One Thousand Words for Time

Time for a Tree

“If I were to ask you about time…” the question came as if from nowhere, “What would you say?”

“About time? What would I say about time? Who would ask such a question?” As I wondered, I saw him emerge, dark and heavy, from the recesses of my mind. He was old to be sure. His age belied by the long, deep valleys in his skin, their weathered peaks, rimmed with the lighter fluff of lichens and mosses, blurring the boundaries where he ended and began. All these images whispered, not only of age, but of cavernous vastness within each of his crannies, of stories, rich and layered, fold after fold, in his memory.

He was a vibratory presence, even when not speaking. He was a deep bass note, massive like an elephant, so low as to be more felt than heard. It penetrated my entire being in a way that could easily terrify, if it did not feel so good, so solid, so safe, like my own voice rising powerfully, straight from the core of the earth, rumbling up my body, through my chest and throat, the deep satisfaction of a panther’s purr, eyes half-closed. Like the traction between foot and asphalt at the moment of the starting gun’s shot, the built-up tension of potential energy pressing forward, against gravity, into motion.

“Now, if you were to ask me about time, that would be another story all together!” He chuckled heartily, jostling his expansive crown of leaves in such a way that I could not tell if he had laughed every squirrel lose from their naps in his branches, or if the squirrels’ sudden activity had tickled him.

“I could tell you about time, alright.” He went on with a twinkle, (or was that just the sunlight dancing through the leaves?) “But, you’d never believe me.” And I’m pretty sure he winked, though I’d have a hard time saying exactly where his eye was if I had to show you. And that was all he said. So I was left with these questions. What was time to me, and what was time to a tree?

One Thousand Words for Time

Now if I were to try to describe a tree’s experience of time, certain people would fall over themselves, pointing their fingers and screaming “Anthropomorphism! You can’t project your experience onto an inanimate object!”

“And what of it?” I say. We know time as an object, the drone of the clock ticking away, regularly, ad infinitum. And we also know that this is not the half of it. If the clock is a dragon’s spinal plates, then time is her underbelly, her fire breath, her wings, her spiked tail, and her iridescent egg. There is more to time than the clock. We know that times flies, time dawdles, and that time, on occasion, steps just outside of view, so that we can experience the rare wonder of timelessness, like the simple, quiet, stillness of freshly laid snow in moonlight.

They say the Eskimos have a thousand words for snow. Surely, a people somewhere have as many words for time. For I am certain, that the time in which I sit, here on this dock, a stone’s throw from Deep Eddy and two seasons’ turn from the opening scene, watching the steam rise from the Lady Bird Lake and the ice fall from the trees as the woods thaw, this time is not the same time as the split second in which I decide between my book and boy, not the same time in which a commuter, on the MoPac bridge, two hundred yards from here, sits in their car, in traffic, on the phone, watching the brake lights of the car ahead of them, trying not to watch the clock’s silent criticism.

Surely, the time of a birthing mother is not the same time as a doctor scheduling a c-section. Surely, the time of a child, watching an ant carry a leaf, is not the same time of his mother rushing him to soccer practice. Surely, the time in which one sings is not the same as the time in which one weeps. Surely, there must be a thousand words for time. Perhaps, we will yet become the people with a thousand words for time.

Just because two people may have common word for time, that does not mean they have a common experience of time. Just because another being does not have a word for time, does not mean they do not have an experience of time. Language breeds complacency, as if naming something somehow makes a thing less unknowable. The known-ness of a thing never makes it less unknowable. This is a central mystery. We can gather as much information as we want and more discovery always awaits.

While we can never say what another’s experience of time is exactly, we might find similarities between our experience and that of a tree through the uniquely textured surges of the seasons, rather than the blank regularity of the clock. We see no macroscopic evidence that a tree divides time into the slices as small as a clock’s hours, minutes, or seconds. The tree does however, respond to the changes of sunlight and of seasons, recording each passing of the year with another embodied layer.

An experience of time depends on memory. Do trees remember? Well, they have written it down haven’t they? They can tell us how much rain there was in any given year of their life, or in which year fire licked around their ankles, or even how hard winter will be this year based on how and when the color of their leaves begin to shift from chlorophyll green to amber, gold, russet, and fire.

Cellular memory is not transmitted so much by words, as by feeling, or by instinctual action. Our bodies, just as trees’ bodies, carry these memories too. Layered year upon year, these memories create our posture, stance, body language, our hungers and aversions, emotional patterns, and unconscious knowing. All these exist quietly, buried under blankets of a busy mind’s thoughts, words, and rationalizations. The body’s knowing, an unconscious knowing, exists beyond the mind’s space-time limitations. The mind’s function in time is limited only by imagination.

