The Time Capsule Narrative

Image via Lucian Alexe on

In Sharon Olds’ poem “Ode to Dirt,”  the speaker opens with an apology, explaining

I thought you were only the background

for the leading characters—the plants

and animals and human animals.

Thinking about parts of nature in isolation from other parts is an all too familiar tendency.  The act of overlooking the role of soil in favor of admiring the plant is as relatable as the imagery used in the speaker’s analogy for representing this omission: It’s as if I had loved only the stars / and not the sky which gave them space / in which to shine.  Being mindful of how we think about part-whole relationships is a key aspect of shifting human attention to the role every part plays in the interrelated ecosystems sustaining our planet home.

In my first Moving Writers post, I described my search for short stories where the natural environment was not set up merely as a backdrop for human drama.  Our students need access to stories that convey the urgency of the need for humans to adjust their behavior and attitudes towards nature, since its ongoing exploitation promises to play a direct role in the extinction of the species.  Margaret Atwood’s short story “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet” offers this type of reading opportunity: to understand how focusing only on short-term gratification ignores the collective opportunity for long-term flourishing.

Identifying Atwood’s craft moves helped my students and I create a bank of storytelling features that we could later reference when thinking about environmental messaging in any genre.  By thinking about the craft moves of writers who create a message of urgency about the need for environmental stewardship, students are given practice and exposure to the habits of mind needed to adjust the human relationship to an increasingly damaged planet.

Same As It Ever Was

Though most of us were familiar with the concept of a time capsule, none of us had assembled one ourselves.  When asked to consider the motivation for putting one together, my students offered a range of reasons, listed below:

A material collection of objects gives permanence to something ultimately ephemeral in nature: our interests, our passions, the milestones of our lives.  Some quick internet sleuthing unearthed tales about the 1876 Century Safe, a time capsule containing a book of temperance and photographs of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, among other things.  Many of my students made note of a time capsule made by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in 1795 and unsealed in 2015, which contained items such as coins dating to the 1600s and a copper medal with the image of “General of the American Army” George Washington.  In a whimsical turn of events, the 1992 Nickelodeon Time Capsule, full of kid-approved items such as a VHS copy of Home Alone and roller blades, is intended to be open in 2042. 

As we began to settle in our impressions of a time capsule being a type of gift from one generation to another, reading Atwood’s story completely upended our expectations.  Broken into five sections, the narrator relays the four ages of human history in a message left for any visitors to a planet now bereft of life.  The fifth and final section shifts into second person point of view:

You who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words:

Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.

The time capsule found on this planet subverts our expectations of the anachronistic “snapshot” conveyed through a collection of objects.  Instead of shedding light on a particular era, the entire scope of human history is communicated in a tone alternately remorseful and elegiac.  

Relaying the history of the planet, the narrator describes distinct stages of human activity, all pertaining to an object of worship.  My student Nathan’s notebook writing captures the cause-and-effect relationship:

Craft Noticings

My students identified the craft moves they felt could be easily transferred to new writing contexts, regardless of genre:

  • the shift from first-person point of view to second-person point of view
  • repetition that gestures toward a theme
  • closing with a call to action

My student Estrella remarked that the shift from first-person point of view to second-person point view creates a key shift in tone.  What had been described in an unfolding, linear style assumed a tone of hopefulness – a hope to be heard.  My student Angel identified a key repetition with a twist: in the second age, humans believed that if you had enough money, “you would be able to fly.”  However, by the story’s closing, the image of flight connects to a poignant call to action: “Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”  The Icarus-like aspiration to soar higher and higher with accumulated wealth is framed as a cautionary tale ignored by the dead planet’s inhabitants.

Key Takeaways

  • Thinking about human greed across multiple time scales helped us understand past/present/future impacts to our lands and water.  This practice is useful for thinking about sustaining the planet beyond the needs of the current generation.
  • My student Christopher concluded that time capsules might tempt us to oversentimentalize history.  A few objects representing a moment in time might not do justice to the complexity of that slice of time, or might come to dominate what we imagine about that bygone era.
  • Planning just for the short-term neglects our responsibility towards our descendants.  Thinking about the role every generation has to play can help us avoid narrow self-preoccupation.

Adding a Dot to the Timeline

As my students and I begin to wrap up our school year, we’ve been thinking about what it means to write for an unknown audience – specifically, what it means to direct a message to a future generation.  Reading Atwood’s “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet” gave us the opportunity to think about the lessons we wish to impart to others, as well as to imagine what ephemera we wish to preserve.  The notion of burying things with meaning, in the effort to communicate with an unknown, future audience had a special resonance for my seniors, who are on the cusp of graduation and are taking stock of memories as they transition into a new phase of their lives.

To help my students begin to write their own time capsule narratives, I wrote an example of the type of message I would like to share with future generations about living during a global pandemic.  I began by playing with key uses of repetition (“color”) to suggest a new source of joy: 

When I imagine myself in the future, I imagine looking backwards and missing the pancake mornings.  During the first month of the shelter-in-place orders, there were beautiful chalk drawings on the sidewalk outside my kitchen window.  I savored the sight as I waited for the pancake batter to cook.  These drawings reminded me of other colorful scenes encountered during my evening walks, some including birthday wishes, some including mask-wearing reminders.  These drawings were little islands of color, dappled by sun.  Remnants of mischief energy spooling over into the nooks and crannies of concrete.  Everything about this time seemed brand-new: the frequent handwashing, the longing to see my family, the long days full of screen time.  Sometimes, my thoughts seemed to float up above me like fleeing birds, as I tried to guess what the timeline of this pandemic would be.  But making banana pancakes, a mainstay of my childhood, filled me with a sense of calm.  Looking at these chalked scenes while waiting for the pancakes to cook anchored me to the ground with a hopeful sense of enchantment – the simple box recipe a spell for calming one’s nerves.

What short stories have you added to your mentor text collection?  What are your experiences with using texts in one genre as mentor texts for writing in another?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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