As another year draws to an end on the Julian-Gregorian calendar, it is time to bid farewell to the old and ring in the new; to forget the failures and sins of the past (at least for a few hours); and to pray to or resolve in some way to do better in the future. I woke this morning to find the forest blanketed in a few inches of surprise snow and look forward to a quiet, contemplative passage amidst this crystalline, whitewashed landscape.
A couple of hundred years ago, these rolling hills were pastureland traversed by streams. Now, our woods are made up of tall, deciduous hardwoods, a few gnarly, old pines, and some large hollies, bejeweled at this time of year in rubies and garnets. Fallen giants lay strewn like burnt matchsticks in the snow forming the basis for a rich, new forest floor.
Taking a great leap back in time, the great desert that today stretches from North Africa through the Levant made up part of the bottom of the vast Tethys Sea. Today, this area is covered with sand that ranges from warm, silky Saharan sand that allows one to silently pass to hard, calcium, salt-rich sand that crackles underfoot.
The sand all around can be transformed into clear glass, and great cities and dynasties can fall to dust. Transience . . . impermanence . . . No matter how hard we try for immortality, time, more often than not, has other plans.
On the blazingly hot August afternoon that I took this photograph, I watched the donkey trod slowly and methodically across the ruins of the palace, crunching eons of history beneath his hooves. The palace was once unequaled for its splendor and beauty – occupied by one of Rameses sons and his court. Lives, loves, and intrigues were all played out within these walls that had long-ago fallen away. The path that led now leads to the souk was once a colonnaded reception hall for a prince who later became a pharaoh – a God descended. An Egyptian mud brick here, a piece of Greek pottery or Roman vessel there, the donkey was indiscriminate in his destruction as he strode on.
Some of the great empires and metropolises of the Silk Road have met the same fate as Ramesses’ palace, others have had modern cities grow up around them and eventually devour them, leaving a tourist attraction or a museum in place of a living, breathing humanity.
Modern physics teaches us that time is not linear progression, but rather like space it folds over on itself. So it follows that if you listen or look carefully, that you can hear and see the fragmented echoes of history in the present. China’s Jews may have vanished, but the coarse hair and Caucasoid facial features of their descendants remain. Similarly, the modern merchants who profit off of the sales of shark’s fin and bird’s nests for expensive, Chinese delicacies have forgotten that the great explorer, Zheng He brought these foods back to China from Southeast Asia. Readers of the Silk Road Gourmet, however, can feel and taste the remnants of China’s first great age of globalization in every bite.
Like the artisan restoring a lost mural, first the outline becomes clear and then one-by-one the details become evident as we find the past constantly informs the present. In the act of restoring the past, the man from the future also effects the past – at the very least by changing the knowledge and appreciation of it in the present and future.
If asked, “Who was the most important person of the 20th Century?” Most people would probably answer with the name of a prominent politician – perhaps Franklin Roosevelt or Mikhail Gorbachev, or a scientist like Einstein or an inventor like Bill Gates. Few if any would utter the names of Frank Fenner or DA Henderson who prevented the deaths of uncounted billions of people by conceiving and implementing the ring-vaccination that eradicated smallpox.
History is decided and redecided by each generation as it passes and is intimately bound with their perceptions of the present. As we determine history, we are also altering the past, in part by figuring the relative importance of individuals and events. But the past, even if we are not aware of it, is altering the present – events having provided one eventuality and not another in today’s world. And the present also determines the future – so all points on what used to be considered a timeline are always influencing each other.
So as you cross a major timekeeping barrier – like New Year’s Eve – realize that everything you’ve done, indeed, to some degree, everything you are and everything you will do is only partially under your direct control – that the past and the future are also in play. Relax, have fun and have a Happy New Year! (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)