Our ancestors imagined our species into the ability to remember: noticing day and night, noticing cycles of menstruation in time with the moon’s, noticing spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer, autumn, winter. We imagined ourselves into rhythm, song, and poetry, the first tools, into art, into writing, recognizing predicting planetary patterns in storied stars, into weapons, sailing ships, interchangeable parts, assembly lines, printing presses, internal combustion, trips to the moon, cell phones, video chats, Google, and Facebook.

Trees remember all right. All bodies remember, whether their porphyrin rings contain the magnesium that makes chlorophyll green, the iron that makes blood red, or the copper that makes octopi and spider blood blue. Whether made of proteins or cellulose, scales or fur, ice or stone, all bodies remember. And memories speak. To learn all the names for time, one just has to learn to listen, and to remember to believe what one hears.

Listening Without Words

The first lesson in learning to listen is remembering to use more than one’s ears. Consider listening with fingers, nose, tongue, eyes, or heart. The heart is perhaps the contemporary human’s least developed and most essential sense organ. In the same way the ear hears or the eye sees, the heart imagines. This imagining allows one to peer, with humble audacity, into the hearts of other beings and to attune one’s experience to theirs, to connect, and to create a common reality.

As the archetypal psychologist James Hillman said, “For a relationship to stay alive, love alone is not enough. Without imagination, love stales into sentiment, duty, boredom. Relationships fail not because we have stopped loving but because we first stopped imagining.”[1] Thus, it is only by attempting to imagine the experience of the tree, the meadow lark, or one’s partner, that one continues to deepen the love in their relationships and continue to honor the other as worthy of their attention and ponderings.

Perhaps through condemning the imagined understandings of the natural world, western culture has fallen out of love with the natural world. This lack of love contributes to a culture so detached from the surrounding natural world that young people suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder.[2] This failure of imagination can create adults who easily rationalize using a chainsaw to rip into the flesh of a thousand year old tree, in order to build a redwood deck on someone’s third vacation home–a profound desecration hidden under a veil of dollar bills.

Allowing one’s imagination to run dry, dammed by the concrete schedules of city life, one becomes a cubicle cog in the machinery of consumption, voraciously consuming the earth and human lives to build “economic progress” for a slim percentage of the whole. To sustain a healthy, alive relationship with this planet, seems to require a reawakening of the imagination.

At the writing of this book in the years surrounding 2012, the world is in the thick of what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy refers to as the Great Turning, a revolution from a culture entrenched in the ecocide of industrial growth to one that re-prioritizes sustaining life. We are at a historical crossroads where the survival of our species on this planet[3] requires nothing less than a phase transition and corresponding emergence of a new level of consciousness in order to deal with the increasing complexity, globalization, and corresponding environmental devastation that we imagined ourselves into.

The crisis at hand is not only the shattering of the biosphere’s ecological complexity or the disparity of wealth. It is the crisis of individual souls trying to survive in a world where it seems that survival requires the participation in the perpetuation of the above-mentioned disasters. Modern human’s accelerating pace of life demands a momentum that leaves little time for reflection, big picture thinking, or imagining new ways of living in the world. Both personally and globally, this era involves a crisis of humanity’s relationship with time, and thus with paradox. How can we possibly keep up and what will happen if we do?

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know,” as St. Augustine of Hippo put it in the 4th century CE. The concept of time remains as slippery today as Augustine found it 1600 years ago. Why would anyone want to wrestle with such a paradoxical beast? Perhaps it is precisely the nature of paradox, and how the western mind’s logical systems systematically deny and ignore paradox, that could stand a second look.

I need my heart and my imagination to survive the deadening precision of modernity and to understand the mystery of experiential time, but I do not know if I could trust them, precisely because of their lack of precision. I know I cannot rely entirely on science either, but need it equally. Like EB White who woke every morning, “torn between the desire to save the world and the inclination to savor it,” I too hope to both save and savor, though I am so sure the two require entirely different directions.

[1] Hillman, James. 1999. The force of character: and the lasting life. p 186. New York: Random House.

[2] Louv, Richard. 2005. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books.

[3] Honestly, the human species, in its entirety, is unlikely to face extinction. We are far too adaptable. We are however entirely dependent on the biosphere’s functioning ecology for food, air and water. The biosphere is also highly adaptable and will likely pare down species that disrupt its healthy balance. We are making the conditions for life increasingly difficult for all species on this planet, including members of our own species, which in turn makes things more difficult for ourselves. Humans are currently causing the earth’s sixth mass extinction event.

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book “The Texture of Time: A Fractal Topology.”


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