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Hidden in Plain Sight: Deep Time and American Literature

Long-Term Consequences: Deep Time in Barry Lopez’s “The Stone Horse”

Norma Tilden


À l’instar de l’ouvrage de terre qu’il décrit, le cheval de pierre dessiné, il y a quatre siècles environ, par des artistes quechans, dans un désert de Californie, l’essai de Barry Lopez, « The Stone Horse », est lui-même un artefact littéraire de la longue durée : il anticipe la construction de l’horloge du long maintenant issue du projet de la « Long Now Foundation », qui a pour objectif de nourrir une pensée du long terme et de favoriser l’action écologique. L’image équine n’est pas sculptée ; elle est le résultat d’un grattage du sol désertique et d’un réagencement des pierres du site, que Lopez apparente à un art soustractif. Il a fallu, pour convaincre le cheval d’apparaître, une attention pointue, constante, aux particularités des contours naturels, et, pour le mettre en mouvement, le jeu des rayons du soleil sur le désert. Le cheval de pierre, texte et artefact, confirme le caractère irréductible de cette matérialité et de ce site distinctif qui a traversé les âges. Dans cet essai, Lopez présente le désert comme une archive, une écriture lithique qui nous plonge au plus profond des temps, bien avant l’émergence de l’homme occidental dont l’histoire n’est pour lui qu’une série de va-et-vient éphémères, une course folle à la souveraineté que l’essai contraste avec la présence éternelle du cheval.

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“Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span.”
Stewart Brand,
The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility.

The Long Now

1In a 1995 essay in Wired Magazine, computer engineer and inventor Danny Hillis introduced the notion of building a huge, mechanized clock which would run for 10,000 years. A project of the “Long Now Foundation” (, established in 01996,1 by Hillis and Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, parts for the massive, mechanized clock are currently under construction on two properties in California and Seattle owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Once assembled and installed beneath a mountain in the southwest United States, the clock will tick once a year and bong at the dawn of a new century. A small-scale prototype of the clock, completed and tested on New Year’s Eve 1999, is now on display in the London Science Museum. A remote mountain site in West Texas is being prepared to house the full-scale, 200-foot-high clock.

Illustration 1

Illustration 1

Prototype of the Clock

Courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

2In The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand’s 1999 book on what he then acknowledged was a “strictly notional” instrument, “a Clock of the mind” (2), he offers the device as a corrective to the shortsighted perspectives that he denounces in the quotation with which I begin this essay. The notion of the Clock should serve, Brand explains, as a much-needed “instrument for thinking about time in a different way”: “The main problems might be stated, How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? How do we make the taking of long-term responsibility inevitable?” In deference to his audience’s “short attention span,” Brand wastes no time at all in proposing a solution to the Time-and-Responsibility questions he has raised: “The device is a Clock, very big and very slow.” This iconic clock will serve as “a mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility” (2). Properly designed and inscribed within the cultural imagination, the Clock of the Long Now will “deliver mythic depth” (4). Brand quotes Hillis, who first articulated the idea of the clock in a 1993 email to friends: “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people” (3).

3In an essay on the website of the Long Now Foundation, writer Kevin Kelly describes the expansive sense of time that the project inspires:

Why would anyone build a Clock inside a mountain with the hope that it will ring for 10,000 years? Part of the answer: just so people will ask this question, and having asked it, prompt themselves to conjure with notions of generations and millennia. If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest?

4With “will it suggest,” Kelly begins to engage deep time future. The 10,000-year clock provides the perfect artifact for imagining “deep time” as a counter to reductive ways of thinking about our human situatedness in time and place—ways which have proven to be politically, culturally, and environmentally limiting. The most familiar variant of deep time, perhaps, is geologic time as a scale-bending counter to anthropocentric thinking: to confront geological processes is to imagine vast stretches of material flux in which people did not yet exist. Another variant is what Australian historian David Christian has called “big history”—“big” not merely in temporal scope but in perceptual perspective. Like deep time, big history offers a corrective to restrictive templates, such as nationalism and technological or social progressivisms that define conventional historiography.

  • 2 For a reading of a nineteenth-century literary text within a framework of geological deep time, see (...)

5Understanding deep time as an intellectual construct is one thing; experiencing deep time is something else. What would it feel like to be conscious of living in the long now, alert and responsive to temporal narratives and scales that extend far before and, more importantly, beyond our own existence? Scholars, including scientists, have begun to confront the question of how to represent the massive scale of the earth’s history. As Stephen Jay Gould observed in Times Arrow, Times Cycle, “geology’s signal contribution to human thought is the discovery of the vastness of the earth’s history, a history so ancient that we can comprehend it only as metaphor” (224). To evoke metaphor is, of course, to enter the realm of the literary imagination. It seems reasonable to look to imaginative literature for models of experiencing deep time; after all, as the time-travels of science fiction amply demonstrate, creating extraordinary experience is one of literature’s primary functions. Yet we need not restrict the conveyance of deep time to the facticity of science writing or the extravagant imaginings of science fiction: it can also inform more traditional literary genres. To be sure, the evocation of deep time poses a challenge for these genres, based as they are on the translation of the facts of experience into words, their appeals to surface perception, and the temporal and causal restrictions imposed by conventional narrative structures. Still, read slowly and attentively, literature may well prove an ideal vehicle for rendering a consciousness of deep time as felt experience.2

6This seems especially true for one emergent genre of the literature of fact: the landscape essay. In their close observation of natural processes and the traces of human and animal stories on the land, a generation of nature essayists have pursued a deep engagement with the material reality of the American landscape. In combination with its descriptive power, the frankly subjective stance embraced by the nature essay makes it well suited for interrogating the human relation to specific material places and non-human forms of life. This claim returns us to a practical question: what might a literature of deep time look like? As a first-person genre, literary nonfiction offers an especially promising form with which to explore the experience of deep time. Barry Lopez provides a case in point.

