Travelling in Deep Time:La Longue Duréein Australian History

by Tom Griffiths

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Paul Gillen has responded to this essay.


‘The timeless land’ has actually been forged in a time revolution. The European encounter with Australia – itself facilitated by the more accurate measurement of time – was caught up in a whirlwind of change in western thought about time and history. Exploring Australian space was to plumb global time. At a moment in world history when we cast our minds back over the meaning of intervals of time of a thousand years, when we inhabit a millennial moment, when our bookstores are suddenly full of historical and philosophical texts on time, I think it is important for us to ask what is the impact of the discovery of deep time – the really longue durée– on the writing of Australian history?

Throughout his life, the French historian Fernand Braudel championed the multiplicity of time, and the need for historians to look beyond ‘social time’ or l’histoire événementielle, the history of events, in order to embrace la longue durée, the slower moving structures and cycles of centuries. He saw the history of events as ‘a surface disturbance, the waves stirred up by the powerful movement of tides. A history of short, sharp, nervous vibrations. … A world of vivid passions, certainly, but a blind world, as any living world must be, as ours is, oblivious of the deep currents of history, of those living waters on which our frail barks are tossed …’ ‘In truth’, he wrote, ‘the historian can never get away from the question of time in history: time sticks to his thinking like soil to a gardener’s spade’. He argued – and in his history ofThe Mediterranean he implemented – ‘the distinction, within historical time, of a geographical time, a social time, and an individual time’.1

Braudel saw this thinking as strategic as well as intellectually exciting, for he was responding to – as he knew all good history must – to two chief developments of his own age of the mid-twentieth century. One was the post-war burgeoning of the social sciences. He saw them as ‘at once so young and imperialistic’, with so much to offer to History because of their quantitative, systematic, analytical approach to human affairs – what he called ‘their superior sensitivity to the conjunctures of the present’ – yet he saw the new social sciences as endemically and fatally and bewilderingly ahistorical. They needed History not just for perspective, but to bind them together, to create a common language across their disparate, diverging, narrowing fields. And he believed that the historian’s mastery of time could forge that language, particularly if it embraced la longue durée.

The other great influence on Braudel’s long-term thinking was the watershed in human affairs that the forty year war of the early twentieth century comprised. ‘Can there be any humanism at the present time [he wrote in 1946] …without an ambitious history, conscious of its duties and its great powers?’ The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had seen the rising dominance of political history and the short time span. It had been a consequence of great technical advances in the discipline of history, the refinement of the science of the document and the institutionalisation of the archive – ‘The momentous discovery of the document’, he wrote, ‘led historians to believe that documentary authenticity was the repository of the whole truth.’ Political history satisfied this ‘desire for exactitude’ and ‘followed the history of events step by step as it emerged from ambassadorial letters or parliamentary debates.’

But for Braudel, decades of twentieth-century war ‘have thrown us violently back into our deepest selves, and thence into a consideration of the whole destiny of mankind – that is to say, into the crucial problems of history. It is a time to lament our state, to agonise, to ponder, a time in which we must of necessity call everything into question.’ And Braudel’s own experience of war-time captivity also made him seek escape from the grim immediacy of the history of events, made him reject the short time span, itself a sort of imprisonment. ‘Rejecting events and the time in which events take place’, he wrote later, ‘was a way of placing oneself to one side, sheltered, so as to get some sort of perspective, to be able to evaluate them better, and not wholly to believe in them’. So Braudel participated in that urgent post-war search for a history to live by, one that found human commonality beyond the categories of ‘nation’ or ‘race’, one that pushed history back into ‘prehistory’.

In the half-century since Braudel wrote in this way, his longue durée has lengthened beyond his dreams as the Darwinian revolution has continued to unfold and scientists have elicited histories of ‘the earth itself, life on earth, and even the universe’.2 So we now confront even more clearly the challenge he threw out at us: ‘…nothing is more important,’ he wrote, ‘nothing comes closer to the crux of social reality than this living, intimate, infinitely repeated opposition between the instant of time and that time which flows only slowly.’ ‘Deep time’ and ‘social history’ seem to be the antithesis of one another, each operating on utterly different timescales and subject matter. One conjures up ancient evolutionary history, even a non-human world, while the other suggests the study of modern society. One deals in awesome geological eras, while the other takes its chronological scale from a human lifespan. It is one of the challenges of the emerging field of environmental history to connect them, to work audaciously across time as well as across space and species.3

