Wednesday, February 3, 2010


In Jonathan Swift’s classic tale, Gulliver’s Travels there is a memorable scene in which the sleeping “giant” who has fallen among them is being bound and examined by a swarm of Lilliputions. They are curious about a large round object on a chain which has slipped from his pocket. It is emitting a continuous and mysterious ticking sound. One wise citizen of Lilliput thinks he knows what the great machine is. “I believe it must be his god, for those like him consult it before making all decisions. It guides their very lives”, he explains.
There is one school of historians who think that the clock is actually the invention that ushered in the great industrial revolution rather than the steam engine. If that is true, we probably have the Benedictine monks of Europe to thank. The practice of their faith required adherence to a set schedule of daily activities, dividing their time between work, prayer, sleep and betterment. Their ethic embraced the concept of social organization and stressed the spirit of an ordered life. In the absence of spoken communications, the ringing of bells defined each activity. It was of course, an inexact system, until someone came up with the invention of a device made up of rotating cogs driven by a descending weight which in turn caused a clapper to strike a bell, thus taking the guesswork out of time-keeping. In fact the very word clocke comes from the old Dutch word for “bell”.
It was not long before villagers caught on to the advantages of the monks’ system and asked their local officials to install similar mechanisms in the center of their communities, for the benefit of all. The addition of a numbered face, with a moving hour hand, and a pendulum followed in the mid 1600s. At first, no one worried very much about mere minutes, and it was not until the expanding textile trades began employing a large work force that the 60-minute hour became more commonplace.
The further subdivision of minutes into seconds, long important to astronomers and navigators, began to be appreciated by the watch-makers of the mid 1700s, although truth be told, the 60-second minute, and 60-minute hour can be traced back to the Babylonians as early as 300 BC.
In the end though, it was the coming of the railroads which really made the whole business of time-keeping a matter of national and even international relevance. Even in the mid-1800s, there was no uniformity of of time-keeping across America and Canada, with each community setting its own arbitrary system, depending usually upon where the sun stood at noon-time. The “father” of standardized time was probably a Canadian railroad engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming, who in 1878 suggested a system of 24 worldwide time zones. Eventually it was agreed that the starting line would be the longitude running through Greenwich, England (thus GMT or Greenwich mean time). This conveniently placed the international date line in the middle of the Pacific ocean where it wouldn’t bifurcate any country.
Even today, some time anomalies persist. The vastness of China for instance, should have five time zones, yet the entire country chooses to have but one. Some countries have half-hour time zones, including the central region of Australia, and there is a place where the corners of Norway/Finland, Norway/Russia and Russia/Finland meet where you can be in three time zones at the same time.
Despite all the organizational attempts of a world which now measures time in nano-seconds and observes regular “leap seconds” to compensate for minute changes in the earth’s rotation, humans still respond to a circadian rhythm as ancient as the race. I had to deal with this in the summer of 2009 as I traveled across the International Date Line and twelve time zones twice in a single week. Sometimes I think Native Americans knew ageless truths the rest of us have forgotten in our pursuit of “progress”. This month for instance, would be the “Hard time to build a fire” Moon for the Nez Perce, or “The Moon When The Geese Come Home” for the Omaha; a practical time system linked to tradition, the cycles of nature and long-established folkways.
Some years ago, I was in attendance at an annual gathering of Crow Indian people in Montana when the host, with the aid of a microphone, made an announcement reminding the 500 tribal members of the forthcoming barbecue dinner. “ It will be at 4:00 PM ”, he said “or maybe at noon”. No one around me evidenced any confusion at what I thought must be some mistake. In the end, it took place at neither appointed hour, but at 2:30 PM. And everyone magically showed up.
The late Calvin Rutsrum in his book, “Chips From a Wilderness Log”, told of two trappers meeting at a Canadian trading post before making the long trip to their respective trapping cabins at the beginning of the new season. The white man asked his old Chippewa friend standing by his loaded canoe, how long it would take him to complete his journey. “Oh, three, maybe four days” he said.
Pointing proudly at a nearby float plane with a canoe strapped to one pontoon, the first man boasted “I will be at mine in four hours.”
With undisguised puzzlement on his face, the Indian asked . . . WHY ?
Amplifying on the point he wished to make, Rutstrum went on to write: “Our infatuation with speed and getting to a destination quickly, often forces us to bypass many of life’s most valuable and profound experiences”.
Glancing at the clock, I see it is time to close this column.

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