Time and Tilt
It was Eugene Peterson, translator of the popular “Message” paraphrase of the Bible, who introduced me to a man named Rick Bass. Rick is a writer, former geologist, and an environmentalist. A child of Texas and a product of that state’s oil fields, Bass now actively works to protect the Yaak Valley, a wild, pristine wilderness in northwest Montana not too far from his adopted home of Missoula.
The Yaak, as it is usually shortened, is as rugged and remote as any place in North America, and beautifully so. It’s as if the landscape has gone remarkably undisturbed since the last Ice Age. It’s that Age, with its powerful and pulverizing glaciers, that intrigues Rick Bass.
It used to be, the former Texan says, that whenever he was confronted with a difficult task, he imagined that it was like a building project: Lay a foundation, drive a few nails, stack the bricks and stone. Eventually, with the necessary hard work, the project is completed and the job is done. But after living near the Yaak and studying glaciers for a while, Bass has changed his metaphor.
Glaciers require two things: Time and tilt. As to the time, snow must accumulate over years, decades, and centuries. An inch today, a quarter of an inch tomorrow, a foot next month: It all adds up. The snow deepens, the weight compresses, ice is formed, and when the snowpack exceeds sixty or so feet, it is “glacier-ready.”
That’s where the second requirement comes in: Tilt. The glacier will not begin to move until within the earth’s gyration, there is a wobble in just the right direction. According to Rick Bass, “Glaciers move, simply, miraculously, because the earth is tilting a single one-trillionth of a degree in THIS direction for a long period of time, rather than in THAT direction. And once a glacier starts moving, nothing can stop it.”
This is a sage example for our time, a racetrack age that is characterized by quick riches, immediate downloads, fast food, instant gratification, and high speed internet access. Anything that works slowly is contemptuously regarded as boring, drudgery, or not worth the time. Yet, some things can only be achieved with time.
A marriage or a career; a campaign for justice or equality; properly rearing a child or raising a crop; a vibrant faith or lasting community change: There are no quick fixes for any of these, and the fact is, anything that truly endures does so because of accumulating years and persistently tilting in the right direction.
So don’t quit. Not yet, and not tomorrow either. Rather, take this lesson from a Montana activist to heart: “When the struggle seems insignificant or useless,” says Bass, “I tell myself that little things matter. I believe that even if your heart leans just a few degrees, that with enough resolve, and enough time, a wobble will one day begin. Keep it up, and then one day – it must – the ice will begin to slide.”