65,000 YEARS AND COUNTING
by Line Langebek
I heard the voices at the edge of time
I wondered if they heard me too
One summer, in the Before Times, my young daughter finds a flint stone by the small Baltic Sea beach near her grandparents’ house. The stone has been shaped; a small axe made out of flint. This looks very old, says morfar, her maternal grandfather, who loves nothing more than uncovering the history behind things. He looks up flint axes from different time periods, studies the marks on the small axe, the way it’s been worked on. He tells her it is most likely from the late Stone Age or Upper Palaeolithic era and that it could be up to 65,000 years old. Her eyes widen at the number that stretches into infinity and she holds the stone close, a precious gem from the past. Later, her mormor gives her a box of old trinkets that have belonged to me and my daughter latches on to an old, small watch, the strap long since gone. “This was your mother’s first watch,” her grandmother tells her. The watch doesn’t work anymore, but my daughter doesn’t care. Along with the flintstone, she puts it in a small box where she keeps her treasures. “For stories,” she says. “We can tell a story with these things and I can tell my daughter the story”. She thinks ahead in daughters only at the moment, but even though time is abstract for her she still somehow connects the dots between the past and the future. The watch and the stone carry a meaning, even if neither work nor is ‘productive’ – but they are useful because they exist.
I think of Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction and how our world has become shaped by the Killer Story, the one with the Hero who goes forth and does Great Things, or else it is no story at all. My daughter’s story, the one she will tell her daughter, has no Hero in it, more akin to Le Guin’s woman who quietly gathers wild oats, but it is a story that seeks to plant seeds for those that follow. It speaks in a different language.
Worth, produce, value, status. Our lives on a spreadsheet, the ascending curve forever heading upwards if we live our lives as we’ve been taught. “What do you do?” But what do you DO? It is a question that has come to haunt us. Even as I write this, the words seek to bend into a shape that create An Outcome. Introduction, incident, turning point, progress, result.
There is no space to meander. Our storytelling has also become shaped by our quest for produce. But I am prone to meandering.
A memory. A school friend has come over to play and later, when she’s picked up by a parent, it’s my mother who opens the door. Afterwards, once they’re gone, my mother’s face looks slightly bent out of shape, a look of both quiet anger and upset. “The first question he asked,” she says “…was what do you do?” It’s clear she thinks it’s rude, that almost before he’d said hello, he wanted to know not how she was, but what she did. Assessing her worth on the doorstep. I too have been guilty of this occasionally, as if finding a commonality in work is the only way to start a conversation. How do you do, nay, what do you do?
During the pandemic I try to go to the woods with my daughter as often as I can. One day, she notices that a couple of trees have been chalked on. Upset, she goes to have a conversation with the trees out of earshot. When she returns, I ask what she said to them. I was apologising, she says. I was apologising to the trees, because those people put chalk all over their bark and they didn’t ask for it. We wander on, but she is pensive for a long time. Her instinct has always been that of course the trees are alive, even before we read a book about their intricate underground network of communication.
At home we seed potatoes where we can in the small backyard that we call our garden and are blessed to have. These seeds are our lockdown experiment. When it’s time to harvest we get a beautiful but small yield that feeds us for exactly one meal. It makes us laugh, but the garden is teeming with life even if it’s not productive. A year later, without having planted anything the potato plants suddenly start growing again. Evidently the plants have decided they feel at home here. “Will they live here now, also when we leave?” asks my daughter and I nod. One day we will move, and she knows that already. “We are passing it on to the next person,” I say, “even if we don’t know who they are”. It is an act of faith that makes sense to her, for although she is possessive of her teddies, she isn’t of nature. It isn’t hers to own.
The year of the pandemic also stops the parties, the gatherings, the meetings, the question of ‘what do you do’. Instead, the gatherings, when they are possible and can happen, become one to one, occasional walks or sometimes online. Now the first question is: “How are you?” At this moment in time, here is a genuineness to the question that is refreshing, though it is not always easy to find an adequate answer. “I am,” I reply sometimes. I am here, today. I am still here. And this is enough for now. In a year where so many suddenly are no longer, being here will suffice. I am relearning the art of valuing the body for what it is, not what it can do.
Back by that Baltic Sea beach, for a few weeks I wake every morning and go to swim in the sea. It is a small beach in a small bay, so for a proper swim I have to swim a fair way out. Swimming this same stretch every morning makes me start to pay attention to my surroundings in a way I haven’t before. And every morning I meet two elderly ladies who have also come to swim. They’re local and I am not. After a few days they nod to me, after a week they begin to chat. I have shown up, without expectations and I am there. It is a casual chat, about the weather, about the sea (sometimes choppy), questions about how far out I swim (too far, they prefer a dip closer to the shore) amidst banter between themselves because they know each other well. It is clear they have paid attention to me even before they started talking to me and noticed when I am not there (they swim at the same time every morning like clockwork; I am less punctual). We talk about the joy of swimming. Starting the day in this way, whatever the weather. We never talk about what we do. It is not relevant.
On the last day I am there, my mother comes too. My mother has heard about the ladies and she tells them that she has felt reassured to know I wasn’t on my own. “We couldn’t rescue her though,” says one of them. “But we could have pointed to where she went down”. And then they all roar with laughter. The echo of the laughter makes me smile for a long time afterwards.
Later, I think about these conversations that over the course of a few weeks built up gradually until we knew something about each other’s lives. I still don’t know what they do. The value of what is sometimes called ‘small talk’, which I have so often scorned, but it is also this – a witnessing of lives outside of productivity. They might have joked that they couldn’t save me, but their witnessing had value too.
What is a life? If it starts with a small flint axe and proceeds via an old watch that no longer shows time, but holds time - between them carrying some 65,000 years and counting – where does it go and what does it end with?
Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it doesn’t have an ending.
The girl passes on the stories to her daughter, who passes it on to hers and we don’t know where it ends, but we pass it on regardless. We pass it on in the faith that the seeds will grow for someone else. That the seeds will grow.
We begin to ask new questions.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Carrier Bag Theory of Everything (introduced by Donna Haraway), Ignota 2019.