On the screen of my phone, underneath my fingers, 100 Notre Dame cathedrals are burning. They burn from every angle and from all directions. They rage into an angry conflagration of data, a video storm that glows red hours after the real fire has been extinguished; in a minute, the spire falls before my eyes 1,000 times.
It feels as if the world watches it burn together. On social media, words of shock turn to superlatives, to laments for this exquisite example of French Gothic architecture. The magnificent structure took nearly 200 years to build and has stood nearly 700 years since its completion, and now it is disappearing into a tower of flame.
There is good news, we learn later. The cathedral is ravaged, but not ruined. The oak roof is reduced to ash and cinder but the stone vault survived, as did the bell towers and — as far as we know — all of the cathedral’s most precious relics. It will be restored and, though it may take years, it will be beautiful again.
Yet in these first hours, as photos and videos of the fire surge over social media, it’s all too much. The ache of the Notre Dame blaze washes over my body, forces me to sit down, legs trembling like I’d taken a blow to the guts. A sorrow that draws on something deeper than a building, or the plaintive chorus crying out for its salvation.
Which makes me wonder: how can you grieve a place you’ve never been to, a beauty you’ve never really seen?
In April 2018, two accomplished scientists, Gavin Schmidt and Adam Frank, published a paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology. It was part geologic science, part thought experiment, hinging on a mind-bending question: what if humans aren’t the first species on this planet to have raised an industrial civilization?
The point of the paper was not to suggest that there was a non-human civilization that predated our own. There is no evidence of that fact, and neither scientist believes it to be the case. Rather, their question was a more fundamental one, about the depths of time; if there had been such a civilization, how would we even know it?
Humans, after all, have existed for about 300,000 years, just a sneeze in the planet’s 4.5-billion-year life. Our industrial civilization — the kind that dramatically affects the environment and burns staggering levels of carbon — is much younger still. No matter how established we feel, homo sapiens are the new kids on the block.
And we cannot clearly see very far back in time, because time is a powerful recycler. The fossil record is fragmented. The surface of the planet has long since been refreshed; "go back much farther than the Quaternary (2.6 million years ago)," Frank wrote in the Atlantic, "and everything has been turned over and crushed to dust."
So this is what Frank and Schmidt wanted to know: if another species had raised an industrial civilization on Earth about 50 million years ago, and flourished for 100,000 years before collapsing — 500 times longer than ours has so far existed — what traces of their existence would be left today, and could we have missed them?
In fact, the scientists determined, evidence of such a civilization could indeed become hidden in the geologic record. Carbon spikes would be clear but, due to the vast time frames involved, difficult to differentiate from natural events. Fertilizer and other chemicals in sediment might not be understood as detritus of an advanced species.
Meanwhile, nearly everything else that hypothetical civilization had done — all it had built, known, dreamed, created — would have long since vanished. Which means that someday, another species might be searching the layers of the Earth for traces of us and, finding none, assume themselves to be the first to such prominence.
This thought is somehow both comforting — the Earth can heal from what we’ve done — and troubling, because it emphasizes the very impermanence of us, one that human minds are by nature not well-equipped to imagine. We struggle to envision a planet without us, because without us, does what we create have any meaning?
I come back to this thought on Sunday night, during the final-season première of Game of Thrones. Existential crises are bread and butter for this show, and when three of the show’s more time-hardened characters pause to watch two young protagonists flirting in a courtyard, it slips into the script again.
The respect that youths give to their elders, one character says, is "how the young keep us a distance, so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth."
And what is that?
For as long as I can remember, I have loved old things — the more mundane the better. Vulgar graffiti in the latrines of Pompeii. Old medicine bottles with the sticky dregs of some unfortunate concoction still in the bottom. Things made and held and used by human hands, things that somehow escaped time’s destruction.
I travel as much as I am able. I chase old things across the world, from Boston to Kyoto. I know little about art, but when I gaze on artworks by old masters, I bring my nose as close to the canvas as stone-faced security guards will allow, close enough to see the imprint of brush bristles. Someone was here. Someone made this impression.
And I often think about how once, people escaping a burning house risked their lives to save the family photos; soon, after a full generation of digital immersion has passed, such a risk will be unthinkable. Now, the photos are always somewhere. The house will burn down, but Facebook will — in the short term, at least — still be there.
Yet the very abundance of images accords them less value. When the record of our lives and so much of our knowledge is online, moments rescued from time become disposable. Everything is fungible. Everything is forever. Data can be erased, but on the internet, it is just as often spread, screenshotted, captured.
I go out for a drink with a friend. We idly scroll through Instagram, pointing out a few curated self-images with cursory interest. ("That doesn’t even look like you," he says.) I remember cradling photo albums on my thighs and sliding my fingertips over the acetate that protects them, tracing familiar faces, each print precious and irreplaceable.
At the bar, I browse through a few more digital pictures, then shut off my phone. It’s not the same.
Old things are the antidote to this malaise of abundance. They exist once, only in one place at a time, and can never be recreated. They move stoically through the centuries, saved from the abyss by luck or intention, and the respect we accord their survival serves to protect an impossible promise: some things do indeed last.
So old things are the inheritance, the things passed down the line, the objects that stretch back in time and connect generations. Buildings bind these ties well. To stand underneath some ancient temple or 12th-century cathedral or the ceiling of some humble but historic home is to feel how the worlds we create can live on.
But in truth, all we build is destined for dust, and the ghost of that future danced in the inferno of Notre Dame.
So that is what many of us grieved as it burned. The significance and magnificence of it, yes, but also the fact that we were witnessing the possible collapse of an edifice that — by standing as long as it did — whispered of a dream that can go on forever. If Notre Dame had fallen, so too would part of our faith in being remembered.
The good news is that for now, it survives. It is badly damaged, as all things come to be by time, but it retains its splendour. And the grief that rippled across continents, knotting in chests, offered a stirring reminder of the hope rooted in old things, a hope that will linger until there are no old things left.