LOS ANGELES BASIN
The mollusk writes this from a state of longing, far from the highland plateau where she had been only two weeks earlier. This sea-level suburb where she’s staying should be a more natural place for a mollusk to be, but now it’s two A.M. and she finds she’s out walking. The terrain unfolds in grids: straight boulevards bordered with tidy squares of lawn. The symmetry oppresses her. She catches herself staring with heightened intensity at garden flagstones and piles of pebbles, at gnarly shrubs vaguely reminiscent of juniper. What she’s looking for is so far away. There are no sandstone outcrops here, no stands of cottonwoods lining a wash, no dots of evergreen on the hills or snow on distant peaks.
Two weeks earlier: the mollusk’s brief stint in New Mexico had come to a compulsory end, so she loaded up the Camry and drove off in a daze, enclosed momentarily with all of her belongings, like a snail. Why did she have to go? Snails hated to go; slow, trepidatious mollusks, once a snail gets settled, she generally prefers to stick around. It’s a desperate snail who crosses the road, and if she does, she is wise to get across as quickly as possible.
The improvised plan, now that she had to leave, was to detour (briefly) to Utah to see A. It would only add a few extra days to the itinerary, but even so, she felt guilty about it. Having been on vacation from her “real life” for the past several months, here she was, siphoning off even more time. It felt greedy and undeserved; like everyone else, she had deadlines to meet and jobs to resume, money to make.
“I’ll only stay two days,” she told A., more to reassure herself. A. didn’t seem to care either way how long she was staying.
Back on the road, a heady feeling pervaded. She drove the scenic route, northwest along 550, past Jemez, Counselor, and Nageezi. She was entering the Colorado Plateau. In the rain, the slick, iron-rich hillsides looked bloody and alive. Even at eighty miles per hour, the landscape spooled out before her in one tremendous vista after another. It was relentless. She tried to take photos through the windshield—all worthless—but she wanted to remember.
The stated purpose of the detour, she told M. before she left Taos, was to get “brainwashed.” She wanted to justify her trip somehow with an agenda, because she was, above all, a list-oriented fiend of productivity. M. seemed either amused or alarmed that the mollusk was taking this spontaneous detour to visit a man she had only spent forty-eight hours with prior. But, she told M., with A., time passed differently. It was almost spatial: the moments cohered, gained mass, glommed together. Day and night were undifferentiated; the sun set and rose like a smudgy swipe across the sky. One of A.’s favorite things to say was that “time was an illusion.” He said this when she complained that she hadn’t “done anything all day.” As a timeless person, everything he uttered seemed to have universal import. She was a receptive student.
Only someone who had grown up in the Colorado Plateau would be capable of saying things like “time is an illusion” in semi-half-joking tones, she thought now, driving through his terrain. Outsiders, like the early nineteenth-century Euro-American explorers, described the Colorado Plateau in a curiously nebbish manner, characterized mainly by apprehension and horror. The rocky formations were a confrontation with time. Staring down into the Grand Canyon was like staring down two billion years of history—the geology laid bare, with no foliage to hide behind, Earth made its age known. One was forced to acknowledge the sheer amount of time that had transpired to uplift the plateau, while slow erosional forces cut that rock into chasms, mesas, laccoliths, and hoodoos. The expanse of time and space was apparently so immense that it shorted their Euro-American aesthetic synapses.
Exhibit: In the 1860s, an expedition sent out by Brigham Young to survey the Uinta Basin declared the entire territory “a waste.” Clarence Dutton, the first geologist to survey the plateaus of Utah, was more measured, saying that someone trained to appreciate nature in the Alps or the Appalachians of New England might find these rock forms “grotesque.” The naturalist writer Joseph Wood Krutch reacted similarly to the erasure of human time:
Whenever the earth is clothed with vegetation, it makes man feel to some extent at home because things which, like him, change and grow and die, have asserted their importance. But whenever, as in this region of wind-eroded stone, living things are no longer common enough or conspicuous enough to seem more than trivial accidents, he feels something like terror.
The mollusk was sure A. wouldn’t have described his home this way. The first lesson you learn here is human history is nothing in the face of geologic history. And most people don’t like to feel insignificant.
Around Farmington, the mollusk turns on the radio to scan for music stations and stumbles upon a Christian station advertising audiotapes that promise to prove the historicity of Noah’s Flood. Of course, of course! In this seemingly indifferent landscape, man would need extra assurances that there’s some bigger picture that involves him. She is quite familiar with these Flood arguments—she’s come across many such blogs doing her mollusk research. The posts often have suggestive, rhetorical titles like “Seashells in the Desert?” or “Marine Fossils Found in Limestone of Egyptian Pyramids?” that attempt to account for whale skeletons in the Atacama Desert or clam fossils high in the Andes.