Earthwork as Material Narrative

  • 3 For an earlier treatment of what I here call “material narrative,” see W.J.T. Mitchell, “Romanticis (...)

7In 01986, the same year in which Hillis and Brand incorporated the Long Now Foundation to spark the consciousness of living in deep time, Barry Lopez published an essay called “The Stone Horse” in the literary journal Antaeus. Reprinted two years later in Crossing Open Ground, “The Stone Horse” offers an excellent example of how deep time might be engaged as an imaginative construct within the literary genre of creative nonfiction. The essay narrates Lopez’s search for an earthwork built by Quechan artists some four centuries earlier in a California desert, his encounter with the artifact, and its role in stimulating a visionary experience that evokes a glimpse, however fleeting, of the long now. The stone artifact of Lopez’s essay is a true earthwork, a geoglyph of a horse made by scraping away the dark surface gravel of desert pavement to expose the lighter subsurface. Paradoxically, the narrator’s pilgrimage on a particular day to a very specific place in the desert of Southern California affords entry into a spatial and temporal perspective that is far more expansive—and consequential—than the time and place at hand. Lopez frames his experience of the stone horse as a disorienting projection both backward and forward into a corridor of deep time.3

8Interestingly, the essay’s focus on the vulnerability of the stone artifact that generates Lopez’s experience of the long now is discussed in terms analogous to those Hillis posed in 01995 in Wired, where he describes a long-term strategy for preserving the clock:

When you start thinking about building something that lasts that long, the real problem is not decay and corrosion, or even the power source. The real problem is people. The only way to survive over the long run is to be made of materials large and worthless, like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, or to become lost. (Hillis, Wired)

Illustration 2

Illustration 2

Clock entry tunnel

Courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

  • 4 The BLM (Bureau of Land Management), a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, continues t (...)

9As a subtractive form created by the removal and rearrangement of natural desert stones on an inconspicuous natural site, the stone horse exemplifies Hillis’s specification that a 10,000 year clock must incorporate materials and technologies that have been accessible—and will be—far into the future. Like the horse, the clock will contain only mundane materials that are not likely to be stolen or vandalized. The clock will survive “over the long run,” Hillis states, only if it is “made of materials large and worthless, or if it has “become lost.” “Lost” is also an apt description of the isolated desert landscape on which the stone horse is hidden in plain sight.4 On the other hand, Hillis argues that a deep-time artifact like the clock must be as legible as the symbols designed to convey the radioactivity of atomic waste or the pictograms that have been sent into deep space: people coming upon the clock unawares should be able to read the clock and understand its workings. Lopez’s essay stands as testament to the legibility of the earthwork, eloquently revealing its meaning four centuries after it was set into the desert floor.

  • 5 All quotations from “The Stone Horse” and other essays by Barry Lopez refer to page numbers in the (...)

10Legibility and eloquence imply story. As Hillis observes in Wired, “The only clocks that have ever really survived over the long run (like the water clock of Su Sung, or the giant hourglass of Uqbar) have survived in books, drawings, and stories.” In this context, it matters that the stone horse appears to change and “quiver” (9) on the desert floor, animated by the journeying play of sunlight and shadow across the ground.5 This kinetic quality allows the earthwork to function as a material narrative—an embodied and sustainable story. As seen by a human observer on the ground over a span of natural light, the horse takes on the character of a moving image, an artifactual metaphor that allows Lopez’s speaker to transcend the static periodicities of linear history. As we shall see, the horse prompts the narrator to imagine human/horse interactions within widely divergent scales of time.

11Ultimately, the stone horse evokes the kind of long-term ecological awareness that the clock is designed to foster. Consciousness of living within the long now inevitably prompts reflection on the effects of one’s actions far beyond the present moment. As the forward-looking continuation of geological history, this notion of time allows us to imagine a world less restricted by political, social, or technological presentisms. Consciousness turns into conscience as Lopez’s narrator laments the vandalizing of cultural inscriptions on the desert. The loss of these artifacts not only effaces the cultural record of people on the land, but threatens to rob the land itself of its identity as a participant in deep time. Because Lopez is a storyteller, it is the loss of earthworks as storied landscapes—as works of narrative art—that concerns him most.

12The reciprocity of landscape and narrative that provides the theoretical grounding of the essay thus has the highest of stakes: to lose the strata of stories deposited on the land over time is to lose our human claim to the landscape itself. By composing the essay, then, Lopez takes on the project of redrawing the horse on the land.

Illustration 3

Illustration 3

Stone horse from the ground

Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

13The three parts of “The Stone Horse” mark out familiar territory: the before, during, and after of an archetypal pilgrimage that yields some sort of vision. As an encounter narrative, the essay leans especially on Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Native American constructions of the desert as a visionary site. But while the essay models a quasi-religious sublime, the result of Lopez’s encounter is not religious in any traditional sense of the term. “The Stone Horse” avoids the standard trajectory of a religious pilgrimage by eschewing the individualistic focus generally pursued in such stories. Although the essay indeed performs a temporary transcendence of self, it refuses to reduce the material stimuli of that transcendence—the desert landscape and the horse itself—to the status of a setting for a merely personal vision. Instead, the vision recorded by Lopez’s narrator reflects a heightened state of response—a hypersensitivity—to the concrete place and time in which he finds himself. Consistent with Lopez’s view, stated in the essay “Landscape and Narrative,” that “compelling narratives” of the land arise from the “paradox, irony, and contradictions” of real experience (71), the stone horse holds its ground, resisting the narrator’s gestures toward meditative transcendence. Like the other facts of the desert landscape, it remains solidly present in the essay as a collaborative and corroborating force.

14Indeed, the concreteness of the horse as a material embodiment of deep time—its thingness as a unique object fabricated by absent people working with natural materials—suggests why the surface pattern of journey, conversion, and return is a false directive if we read it as a swerve from the physical to the transcendental. Lopez offers a relentlessly material epiphany generated by a stubbornly physical horse: situated, obdurate, and durable, unless “vandals” (16) intervene. Like the earthwork itself, the essay preserves and extends the narrative deposits on the desert site.

