Dawn of the Heliocene

I was born on the summer solstice in an age without a name.

My parents were born in a previous geological epoch. Six unknowing months before the start of the Great Depression, my father arrived. His given name was Richard, but as soon as his hair came in, he was Red. He would become a keeper of junkyards—overgrown lost worlds of relic chariots. I was a fledgling junk collector, sent out to prod garbage dumps for lost treasures: no plastics allowed, just wood or metal. My mother was born on VE Day, her bones still untainted by the nuclear bombs that would come a few months later, ushering in a new epoch. Her first name was Margery but everyone called her Eliza.

It was less than a century ago that my parents were born in the Holocene—the “recent whole” that constitutes the interglacial epoch that commenced 11,720 years ago.1 In the geological time scale, an epoch represents a major shift in Earth’s climate—longer than an age, but shorter than a period, era, and eon.2 The root ‘cene’ comes from the Greek Kainos, meaning recent or new. Some geologists think the Holocene has come to a close and a new epoch has arisen, brought about by human perturbation to the Earth’s carbon and nutrient cycles.3 The Anthropocene is the proposed name,4 to acknowledge the force that has derailed the Holocene from its previous climate trajectory.5 While “Anthropocene” is already in wide use, it has not been ratified into the geological time scale, which first requires clear documentation of a time and place to mark its origins. Luckily, this has bought us some time to reconsider the right name for our unfolding epoch.

My name was supposed to be Kate. Planned for nearly 20 years—a pact between my mother and her college roommate to each name their first daughter Kate. My mother’s friend upheld her end of the bargain, but then there I was, a solstice changeling, revealing my true name. I am glad they listened. “You look like your name” is the comment I get when first meeting someone. It always makes me wonder what I might have looked like had my name been Kate—how much we shape the name or it shapes us.

Deirdre Cavanagh is a painter and poet who lives in Maine. This painting is from a series, , a visual extension of , three cycles of poems that track early world myths in a contemporary time

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