If you have ever been on the Deep Time Walk, you will know what a profound sense it can evoke of the unhurried evolution of life on Earth throughout virtually all of its 4.6 billion years. Even bacteria, the first forms of life, didn’t appear for a billion years. Dinosaurs only appear as the end of the Walk comes into view. At the very end of the Walk, here come the humans – and, in the last flicker of geological time, they suddenly and shockingly wreak ecological havoc by burning fossil fuels and triggering climate change.
A well-known Deep Time Walk – popularised by Dr Stephan Harding, an ecologist from Schumacher College – is in Devon. It’s 4.6 kilometers long, with each metre corresponding to a million years. It is an opportunity to go beyond learning about the evolution of life on Earth as a series of cerebral facts to experiencing evolutionary time in the time it takes to walk. It’s a holistic experience of body, heart and mind. And in the last fifth of a millimetre of this walk, representing 200 years, we humans transform the Earth.
The Deep Time Walk at Hedgerley Wood, in Oxfordshire, is a compact version, with each step corresponding to 10 million years. It meanders along a public footpath through the lovely woods of the Hedgerley Wood Trust. Along the way, beautiful oak markers created by the artist Marcus Bolt indicate when various forms of life made their first appearance.
You can visit Hedgerley’s Deep Time Walk at OX39 4BW, starting where the public footpath meets the road. It’s free – but wear outdoor boots unfazed by mud.
Here’s how it’s described:
“During the dramatised walk between and scientist and a fool, you learn how Gaia, our Earth, evolved over this vast expense of geological time. It will help you understand where humans came from, what we are a part of, and the destructive impact we are now having on the Earth’s complex climate in the blink of a geological eye.”
The story that emerges when you take the walk is powerfully summed up by Stephen Harding.
In the the last fifth of a millimetre of this walk, representing 200 years, we humans have transformed the Earth for ever. Since the Industrial Revolution our burning of fossils fuels has led to a climate catastrophe that threatens to very existence of human life on Earth. It’s a crisis that demands the most urgent action.
1. This is what the journey looks like, from the point of view of a Deep Time walker at Hedgerley Wood:
2. And here’s an edited version of Dr Stephan Harding’s great version of the walk, with Stephan giving the commentary to his students:
3. If ever you find yourself in Swanage, you’ll see an even shorter version of the Deep Time Walk. The markers here are cut into stone and every step represents 15 million years. As a bonus, the stones are interspersed with quotes from poems.