The best book on time in Australia isThe Unforgiving Minute: How Australians Learnt to Tell the Time by Graeme Davison (1993). It offers a speculative, imaginative and quirky synthesis of Australian history on the theme of time. He has fun exploring the metaphors: from the notion of Australia as ‘the timeless land’, ‘doing time’ as the convict’s sentence, and the kookaburra as ‘the settler’s clock’, to dreamtime, flexitime and daylight saving. Through the Australian experience, the book illuminates a predicament of modernity: the acceleration and synchronisation of everyday life. Davison traces a revolution in time-consciousness – invoking Einstein, Marx, Wesley, Durkheim and Bentham, but surprisingly not Darwin – and shows us the mundane, routine fall-out of their ideas and visions. But the particular focus of the book is the measurement of time, and clocks (many of them illustrated) are its chief characters.

The book grows out of Davison’s profound interest in the routines and rhythms of urban society, the domestic arithmetic of material life, the invisible architecture of the city; it builds satisfyingly on his superb essay on ‘Energy’ published in a volume of the bicentennial history of Australia,Australians 1888. It extends and deepens an earlier influential analysis of Australian space and time, Geoffrey Blainey’sThe Tyranny of Distance (1966). But it is a preacher – John Wesley – rather than an inventor or theorist who haunts and inspires Davison’s book, for his central concern, as his title declares, is the morality of time. ‘Australia was a child not only of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth century,’ writes Davison, ‘but of the religious and moral revolution known as the Evangelical Revival.’ Thus Davison makes his essay on time also a history of the pursuit of punctuality, discipline and efficiency – of the ‘competitive, guilt-inducing, masculine morality’ of the unforgiving minute – and so offers an unexpected and rewarding meditation on personality, belief and temperament in the European possession of Australia. Davison’s focus was very much on the minute, mine is on millennia. He took his measure from John Wesley, I take mine from Charles Darwin. But moral issues haunt both timescales.

‘Deep time’ is a concept of our time. It was a phrase probably coined by the American writer, John McPhee, in 1981 in his remarkable study of geological thought entitled Basin and Range. Its suggestive parallel is with ‘deep space’, which was being probed in the same generation. It is a phrase that is very evocative of the exponentially different timescale within which we now have to imagine life on Earth. At first there seems something profoundly anti-humanist, anti-social, anti-historical about ‘deep time’. The discovery of deep time ranks with the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions in its humbling of humanity; it has been described as ‘geology’s most frightening fact’, a yet further step in the scientific dethronement of humans from the centre of things.4 As John McPhee puts it, if you imagine the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, that is, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand, then one stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.5

The discussion of deep time is full of these sort of metaphors – humanity as the last inch of the cosmic mile, the last few seconds before midnight – because metaphor is possibly the only level on which we humans can comprehend such immensities of time. John McPhee wonders about whether humans can escape their essentially animal sense of time, their fixation with time measured in a few human generations. ‘The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time’, he suggests. ‘It may only be able to measure it.’ Stephen Jay Gould poses the same problem: ‘an abstract, intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily enough [he says]… Getting it into the gut is quite another matter.’ Can we humans possibly sense the passage of millions of years? The geologic timescale reduces a human lifetime to an absurdity, a brevity that we possibly cannot ever imaginatively encompass.

Although it imagines a very ancient and even non-human world, ‘deep time’ is a concept that is all too human. It is a product of late industrial technology. In its reliance on radiocarbon and other dating systems, it is born of the bomb.6 The word ‘deep’ also appropriately conjures an archaeological metaphor, equating antiquity with vertical depth, and suggesting that the ancient past is somehow buried within the earth, and perhaps within ourselves, a latent power. For some Aboriginal people, ‘deep time’ carries all the baggage of nineteenth-century evolutionary thought and seems a paradigm of prejudice, unable to distance itself from its association with social darwinism, racial hierarchies and depictions of ‘primitive’ peoples. It also tethers ancient Australia problematically to the world, ultimately finding Australia’s human beginnings elsewhere.

