A Moment in Time

By Will Baker

The songbirds have all left my yard for the season and are winging it south on their yearly migration. I caught up with them this past weekend on my way to Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast. My wife and I were parked at the wharf waiting to take the ferry across to the island, and I noticed them, congregating en masse on the lawn there. I had missed their morning song, and their lively banter immediately caught my attention.

Seeing those birds made me think about how their migration helps me to mark the change of seasons and the passage of time. And it struck me that time itself is a mysterious thing. It occurred to me that as passengers on this space ship earth, we oftentimes view the passage of time from a very limited perspective. If we are lucky we have seventy to a hundred odd years in which to play out the drama of our lives. And all of our time must be spent within that context. Therefore it seems to me that when we think about the past or look to the future we can’t help but utilize this time frame as a reference point. That is why middle age is called "middle age," or when one has spent thirty years on a job it is often said, "I have spent half a life time there."

But when confronted with an historical perspective we sometimes feel small or inconsequential. What is the average life span when compared to say the passage of time as marked by the history of the Chinese civilization? I can still remember the feeling that swept over me years ago as I sat in a college classroom listening to a lecture on the extinction of the dinosaurs. I marveled at all of the time that had passed since then, all that time made up of moments just like the one that I was experiencing as I listened to the lecture.

And imagine the astonishment of those young boys in Texas whose basketball game was interrupted last year when a meteorite streaked across the sky and then crashed into the street near where they were playing their game. I am sure that they didn’t know that the small, shiny black rock that they found was 4.5 billion years old. But I am sure that, had they known, they would have been more blown away by the experience than they were. After all, to a small boy, it seems like an incredibly long time between Christmases.

But can we even fathom 4.5 billion years? Everett Gibson, the NASA senior scientist that was sent to retrieve the meteorite in Texas, recently announced that it contained water from the depths of space. In fact he said, "These are the solar system’s juices in a bottle." An article that appeared recently in the journal Science indicates that this is in fact the first time that liquid water has been discovered in an object from space. This amounts to no less than empirical evidence that the fluid of life exists in space; therefore might life exist there also? The article suggests that meteorites containing water are probably not all that rare, but that they probably usually either burn up in our atmosphere or plunge into the oceans or somewhere else where they cannot be recovered.

But does this knowledge of 4.5 billion year old water from the heavens, and the possibility that life may exist there make our fleeting moments upon life’s stage all the more irrelevant? When I look at the star filled sky I sometimes feel quite small. But I do feel like a player, albeit a tiny one. It seems to me that all of the time that has past was made up of moments just like the one I am experiencing as I pen these lines and the one you are experiencing now as you read them. Even if no one was around to take note.

But who is to say that one moment is any more valuable than the next? It seems to me that this is a subjective proposition. In the past I have written about the rare "perfect moments" which I have experienced. And I would have to admit that those moments in time were and are still very special to me. Yet it is very possible that, of those moments, the ones which I shared with other folks did not have the same effect on them as they did on me. To state the thing simply, perhaps those moments were special to me yet not so perfect for other folks. But that is fine. For I believe that even great historical deeds are all relative. As an aside, I suspect that an argument could be made that we humans do not have a corner on time. It seems to me that our universe operates with an almost beautiful mathematical precision that certainly predates our existence. In other words, the clock was ticking before we arrived and will probably continue to tick long after we have exited the stage.

As I write I am thinking about those birds. It is a rainy fall afternoon in Vermont. The sky is slate gray, and the songbirds are all gone. I wonder where they are now. I am sure that they have moved on after their brief stopover in coastal Massachusetts. I can think of several specific moments during this past summer when I enjoyed their song, sipping coffee on my front step in the early mornings, or as I walked in the fields out back with my daughter. And this year they have given me one last gift. By coincidence I shared part of their journey with them. For a brief time we shared a moment together at the ferry wharf. And that experience certainly made me think about how they are marking time. They somehow knew that it was time to assemble and fly south. And that is an amazing thing. And when compared to the vastness of space and time it is still an amazing thing. Their uniqueness is not dulled, and they are certainly not made inconsequential as a result. And if that is true, given the capabilities that lay within us all, then can’t the same thing be said of us?

 (Essay Collection)