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Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) by Karel Zeman
Near my apartment, there are ash wetlands shaped by a colony of beavers. The ponds curve between SE 45th Avenue and 52nd Avenue and end in a lot with a Franz Bakery Outlet and a bus stop. Franz Bakery Outlets are markers of liminal spaces. They always seem to exist in areas that don’t know what else to do. I take photographs at the wetlands by pointing my cell phone camera through my binocular lenses. The edges of the frame blur and bend.
I saw a photograph in a birding magazine of a peregrine falcon’s nest scattered with the feathers of past kills. The earth takes what it takes. When we think there is no reason for its patterns, it is actually only reason. Then, when we think we’ve found reason, the environment turns against us and becomes less predictable again. A mohawked wood duck glides under the greasy sun. The fallen ash trees create borders, pools within pools. Because they must. Or because it was chance. It can mean the same thing.
A few months ago a man at the rhododendron garden pointed to an eagles’ nest fifty or a hundred yards from us. He was calm, but I felt the excitement clattering in his body. A Judas Priest ballcap framed his shiny, browned face. I mentioned the wetlands and the owl that lives there. Birds seem to be a uniting force, a reason to ask each other questions. They’re all intuition: direction, energy, gathering. They have a plan without knowing it.
At the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals, children’s art is a rainbow, trilobites like studded tongues.
Journey to the Beginning of Time, a Czech film released in 1955, begins with a child, Jirka, finding a fossilized trilobite in a cave. For a brief moment, as happens in childhood, anything has the potential to be real. Jirka’s fascination is so profoundly earnest as to be heartbreaking. He’s encouraged by his older friends, who venture into the unknown with him via the cave, moving rapidly backward in a rowboat. There is no planning, no questioning, no worrying. There are 500 million years between them and the trilobites.
The river is a transitory portal, and as the boys row down it, they travel through increasingly ancient geological periods. The real river where the film was shot, the Morava, is a tributary of the Danube and has housed humans on its shores for 30,000 years. It’s also a blackwater river, with water like tea. Flowing through forested swamps and wetlands, vegetation decays into these rivers, and tannins stain them.
At night the boys see creatures on the river, silhouetted against the setting sun. A mammoth trudges and calls plaintively toward the water. There are recognizable markers of time: the Holocene’s tools and fire and crude paintings; Tertiary animals, all heat and flamingo. Jirka catches a fish despite the group’s assertion that they are not hunters. They name mountains and make maps, as grown explorers do.
The film ends with the ocean—the primordial being, the inventor of cycles. On Silurian shores, there are no children. Mossy multi-cellular life is just beginning to emerge on land. Jirka touches a trilobite, scavenging in the water. It’s quiet. To come so far only for such emptiness—it takes what it takes.