But are ‘deep time’ and ‘dreamtime’ as different as they might first appear? One seems linear, the other cyclical; one progressive, the other ever-renewing; one a master global narrative, the other a myriad of local stories; one reifying chronology, the other ‘timeless’. But both are concerned with origins, with dimensions of space as well as time, and with meaning. Deep time, like the dreamtime, extends the human story into a non-human realm, and is so radically destabilising of conventional, felt timescales, so revealing of long-term cycles, that it upsets linearity and progressivism even as it seems to represent them. And because it can only be understood at the level of metaphor, it approaches that poetic relationship to the past captured in settler characterisations of Aboriginal cosmology as ‘the dreaming’.

Examples of Australian histories that have recently taken a dynamic, long-term perspective are Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters (1994), George Seddon’s Searching for the Snowy(1994), Stephen Pyne’s Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (1992), William Lines’ Taming the Great South Land (1991), and Eric Rolls’ forthcoming two volume environmental history of Australia. The first volume of Rolls’ work, called ‘The Creation’ and to be released later this year, is entirely pre-human and encompasses the universe. These five books are an example of a growing – perhaps I should say lengthening – trend in Australian writing, exemplified also in the first chapter of Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia (1999). They all travel adventurously in deep time. But they also engage with the culture and politics of modern colonial and post-colonial Australia. In other words, they make intriguing and provocative links between deep time and social history.

Nature, like ‘the Aborigine’, has often been confined to a schematic or romantic preface to Australian history. Environmental historians, like historians of Indigenous peoples, seek to activate those prefaces and infuse them throughout whole books. They aspire to move gracefully and sometimes provocatively between deep time and historical time, between global space and local place, between nature and society. They aim ‘to animate nature without anthropomorphising it’, to recognise it as an actor in history, as more than a static physical base, as more than a cultural construct.7

Fernand Braudel, in his famous history of The Mediterranean, explained his determination to avoid ‘those traditional geographical introductions to history … with their brief reviews of the mineral deposits, the types of agriculture, and the local flora, none of which is ever mentioned again, as if the flowers did not return each spring, as if the flocks were frozen in their migrations, and as if the ships did not have to sail on an actual sea, which changes as the seasons change.’ And so throughout his life he argued that historians needed ‘a history slower still than the history of civilizations, a history which almost stands still, a history of man in his intimate relationship to the earth which bears and feeds him; it is a dialogue which never stops repeating itself, which repeats itself in order to persist, which may and does change superficially, but which goes on, tenaciously, as though it were somehow beyond time’s reach and ravages.’ He continually urged historians to plumb what he called ‘these depths, this semistillness’.

The new histories of Australia that are now emerging do plumb these depths, but they do not find a semistillness. In fact, the contribution of la longue durée to Australian history has been to destabilise conventionally peaceful narratives of Australian ‘settlement’, to explode away the image of the timeless land and to dynamise our human and natural narratives. Australian history, when viewed long-term, is as much about ecological and technological disjunctions as it is about the political stability and continuity for which it has traditionally been celebrated. The arrival of the first humans in Australia sixty or more thousand years ago, and then the arrival of the British two hundred years ago rank as momentous, cataclysmic dates in world ecological history. Last year, some members of the Council of the National Museum of Australia expressed concern at exhibitions that would feature concepts such as ‘biological invasion’ and ‘extinction’ because they regarded them as politically driven and suggestive of human guilt. Some Australians are reluctant to endorse the idea of ‘invasion’ in any form. Are we now witnessing a backlash against what might be called ‘green armband history’, that is, history that takes a critical and intelligent deep time perspective of the human environmental predicament? In our Prime Minister’s language, such a perspective does not allow us to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’.

An intriguing Australian example of the intersection of l’histoire événementielle andla longue durée is the arrival of the First Fleet coinciding with one of the strongest El Niños in recorded history, rendering the colonists’ first hold on the land so anxious and vulnerable.8 The growing power of this ‘mega-Niño’ can be read in the logbook of HMS Bounty, and in the unusually heavy rain that sustained Bligh and the men who were cast adrift with him in the open boat, an atypical season that probably enabled the captain and his story of the mutiny to get back to England.9 The same El Niño, as historian Richard Grove has argued, had a severe impact on the European climate of 1789, and is a neglected contributing cause of the French Revolution. (Braudel would love this!) Another more ancient and more speculative link between social history and natural rhythms is that between the ‘intensification’ of Aboriginal society about 5,000 years ago, as evidenced in the archaeological record, and the strengthening of the global El Niño phenomenon about the same time.

