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Lifting the Veil

(Excerpted from Coming to Land in a Troubled World, pp 27-41, 2003, Trust for Public Land by Peter Forbes, Kathleen Dean Moore and Scott Russell Sanders. Peter is a conservationist and writer and the founder of the Center for Whole Communities. You can order this book or learn more about Peter's work at

If anyone should come upon this capsule before the year A.D. 6949 let him not wantonly destroy it, for to do so would be to deprive the people of that era of the legacy here left them. Cherish it therefore in a safe place.

- message written on the exterior of the 1938 time capsule

ON SEPTEMBER 23, 1938, as the sun reached directly overhead, five thousand people who had gathered at Flushing Meadow fell into silence. It was the autumnal equinox and the day was unusually clear and cold. They stood on bleachers facing scaffolding that was positioned over a hole dug in the ground. At exactly noon, an ancient Chinese bell was sounded in the background and the scaffolding's steel cables began to pop and groan as a rocket-like, shining cylinder was solemnly lowered fifty feet below the ground.


Within the cylinder, engineers had placed a Pyrex tube, which was first pumped free of air and then filled with nitrogen gas. Into this tube went a lady's hat, a safety pin, a copy of the U.S. Constitution, newspapers, magazines, a copy of the Holy Bible and hundreds of documents of literature and historical records stored on reels of microfilm. Also included was a guide for future civilizations (who, it was assumed, would have moved beyond the English language) to be used in reconstructing our 1938 American speech and communications. Finally, the cylinder contained letters from leading men of the time: Noble Prize—winning physicist Robert A. Millikan, German novelist Thomas Mann, and theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.

The 1938 time "capsule" was the creation of the Westinghouse Company, a corporation that personified America's unharnessed love affair with technology and commerce and that continues to shape the culture being memorialized in the 1938 time capsule. George Westinghouse, born in 1846, was an inventor who created more than sixty companies and was responsible for the development of alternating current, or AC electricity. Westinghouse Company was chartered when George was forty, founded on his innovative notion that a transformer could supply lighting over a wide area. Four years later the Westinghouse Company had installed over 300 central power stations. Westinghouse Company, which is now owned by British Nuclear Fuels, aspires to be the leading global nuclear company. Half of all of the world's nuclear power plants today are based upon Westinghouse technology.

The best technology 1938 had to offer was used in creating the capsule, which consisted of 99.4 percent copper, .5 percent chromium, and .1 percent silver. Likewise, the engineers specified exact physical dimensions: seven feet, six inches in length, eight and three-eighths inches in diameter. The cylinder very closely resembled a rocket, and more than one journalist of the day referred to this new creation as a "time bomb" rather than a "time capsule," a name that later stuck.

"Time bomb" is an interesting explanation for what the men and women of Westinghouse had created in 1938; bombs, of course, were on their minds. Stories of that day--September 23, 1938--suggest that Albert Einstein had arrived secretly from Europe early in the morning and was taken by car to Flushing Meadow were he placed a private letter into the capsule moments before it was sealed. Though no one knows for sure the contents of Einstein's letter, it's very likely that he used it to express privately the same concerns he would express publicly nine months later when he wrote to President Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany was building an Atomic Bomb.

Time capsules are, of course, nothing more than mirrors of their creators. What the capsule looks like and where it is deposited are as revealing as what is placed inside. Just these leaders' intention to create the time capsule makes apparent their strong belief in their own achievements and moment in history. But the 1938 capsule is particularly interesting because it exposes so clearly how Americans seemed to consider themselves in relation to the world, including the far future world. It spoke volumes about our sense of invincibility and narcissism. And also our painful naiveté.

