It's About Time - with Mini Grey

A look at the challenges of depicting time in picture book form

One of my favourite ever films is The Time Machine. The original one, the proper one, the one from
1960, from the book by HG Wells. 

The film features the best-styled Time Machine
ever: “Everyone knows what a time machine looks like,” says physicist Sean
Carroll, “something like a steampunk sled with a red velvet chair, flashing
lights, and a giant spinning wheel on the back.”

There’s a moment when our Time Traveller tries out his
magnificent Edwardian contraption and pushes its crystal knob towards the
future, and days and nights start to flash by and the sun and moon chart
visible tracks across the sky and the mannequin in the shop opposite bears
witness to the march of time with her shortening fashions.

We’re (hopefully) reaching the end now of a year spent in
lockdown. A year where days have flashed past, with the same daily routines,
doing the same daily walks, watching the unfurling of Spring warm its way into
Summer and noticing the progress of birdsong yield to late summer bird
quietness. The repetition makes you pay attention to small differences. The
tiny daily changes add up to slices from a stop motion film of the seasons’
progress.  But I wonder whether some
events will have been missing, the ones that make memorable experiences. With
what will the memories be forged? – the highs and lows – the terror before real
events with a real live audience, the monkey of dread sitting on your chest
beforehand, and the collaboration and achievement and adventure when a
long-planned event goes actually, unbelievably, well.

So lately I’ve been thinking about time, especially as the
book I’m making at the moment is all about time.

This book really started about 10 years ago, at the Oxford
Museum of Natural History, where I would often hang out with my small son
Herbie. Admiring the Iguanodon skeleton, I realised I didn’t even know WHEN the
dinosaurs had been extinctified by that asteroid (it was 66 million years ago)
OR anything about what was going on BEFORE the dinosaurs (a LOT!) or how old
the Earth was (about 4.6 billion years).

Then I wanted to see what 4.6 billion years looked like, and
in the process of trying to find that out, I ended up making a model book about
the story of life on Earth being performed in a shoebox theatre on a town dump.
By insects. So that’s what I’m making for real now.

My model book for the story of life on Earth

It was a very long zig-zag and it would have been impossible to publish in this format.

The reverse side of the model book had the tape measure of time on it, to show what 4.6 billion years looks like...

At primary school you get to learn about the Greeks and the
Egyptians and the Tudors, and it’s good to have a timeline of the last ten
thousand years to hang these on. But maybe what young children need too, is a sense
of the fundamental timeline, the Story of our world, the 4.6 billion year story
of Life on Earth.

So what does 4.6 billion years look like?

For my time line, my Tape Measure of Time, I decided to have
one centimetre represent one million years. That makes my total lifeline of the
Earth 45 metres long which is about 10 cars long or a small street. But for
loads of that time the biggest life on Earth was microbial. It wasn’t until
around 600 million years ago that things got really interesting, and we start
to get animals with bodies, and then the whole story of life speeds up for the
last 500 million-year roller-coaster ride of changing climates and mass
extinctions and explosions of different life forms. All the stuff that’s
interesting to us has happened in the last 5 metres – it can fit along my
stairs and landing.

This was my original timeline - each centimetre was 10 million years - so the last 500 million years happens REALLY FAST, in half a metre.

At my Tape Measure of Time scale of 1cm to 1 million years,
each open double-page is around 50 cm wide – so about 50 million years. Quite a
lot of the Ages of Earth – the Devonian, the Carboniferous, the Permian, and
all the rest – lasted very roughly 50 million years.


Here's the Tape Measure at the 1cm to a million years scale.

Here are my insect Troupe acting out the Carboniferous Era.

Modern humans first appear about 200 000 years ago, which is
2mm ago on my 45m timeline. The oldest cave painting is from about 45,000 years
ago: that’s less than half a millimetre ago.

