Tom Sawyer & Time Travel


What if you measured your lifetime against the slow drip of water inside a cave?

In Mark Twain’s great novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, an evil character gets locked inside a cave without food or water. In a long passage, Twain pondered the nature of time–showing how truly small any human life is when measured against cosmic time frames.

Twain described the slow drip of water in the cave:

In one place, near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick—a dessertspoonful once in four and twenty hours.

He explained how the water had dripped for centuries, the narrator peeling back layers of time like a time machine:

That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was “news.”

It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history, and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion.

Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need? and has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come? No matter.

In a similar way, the time-traveling hero of Chris Marker’s La Jetée paused in front of a Sequoia trunk, the rows and rows of rings showing a tree’s lifetime–far beyond puny human time scales.

During a walk through the Jardin des Plantes in Paris the protagonist from the far future points out where he comes from, using the tree rings in a huge sequoia tree slab as a point of reference. His future is far beyond what can be grasped by the woman he loves.

(Cave image via Walt Stoneburner)

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