The Long Now Foundation wants to stretch our definition of 'now' beyond the taste of a madeleine, or even the span of a lifetime. They've designed a clock that should record time for 10,000 years. I can't find it now, but when I first visited their website, there was a discussion of the variety of ways to record the passage of time. The most interesting to me didn't involve gears or a clock face at all. The concept was simply materials decay. Design a monument with a predictable rate of decay, and create some sort of key. I suppose that idea was dropped because it wasn't practical. We can only guess when a column will fall or a rusted plate will open up to the passage of air. And there's a difference between recording time and recording history. You might be able to predict how stone and steel dissolve, but you can't predict the raiders who plunder the stone in an act of war, or the changes in the average temperature -- or the advanced preservation groups who, in the future, might decide to slow the act of time.
So face-and-gears is the way to go. But our trip to southern France made me appreciate the visible records of time.
We saw cave paintings from 14,000 years ago, alongside 17th century graffiti. We saw the church in Bezier where 7,000 Cathars were exterminated by Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Citeux in 1209, the stone still blackened from the fire. We saw smaller rural structures in various stages of decay.
Long time provides a different shade of humility than the Christian notion that one trades humility in this life for glory in another. It's the humility of smallness, where the narratives of our lives become meaningful in less grandiose ways. But it places more weight, more responsibility on our personal histories.