Humans farming and the Holocene time of warmth and plenty
begins about 10,000 years ago: that’s 1/10 of a millimetre, or a hair’s

The last 100 years, where we have unleashed the enormous
power of fossil fuels and a farming fertiliser revolution and human population
has grown from nearly 2 to nearly 8 billion people, and the populations of wild
animals of earth have plunged: all this has happened in one thousandth of one
millimetre on my Tape Measure: cut a hair into 100 thinner hairs to find this

Ice Age Megafauna illustration by Sergio De La Rosa

If you visited Earth 100,000 years ago, it would be a place
of astounding megafauna: mammoths, mastodons, woolly rhinos, giant sloths,
sabre-toothed cats, giant elks and aurochs. 
As humans spread around the world from 60,000 to 10,000 years ago – very
mysteriously the local megafauna always became extinct. Maybe the vanishing
took a few thousand years – it may have been too slow for people to notice the
changes. And it didn’t happen deliberately, I think – you can see the awe for
the beasts in the cave paintings – but maybe the people didn’t see that
occasional predation of what looked like an endless source of big animals
eventually wasn’t in tune with the animals themselves – essentially, was

Around 10,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene, just
about all the megafauna of America and Europe and Australia was gone. The place
where megafauna lived on was in Africa. Was this because the humans and the
megafauna had evolved with each other? In all the other places, early people
had migrated in, and then mysteriously the megafauna vanished.

Maybe evolving with the megafauna rather than encountering
them, kept a balance. And somehow we have to create balance today.

We are prisoners of our short lifespans – we last for a blink
of an eye in the Earth’s lifespan but to us 100 years is forever. And with
nature we fall victim to shifting baselines: you get used to there being less.

We have to give back habitat to nature. Because if we don’t
have a balance but a slow but inexorable shrinking of animal populations it
leads relentlessly to extinctions – because that’s what enough time mixed with
a slow process of reduction will always do. In a country like Great Britain,
where we have made so many predators extinct, and appropriated so much of the
land to human uses and fragmented the landscape with tarmac – we should
especially be halting the appropriation of wild or unbuilt-on land to human
uses. We also should contribute to the wilderness and wildlife of the planet.

Roman Krznaric’s book The
Good Ancestor
is about how to look further. Let’s look into the future:
Earth has about 500 million good years left, before the sun swallows it up.
That’s another 5 metres on my tape measure. That’s as long as we’ve already had
visible animal life for. We have to use our imaginations to see longer and
further into the future – to imagine a future where people and the rest of the
world are in balance: what would that look like? And in the context of that,
examine everything we do: does doing this ultimately wreck the planet, or could
this happen happily for ever?

on wild spaces. Intensive animal agriculture. Bottom trawling. Emitting
CO2. I’m looking at you.)

But now, with a jolt, I’m getting in my backwards time
machine and zooming back to 15 years ago, 2006.

I’m in the John Radcliffe Hospital; my son Herbie has just
been born. He was born at 6.45am after a night of gas and air and the help of
the world’s best midwife. Now it’s mid-morning. His dad Tony needs to return
home to feed the cat, and then I will be alone with our new life form, who is
asleep at the moment.

But there’s a TV by my bed and it works – (what are the
chances of that?) and it’s playing the film of  The Time
(what are the chances of that?). The original 1960 one, the good

Off you go Tony, I say, I’ll be fine. This is my absolutely
favourite film.

I listen to the lilting haunting theme music of The
Time Machine
, and I think about the small new life-form that’s just been
born. I think about how it has just started on its journey through life, a
journey that travels only one way, that my new life-form is a time machine,
that we’re all time machines, travelling ever onwards, only going forwards, while
our brief window of experience is open. And the brief window of experience and
existence shines like a short flash of light in an infinite oblivion that
stretches forever before and beyond it.

But that’s the danger of listening to lilting haunting music when
you’re marinating in hormones after just giving birth to a baby.

A nice doctor turns up to check something medical. Tears are flooding
down my face. She suggests that she returns at another time. Between gulps I just
about manage to explain how much I really really
love this film.

 Mini's latest book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.  Her BlogSite is at Sketching Weakly.

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