Like a poodle burying a bone in the ground, these leaders sank their time capsule fifty feet below the surface of the earth in order to protect it for future generations. But the two atomic fission bombs that America dropped on Japan in 1945, only seven years later, exploded craters 100 feet down and 800 feet across. These leaders were apparently also unaware that natural changes in the earth's axis and continental drift would change the location of the capsule by hundreds of feet during its internment. They went to great lengths to record the precise coordinates of the capsule's 1938 location--40° 44' 34".089 North Latitude, 73° 50' 43".842 West Longitude--in the Book of Record, printed on permanent paper with special ink and reproduced in 3,000 copies that were sent to libraries, museums and monasteries throughout the world. Copies were sent to Shinto Shrines in Japan where a powerful military regime was swiftly planning the conquest of the rest of Asia. The Book of Record also made its way to India where religious unrest was overshadowed only by protests of colonial rule. And in North America the Book of Record was sent across the nation, from the Library of Congress to small libraries in farming towns of Nebraska and North Dakota and others along the shores of New England.

On that autumn day in 1938 the "Capsule of Cupaloy" began its journey five thousand years into the future--not to be disturbed until the year 6949. With this time capsule, its creators hoped "that we might leave records of our own day for five thousand years hence; to a day when the peoples of the world will think of us standing at history's midpoint." They made it a massive, noble, solemn gesture that captured the imagination of the country in 1938, and which now, with the perspective of history, strikes us as freakishly absurd.

To the people who might find this capsule centuries or even thousands of years hence, they inscribed on its side, "let him not wantonly destroy it, for to do so would be to deprive the people of that era of the legacy here left them. Cherish (the capsule) therefore in a safe place." These words, and the act of burying the capsule fifty feet under the ground, accurately reflect the fear and uncertainty that our leaders felt underneath their own bravado. Nothing could create a safe place in 1938, short of a totally different way of living and being in relation with the world, and they must have known this deep inside themselves.

The creators of the time capsule believed that 1938 was a momentous era worthy of positive record. Surely this must be true of every age that seeks to create a history of itself. But on this occasion, history has shown us that 1938 was the threshold of a horrible story. 1938 was the last year that we had the right to call something "unbelievable." In their most violent display of anti-Semitism yet, German Nazis attacked Jewish people and property in Kristallnacht. Hitler annexed Austria. Mexico nationalized its petroleum industries. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French leaders made the historic "mistake" of appeasing Germany at Munich. Here in America, Woody Guthrie took his one-man, pro-labor folk music show on the road while most Americans were transfixed, instead, by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney's first full-length animated film.

Perhaps there is a fair connection between the 1938 time capsule and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; both offered cartoon-like, peaceful, happy visions of the world. Perhaps that capsule is better described as a time "balm" than a time bomb, in that we used it to make us feel better about or deny what we were doing to the world around us. Even the objects chosen to be included in this time capsule--the lady's hat, the Holy Bible, the reels of microfilm--seem woefully inadequate representations of American culture. The time capsule was the creation of leaders that some have called "our greatest generation," but what was left out was the evidence of the destructiveness and violence of this generation. Not only Walt Disney but also Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb, represented this era. Teller believed that, "we would be unfaithful to the tradition of western civilization if we shied away from exploring what man can accomplish, if we fail to increase man's control over nature." The last sixty-five years have brought about more human death and species extinction than any other time since the ice age. Time capsules are mirrors, direct evidence of our illusions about ourselves, the evidence of our blindness. Sixty-five years later, what are we still blind about? How might we continue to be deluding and diminishing ourselves?

The second millennium inspired renewed efforts at creating time capsules. The New York Times launched the most ambitious effort yet, which can be seen, theoretically, for the next 1,000 years above the ground in front of the American Museum of Natural History. The capsule, a 5' X 5' X 5' sculpture of welded stainless steel, was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, whose entry was chosen for its startling beauty. It is hopeful that beauty, not a burial underground, might be what will preserve this capsule for the next one thousand years.

Many of the fifty design entrees for the Millennium Capsule were brilliantly inventive, like Jargon Lanier's proposal to load our millennial data onto the DNA of a truly long-lived species, the cockroach, and then simply to allow the cockroach to do what it has already done remarkably well for millions of years: thrive. Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam memorial, conceived a plan of a metaphor of trees representing the bridge between heaven and earth. She suggested ten English Ivy trees planted at ritual intervals from the capsule, which would be buried deep below Central Park. The pattern of planting would be a proportional spiral used in classical architecture that is found throughout nature--in leaves and trees, the human body and the spirals in sunflowers and seashells, known as the Golden Section. Even after the trees died, their spiral root patterns would remain and lead to the capsule.

