Trying to explain the book’s power, I’ve clumsily equated its effect to a kind of personal Copernican revolution, one that stripped away lingering notions of childhood religion and permanently colored my perception of human history. The endorsement of Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the universe in the early seventeenth century, you might recall, caused Galileo to be placed under house arrest for life by the Vatican. After reading Annals, I better understood how unsettling a bit of heresy was Copernican astronomy, because it, like the book, moves mankind far, far, far from the center of the narrative of creation and existence. To illustrate how humankind stands in relation to the larger sweep of events, McPhee supplies the useful notion of ”animal time.”As creatures of animal time, human beings tend to walk around in a bubble of five generations: two back; two forward. Occasionally, we may stretch a rung or two beyond this construct, but generally speaking that’s our comfort zone. To help contrast animal time with geologic time, McPhee notes that geologists sometimes use a calendar year to represent the history of the earth. In the first ten months, the Precambrian period, the basement of time, there is little in the way of fossil records:

Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds.

McPhee then offers a try-at-home exercise to help break the bonds of animal time:

With your arms spread wide again to represent all the time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.

For geologists then, the human condition appears quite different:

They often liken humanity’s presence on earth to a brief visitation from elsewhere in space, its luminous, explosive
characteristics consisting not merely of the burst of population in the twentieth century, but of the whole residence of people on earth–a single detonation, resembling nothing so much as a nuclear implosion with its successive neutron generations, whole generations following one another once every hundred-millionth of a second. …[T]he human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it…. Primordial inhibition may stand in the way. On the geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about. The mind blocks the information.

Obviously, the effect of letting this notion of deep time seep into one’s conscience is not always comforting–or productive. When I came home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina I heard many fellow Orleanians talk about the traditions and history of the city that had to be saved. I found myself thinking that the surrounding ground was lying to us. With its five-hundred-year-old oak trees draped in Spanish Moss and its eighteenth-century historic landmarks, the landscape of New Orleans does appear old–from the perspective of animal time almost primordial. In geologic time, though, it’s quite young and unstable. The Mississippi River deposited the ground on which the city is built only in the last ten thousand years–a minute ago in geologic time–and will take it back just as fast. On the other hand, escaping from animal time can be comforting as well. Whenever ethnic violence flares up at home or abroad, I take some solace in the fact that just 50,000 years ago we were all one small tribe living in Africa. Surely then we can come to recognize our own family whom we left only a moment ago.

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.