Notes from: Open Time, Workshop

September 12, 2011

by Trudy

Geological time spiral illustration

Andrea Polli’s Ground Truth (part 2) interviews[1] with Geoscience researchers in the Antarctic first drew my attention to our tendency to think about time in terms of human-life-scales, and the misreadings of the earth’s processes this creates. Further research revealed the work of environmental psychologists such as Taciano Milfont, who studies the resulting environmental attitudes, borne of different perspectives on time.

Regarding one of these perspectives, of deep or geologic time, the geologist and geophysicist James Hall commented in 1788, that “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time’, thus holding a sense of awe and terror. With its immense scale, geologic time holds a level of abstraction which most people find difficult to conceptualize,[2] including students of geology.[3]

I began to notice that for practicality reasons, that the geologic timeline was not graphically represented to scale. The first four-fifths or so are usually graphically compacted into obscurity. What did it look like fully outstretched? What was it’s full length made up of, and might this sense of these enormous lengths of time afford our understandings?

I had first thought to demarcate A Walk through Deep Time on the farm property just around the house or as a walk for House of Wonder retreat guests to enjoy. In developing a collaborative event with Platform 4 and their weekend festival of Platform4.0. Future Meeting Hub #1 in Aalborg, Denmark a workshop was required. I became interested to open out the idea to become a shared learning process with others – as a way to draw people into these vast scales of the unknown, and immense layerings of complexity.

» See video report on the workshop below       » See original invitation

The idea was also floated with neighbours one evening over wine and nibbles at Mark Thornton and Kanani Cowell’s home, who had been enthusiastic about the idea. We discussed the idea and ruled out the scale of a shared trail along our shared road due to traffic safety and other complexities, so the focus returned to experimenting with the idea at the smaller scale of a walk, which could be installed on anybody’s farm. I came across a history of creating physical walks through geologic time, known as ‘Cosmic Walks’, which were originally developed by a nun, Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis, and then adapted into many different versions. These were however of a mythological/cosmological bent and I was interested in doing a timeline as more of a joint social learning project, which could allow for a layering of multiple understandings brought to it over time from participants.

The gnarled remains of storm-destroyed fencing gains a new life as the beginning of the earth at 457 metres, or 4.57 billion years ago.

As we walk through the timeline, evolutionary biologist Mike Dickison notes the serendipitous placement of the slope on the timeline fence as indicative of a period of massive oxygen depletion on the earth. September 10, 2011.

Daniel and Luke in workshop.

So rough measurements were done using a measuring wheel, and a pretty good candidate for a timeline was found in a simple fence that stretched across a rolling piece of the farm, in preparation for the first workshop involving the timeline, on September 10th. The evolutionary biologist Mike Dickison was keen to come up and see how geologic time to scale might be to experience physically, so agreed to help me with the workshop. After a big spring clean-out for prototyping materials, the gathering of various measuring and graphic tools, print-outs of various forms of the timeline and the creatures and processes that make it up, we were prepared for our first little workshop.

We first walked along the timeline together – to get a sense of the occurences along it. It was the first time that Mike had walked the area I had roughed out, and many serendipitous demarcations already in the paddocks were noted. A large twisted mess of wire from a storm-destroyed woolshed became the early formation of the earth, a dip in a hillside the oxygen catatastrophe, and a huge pile of old concrete sat near the largest extinction event on the timeline. Mike would later do a quick summary of our day together, at the dinner later that night.

Video excerpt from the dinner that evening, of Mike Dickison giving an overview of the first workshop on developing A Walk Through Geologic Time.

Open Time – NZ workshop from House of Wonder on Vimeo.

Evolutionary biologist Mike Dickison gives an overview of the workshop held that morning in New Zealand, for the joint event of Open Time, with Platform 4 in Denmark.



[1] Polli, A. “Ground Truth.” Part 2, from
[2] Gould, S. J. (1987). Time’s arrow, time’s cycle. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
[3] Dodick, J. O., Nir (2003). “Cognitive Factors Affecting Student Understanding of Geologic Time.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 40: 415–442.