Travelling in deep time serves various purposes for the historians of Australia I have mentioned. For George Seddon, a geologist as well as a humanist, it allows him to read a landscape more fully, and to make decisions about its future more sensibly. For him, space and time are indivisible, factors of one another, dimensions of the ground at his feet, and so deep time is not an optional scholarly extra, but part of the texture and poetry of place. For William Lines, la longue durée enabled him to dramatise the cataclysmic impact of Europeans on the continent and its indigenous peoples, to heighten the apocalyptic tone of his narrative, and to increase our sense of the environmental destructiveness of western industrialization and of the Enlightenment. Deep time, for Lines, sharpens a tale of despair.

For Tim Flannery, a long term perspective enables him to do the opposite, to offer a parable of hope. His zoologist’s eye provocatively generalises Aborigines and settlers as humans and discerns not only mistakes and misjudgements, but also a process of learning that is fundamentally heartening and empowering. If Aborigines made mistakes when they first arrived in Australia, if they misjudged the resources of the continent and then learnt to adapt and were able to establish an impressive, sustainable civilization there, then new settlers might, over time, learn to do the same.

Stephen Pyne also strives for a structure and a narrative that reaches across Australia’s great cultural divide. For him, deep time offers a way around what he calls ‘the Aborigine-European dichotomy that blocks nearly all Australian studies’, a positive way to transcend the disjunction of 1788 without denying its power and import. As he puts it, he decided to begin his book ‘with the eucalypt and end with the New Australian and leave the standard dichotomy sandwiched like so much lettuce and tomato between them’.

Similarly Eric Rolls uses a multicultural account of Australian nature to break down our preconceptions of continental isolation in the distant past and the present, to dilute our infatuation with remoteness, and to construct Australian environmental history as a series of major ‘disruptions’. Ecology and multiculturalism, then, both emerge as tools with which to prise open more complex accounts of Australia’s past, narratives that are not sundered by 1788. At the end of the 1990s and in the wake of the Mabo judgement, we might see these as ecological narratives of reconciliation. But we must be aware, too, that like all such narratives they find parallels and continuities at the risk of diminishing and discounting issues of justice and differences of culture and power.

The discovery of an Australian human history in ‘deep time’, this late and accelerated twentieth-century revolution, has changed how we see ourselves, and how we reconfigure our country’s history. It gives us a deep perspective on contemporary debates over population, ecological purity, environmental limits, multiculturalism, and the legitimacy of modern Australian settlement. It links us to world history in new ways, giving us global human connections well before the expansion of Europe. It undermines that view of the continent as ‘the last of lands’ and gives it various world ‘firsts’. And it also indigenises Australian history, plumbing the depths of the continent’s natural and human past, localising the Australian story.

We now have our own deep past of innovative modern humanity, our own rainforests, our own dinosaurs, our own geological genesis with a magical name,Gondwana, and our own natural and cultural vestiges and relics to compete with those of the Old World. But non-Aboriginal Australians have to ask themselves if this is yet another act of appropriation? Have settler Australians yet earned the right to travel in deep time in their own country?


Tom Griffiths is a Senior Fellow in the History Program of the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. This essay is an extract from a lecture given at the European Association for the Study of Australia conference in Toulouse, France in October 1999.

Paul Gillen has responded to this essay.
1. See Fernand Braudel, ‘History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée‘, in his On History (trans. Sarah Matthews), Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980, and his Preface toThe Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, (trans. Sian Reynolds), 2 vols, Harper and Row, New York, 1972-4.

2. David Christian, ‘The longest durée: A history of the last 15 billion years’, Australian Historical Association Bulletin, nos 59-60, August-November 1989, p. 31.

3. See my essay ‘Social History and Deep Time’ in Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2000 (forthcoming).

4.. Stephen J Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Penguin Books, London, 1989, p. 44.

5. John McPhee, Annals of the Former World, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1998, and retold in Stephen J Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, Penguin, London, 1988, p. 3.

6.. Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Verso, London, 1992, p. 195.

7. Stephen J Pyne, preface to new edition of Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1998.

8.. Richard H Grove, Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History 1400-1940, The White Horse Press, Cambridge, 1997, p. 143.

9. R H Grove, ‘El Niño chronology and the history of global crises during the Little Ice Age 1250-1900’, in R H Grove and J Chappell, El Niño: History and Crisis: Studies from the Asia-Pacific Region (The White Horse Press, Cambridge, forthcoming, 2000).

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