15As an artifact of the long now, the stone horse resists representation. It appears nowhere on a map, its elusive character reinforced by the “reluctance” (5) of a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist to divulge its location, along with his warning that “It’s tough to spot” (6). The rising sense of anticipation that Lopez feels as he makes his way to the site prepares the reader for the extraordinary impact of the ancient horse as a record of deep time on the land. Unlike the clock hidden beneath a mountain, however, the horse hides in plain sight, protected over centuries by the rough terrain, a natural “barricade of boulders” (6), and its unobtrusive presence on the desert floor. Despite its centrality in his essay, Lopez acknowledges that the horse is only one of many such cultural “signatures" (1) scattered across the deserts of southern California.

16The theme of the opening section is self-consciously literary. Lopez presents the desert as a cultural archive, a lithic scripture reaching far below the stratum of Western man, whose brief history he reads as a transient narrative of comings and goings, as well as dizzying shifts in sovereignty set against the enduring presence of the horse. He laments the loss of the land’s “signatures” through a trope of texts simultaneously materializing and fading: “It was as though in the same moment an Aztec library had been discovered intact various lacunae had begun to appear” (4). Indeed, all of part one presents the desert as a palimpsest of textual artifacts, traces of the land’s stories which are being “destroyed or stolen” at the rate, Lopez reports, of “about one percent” per year (5) in a “vandalism” that “was, if one cared for history, demoralizing to behold” (5). The stone horse, too, is presented as a cultural “signature,” a part of the “archaeological record” (5).

17Lopez’s interest in artistic issues is underscored by his initial framing of the horse as a human and aesthetic artifact. His first word for it is “the intaglio” (5), and his descriptions rely heavily on the language of art: “monochromatic blackness,” “patina,” “desert varnish,” and “low-relief ground glyph” (8). Similarly, the maker of the horse is most frequently described not as a member of a particular cultural group, but simply as “the artist” (8). Paradoxically, the horse’s status as a work of art grounds Lopez’s epiphany in the concrete specifics of the natural site, the horse as a part of the desert landscape in all its material artifactuality. The desert landscape has been sanctified by narratives that have left their evidence, quite literally, on its stratified surface over the long now. Although Lopez’s speaker ultimately emerges as someone who is not an “infidel” (17), a nonbeliever in the aesthetic and temporal depth of this landscape, his heightened attentiveness emerges through a kind of abjection performed in the face of the material reality of the stone horse and the sense of deep time that it prompts. Neither the geoglyph nor the essay, in this sense, represents a horse so much as it presents one to encounter. Form follows function as Lopez’s lush description unmakes the conventional excursion essay, repeatedly gesturing toward lyrical and presentational modes of narrative.

18The essay’s first sentence establishes a triangulation of landscape, art, and time: “The deserts of southern California, the high, relatively cooler and wetter Mojave and the hotter, dryer Sonoran to the south of it, carry the signatures of many cultures” (1). These overlapping “signatures” offer an “anchor” for the otherwise disentangled “threads of human history” (2). Indeed, the desert is a rich natural archive specifically “because of the long-term stability of such arid environments” (2). After sketching out the terrain, distinguishing the Mojave and the Sonora deserts by altitude, humidity, and mean temperature, Lopez provides a quick inventory of the many “signatures” to be found there: the earthworks, collaborations of human and nonhuman agency, which can still be read on the land. Lithic scriptures fill the California deserts for those who can read them: a virtual palimpsest of rock drawings and petroglyphs, along with human tools, “spear tips, choppers, and “burins” that litter “the shores of great Pleistocene lakes, since evaporated” (1). Bits of “chalcedony, chert, and obsidian [. . .] anchor the earliest threads of human history, the first record of human endeavor here” (2). Such texts are everywhere in and on the land, waiting to be deciphered as stratified traces of multiple stories recorded here over time.

19This “big history” perspective extends far beyond the stratum of “Western man” that sits lightly atop the faint traces of prehistory. Lopez swiftly reviews this thin stratum as a story in which people “traveled through” this place on their way to somewhere else. It is a transient history of shifting sovereignties—Spain, Mexico, the United States—enacted on a landscape that nonetheless remained “as obscure as the northern Sudan until the end of the nineteenth century” (2). Within the perspective of deep time, of course, all human history is “transient” and short-sighted, a fact underscored by the observation that “Only miners tarried” (2). Indeed, the enduring presence of the horse on this site is central to its unique status. Lopez observes that there is little evidence of Euro-American activity prior to 1940: “the hard tracery of travel corridors,” irrigation at the desert’s “periphery,” and “relatively insignificant evidence of mining operations” (3).

20That the desert is losing these signatures is a concern that Lopez frames with some urgency. The sporadic use of the land by Euro-Americans with “little or no awareness” of its history culminated during World War II, when the military saw the area’s potential as training ground and “moved into the desert with great force” (3). The result was an accelerated effacing of the topographic texts, including “destruction of the aboriginal sites” that did not unduly alarm even those few who were concerned—as yet “(only) amateur archaeologists”—because of the desert’s vastness (4). An “issue” thus emerges from this particular landscape: a relatively straightforward history of the desert has quickly morphed into a parable of loss. A tentative figure for framing the issue has already emerged as well in the contrast between movement and stasis suggested in the differences between those who “traveled through” the land, the miners who “tarried” (2), and the animal figure that remains solidly in place. The “dark mouths” (3) of abandoned mines hint at sites that cannot speak, because their stories have already disappeared. If it weren’t for such cultural “anchors” as the horse, the landscape might lose its place in time altogether.

