In Limestone I wanted to write about time – and in particular how I find myself thinking about time as I become older.
On the one hand, there is time as it is experienced in a single human lifetime. One part of this novel is made up of a quest.: Clare, a New Zealand art historian is in Ireland to attend a conference. Years before, when she was seven, her father - an Irishman - had walked out of their home in Oamaru one morning to buy a packet of cigarettes and simply disappeared. Presuming he might have returned to Ireland, she abandons the conference and sets off to find out what might have happened to him.
It’s a quest, and I’ve played about with the elements of the traditional quest: there’s a blind man at a crossroads, a woman in a high tower and so on. And I’ve used that form because I think that that is the fundamental human narrative. I think all stories are quests of a kind, whether the object is love, or knowledge or a distant city or the right boyfriend or a golden fleece or a nice little house with no big bad wolf outside. I think that curiosity is our dominant characteristic as a species: I only have to watch my little granddaughter examining a leaf or setting off to explore under the kitchen table to know that. We’re a species consumed by curiosity, not content to simply browse in one corner but eager to find out what’s beyond the fence, a wandering species, walking out of Africa not just because we were following game, but because we were and are, deeply curious. The quest is our natural narrative.
For each of us, the quests that dominate our lives are deeply compelling. We believe our lives matter. They have significance. We try to record them in some fashion or set up memorials. And of course this is true. Each life matters terribly to the person living it. Clare’s search for her father matters to her, and I hope that readers will believe, for the time it takes them to read the book, that it matters too.
But that’s just human time.
The other part of the novel is about geological time – and in that sense of time, human lives whether fictional or actual, shrink to a speck, to almost nothing.
I am more or less enumerate. I am one of those people who have to add up amounts on receipts several times over to be sure I’ve got the total right. I have to relate numbers to piles of things: millions I imagine by a swift mental reference to the population of New Zealand: mention a city of eight million people in China and I mentally think about driving from Kaitaia to Bluff and all the people in all the towns along the way before I can quite visualize the size of that city. Go beyond that, to say, calculations of the distance to other planets, and I can’t get my head around the numbers. Tell me that this earth is X billions of years old, and I blank. I can’t get a grip on it at all.
When I think about limestone, I can.
I was born in Oamaru. It’s limestone country. And every single grain of that white stone is made up of the remains of tiny creatures, in particular a creature called a bryozoa, which lives its life in a tiny white shell box. It’s got a gut and a rudimentary nervous system and it’s related to us: we share a common ancestor, a 300 million greats grandparent, according to Richard Dawkins. They’ve been around since the Ordovician era around 500 million years ago and they’re still here: 8000 species are still quietly living at the edges of the oceans, eating, producing young, and doing this amazing thing: they ‘die’ up to three times during a single lifetime of around six months. Inside their little boxes they rot down to brown mush, and after a day or so they reform: gut and mouth and bum take shape again and they begin to feed as before. They do this repeatedly, in a process called ‘cyclical degeneration and regeneration’. And eventually they die for good, and their remains gradually form a reef – those same reefs that were laid down around 40 million years ago and now form the North Otago landscape.
Now – when I look at one of those big white cliffs and think that every single grain is the remnant of this amazing tiny life, THEN I begin to grasp the immensity of planetary time. It begins to make sense to me. I feel the reality of evolutionary time in my own gut. I have to let the knowledge of it into my mind and body, the way other people ‘let in ‘ belief in some god and it brings with it the same sense of awe, which is terrifying and wonderful all at once – I’m struggling for the exact words here to describe the sensation: I feel wonder and exhilaration and fear and a complete overwhelming humility. My life matters to me, but I am nothing in this vast sweep of time.
As I become older this feeling of living in two different perceptions of time is becoming stronger. And that’s what I wanted to write about in this book.