The New York Times capsule, which set out to "chronicle life in the late 20th century," was two years in the making and solicited the suggestions and the expertise of many thousands of Americans. When the capsule was sealed on April 26, 2001 it included hundreds of objects, books and records, among them:

Anti-shoplifting "Gator tag" from Wal-Mart; barbed wire; firearms registration form; advertisement for a Ford Expedition sport utility vehicle; Motorola cellular phone, battery, and brochure; Protector Plus condoms

from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; Vial of penicillin from Mantes-la-Jolie, France; Section 17 of the Indian Constitution from Bharatpur, India; Nickel LP record containing sounds of the late twentieth century; David Letterman top ten list; wild apple seeds from Kazakhstan; perception of tones: pitch and loudness scales; a copy of the National Enquirer, the Holy Bible in multiple translations; 27 hair samples; Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech; Alcoholics Anonymous book and pamphlets; Internal Revenue Service Federal Income Tax Form 1040 (2000).

At the installation and dedication of the capsule, Jack Rosenthal, then editor of the New York Times Magazine said, "Think of the signals we'd be sending if we had gathered today to bury a barrel: concealment, pessimism, fear of the future, death. Now think of the signals that this capsule sends to the next 40 generations: openness, optimism, confidence and trust. That, finally, is why today is so satisfying. With this capsule, we declare our faith in the future. With this work of art, we send forward our celebration of life."

We send forward our celebration of life. These are indeed meaningful and optimistic words, ideas worth living for. But are they true reflections of our generation? Have we overcome the fear and uncertainty of 1938? Are we living a different relationship with the world around us? Even the most cursory look at our times suggests a world that remains at war with itself and with all of life. In fairness to the New York Times, they faced this truth directly with two honest articles that appeared in the New York Times Magazine and which were also sealed in the time capsule itself. Jared Diamond wrote about who, in terms of humans, might still be around in the year 3000:

Nuclear conflict, for all its horror, might not kill everybody. Still, bombs or fallout might destroy every big city on every continent. The only targets that no one will bother to bomb are remote oceanic islands. Their populations will most likely survive, but they will face a problem: almost all of those remote islands are formed of volcanic lava or coral; they are completely without metal deposits. Perhaps there will be enough salvageable scrap metal, but if not, the island populations could, imaginably, relapse into the Stone Age. Only New Zealand has metal deposits and is sufficiently large and populous to retain books and knowledge of metal technology Whoever those post nuclear New Zealanders are, it is they who in this scenario would eventually visit the bombed-out and lifeless continents, poke around in the ruins and discover and open the Times Capsule...

There is another type of holocaust, even more likely to halt business as usual. Already, today, we live amid an accelerating environmental calamity as we destroy the world's remaining natural forests, wetlands and fisheries, pollute its air, soil and water and approach the limits of our planet's photosynthetic capacity. It already seems likely that all the accessible supplies of fresh water will before long bump up against the needs of the growing world population--even if that growth rate continues to slow

One possible outcome will be familiar to readers of "Riddley Walker," Russell Hoban's chilling depiction of a postnuclear England, bombed back if not to the Stone Age then to no more than the leather-and-wood age. Anyone who has seen a "Road Warrior" movie has a graphic feel for such a primitive society. And that might be the best of it. With only salvage metal on hand, much of humanity would be reduced to the state of hunter-gatherers.

Included in the time capsule was also an article titled, "A Field Guide to the Sixth Extinction" written by Niles Eldridge, a paleontologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History, which began:

Species are built to last. The rich fossil record of marine life over the past half-billion years tells us that the likes of clams, corals and crabs typically endure well over five million years. On land, where environmental change more readily upsets the ecological apple cart, the life expectancies of mammals are shorter (though still impressive, on the order of one million to two million years). And yet, here we are at the brink of the year 2000, asking an unnerving question: what species on earth right now will not be here when people open the Times Capsule in the year 3000?