Deep Time/Lyric Time

21A lyrical and meditative state of arrest surrounds Lopez’s “first moment of recognition” of the horse (6). Later in his journey, when he stops to make detailed notes on his experience of the horse, he refers to this time-out-of-time encounter as requiring “another kind of attention” (14) from the writer’s usual need to record and reflect. It is the ongoing tension between the lyric “attitude” of the central encounter and the more factual and reflective logos of what precedes and follows it that enables “The Stone Horse” simultaneously to enact and evoke an awareness of deep time.

22In contrast to his opening introduction to the history of the site, part two of “The Stone Horse” frames the intaglio as a collaboration of human artistry with the land itself. A defamiliarizing of ordinary experience precedes the encounter. Lopez opens his Automobile Club of Southern California map—an ironic aid, given his quest—but finds no indications of the horse which transcends the immediate cultural and historical interests that maps inevitably represent. A BLM archaeologist gives Lopez vague directions to the site, but wonders, like all curators, whether the seeker’s motives are pure. He regards Lopez with “stoical despair, like a man who had been robbed twice, whose belief in human beings was offered without conviction” (6). Lopez fixes the archaeologist’s eye to assure him that he will not reveal its whereabouts.

23In order to approach the horse, Lopez must be willing to be led to it solely by features of the terrain: some “boulders in the wash” (5), a pair of arroyos, and near the head of one arroyo, “on higher ground [. . .] I would find the horse” (6). Even with these natural and relational markers, the horse is easy to miss by those who don’t have the eyes to see it: as the archeologist states, “It’s tough to spot unless you know it’s there” (6). Nor can the experience of it be easily put into words: “Once you pick it up . . ,” the archaeologist begins, and then falls silent: “He shook his head slowly, in a gesture of wonder at its existence” (6). The guide’s loss of words highlights the fact that we are about to enter one of those “true” stories that are, as Lopez states in “Landscape and Narrative,” so inextricably “rooted in the local landscape” (68) that they can only be “evoked in a metaphorical way [. . .]” (69). As with place, so with time: implicit in the encounter with the horse is an encounter with a temporal scale that can be grasped, as Stephen Jay Gould insists, only through the indirections of metaphor.

24And indeed, when Lopez undertakes the trip on the following morning, seemingly straightforward facts acquire something of the force of metaphors. When Lopez observes that “the last section of road proved difficult, broken and drifted over with sand in some spots” (6), the deformations of the land begin to suggest an eroded surface characteristic of the geological “unconformities” that first confirmed 18th-century geologist James Hutton’s discovery of deep time. The land, now startling in its “frankness” (6), becomes open and legible in a way that recalls the title of the essay collection in which “The Stone Horse” appeared: Crossing Open Ground. Lopez parks at a “barricade of boulders” and continues on foot over a “stone plain” on which “the contours of the landscape were stark, without any masking vegetation” (6). Paradoxically, the land’s very openness both conceals the horse and triggers its epiphanic appearance. “In spite of the frankness of the land,” Lopez says, “I came on the horse unawares” (6).

25“In the first moment of recognition I was without feeling” (6). So begins the experiential revelation of deep time, which he presents as an experience that can be articulated only after the fact. “I recalled later being startled, and that I held my breath.” Opening a remarkable still point in the essay, Lopez evokes a sense of temporal suspension as he describes his reaction to a spot of ground on which rocks have been arranged and earth scooped out to create the image of a horse “with its head to the east, three times life size” (6). This initial “moment” is contained within a single breath held for three paragraphs, a suspension of narrative time that contrasts strikingly with the brisk pace with which Lopez had surveyed the region’s cultural history. Lopez holds the reader in an elongated instant stretching backward and forward into the long now. Within this moment he recalls a feeling of disorientation as rational thought gives way to a powerfully visceral response.

I felt a growing concentration of all my senses, as though my attentiveness to the pale rose color of the morning sky and other peripheral images had now ceased to be important. I was aware that I was straining for sound in the windless air and I felt the uneven pressure of the hard earth against my feet. The horse, outlined in a standing profile on the dark ground, was as vivid before me as a bed of tulips. (7)

26The conflation of natural images in the simile is surreal to the point of being oxymoronic: horse is like flower, stone is like plant, sculpted image is like living thing. Together with the sentences that lead up to it, this is an embodied response so sensory and immediate as to seemingly stop time. Narrative sequence dissolves in lyrical response: the image of the stone horse triggers a mystical unknowing that opens a channel into deep time.

27At least two important things happen within this breathless space. First, in contrast to the essay’s earlier and more traditional handling of the history recorded in lithic inscriptions, here time collapses into the moment of encounter: the speaker has “no familiar sense of history, the temporal structure in which to think” (7). Lopez pointedly provides an example of the kind of historical reckoning that he would expect to “think” at such a moment: “This horse was made by Quechan people three hundred years ago.” Instead, however, he portrays himself as wrenched from “familiar” thought processes into a vortex of timelessness—or more precisely, a vision of multiple times converging in an imagined interaction of humans and horses. In contrast to “small” history as a series of recorded vignettes, the speaker’s apprehension of deep time is filled with vertiginous movement described as “a headlong rush of images”: Pleistocene horse-hunters, Hernando Cortés entering Tenochtitlán, and a “short-legged Comanche astride his horse like some sort of ferret, slashing through cavalry lines of young men who rode like farmers” (7).

28These figures are not abstractions or types; Lopez gives them the specificity of individuals, alive again in the flux of deep time. Lopez’s own past comes briefly to life as well, in the flash-memory of a “hoof exploding past my face one morning in a corral in Wyoming” (7). This single reference to himself is the exception that proves the rule: in this invocation of horses and horsemen from the past, the narrator’s reaction is relentlessly impersonal, illustrating a comment that Lopez makes elsewhere: “With the loss of self-consciousness, the landscape opens up” (“Gone Back Into the Earth” 44). An entire history of people and horses is compressed into this momentary encounter with the stone horse, and like the runes and petroglyphs scattered throughout the desert, “These images had the weight and silence of stone” (7). The horse stimulates Lopez’s trans-temporal encounter with a history that is recorded not in words but in images inscribed on a physical landscape. Although the site demands a response from the body, it also—and paradoxically—takes Lopez out of the bodily present into the sweep of deep time.

