Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring Time

If I had my druthers, we’d be on “daylight savings time” all the time—even though the notion of “saving daylight” is pretty silly. The very idea of mechanical time is problematic to me, since it always seems to interfere with “real” time: i.e. seasons, circadian rhythms, phenology, and other natural forms of “telling” time. But the idea that one can “save” daylight by moving the hands on mechanical clocks around (or resetting digits on a digital clock) seems absurd. It doesn’t really save anything, since the number of hours of sunlight doesn’t change—we just do a bad job of training ourselves to get up earlier for part of the year. It would be more tolerable if the clock switch took place regularly at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (at which time we would at least acknowledge the fact that temporal changes have something to do with seasons), but when we decide to “spring ahead” and “fall back” now seems pretty arbitrary, and it hasn’t been very constant lately. So the switch tends to leave me fairly befuddled these days.

For some reason I can’t really explain, I’m fond of old clocks and timing devices, although I don’t even wear a watch. I find it amusing to check with my students on the timing of my lectures and usually get a laugh when I’m spot-on (I try to keep the talking and slide-showing down to 90 minutes at a time). Nevertheless, I own two lovely old clocks, one each from the maternal and paternal branches of my family. One, known as “Uncle Fred’s Clock” is a Seth Thomas oak shelf or kitchen clock with a carved case and a pretty etched design on its glass front. It’s supposed to be an “Eight Day Half Hour Strike” job, but I’ve only ever gotten it to work for a few minutes at a time. The eponymous “Uncle Fred” was my great grand uncle, Fred Uhlmeyer, who settled in the Owens Valley in the nineteenth century, and who washed the ore from his mining claim at the spot now known on the U. S. geological survey as “Uhlmeyer Spring.” He’s mentioned on p. 142 of the 1975 edition of The Story of Inyo, by W. A. Chalfant, as having “squatted” in the Valley. There’s also a nod to him in More News From Nowhere, since most of the “action” (if you can call it that) takes place nearby in my future version of the area. [Thanks, by the way, to my Uncle Art—my Dad’s youngest brother and only surviving sibling—who helped me figure this out, and who’ll swear it’s true as long as I get it mostly right.]

At any rate, the clock looks great on one of the built-in bookshelves that flank the fireplace in our bungalow living room. It’s balanced on the other side by an onyx and glass Ansonia crystal regulator (of unknown name or vintage) that came from the Worden side of the family. I remember my grandmother’s winding it before bed each night, when she and her second husband (another Fred) lived in Coos Bay, Oregon. What I really love about this clock, however, is that although it works, it keeps crappy time. And even though it strikes on the hour and half-hour, it’s pretty arbitrary about how many times it “bongs”—and never any more than seven, no matter what time it is. I simply wind it occasionally, but don’t re-set it, so that it keeps its own peculiar time. There’s something reassuring about its complete arbitrariness, a reminder that we human beings are really not in control of anything, and certainly not of time.

Today, on the vernal equinox, the sun shone into my dining room window for the first time since dawn on the autumnal equinox last year. The single east-facing window in that room (the others face north) serves as a time-henge, marking the beginnings of two seasons. I’m not sure when I first noticed it, but made sure to note the coincidence henceforth; since then it’s provided a non-mechanical marker that delights us both. It takes the place of Easter and Passover in a non-religious household as a way of reminding us of “when” we are in the year. This morning my dear, sweet husband, who thinks I’m only a little nuts, gleefully woke me (and the three cats under which I was helplessly pinned) to announce the Arrival of Spring.

All this reminds me that despite my love for machines like clocks and orreries (those wonderful models of planetary motion like the one in The Dark Crystal, or Penn’s Rittenhouse model ), I truly mourn the demise of the physical, sensual ways in which human beings used to tell time. When people had to chip a notch into a bone to mark the passing of a day, or a phase of the moon, it made us more conscious of our connection with the celestial movements that affect our lives directly in such phenomena as tides and growth cycles. There were once ceremonies to celebrate such momentous events as the onset of menses (from the Latin for “month”), and there should be one for reaching menopause— because both events signal the parameters of human fertility, and may once have made women seem magical (that is, before males discovered that they had a role to play and then decided that it was the major role). But the more we insulate ourselves from the natural world, taking drugs that alter our biological clocks, “saving daylight,” building temperature-controlled houses, flooding our cities with incessant light, growing monoculture lawns watered by automatic sprinklers, riding in cars to work and on stationary bikes in gyms for exercise (instead of walking to work and working in our gardens, feeding ourselves)—the more we move away from our physical knowledge of the world, the less we understand about it, and the less we will have to say about what becomes of it.

