Then or Now?


If I could turn back time, would I?

My usual, instinctive response would be yes. I would go back to prehistoric times. I would travel the world, watching as each civilization was born, watching it take shape, seeking understanding, enjoying the land as it was, before humans interfered with it.

When I lived in Ireland, I would seek out the uninhabited vast spaces between villages, places that had remained unchanged since pre-history. I would seek them out and breathe them in and remain contemplating them for as long as I could.

I also sought out the ancient aspects of the Irish culture, the history, the pre-history.

Here, in South Africa, I have found some of the same.

Driving away from Cape Town, down the Ou Kappse Weg Road, I take in the vast space, the floor of land that stretches flat for miles then sweeps up into mountains or out into the turquoise-to-blue ocean. I can see the ancient layers, the land as it was before the rooves, before the houses, the shanty towns, the university, the prison.

I see the same sitting on the patio of our guesthouse, looking through palm fronds at the cliffs that tower above this village. I can imagine it without fences, without pools, without the hum of car engines. I follow the path woven by a pale moth, from olive tree to palm tree and beyond. I blot out myself and civilization and I try to see instead what has always been here.

The land is beautiful, breathtaking, in its ancientness. In its vastness. In the vividness of colours – the red soil, the green and white craggy mountains composed of smooth-worn rocks and brushy, scraggly heather, the multi-hued waves crashing on sandy white beaches.

Everywhere I look, I can imagine it as it was, 500 years ago, or earlier. For time immemorial. Until things changed. Before breathtaking became heartbreaking.

The beauty, the nature is still there, though, visible between, behind, under, civilization.

It is in the towering trees on the road into Cape Town and in the forest at the base of Table Mountain. It is on the empty mountain paths. It is in the uninhabited and sparsely inhabited valleys that stretch, green and rocky down the peninsula. It is in the conservation villages along the Atlantic coast, where we’re staying.

This does not mean that time has stood still in these places close to nature. It has not. Life and civilization are all-pervasive and modernity is everywhere, perhaps even more-so here than in those rural towns in Ireland.

Gluten-free foods.
Can we watch Despicable Me?” Cries out a small voice from somewhere over the fence.

I am, of course, benefitting from most if not all of these modern conveniences.

Because they’re here. Because I can. They are a luxury, just as it is a luxury to imagine the wilderness untamed.

We are closer to nature here, though, right at the edge of the untamed wilderness. It is not some foreign, distant concept. I didn’t think it was in Ottawa, but these things happen by degrees.

So, if I could go back in time, would I?

Or would I instead choose the luxury, the comfort, of seeing the land as it is now and imagining it as it was, looking at it from up high, where everything is in perspective, where I can imagine the plain to be empty and timeless?

We are arrogant creatures, and I am arrogant if I think I know which is better – then or now. I am a product of my age and lucky to have the luxury of daydreaming myself out of civilization while sitting in its midst.

The honest answer to the question is wrapped up in this dichotomy, this juxtaposition, this hypocrisy.

Truthfully, I’m so glad to be right here, right where I am, writing in the sun, sitting with my husband, in the shadow of the mountain, the ocean waves crashing nearby, hens and dogs and cats and children frolicking nearby and my son running happily with the children of the village.




13 thoughts on “Then or Now?

  1. Really so thoughtful. We ARE arrogant if we think we know. It’s very good to remember this. I can’t remember where I read it (I am so very bad at remembering where I read things, memorable quotes, lines from movies) but I read sometime within the past year that it’s still if not arrogant if not stupid to try to judge women of an earlier age (the article had a feminist bent and had to do with sex, I think) because we just did not live in their paradigm. How it is impossible with our brains in our current paradigm to truly get into the heads of people who lived in a different time. It reminds me of the 1979 movie Time After Time I used to watch over and over on HBO when I was a kid. The main character is HG Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper who escapes to modern day L.A. I think. HG Wells really has a very difficult time adjusting to our present as we would (even without knowledge of) his past

    • I’ve never seen that but I like the comparison. I remember studying Kerouac in university and the women all getting upset that it was so male-dominated and out of date. Duh. I used to get so annoyed at the expectation that history was judged based on the present.

  2. I meant “silly if not arrogant if not stupid.” Wish wordpress would start allowing us to edit our comments on other people’s blogs.

  3. I think the past definitely has its charms but being a product of modern age, we’d just come to miss all the thinsg we’ve been used to and take for granted. Great post!

  4. Before breathtaking turned to heartbreaking… what an insightful description of South Africa! I, too, see and feel the same sort of connection to the past that you did here. Something about rugged landscapes would you say?
    You answer the question so beautifully, and I think, perfectly; enjoy and be present in the moments here and now.
    As for benefiting from modern conveniences, I agree that people often romanticise the past, wishing they could be there, imagining it exactly like today only without cars and cell phones. Well, you know what I mean. We don’t imagine it without modern medicine, without women’s/civil rights, without basic sanitation. I like all of those things. I also need to work on having in imagination…

    • Hi Clare, thanks for reading and commenting, and especially for leaving such nice words! I do think it is the ruggedness of the landscapes and the proximity of nature that brings the past to mind so freely. In the middle of a city, it’s harder to imagine the land empty, whereas when you are up in a mountain looking down, or in a small village with the natural world just steps away, it is a bit easier to see the division between civilization and how the land was before.
      We talk so much about how some of our modern conveniences are destroying the Earth, and they are, but it’s still hard to live without them. It’s hard to commit to the simpler way of life, to live off-grid, away from health care, away from community, away from all the rights that have developed in much of the West. I admire those that can do it but there is a middle ground, too. And I think that’s a realistic place for, well, at least me (I won’t speak for anyone else!). That middle ground involves respecting nature, thinking before you do something that might adversely affect the environment, trying to make changes while still living in society. There are days I would like to go off-grid, though!

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