In the realm of wild nature, there are countless cycles of change. Geese arrive at winter’s end, build nests, raise goslings, and depart in autumn. Apple trees leaf, blossom, fruit, and drop their leaves. The sunlight has daily cycles and annual cycles. The moon and women flow through their monthly rituals. This is circular time, round and round and round. This is wild time.
Once upon a time, the whole world was wilderness, and every creature was free. The planet danced in wild time, and all was well. Wild people caught salmon when the fish came home. They killed reindeer when the herds passed through. They ate blackberries when the fruit was ripe, and gathered nuts as they fell.
Wild people clustered in flourishing nutrient-rich ecosystems that were scattered here and there across the planetary wilderness. All was well… until the accidents. In a few of these clusters, clever smarty-pants, with wonderful intentions, devised strategies for forcing their land to produce more food. Why be content with paradise? Let’s fix it.
We are finally starting to realize that some incredibly brilliant ideas should be flushed down the loo immediately (probably all of them). Here we are in the twenty-first century, and the world is the opposite of a vast wilderness. It has been reduced to a bruised and beaten landscape by an ever-growing swarm of hungry two-legs. Wildness struggles to survive in scattered shrinking pockets. Wild tribes are nearly extinct.
As civilization became rooted, clock time gradually pushed wild time into the background. Clock time is linear, not circular — a straight path with a starting line (paradise) and a finish line (apocalypse). This throbbing straight line has phallic vibes, the same frequency used by patriarchal empire builders awash in raging torrents of testosterone. It’s a furious dance of endless growth, and it inevitably jitterbugs into a minefield of bleached skeletons.
The incredibly brilliant notion of endless growth should have been flushed down the loo immediately. Endless growth is insane, fantastically irrational, and always ends in tragedy. But it’s a lot of fun at first. Take a deep toke. The endless growth jitterbug is a soaring mania with no off switch. It stops when it dies. Any society that mindfully chooses to quit jitterbugging becomes a helpless sitting duck for its jitterbugging neighbors, who are always hungry for more and more and more.
Jay Griffiths wrote A Sideways Look at Time, which discusses the mutation of time that followed in the wake of domestication, and rapidly accelerated with the emergence of the industrial era. She thinks very highly of wild time, because it is normal, natural, and good. With regard to linear time, she offers this sensible recommendation: “Drown your watch.”
The big three multinational, patriarchal, monotheistic religions run on linear time. Their myths begin in a golden age of innocence and harmony, and go downhill from there, on a dead end road. Griffiths was raised in a Christian home, but she lacked the gift of blind faith. The church taught that God’s creation was a place of evil. The kinky male clergy denounced lust, joyful sex, and women of power. Their icon was a dying man nailed to a dead tree. Wild time, wild people, and wild places were the realm of the devil.
As civilizations grew, years were assigned ID numbers. In Rome, year #1 was the date of the city’s founding. Numbering enabled better record keeping, and provided time markers for historians. Calendars enclosed days and years, and sundials enclosed hours. Later came mechanical clocks, and clanging church bells, factory bells, and school bells. The sweet freedom of childhood was enclosed by rigid schedules, as kids were herded into education factories to have their minds filled.
To keep large restless mobs under control, law and order is essential — police and clocks. Industrial civilization is impossible without synchronizing the mob to march in lockstep to the steady beat of the time machines. All around the world now, the current hour will conclude at the same moment.
Today, the wristwatch people are isolated from nature. They spend their lives in rectangular climate-controlled compartments with artificial lighting. Blackberries, nuts, and salmon are available every day of the year. Clocks and wristwatches were fabulous ideas, if the objective was to elevate stress and anxiety. The Lakota have no word for “late,” and the Micmac have no word for “time.” Native Americans were astonished by the wacky behavior of the colonists, who robotically obeyed the demands of ridiculous schedules.
In stable wild societies, older people became respected elders, folks with long memories who provided wise counsel. They could foresee problems, and recommend solutions. But in the lands of the wristwatch people, speed is of the essence, and the rate of change is dizzying. In modern times, much of the knowledge that older people possess is obsolete and useless. So, the elder’s role is waning, at the same time that people are living longer. Progress has left them behind.
In a culture obsessed with youth, women with gray hair become invisible. Cosmetic surgery is very expensive, and its results are temporary. Tightly stretched facial skin is spooky looking, like “linoleum with lipstick.” Hormone treatments promise the appearance of perpetual springtime. Griffiths laments that many women avoid the elder’s path of wisdom and power. The era of patriarchy has not been kind to the ladies.
In the minds of the wristwatch people, the notion of progress is as real as the Grand Canyon. They have no doubt that the world is always getting better and better, because experts are tireless in their pursuit of continuous improvement. We are so lucky to live in an age of endless miracles.
Actually, progress is a smiley-face mask that disguises a parasite. Progress doesn’t shine on the salt of the Earth. The lands of the U’wa people of Colombia are being destroyed to extract the precious oil needed to fuel the insatiable excesses of the world’s elite. Chinese women are dying from the solvents used to make cell phones, and women in Bangladesh are crushed when their garment factory collapses.
The parasite devours anything in its path, and never rests. The single thought on its mind is more now, more now, more now. Only the present matters, a mindset that Griffiths calls “chronocentric.” Bleep the future. The grandchildren will simply have to adapt to living with radioactive wastes that remain highly toxic for 100,000 years. It’s not our problem.
Of course, it’s heresy to voice doubts about progress. Doing so transforms you into a knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing dolt. The sacrifices needed to radically reduce the harm we cause are just too great. It is our God-given right to indulge in every imaginable excess to the best of our ability. It says so in the constitution. Well, it’s time for gifted shamans to perform a magic act on our worldview — swap the dunce cap to progress, and the halo to sustainability. It’s OK to be respectful to unborn generations of all species. It’s normal.
So, that’s a little peek into where this fascinating book takes us. Griffiths helps us remember what has been lost. Unlike the predicaments of peak cheap energy, peak food, and climate change, our time problems are nothing but ideas, and ideas can be flushed down the loo. A healthy life does not require seconds, minutes, and hours. We can do just fine with sunrise and sunset, full moon and new moon, solstice and equinox, wildness and freedom.
Hark! The bell has rung. This review is over. It’s a cool book.
Griffiths, Jay, A Sideways Look at Time, Jeremy P. Tarcher, New York, 1999.