Yet the sad fact is that we are living amid a sixth extinction event--one that, according to the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, is costing the earth some 30,000 species a year. Biologists estimate that there are at least 10 million species on earth right now. At this rate, the vast majority of the species on earth today will be gone by the next millennium. Ever since humans domesticated plant crops and barnyard animals beginning some 10,000 years ago, our numbers have shot up from an estimated six million to six billion. We have engaged in a radical, systematic transformation of the world's ecosystems--replacing grasslands and woodlands with arable fields, cities, suburbs, malls and roadways. We have exploited dwindling stands of timber and fisheries; we have fouled the earth, the atmosphere and even much of the oceans; and we have introduced alien species around the globe. In short, we bear an uncanny resemblance to those Cretaceous comets...

We need the wild congeners of our increasingly homogeneous domestic crops to replenish their genetic diversity. But beyond such practical matters lies a moral question: how can we condone, however passively, the destruction of our fellow species?

What will be long dead when the times capsule is opened in 3000 according to Eldridge? Tigers, many songbirds, pollock, prairie dogs, mahogany, truffles, the African black rhinoceros, the African wild dogs, the Hawaiian coot, the Galapagos penguin, honeybees, the musk ox, among millions and millions of other species of life.

How do we make sense of our desire to send forward our celebration of life when we are contributing directly to the death of some 30,000 species of life per year?

What do we make of this urge, as reflected by time capsules, to preserve a part of ourselves when we are so clearly destroying the world around us? Time capsules can be valuable and enlivening when they honestly challenge us with questions about ourselves. What do we have today that truly endures? What do we want the people of the future to look back and say about us? What might we give to future generations that is real, alive, true? What are we doing today that represents the full possibility of the human spirit?

I struggle with time capsules because they do not discern between fact and fiction, between what we say and what we do, between our real lives on this earth and the lies we allow ourselves to tell. Time capsules strike me as a human disconnect: that in 2001 we could celebrate the enormous diversity in our culture by placing examples of it into a steel box that will last 1,000 years while simultaneously presiding over the greatest die-off of life in 65 million years. We somehow believe that these artifacts, found by a future generation wholly diminished by the legacy of the past, would say anything other than "damn them." Ultimately, time capsules are about objects as opposed to relationships, and therefore they reinforce the illusion of separation between us and the rest of life. This is an increasingly dangerous notion, one that will certainly kill us. That we can save ourselves while destroying the rest of life is as absurd and immoral as believing that any group of humans could or should create a master race by committing genocide.

Let's take the noble inspiration behind time capsules to ask ourselves how might we truly send forward our celebration of life? How might we create a world, to quote the 1938 time capsule, that the future might cherish? How might we create a time capsule not about objects but about relationships? There are answers in what Rabbi Malka Drucker has written about her people's relationship with Torah:

For three thousand years, Jews have kept their sacred text, Torah. If we'd stopped with the mere preservation of our oral tradition by putting it in writing, it's not likely we'd still be able to read it. What saved us was not the physical evidence of our civilization, but the constant reading and wrestling with the text to find ourselves within it. We became the holders, the containers of the written text. We became the time capsules for culture, ideas, and dreams of our family.

We've learned that not even bedrock will preserve anything forever. We call God ha tzur, the rock, because God is the ultimate bedrock, and that immortal substance can only be carried within our physically frail and temporary bodies, yet the word of God, our stone, is what will last forever as long as we keep speaking it. The most precious part of our lives can never be touched. We can touch our noses, but we cannot touch our love, our sense of what is beyond ourselves. Yet we know it, feel it, and through Torah we've learned a way to speak to our children 1000 years from now.

Torah is cryptic, problematic historically, not always great literature, and not always moral. Yet it lives and teaches how to live, because it births our deepest questions and dreams in its very mystery. Let our legacy to the world be a new kind of time capsule, one that is neither buried nor physical, yet one that will last at least another 1000 years. Let us show a new way to preserve the past and at the same time speak to new generations of a new day, a day without war and injustice.

The survival of a scroll is not our triumph. Rather, it's our study of it, our belief in its vision of a perfected world one day, and our faith in Torah's power to purify and enlighten us. Generations of time capsules have given us a document that has empowered us to be like God, active creators in repairing the world.