29The encounter also marks a swerve from logical categorizing to lyrical response. Especially striking, though perfectly apt within the essay’s revisionary perspective on time, is a blurring of the distinction between living and nonliving things. The initial impact of the stone horse, for instance, is that of an animate presence—an actual horse. When Lopez seeks an analogy to this experience, his first instinct is to confirm that “I’ve come upon animals suddenly before, and felt a similar tension, a precipitate heightening of the senses” in the “inexplicable but sharply boosted intensity of a wild moment in the bush.” He describes the somatic awareness that there is an animal nearby, triggered by the sense of “warm remains” or “still moist tracks” (7). Assuming a life of its own, the stone horse generates the animal otherness and mystery of an actual horse. Within this breathless response, Lopez’s recollection of the “hoof exploding past [his] face” (7) places him within the sweep of horse-human interactions across deep time.

30Consistent with his statement that the actual “source” of these mysterious animal encounters is often not apparent “until some minutes later” (7), Lopez gives only a broad description of the artifact within the moment of contact; a fuller description is deferred until the visceral response plays itself out. Only after three paragraphs inscribing the visionary moment does the narrator release his breath and reenter the present. The “images softened,” he observes, and the sense of wildness “was replaced with a calm sense of antiquity” (7). He becomes “conscious, like an ordinary tourist, of what was before me, and thought: This horse was probably laid out by the Quechan people” (8). After the brief vision into deep time, his conscious mind must catch up with the flood of sensory experience and restore a more ordinary orientation in space and time. The post-visionary phase of “The Stone Horse” finds the essayist back at work, marshaling the aid of facts to make sense of the experience. He guesses that the Quechans probably constructed the horse, but wonders when; he also surmises that it might have been the “Cocopa people” (8). Still, the effects of time-out-of-time remain, most significantly in the speaker’s response to the most elemental components of a now-living landscape: the gradual reintroduction of movement and light. Picking up from an instant in which he becomes aware that “I still had not moved” (8), Lopez begins to “situate” himself by looking south and then east, toward a sunrise to which the horse’s head is oriented.

31Thus unfolds the gradual resumption of a more observational and essayistic narrative mode. As Lopez draws his feet together—the encounter has caught him mid-step—he notices light running “like a thin sheet of water” over the horse (8). Slowly, a cosmology based on the immanent laws of cyclical time reasserts itself: first air with the returning breath, then movement as he brings his “foot slowly forward and stood erect” (8), and now water, earth, and light. The speaker’s reorientation is also signaled by recursive movement, a circular process of tracing and retracing his steps around the horse. In the aftermath of lyric arrest, with its brief shift into a more densely textured and imagistic mode, Lopez’s prose mimics the paths that he is tracing on the land: as he walks slowly around the horse over “several hours” (10), so he circles and reworks the same material in his essay. A sequence of images of horses in different cultures is rehearsed in four distinct passages—along with at least four different descriptions of the stone horse itself. These range from the first startled moment of recognition that Lopez describes as a “concentration of all my senses” (6), to a straightforward description of the artist’s method in making the “intaglio” (8), to a careful analysis of the “accurate” but imperfect conformation of the animal that leads Lopez to decide that the image is modeled on an “an individual horse” (10), and finally to the description of an aerial photograph of the geoglyph that “crudely” renders the horse in a “frozen instant” (13-14).

32“I was not eager to move,” Lopez admits, as the essay moves further into the more straightforward and descriptive narrative mode that will follow the moment of lyric arrest. “The moment I did I would be back in the flow of time, the horse no longer quivering before me.” Lopez describes this return to the “sequence of quotidian events” as necessitating a change of style, allowing himself to be “drawn off into deliberation and analysis” (9). He postpones this return as long as possible, devoting a full paragraph of reflection to his reluctance.

33“What finally made me move was the light” (9), the original and natural determinant of time in the world. As he re-enters time, he follows the movement of light upon and across the horse where it “now filled the shallow basin of the horse’s body” (9). Lopez allows his own movements to be directed by the light, just as he had moved in deference to the natural signs—boulders, the wash, the arroyo—in the archaeologist’s directions. Lopez circles the horse “to see how the light might flesh out the horse from various points of view” (9). Significantly, the horse also moves with the light; its various features respond to the movement of light across its surface, producing a “change in definition” that, he says, “impelled me” (9). The stress here is on mutual action and interaction: as Lopez moves in response to the changing light, the horse “moves” in relation to him and his shifting perspective. This shared movement occurring over the “several hours” that he spends at the site (10) brings rational thought and sensory response into a productive dialogue.

34“I noticed a number of things,” Lopez finally announces. When he is ready to describe the stone horse in a systematic way, he shifts to a documentary and even technical mode. Turning an analytical eye to this “low-relief ground glyph, or intaglio,” he describes the figure’s background of “monochromatic” black stones, “a patina of iron and magnesium oxides called desert varnish” (8). He then describes in clinical detail the technique used by the indigenous artist: removing stone to expose the soil and create “a negative image,” and then reinforcing the outline with “low ridges of stone a few inches high” (8-9). The horse’s legs, Lopez reports, are “extended at 90 degrees to the body” to produce a “three-quarter profile” (9). Clearly aware of the mind’s compulsion to assert itself in such observations, the speaker continues to resist his return to “the flow of time.” Lopez hints at the elemental contact with the “living” horse which will surely be lost, along with the primal juxtaposition of “A human being, a four-footed animal, the open land” (9) that the encounter has stimulated: “That was all that was present—and a ‘thoughtless’ understanding of the very old desires bearing on this particular animal: to hunt it, to render it, to fathom it, to subjugate it, to honor it, to take it as a companion” (9).

  • 6 Compare Luciano’s discussion of “eroticized deep time,” especially her insightful reading of “what (...)

