POET KNOWS IT
NON-FICTION I Christopher Dewdney explains time’s mysteries
Nwas a finalist for the 2004 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction, and Soul of the World promises to do for time what the earlier book did for nighttime: illuminate ailed against the doorframe of my parents’ utility room is a home-made ruler, a strip of wood marked off in inches with black felt pen. Pencilled notes scattered along its length record the growth of the youngest generation over time, from the stage when the children were barely able to stand by themselves right up to the present day, the oldest ones now standing taller than their parents. In that doorframe are encapsulated the last 25 years of my family’s life, the simple wooden strip providing a powerful visual metaphor for the passage of time.
Metaphors are one way we threedimensional creatures try to get a handle on the mysterious fourth dimension, the immaterial “something” that will eventually kill us all. For centuries, physicists and philosophers have tried to come to terms with time, and Soul of the World, Christopher Dewdney’s latest book, records an inquisitive layman’s efforts to make sense of this elusive topic.
Known primarily as a poet, Dewdney also indulges his restless curiosity in works of popular non-fiction and is now a minor master of the field. His previous book, Acquainted With the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark, a fascinating but abstract topic for the general reader.
We often feel overwhelmed by the rapid pace of our lives, like powerless inhabitants of “an empire of time, a chronological culture within which our lives are scheduled and marked out.” To counter this prevailing and unnecessarily pessimistic view, Dewdney offers a more hopeful one: that we human beings are “time creatures,” in the same way that birds are creatures of the air. With a lovely turn of phrase, he writes that “time is to our existence as air is to owls, and if we fly at all we fly through time.” It’s an appealing thought.
Soul of the World is studded with such vivid images: “the universe and everything in it pour[ing] over the edge of ‘now’ into the abyss of history”; “the shockwave of spring spread[ing] northwards at sixteen miles a day, a little more than half a mile an hour. You could easily outwalk spring.”
In one the book’s most arresting metaphors, he describes how he uses “a seasonal time machine” as an aid to comprehending the enormous periods of time represented by our earth’s geologic past. He equates the first day of spring to the Neoproterozoic eon and the dawn of life; the fiddleheads of early May represent the giant tree ferns of the late Carboniferous. Each geological era is mapped to its corresponding month, with November and December marking the age of glaciers, ending with the Quaternary, our own period on the geological continuum. It’s a simple conceit that instantly reduces a mind-boggling 4.5 billion years to a more human scale.
Previous attempts to explain time have met with mixed success (Stephen Hawking’s A Complete History of Time has been called “one of the best-selling unread books of all time”), but Dewdney brings the sensibilities of an accomplished poet to the task. With striking i mages expressed in lyrical, poetic prose, he succeeds where many of the physicists and philosophers have failed.
Soul of the World demonstrates how poets can help us rediscover the wonders that lie hidden within the sciences. It proves that we can sometimes slip through the locked doors that block off the deeper mysteries, using metaphor and the imagination as our keys.
Michael Hayward is past president of the West Coast Book Prize Society. He has finally accepted the fact that there are now pencil marks above his on the family ruler.
If humans fly at all, they fly through time the way birds fly through air, Christopher Dewdney writes in Soul of the World.