It occurs to me that one of the more subtle, yet ominous, effects of global warming is that in addition to causing all sorts of havoc (like this week’s drenching and unseasonal rain) it ’s beginning to muck with phenological indications of seasonal change. I hadn’t realized that folks were actually taking note of the potential for problems until I went looking around the internet for links on the topic, and found one for the USA National Phenology Network, which “exists to facilitate collection and dissemination of phenological data to support global change research.” So it’s already clear that we’re not just gumming up the atmosphere and causing extinctions; we’re causing the signs of change themselves to change. What’s really going to be interesting is to see whether we’ll allow ourselves enough time to learn an entirely new language, especially since most of us seem to have forgotten, or never even learned, the existing one.

Life was somewhat simpler, and probably a bit sweeter, when we guaged time by the spawning of fish or the arrival of sun in a window—or by even the daily winding of Uncle Fred’s clock. But now that it’s officially Spring, I’ll comfort myself by keeping watch for the blooming of the wild gladioli, and get busy with the planting, already.


Werner said...


Just thought I'd drop by. I liked this posting on 'Spring Time'. I agree that changing clocks twice a year doesn't make much sense. After all if you want to get up early in the summer because it's warmer and brighter why not just do so? I also liked your old clocks. There is something very beautiful about old machines that newer stuff doesn't really have. I don't really dislike the "digital world" but there should be space for other things and interests.

krimzon11 said...

I always have found nature, and natural timing fascinating. Like how sailors could use the stars, not only to determine their direction, but also the time. I find it dissappointing that I can only point out less than a handful of constellations. I do make an effort to be aware of the natural environment around me, and I admit, that daylight savings time screws me up too, which is curious to me, since I have lived my whole life with digital clocks. I have a tendedency to be able to guess the time of day by the position of the sun in the sky, but with daylight savings time, It takes me a few days to remember that the sun is an hour late. Funny how that works too. The impression that our society is getting up "earlier than the sun." As if it's some race to defy nature. And once again, i missed the opportunity to see if an egg can really stand on its narrow end. Guess I'll have to wait until fall.

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks for dropping by, Werner; I have to confess that I'm not as opposed to the digital realm as I let on, because I really do enjoy use of the web and it makes my teaching life a great deal easier. I'm not usually an "early adopter" (it took me forever just to get a cell phone), but I recognized the value of the web in education at least ten years ago and was happy to get sucked in. Still, the world of steam punk and some retro-techno stuff is really compelling as well, even though I'm not sure why.

And Krimzie: since Google owns my soul these days, how did I miss Google Sky? I've got bloody NASA TV on my desktop, for cryin' out loud. Thanks for the link. Now go spend part of your break somewhere that isn't completely polluted by light, and do some healthy star-gazin'.

GEM said...

Owl - our inherited Ansonia clock is a dead ringer for your one - same colour, conformation - ours strikes willy, nilly, according to its own rhythms, which is fine by me as my sense of time has always, is and will be guided by the amount of available daylight at any given time. I have always been death on watches, and love wind-up mechanisms which have beome increasingly rare. Spring comes when green shoots poke up from the soil. Fall is incipient when a section of our apple tree has yellowing leaves. Being aware of the rhythm of succession in nature is the touchstone and most satisfying. I agree with much of what you say in this post. G and GEM

Owlfarmer said...

I'm thinking that those Ansonia clocks made their way around Canada as some sort of a fad in the late nineteenth-, early twentieth-centuries. Mine most likely came from Kingston, Ontario, and may have been a wedding present to my great grandmother. I certainly sympathize with your affection for wind-up mechanisms; I've never really been able to explain mine, but perhaps its the appreciation for visible technologies--the ones that allow one to see how they work. So many things are unfathomable these days that if anything happened to eliminate the makers, those dependent on them would find themselves in dire straits. On the other hand, it would be entirely possible for someone with modest skills to replicate at least a simple clock. I'll be spouting more on these topics shortly.