35What he has glimpsed is the history of human/equine interactions across time. His breathless moment with the horse has opened a window into deep time refigured in relation to a complex of human desires focused on this one animal, at once useful (“to hunt it”), totemic (“to honor it,”) and beautiful.6 In particular, the verb “render,” with its connotations of participation in a pictorial tradition, serves as a reminder that by composing the essay as he does, Lopez has transposed the horse and thereby engaged with what Wai Chee Dimock describes as the continuum of “‘deep time’ in human terms.” In Through Other Continents, while acknowledging the relatively shallow veneer of what we usually think of as the cultural imprint of humanistic studies, Dimock proposes a radical correction in scale:

The humanities have no time frames of comparable length. What we do have are written records going back five or six thousand years, and oral, musical, and visual material going back further. Since American authors have made a point of engaging this material, drawing on it and incorporating it in their own writings, the least we can do, as scholars and readers, is to do likewise. These old records and their modern transposition give us a “deep time” in human terms. (6)

36With “render it,” Lopez joins the maker(s) of the stone horse, acknowledging his place in a long, dense continuum of zoographia: animal writing.

37Returning to his present moment at the surface of the Sonoran desert and resuming his essayistic project, Lopez encounters his other collaborators within the long now, the indigenous people who saw and depicted the horse in precisely the manner that he is now describing. In “awe and disbelief,” he spots one of their stone tools at his feet (9). What Lopez and these artistic forebears share is their recognition of the metaphorical power of the earthwork—a recognition that prompts him to speak of it as if he were examining a living horse comparable to other living horses: “There was a suggestion of a bowed neck and an undershot jaw, and the tail, as full as a winter coyote’s, did not appear to be precisely to scale” (10). These are the canons of natural realism, of the earthwork’s fidelity to other horses: the “angle” of pastern and hoof is “perfect”; its left shoulder is articulated “at precisely the right spot”; the line of thigh and hock is “similarly accurate” (10). Only the muzzle seems “distorted—but perhaps these stones had been moved by a later hand.” The stone horse, he concludes with a naturalist’s sensitivity to detail, is “an admirably accurate representation, but not what a breeder would call perfect conformation” (10). Lopez cannot respond to the horse as a generalized “representation” because it asserts too powerful a presence. “The more I thought about it,” he concludes, “the more I felt I was looking at an individual horse, a unique combination of generic and specific detail” (10).

38The stone horse prompts Lopez to reconstruct his knowledge of horses from the ground up and from eons ago—all from the particular “conformation,” the thingness, of this horse. Thinking through the physical artifact as he encircles it, he lets his thoughts project outward to other horses existing within the long now. Like any (other) real horse seen in its deep-time essence, the earthwork suggests an equine “speed” that has always “impressed” humans (12) as well as a history that leads Lopez to meditate on Spanish horses, Arabian horses, eastern European horses imported by the Romans, and ancient horses “trained for lion-hunting in North Africa” (10). There was a time, Lopez muses, when people knew horses intimately, when “cowboys, cavalry quartermasters, and draymen” would have scrutinized the stone horse “until they had its heritage fixed to their satisfaction” (11). Such men possessed a vocabulary for horses closely observed—a vocabulary whose loss Lopez laments: “The loss of such refinement in everyday conversation leaves me unsettled” (11). The capacity to talk about horses with intimate specificity—“to routinely differentiate between overo and tobiano pintos”—has become “arcane knowledge,” lost, like the lithic records of the desert. The ultimate loss is of the grounded narratives that create and sustain a place over time. Making “such distinctions,” Lopez declares, is indispensable to telling stories on the land: “You have to do it to be able to talk clearly about the world” (11). This self-conscious assertion—“you have to do it” —is both aesthetic and activist: it calls for a poetics of deep time sufficiently agile to encompass the countless languages and cultures that have existed on this “nondescript” site.

39To re-imagine the story of humans and horses across the long now might threaten to diminish the centrality of the individual perceiver. Lopez concedes that his “more personal memories seemed tenuous in comparison with the sweep of this animal in human time” (11): “My memories,” he confides, “had no depth” (11). The inadequacy of the merely personal and immediate emerges from seeing the self in relational, ecological terms—a perspective that allows Lopez to imagine the lives of the horsemen and artists who have shared in the long story of humans and horses on the land. As he mentally surveys “the Hittite cavalry” and the “life-size horses” fashioned from terra-cotta buried with Chinese emperors, he briefly doubts his capacity for this manner of empathy: “What could I know of what was in the mind of whoever made this horse?” (11). But the renewed sense of spatial and temporal connectedness prevails, and he persists: perhaps, he speculates, the artist conjured up a “racial memory” of horses that had occupied pre-Columbian America long before they “returned” with “another race of men,” the Spanish (11-12). However idealized or mythical the history expressed in and through the stone horse may be, Lopez seizes upon an incontrovertible fact that gives him permission for such storytelling: both he and the indigenous artist of this earthwork “had observed the animal very closely” (12). And what they saw was what humans have always seen in horses: power, agility, and speed. The Quechan runners “were no match for this animal” (12).

  • 7 Lopez’s claim here anticipates Wai Chee Dimock’s analysis of human/animal inscriptions over deep ti (...)

40With the stone horse serving as a link to other animals in other times, Lopez manages to see beyond his own perspective, with a more inclusive vision grounded in the particulars of this place: “From where I squatted I could look out far over the Mexican plain” (12). He imagines the Spanish extending the Royal Road into “Alta California,” which in turn brings “others, all of them astride the magical horse” (12). An identity grounded in the long now even permits him to speak as these other selves, absorbing their language as he imagines the “gente de razón, the people of reason, coming into the country of los primitivos” (12). These are not reflections conjured from textbook history, but from what Lopez guesses is a kind of ‘‘racial memory” (11) as real and intimate as his personal memory: “The horse, like the stone animals of Egypt, urged these memories on me” from “some forgotten corner of my mind” (12). The site induces an extra-personal vision of horses in Iron Age England and of Spanish horses “rearing and wheeling” at Florida alligators in “images,” Lopez says, that “seemed tethered before me” (12). At this point Lopez affirms that an expansive view of time has given him a “sense of proportion” and the conviction that “a memory of my own—the morning I almost lost my face to a horse’s hoof—now had somewhere to fit” (13).7

41Lopez’s encounter with this “living” horse contrasts tellingly with an aerial photograph, given to him by the archaeologist, in which the horse looks “somewhat crudely constructed; from the ground it appears far more deftly rendered” (13).