Most cultures have some sort of flood myth. According to Hindu legend, Vishnu incarnates into a fish to warn Manu of a coming flood, advising him to collect all the grains of the earth and board an ark. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells a similar story: the gods conspire to flood the world, but one god, Ea, reveals the secret to Utnapishtim, also resulting in a lifesaving boat. Cultures in Siberia and the Caucasus have their own versions.
In China, the goddess Nu Wa saves the world from water after one of the pillars of heaven comes crashing down; in Yoruban myth the goddess Olukun floods nearly everyone in a fit of rage; the Inuit, too, believe the presence of shells high in the mountains is evidence of an ancient flood. Later, A. will tell her that the Navajo emergence myth also involves a flood: after Coyote steals Water Monster’s baby, she floods the third world in her grief. Begochiddy, the creator god, summons a tall reed through which everyone climbs into the fourth, glittering world.
The mollusks finds herself sympathetic to these stories. Encountering seashells far from where they should be does send the mind into contortions. How did these shells get here? It is often said that shells activate the imagination, so the ability to rationalize them suggests high intelligence. If it is true that creativity arises from the linkage of disparate things, shells are particularly effective triggers since their presence suddenly calls forth water—the sea.
Seashells are catalysts for storytelling, linking bygone worlds with the present world, linking land with sea. They are objects that close the distance between time and space. Hold a shell up to your ear: the sea, however faraway, comes near. Perhaps this is why shells are found so often in burial sites and places of worship—they serve as portals into other realms. On the way here, for instance, the mollusk had driven past the turnoff for Chaco Canyon, the site of an ancient Anasazi complex. She read that a new archaeological discovery had been made there, a burial chamber with the remains of three centuries of one woman’s descendants, interred with valuable marine shells that had traveled all the way from the Pacific Ocean.
If shells are objects that testify to a time long past, inferentially, they must also ensure continuation and reincarnation into the future. Shells represent water, and water is the source from which all life emerges. Think how the Aztec creator god Quetzalcoatl is said to have created the world by blowing on a conch, and is depicted wearing the cross section of the same shell. The imagery must be primal in some way, evoking strong emotions. The temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacán features wavelike motifs and rows of univalve and bivalve shells, illustrating the creation of the universe from the sea.
And then there is the example of Vishnu again, the Hindu god of preservation, always holding a conch shell, the shankha, in one of his left hands. According to some versions of the myth, a kleptomaniac conch steals the Vedas and takes it down to the bottom of the sea. Vishnu, turning himself into a fish, dives deep underwater to vanquish the mollusk and recapture the sacred texts.
There are several ways to interpret this, this mollusk thinks. If myths are like dreams, revealing through the subconscious what we already know, then one might consider reframing the myth in this way: a mollusk, by some accident, ends up possessing all the wisdom of the world. Humans, desirous of this knowledge, brings the mollusk back up to the surface in hopes of retaining its secrets. By contemplating the mollusk, we repossess some long-forgotten wisdom.
Humanity might benefit once more from looking closely at the mollusk. Mollusks really know a thing or two about longevity. As the mollusk continues her drive past Farmington and Shiprock, past the Four Corners Power Plant chuffing toxic fumes into the haze, past pipelines, oil drums, and refineries, past the only uranium processing mill just a few miles south of Blanding, it’s clear another flood is in the making. These myths reveal that with creation there is always destruction, and often it’s the creator who holds the tools.
Thinking again of extinction. The mollusk is waiting in the parking lot of a museum housing dinosaur vertebrae, waiting for A. to finish getting his vertebrae adjusted at the chiropractor’s. The museum isn’t open, as she later learns is often the case in these small towns. Staring at the ridiculous T. rex sculpture out front, she thinks how dinosaurs have really not done much to spur humans into delaying their own extinction. When we look at dinosaurs, they seem so fantastical it’s like they belong to another planet.
Mollusks will likely never inspire the same awe, or star in their own IMAX experience. (Except the giant squid, but that’s another story.) As forms, mollusks can be maddeningly static and recognizable and banal. Describing a reef of 375 million-year-old Devonian clam fossils, John McPhee says they have a “Fulton Market look.” Looking at them is like looking at the aftermath of a summer clambake.
So what is it about these shells that fills her with such longing? The thought ends abruptly there. A. is knocking on the car window, subsuming her back into the present.
It turns out A. has lots of stories to tell during their hike up Comb Ridge. Here is the spot where—, and there is the spot when—. His stories pinpoint a location when certain events and observations occurred in time, transforming the landscape into narrative. After years of returning to the same place, every fold of eroded rock is superimposed with memory, and suddenly she can see it in her mind, all that time. A quote comes to her, unbidden. Oliver La Farge: “Unexpectedly, I saw the sea.”
From the top, they look down toward Cedar Mesa and the road swooping through it. How is it decided where roads go? He tells her that ancient roads often begin as animal paths, which then become game trails. Over time, these well-trod routes are widened into roads.