We can create a new kind of time capsule, not a container for our vanities, but an authentic source of inspiration for how we might better live. This time capsule would challenge our perception of ourselves by being a mirror of our daily relationships with the life around us. Because it lives with us, this time capsule would demand that we grapple every day with its meaning. Most importantly, this time capsule would not be judged by the fabulous and interesting creations we put into it, but by the quality of our relationship to it: by our respect and kinship. We would not place objects of our creation into this time capsule but place, instead, our acceptance of its mystery and our expressions of faith.

Let us think today of how we inhabit the land as the most important time capsule that we might ever create. It shows that we are more concerned about the living heritage we leave for future generations than about any image of ourselves. What we write on the land is a more enduring and accurate reflection of who we are than the artifacts we display. This time capsule says that what we choose to do with the tools we invent is more important than the tools themselves.

Every year I make a pilgrimage to a time capsule. I hike as deep as I can into the red rock canyons of the Cedar Mesa to welcome spring, to hear silence, to briefly escape the mud season of my native New England, and--most importantly--to see one thing. There's a particular natural arch that I always have in mind. At its base can still be seen the evidence of five hundred years of human life: pottery shards, the hollowing in the rock where corn was ground, and the handprints. They always startle me. Hands smaller than my own, still precise with white paint on red rock saying, "I am alive. I have lived."

Perhaps these beautifully subtle explanations of ancient pueblo life are really no different than the woman's hat included in the 1938 capsule or the samples of hair that were taken for the 2001 capsule. All three certainly speak of our determination to express a record of our lives, but what the Puebloans left us, simply left there in nature exposed to hundreds of years of sun, wind and rain, seems so much more enduring, so much more evocative of what I aspire to for myself. The handprints go directly through my rational mind into an ancient memory space that is still connected to the greater world, that knows no distinction between the outline of the human form and the red rock of the canyon itself. It speaks to the part of me that recognizes my own breath in the constellations of Orion. I stare at the handprints because they reconnect me with my own highest aspirations for living: to be in relation to the world around me. The handprints are powerful because they are there, on the rock, still expressing whatever human emotion created them: awe, laughter, fear, anger. One cannot observe them without also smelling sage and earth, without hearing the soliloquy of the canyon wren. I think of the hundreds of generations of deer and mountain lion, and of the hundreds of humans, who, passing through this canyon, have seen these handprints, and moved on. While they are just pigment etched on sandstone, it is their relationship with that place that gives them life. I, too, am nothing more than water and minerals. It is only through my relationships that I transform that water and minerals into a story. And I aspire for that story to be grounded in truth, compassion and a level of awareness of what is going on around me.

I have faith that most Americans recognize that their true wealth or security isn't in their bank accounts, but comes from the stories we can tell about the people, creatures, and places that we rely upon. Our prosperity and security as people and as members of the natural world can only be determined by the quality of our relationships with the world around us, the degree to which we are embedded in the ecological community. This is true for every species of life on this planet. The only honest and truly enduring time capsule is how we live each day in relation to other life, not what we store in a box or accumulate in a bank account.

I also have faith that even as we have witnessed the death of humans, the death of places, and the death of other species, and despite the many lies we have told ourselves about how and why these deaths occurred, we still have the capacity to envision and enact another way of living. Each day, we have the chance to live differently.

Our relationships to land, whether it be a garden on a city block, the knowledge of where our food comes from, or the deep wildness found in a range of forests, rivers and mountains, is the only enduring human story: it is the only story that we can tell about ourselves, now or long into the future, that will be understood and valued. It is the only authentic time capsule for our children's children. And every day it raises important questions of mythic proportions. How do we want to be? Do we surrender fully to a culture defined by our own gratification, our own self-preservation and our own death by alienation? Or, do we define ourselves by our tolerance, our sense of self-restraint, and our determination to love and to be loved?

Our most noble and profound time capsule is the daily act of struggling to re-assert our healthy human relationship with the rest of life, to create a new attitude, vision and reality for ourselves. This is the restoration of our lives into the larger story of life.