What was Once at the Bottom of the Sea is Now on Top of the Mountain
The white-spotted puffer fish (Torquigener albomaculosus), found off the coast of Japan, occupies itself with making a circular pattern on the sea floor. It burrows and scurries around to make a temporary base in the sand, astonishingly accurate in its geometry, hoping to draw the attention of another puffer fish that would be intrigued by the display. Once complete, the fish has to continuously tend to the design, as the moving tide will gradually wear away at the sandy ridges and even out the troughs, until all signs of it have vanished, along with the hopes of meeting another. The fish dedicates itself to its small construction site and ignores the surrounding void. There is no boundary—no wall—between this little perimeter of calm and the vast ocean. This is eternity for the fish, because it could never swim far enough to know that all the oceans are connected.
Human beings think our grasp of the world is broader than that of this fish, but there is a limit to how we understand our place in time. We remember what happened yesterday and plan for tomorrow. We are told our birthdays and can guess what the last decade of our lives will be. We read books about history. We carbon date. We run theoretical models of our beginnings to predict how this will all end, give or take a few million years. Telescopes look to the farthest reaches of the known universe, in the hopes we could escape this messy planet. The irony of searching deeper into this abyss for a solution to the impending future is that the further we look, the further into the past we’re seeing. Giant telescopes are perched upon mountains located far away from light-polluting cities, meaning that to even begin looking for a way out, we need to leave civilization behind. For now, we have no choice but to stay, wishing upon stars we increasingly can’t see.
The movement of time is rarely perceived as slow because the realization of change occurs upon its sudden recognition, and by definition these changes must be different enough from the present. They can be as significant as tracing Homo sapiens through our evolutionary branch to a different species, or as insignificant as throwing out leftovers because they’ve been in the fridge since Sunday and it’s Thursday now, not Tuesday, and that means they’re five days old, not two.
Hypothetically, if the little puffer fish could swim far enough, setting off in one direction, it would circle the globe and eventually reach the same point. All signs of its creation would be gone, eroded by the shifting tide. How would the fish understand that the floor comes back around to meet itself? Similarly, what if time did not have a beginning and an end but was looped in this way? Harold Ramis’s movie Groundhog Day (1993) depicts a world in which a short loop has comedic results, starting over every morning, conveniently with the previous day’s memory still intact. The moral of Groundhog Day is that we can learn from our mistakes, but only if we remember them. But what if this time loop were longer than memory, generations, or recorded history? And that time is constantly writing over itself, slowly churning, erasing all identifiable marks of the past? A time loop longer than species, longer than the lifespan of the suns and planets themselves?
Organisms that once lived in the ocean became sediment on the seabed, written over by new matter and later dredged to the surface, reincarnated as plastic. In 2018, researchers found a plastic bag in the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean, the deepest point in the planet. Perhaps the bag had been trying to return itself, prevented from breaking down by the vast lifespan of its current incarnation, far greater than any of its previous lives. The metaphor of something being just a drop in the ocean would apply here, except the number of such drops is so massive they’ve already seeped their way into our diet: research done in the past few years has shown nearly all sea salt sold in UK supermarkets contains microplastics. I switched to buying Himalayan rock salt, as I figured the rock being mined is older than humankind and would therefore contain no plastic. It formed along the edge of the super continent Gondwanaland approximately 450–600 million years ago, predating the earliest dinosaurs by 200 million years.
The first synthetic plastic was patented in 1856. By 1870, that material became known as celluloid, the matter responsible for creating the film industry. What was once living was thermoformed into a new shape, becoming a carrier for the recording and playback of images. As a plastic strip, flexible enough to be pulled through the workings of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, it displayed a small amount of sequential photographic frames, with each frame caught in its own present. The earliest copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894), was only five seconds long. These kinds of films, comprised of relatively few frames, were designed to be played back as loops to rapt audiences, queuing up to relive the same moment again and again.
Despite all of the advances in digital storage capacity, the way to store information for the longest timeframe is still made of plastic. Celluloid film was highly combustible and superseded by another plastic, acetate, which was in turn replaced by polyester. Polyester microfilm has the greatest lifespan of all archival formats: it is a plastic-based medium claimed to resist decay for approximately half a millennium. We are currently living at a time when we both rely on the longevity of plastics, yet are seeking to make them less permanent. Ultimately, we want to choose when our creations cease to exist.
I’m looking at the plastic wrapper of a supermarket lettuce, wondering where to dispose of it. It displays the cyclical recycling icon but with a diagonal red line through it. It reads “Not yet recycled”—as if the plastic is flaunting its presence, refusing to disappear now that its purpose has come and gone. We call some plastic “biodegradable.” A misnomer: any material will eventually break down if given enough time, whether it takes a few weeks or a few million years.