Illustration 4

Illustration 4

Stone horse from above

Courtesy of Dr. Mark Hows

42Trapping the figure in “a single moment,” the photograph makes it appear “vaguely impotent” (13). Removed from the natural flow of light on the land, the aerial image contrasts sharply with the horse in its desert setting, where Lopez has tracked its movements as he “watched light pool in the intaglio at dawn” (13). Indeed, this quality of “animation” through time is central to the stone horse’s power: “In those prolonged moments its shape and so, too, its character changed–noticeably” (13). “Prolonged moments”—the phrase recalls the three paragraph suspension of time when Lopez first glimpses the horse, but also serves as a micro-image of the long now—are necessary for experiencing “the living quality of the image” (13). Time and “shifting light” are requisite for viewing all such earthworks, which both record human responses and themselves respond to landforms changing across time. “This could even be true,” Lopez remarks, “of the huge figures on the Plain of Nazca in Peru, where people could walk for the length of a day beside them” (14). This central section of the essay thus ends with a contrast between stasis and action—between light frozen in a photograph and light moving across a landscape. As Lopez explains, “[t]he living quality of the image, its immediacy to the eye, was brought out by the light-in-time, not, at least here, in the camera’s frozen instant” (13-14). “Light-in-time” recalls the elemental structures of deep time—most immediately in this case, of astronomical time, demarcated by the movement of sun and stars.

43Despite its vast scale, deep time has meaning only when seen from a human perspective. As Lopez insists, artifacts like the Peruvian figures and the stone horse “were never meant to be seen by gods in the sky above. They were meant to be seen by people on the ground, over a long period of shifting light” (14). These walking Incas provide a final evocation of the three components that Lopez defines as requisites for a living landscape: light, time, and people moving in response to changes on the land. Aerial views cannot offer a “fair and accurate description” of this deep-time intaglio (13). Indeed, the human habit of generalizing is what releases Lopez from the horse’s grip: “This process of abstraction, almost unintentional, drew me gradually away from the horse" (14). Once the withdrawal begins, all his speaker can do is come to “a position of attention at the edge of the sphere” of the horse’s “influence” (14). Although a spell has been broken, he is grateful as he leaves the site: “With a slight bow I paid my respects to the horse, its maker, and the history of us all, and departed” (14).

Back at the Surface

44The “history of us all” is big history indeed. In the third, post-encounter section of “The Stone Horse,” Lopez dramatizes his readjustment to the small-scale time of everyday life. When Lopez stops during the drive away from the site “to make a few notes” (14), the impact of the stone horse lingers in the continuing oscillation of perceptual and reflective activity that it has stimulated. In contrast to the moment of encounter, the “other kind of attention” required for writing calls for narrative re-enactment: he must tell himself the story again, “patiently” draining his “memory of the details it had fastened itself on” (14). Though he is now self-consciously producing text, the antithesis of the extra-logical encounter in the desert, a heightened awareness of his surroundings remains. Parked beside the “All American Canal,” its name ironic in light of the uninhabited desert and the trans-national and trans-temporal sweep stimulated by the stone horse, he watches its water “placidly” flowing west: “A disjointed flock of coots, small, dark birds with white bills, was paddling against the current, foraging in the rushes” (14-15). “Peripherally aware” of the sounds from a nearby village, he hears the “distracted dawn voices of dogs” mingling with “the cries of a rooster” (15). The shouts of children “came disembodied through the dry desert air,” followed by “someone practicing on the trumpet, the same rough phrases played over and over” (15).

45These observations have a relaxed feel suggestive of the writer’s willingness to submit to whatever his senses bring to his attention. And yet, the residual impact of the geoglyph remains: the children’s and animals’ “voices” are no less—and no more—real than the disembodied presences of long-dead horsemen conjured by the stone horse. The experience of deep time has also altered Lopez’s sense of his own lifetime: the voices invoke another memory of representing animals—not, this time, through the media of language and stone, but as a memory of the body: “I suddenly remembered how as children we had tried to get the rhythm of a galloping horse with hands against our thighs, or by fluttering our tongues against the roofs of our mouths” (15). The recollected act of mimicry—another upsurge of past time—echoes the animation impulse that inspired the maker of the stone horse. The same impulse which drives Lopez to render a horse makes enemies of all who would erase the stories embodied in the land: “The vandals, the few who crowbar rock art off the desert’s walls, who dig up graves, who punish the ground that holds intaglios” (16). These are, he charges, “people who devour history” (16). As I have suggested, Lopez’s deeper interests here are not just environmental, but aesthetic and big-historical. For him, the real “infidels” are those for whom the “apotheosis” of “human expression” is located solely “in the present” (17). To ignore big history is to be deaf to all human stories beyond one’s own: “Their self-centered scorn, their disrespect for ideas and images beyond their ken, create the awful atmosphere of loose ends in which totalitarianism thrives, in which the past is merely curious or wrong” (16).

46Although Lopez worries about the horse “sitting out there on the unprotected plain” (16), his sense of its “vulnerability” is superseded by its power as an “anchor for something else”: a broadened and more responsible view of time and our human place in it. Those whose patience and humility let them perceive such artifacts within the long now will take from them a respect for the multiple stories inscribed on the land over time as “a kind of medicine” (16). By offering an environmentally inflected reiteration of the traditional “aesthetic” sublime, the essay also posits a vision that might be called the temporal sublime. Lopez’s “awful atmosphere of loose ends” anticipates Stewart Brand’s diagnosis of the “pathologically short attention span” of contemporary civilization, as well as Brand’s hopes for the impact of the 10,000-year clock: “Some sort of balancing corrective to the short sightedness is needed,” says Brand, “some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility” (2).