So the animal decides? He clarifies. The animals follow the water. So it’s the water that decides.
What the mollusk is doing is putting things off, lengthening. Despite her best intentions, her two-day detour lengthens into two more days, which lengthens into two more.
One day is spent sifting through A.’s collection of Ni’ihau shells from the Forbidden Island of Hawaii. These sacred shells are the size of a pinhead. They live exclusively off the shores of the island, and the only way to see them is to be invited by one of the few hundred people who live there. Gathering enough of these shells to make a traditional Ni’ihau lei can take years. As a result, the leis are so valuable they come with their own insurance policies. A. says it took him more than a month to collect three small vials. An exercise in patience.
Another day is spent at the ceramics studio, where A. is busy making marbelized clay. She is trying to read a geology book. The swirled patterns of the clay remind her of the Vishnu Basement Rocks she’s reading about, and the kneading actions he’s performing seem exactly the same.
“The oldest rocks here, found deep in Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge, are gneiss and schist nearly two billion years old. Crushed and partly melted, distorted, folded by collision between crustal plates, they were the foot of ancient mountains … ”
Yet another day is spent looking for seashell fossils in the hillsides. “Ask and you shall receive,” he says, picking up an unassuming piece of white rock. There’s a brachiopod shape indented in the stone, encrusted with a sparkling mineral that looks like salt. “We used to find so many shell fossils in Jeddito,” he says. “We thought they were magical, these seashells in the desert.” It was a transporting experience. But the adults thought it was cute that the kids cared. The adults had gotten so used to seeing these shells, they no longer held any magic.
In quantum physics, there is no distinction between past, present, or future. A month before his own death, Einstein wrote in a condolence letter to a friend’s grieving family that “for those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Rather than describing it as a scroll or a flow, physicists will describe time as a block, a loaf of bread, a room, a sea. Fay Dowker invites us to think of atoms of space-time accreting as though they were layers of sediment laid down on the seafloor.
But our lived experience of time is still very much Newtonian: time feels as though it is unidirectional, thus irreversible. Time is going on all that time, whether we want it to or not. To say “time is an illusion” is to ignore obvious empirical evidence that people age and die, that when you miss an exit on the highway, there are no shortcuts, no rewinding of time. You still have to take the long way around. And when you linger longer in a place than you meant to, time does not stand still.
Some physicists will go on to say that what we experience as time is merely change or the relation between things. Matter changes or entropy increases. A unit of time is simply a convenient but arbitrary placeholder that helps us to describe these relations, and to allow trains to arrive on time. It’s the same idea with money, which is an arbitrary placeholder that helps us to simplify economic transactions.
So why not measure time in units of shell, just as shells were once widely accepted units of currency? It’s not too much of a stretch: we already do it. In 1833, the geologist Charles Lyell subdivided the Cenozoic Era into epochs based on the percentage of mollusk fossils found in different rock strata that were still living into the present. For instance, the Eocene (thirty-four-to-fifty-six million years ago) contains only 9.5 percent of living species, while the Pliocene (two-and-a-half-to-five to million years ago) contains nearly 90 percent of surviving species. Mollusks, in their constancy, serve as a kind of clock, just as rock strata can tell stories for those who know how to look.
The day before her last day of lingering, the mollusk jokes she will stay “forever.” Her real life can be put on hold indefinitely, she argues, otherwise she can switch lives. This life will become her real life. Think of desert snails—some species can sleep for four to six years, or up to 95 percent of their lives, just waiting for rain. Only when conditions are right do they come out to feed and mate. Are snails capable of saying, “I am putting my life on hold”? Do snails ever differentiate between waking and resting, or grow impatient, or wish that time passed differently?
Shells are instruments to alleviate longing; they close the distance between time and space. When the mollusk looks now at the objects on her desk—a brachiopod fossil, a ceramic pot carved with shell motifs, a clam shell, a hair tie A. left in her car—instantaneously, the memories return.
On her last day, A. recommends that she take one more detour to Goosenecks State Park, one of the best places to observe an “incised meander.” Since they don’t believe in time, they say goodbye unceremoniously, as though she were going down to the store. She tries not to think too much about it, and listens numbly to a random Spotify playlist without once fast-forwarding.
When she gets to the park, she pulls into the lot and looks down. (Another woman next to her does the same, and vomits into the void.) More than a thousand feet down, the San Juan River winds through the rock in a tight, serpentine coil. She reads from the plaque that the bottom layer is composed of limestone, part of a strata of rock called the Paradox Formation.
Some detours cut deep. It is necessary to let things take their own course, and to do things at the right pace. Time is brutal enough without rushing. The stretch of Los Angeles River near where she grew up has been cut and diverted so many times it is no longer afforded this luxury. The water shoots straight down its concrete banks, with no time to tarry or carry fresh sediment to the shore.
Anelise Chen is the author of So Many Olympic Exertions, out in August from Kaya Press. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University.