the work of the sea. It remains unchanged, unchangeable. Unlike a whalebone, it does not undergo the weathering process typical of organic material, and so remains devoid of an immediate temporal dimension: the passage of time, which may be traced in the transformation of biotic matter.

The plastic replica is a form of future remains: the debris we (will) leave behind. In a time that produces middens of anthropogenic artifacts, the thought of what remains, and what will remain, possesses a haunting quality. At the beginning of 2024, as I write this, there are approximately fifty to seventy-five trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean. In the past few decades, the world has produced an amount of plastic that has increased exponentially every year. For example, after World War II, about two million tons were produced in the world, compared to over 450 million tons today.

coastal plastic debris
Middens of anthropogenic artifacts. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr, 2018.

Discarded objects comprise the waste matter of modern times. Most plastic objects exist outside human temporalities. Decomposition times of a plastic beverage holder (six rings)—marine debris entangling wildlife—is 400 years. In the world of remnants and vestiges, such plastic holders add to matter jettisoned in the course of our civilization, resistant to processes of decay.

Incommensurate Brevity

The longue durée is not long enough to conceive the anthropogenic change unfolding around us. Timelines collide in the intertwining of organic matter with human-made objects. Our times have already produced plastiglomerate, or a form of sedimentary grains, wood, and shells, bound by plastic. Plasti-rock is made of agglomerated material, weathered and “smoothed into more brittle and neutrally-colored geogenic” forms, analogous to clasts.

Reifed through plastics, plastistone emerges as a form of speculative fossil. Similarly to stones, plastistone compels us to reflect on deep time, on events predating terrestrial life. Forming part of an “an ancestral reality,” plastiglomerates force us to consider the massive permanence of geological, deep time and planetary systems. Geological changes extended in time occur beyond most human comprehension; perceiving the world mediated through extensive temporal planes requires a lithic imagination. Compared with planetary temporalities, biotic lifespans inscribed in enormous totalities baffle in their incommensurate brevity. They form the storied tissue of beings. 

A shred of skin becomes a reminder not only of its past existence, but also of all other worlds buried deep in time. 

In such vastness, even brevity is relative. In her poem “Dolmen,” Jen Hadfield engages with the aesthetics of temporal scales. Hadfield writes that lichen clinging to stone is “[s]ix// o’clock shadow.” Lichen are regarded among the planet’s most ancient living things. Their lifespans extend thousands of years, some of which grow less than one millimeter a year. Composed of fungi, cyanobacteria, and algae, they are composite, symbiotic organisms. “We are all lichens!” —we could exclaim, after Donna Haraway.

This is a view which, as Haraway argues, “entangles myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages—including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus.” But also, in a radically temporally extended perspective: human as lichen, human as lithic, plastiglomerate-human, tiny shreds of skin.

Featured Image: A 150-year-old whalebone display, known as the Birsay whalehone, in Orkney, Scotland. Photo by Shadowgate, 2017.

**A Landhaus Fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) made this essay possible. Thank you to Christof Mauch, Helmuth Trischler, and all the fantastic people at the RCC. Special thanks to the best cohort. As always, with deepest gratitude to my first Reader.

Monika Szuba is an associate professor of literature at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Gdańsk. She was also a 2023-4 Landhaus Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. Szuba’s research concerns twentieth-century and contemporary literature informed by environmental humanities, with a particular interest in phenomenology. Her previous book, Contemporary Scottish Poetry and the Natural Worldtakes a theoretically informed approach to the reading of the nonhuman world in the work of four poets that merges phenomenology and literary criticism. Her newest book, Landscape Poetics: Scottish Textual Practice, 1928–Present, is an interdisciplinary study that seeks to situate Scottish authors in relation to their landscapes by investigating how the self is entwined in place. Contact.