NON-FICTION I Christo­pher Dewd­ney ex­plains time’s mys­ter­ies

Vancouver Sun - - Weekend Review - BY MICHAEL HAY­WARD

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.

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