November 15, 2012 | Volume 117, Issue No. 46

Visit place of timelessness regularly

Going Nature's Way

I have always been a fan of science fiction and one of my favorite genres is time travel. I try to imagine what it would be like to go back in time and see what my ancestors looked like and how they really lived. I wish I could see this continent before it was settled — the great herds of bison, the millions of passenger pigeons, endless pine forests and tall grass prairie. Traveling to the future holds less appeal because while I am curious and hope that the world is a better place and my descendents have happy lives, I have too many concerns about where we’re headed as a species. Having read the classic H.G. Wells novel "The Time Machine" when I was young probably accounts for this feeling.

But in a sense, we can experience time travel anytime we get in an airplane and cross datelines. I have always had this feeling when I leave Minnesota and three hours later arrive on the west coast. Driving the same distance doesn’t create the same feeling because it takes so much longer. We humans just haven’t evolved to move through space that quickly.

The closest I have come to time travel of the time machine variety was our recent trip to New Zealand. We got on board the plane in Vancouver at 8 p.m on September 23 and 13 hours later we landed in Auckland at 5 a.m. on September 25. Where did those missing hours go?

Even more strange was getting on the plane at 8 p.m. on October 31 and arriving back in Vancouver at 1 p.m. on October 31. Arriving before we left! I know there are perfectly good scientific explanations for all this, but because I have never had the mental capacity for mathematical abstractions or physics, it is all science fiction to me.

To add to this confusion, we experienced the change to daylight savings time while we were in New Zealand, and again when we returned to the U.S. And to complete the connection with time travel, we went from spring weather in New Zealand, to autumn colors in Seattle, to snow in North Dakota — all in a matter of days.

Time itself is a human construct. Einstein said it is the fourth dimension. What seems irrefutable is our need to find a way of measuring our daily lives. Before clocks existed, humans lived strictly by the rotation of the sun, stars, moon and planets. Archaeologists have discovered enough artifacts to show that every culture was trying to measure and record the passage of time. Even ice-age hunters in Europe, over 20,000 years ago, left scratches and holes in sticks and bones that seem to coincide with the phases of the moon.

For the Egyptians, it was Canis Major (now called Sirius) which rose next to the sun every 365 days. This coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile. Sometime around 4236 B.C. they came up with a 365-day calendar. The Mayans of Central America relied on the sun, moon and Venus to create 260- and 365-day calendars. We won’t discuss their supposed end date for all time. Around 250 B.C., the Greeks developed the first version of an alarm clock, by inventing a water clock where the raising waters would somehow keep time and eventually hit a mechanical bird that set off a whistle.

We have always been a species that thinks about the future — a quality that sets us apart from the other animals. And because we are thinking about the future, we end up counting the minutes, or the days, until some event happens. Too often this process causes us to lose track of the moment.

There is another quality of time and size, or age, that I have not figured out. Why is it, that as children our days seem almost endless? Especially when you are sitting in class and the teacher is trying to impart the finer points of multiplication or grammar. But with each passing decade time speeds up, more so as we become parents and then grandparents. We constantly complain about not having enough minutes in a day. What causes that to happen? Is it our physical size in relation to the world? Or is it the realization of our own mortality and our desire, but inability, to postpone it that makes us feel as though we are on a roller coaster that has reached the peak and is now careening down the long, steep slope?

Calendars and clocks rule our world. It is only when we go far into the wilderness that we are able to slow down and reset our biological clocks to the beat of the earth’s cycle of moonrise and sunrise. There we can recalibrate with the circadian rhythms — based on the daylight period which is critical to our health and that of many other living organisms on the planet. Since very few of us have the opportunity or desire to escape into the landscapes where life proceeds unimpeded by clocks, we are left with the challenge of finding that peace and equilibrium in our culture of speed and deadlines. Minnesota’s Sigurd Olson wrote about finding your "Listening Point" — a place, any place, where you can go within yourself and find that quiet and timelessness we all need. Look around you and see where yours is found and go there regularly.

But now it’s time for me to end this philosophical ramble. Another day is beginning.

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