Anchors of Time

47The flow of deep time that Lopez invokes recalls a similar moment of recognition voiced by Joan Didion in her essay “At the Dam.” Visiting Hoover Dam in 1967, Didion is invited to touch one of the massive turbines that power the water through the dam. “It was a peculiar moment,” she recalls, one that left her with a troubled sense of apprehension. The experience evoked “something beyond energy, beyond history, something I could not fix in my mind” (200). Later that day, leaving the dam, she walks across “a marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever […] for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated” (200-01). The star map is intended, her guide had told her, for some far distant future when we are all gone and the dam remains. At that moment, a particular afternoon in 1967 opens into the sublime vision of a deep time that swallows us, but not necessarily our artifacts:

I had not thought much of it when he said it, but I thought of it then, with the wind whining and the sun dropping behind a mesa with the finality of a sunset in space. Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is. (200-01)

48Like the stone horse and the 10,000-year clock, the monumental technology of the dam was designed for a scale of time that dares to anticipate the absence of its makers. Near his essay’s close, Lopez offers a short list of similarly conceived artifacts and their indigenous artists. The cave painter “mixing his colors in the dim light of Altamira”; the Egyptian pharaoh “lying still now, wrapped in his byssus, stored against time in a pyramid”; the “faded” Dorset people of the Arctic north; “the Hmong and Samburu and Walbiri of historic time”; the great socio-political tribes that constitute “the modern nations”—all participate in a big history that Lopez calls this “great, imperfect stretch of human expression” (17).

49But as we have seen, deep time is not just retrospective; it also rushes forward. The futurity of the long now is suggested when Lopez reports that as he stood mesmerized before the horse, he felt that he “had stepped into an unoccupied corridor” (7) —“unoccupied” because its inhabitants are not yet known. Envisioning an extended corridor of time that embraces his own absence, Lopez realizes that what he does now—including, perhaps, writing this essay—can shape that future. Once again, deep temporal continuity is instilled by movement: as with the annual tick of the 10,000-year clock, the ongoing flow of time is enacted by sunlight flowing across an anchor-like human artifact. The resulting perspective is radically relational, both spatially and temporally. As Lopez observes elsewhere, “One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it—like that between the sparrow and the twig” (“Landscape and Narrative” 64). Ecological thinking requires the awareness of a long now in which such interactions with place will play out indefinitely. It prompts us to imagine which artifacts of deep time will remain in the archive that was once called the “American” West: the Clock of the Long Now, Hoover Dam, and, perhaps, the play of light over a stone horse, animated and running in place.

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BRAND, Stewart, Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, New York, Basic Books, 1999.

CHRISTIAN, David, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004.

DIDION, Joan, “At the Dam,” The White Album, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979, 198-201.

DIMOCK, Wai Chee, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008.

GOULD, Stephen Jay, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1987.

HILLIS, Danny “The Milennium Clock,” Wired, Feb. 16, 01995. Web.

KELLY, Kevin, “Clock in the Mountain,” The Long Now Foundation (, accessed 1 Dec. 2013.

LOPEZ, Barry, Crossing Open Ground, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988.

LUCIANO, Dana, “Geological Fantasies, Haunting Anachronies: Eros, Time and History in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘The Amber Gods’”, ESQ, vol. 55, nos.3-4 (2009), 269-303.

MITCHELL, W. J. T., “Romanticism and the Life of Things: Fossils, Totems, and Images,”

Critical Inquiry 28 (2001), 167-284.

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1 The Long Now Foundation ( uses five-digit dates ; the extra zero is intended to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years.

2 For a reading of a nineteenth-century literary text within a framework of geological deep time, see Dana Luciano, “Geological Fantasies, Haunting Anachronies : Eros, Time and History.” Luciano demonstrates how such a reading disrupts and complicates our habitual attachments to conventional narrative structures.

3 For an earlier treatment of what I here call “material narrative,” see W.J.T. Mitchell, “Romanticism and the Life of Things : Fossils, Totems, and Images.” Mitchell argues that as forms of “animal visibility residing on the border between artifice and nature” (176) fossils and totems can “provide a glimpse into the deep past and the deep present of physical things from the different angles of nature and culture” (180).

4 The BLM (Bureau of Land Management), a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, continues to safeguard the location of the stone horse. The BLM has furnished a ground photograph of the geoglyph to accompany this essay.

5 All quotations from “The Stone Horse” and other essays by Barry Lopez refer to page numbers in the 1978 collection Crossing Open Ground.

6 Compare Luciano’s discussion of “eroticized deep time,” especially her insightful reading of “what light is and can do” as it functions in the tropical landscape of [Harriet] Spofford’s story (283-288).

7 Lopez’s claim here anticipates Wai Chee Dimock’s analysis of human/animal inscriptions over deep time: “Honoring that imprint, and honoring also the imprints of other creatures evolving as we do, we take our place as one species among others, inhabiting a shared ecology […]” (6).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Illustration 1
Légende Prototype of the Clock
Crédits Courtesy of the Long Now Foundation
Fichier image/jpeg, 47k
Titre Illustration 2
Légende Clock entry tunnel
Crédits Courtesy of the Long Now Foundation
Fichier image/jpeg, 5,8M
Titre Illustration 3
Légende Stone horse from the ground
Crédits Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management
Fichier image/jpeg, 11M
Titre Illustration 4
Légende Stone horse from above
Crédits Courtesy of Dr. Mark Hows
Fichier image/jpeg, 18k
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Norma Tilden, « Long-Term Consequences: Deep Time in Barry Lopez’s “The Stone Horse” »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 07 janvier 2016, consulté le 16 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Norma Tilden

Georgetown University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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