In a crisis, time feels meaningless. ‘Desert Notebooks’ asks why

A book jacket for Ben Ehrenreich's "Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time."

“The time is out of joint,” Hamlet declares after he’s kicked out of a Zoom meeting.

Actually, he utters the famous line after a visit from his father’s ghost, but who among us hasn’t felt time slip during this pandemic? Days that go by in a flash …. Nights that drag endlessly on …. And why does the arrival of Thursday always feel like a shock?

In his timely new book, “Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time,” a hybrid memoir, travelogue and metaphysical inquiry, Ben Ehrenreich explores how our perception of time changes in a crisis — a crisis like climate change, or COVID-19.

“I think crisis, by interrupting the smooth flow of days, interrupting our expectations for the future, forces a different kind of time on us,” Ehrenreich said recently on a call from his home in Barcelona. “The linear flow is suddenly broken.”

It’s a feeling that Ehrenreich, a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, has experienced before. When he was in the West Bank reporting on the last Gaza war, the subject of his previous book, “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,” he developed the impression that time had “changed its shape … It was like there were pockets inside of time and pockets inside of those pockets. All the usual rhythms had been abandoned.”


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That unease returned in the first few months of the Trump administration. Having recently moved to Joshua Tree, he was hiking in the national park with some friends, discussing the dire state of affairs, when they startled a pair of owls.

“They took to the air in a sudden rustling burst,” Ehrenreich writes in “Desert Notebooks.” Then the owls flew over the canyon walls and disappeared. This scenario repeated several times: the trio spotting the owls, the owls taking flight, the owls reappearing a little farther down the path.

Ehrenreich knew many cultures regard owls as messengers from the underworld. What message did these creatures carry for him, the country or the planet? Was it some kind of omen heralding the new dark ages?

“Desert Notebooks” might feel like an idiosyncratic book from a journalist, but his first two books were fiction with a speculative bent. Ehrenreich had hoped writing about the owls would help him go back to a third novel-in-progress. Instead, he began to investigate the implications of writing as the minute hand on the doomsday clock inched closer to midnight.

Ben Ehrenreich, journalist, novelist and author of "Desert Notebooks."
(Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos)

Once he started digging, Ehrenreich found he couldn’t stop. He fell into “a research hole,” studying Mayan mythology, European prehistory, the industrialization of the West, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, Walter Benjamin and more.

“Every avenue leads to a new avenue,” Ehrenreich said, “and you start making connections to all the things that you are thinking about. When it’s good, and I’m sure this is true of various psychotic forms of obsession, it feels like everything is connecting!”

In “Desert Notebooks,” Ehrenreich fuses the personal with the political in reflections on climate change, the president’s disaster du jour and his extensive reading in the desert.

“I didn’t want to write an abstract philosophical rumination on time,” he said, “because that’s not what I was thinking through. I was trying to figure out something precise that had to do with the times in which we live, with all the crises that had been present but were breaking out into visibility after Trump’s election.”

Though he moved on quickly from the owls, a feeling of foreboding circled the story. “The book needed, both in terms of the kind of impact that I want it to have but also what it’s about, this sense that we are on the precipice, that things are spiraling out, which is very much what pushed me to write it.”

The answers to many of Ehrenreich’s questions lay in the stars. That’s not to say he found an astrological explanation for why we’re suddenly eating ice cream for lunch, takeout for dinner and pancakes for second dinner. The desert allowed him to witness the wonder of the constellations — something he hadn’t experienced during all his years of living in light-polluted cities.

“Our understanding of what a story can be is incomplete,” Ehrenreich said, “because we can only think in terms of other words and other stories and not these celestial galaxies that people for almost all of human history have been relating themselves to.”

We no longer use the heavens to interpret time, and so our lives are linear — built around work calendars, sports seasons, fiscal years. When these organizing principles dissipate in a haze of Zooms and infection curves, is it any wonder we find ourselves asking, “Where did the day go?”

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Ehrenreich, for one, knows where his time is going. He and his partner welcomed a baby girl in January, so it’s baby time all the time. And in spite of a pandemic that touches every corner of the world and civil unrest throughout the United States, he doesn’t fret quite as much over the future.

“The thing that causes the most despair is seeing all of these horrors as we march blindly toward our own destruction,” Ehrenreich said. “At least at the moment we don’t have the excuse that we’re marching blindly. People are making the connections that need to be made, putting their bodies and lives on the line to fight for a better world. That gives me hope.”

Jim Ruland’s new book, “Do What You Want” with Bad Religion, will be available in August.