A Clock In The Forest

Clocks that use nature to measure time can reintegrate people into the environment and counteract the calamities of the Anthropocene.

Per Kristian Stoveland

Jonathon Keats is an experimental philosopher, artist and writer. He is currently a fellow at the Berggruen Institute, a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation, a research associate at the University of Arizona, principal philosopher at Earth Law Center and an artist-in-residence at Hyundai, the SETI Institute and Flux Projects. His most recent book is “You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future” (Oxford University Press).

In his studio on the east coast of Vancouver Island, the master clockmaker Phil Abernethy is crafting a timepiece that will be calibrated in a manner that no horologist has ever attempted. It won’t show the minutes and hours of an ordinary human day. Instead, his clock will display time as experienced by some of the oldest trees on the planet.

Using techniques he’s honed over a lifetime, Abernethy will machine the gears by hand in traditional materials such as steel and brass. But the pendulum will respond to the forest: When trees grow quickly, the hours will advance more rapidly; more lethargic growth will result in a slower tempo. Over centuries, the long-term fate of the canopy will be registered on a calendar that may deviate from the Gregorian date by decades or more.

Abernethy has been commissioned to fabricate the arboreal clock by the Nevada Museum of Art. Standing 12 feet tall, the clock will be the first physical manifestation of an environmental timekeeping project I have been developing over the past decade. Some of the clocks in the project respond to rivers; Abernethy’s enlists a stand of bristlecone pine trees in Nevada’s Great Basin as living timekeepers.

Fluctuations in the bristlecones’ growth rate, affected by environmental conditions ranging from local rainfall to planetary climate change, will be measured by analyzing the thickness of tree rings in microcores retrieved from the mountain each year. These data will be used to determine the center of gravity for the pendulum, which will swing slower or faster depending on the tree ring thickness. Though the clock face will display time in the usual way, it won’t serve as a mechanism for human planning — a technology to impose order on the environment for our convenience — but rather to pace our lives to match the lived reality of other organisms.

Abernethy’s arboreal clock, in other words, upsets more than just the standards of horology. The environmental calamity known as the Anthropocene is a consequence of a worldview in which all that is not human is construed as a resource — even time itself. Other life forms are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, laid waste at a pace set by the world economy. Factory farming and logging, fossil fuel and plastics production, mining, human construction and infrastructure — all disregard the timing with which nonhuman systems emerge, ebb and flow. The globalized logic of industry, with its planetary supply chain, must keep up with human demand, turning civilization itself into a manifestation of logistics.

Our mastery of the world is a mastery of time. And as every industrialist knows, mastery of time requires the precision of a master clock to provide a temporal standard against which everything can be measured and controlled. Whether regulated by the swing of a pendulum or the oscillations of a strontium atom — as the most advanced atomic clocks are today — the master clock operates without an external feedback mechanism. The clock has become the ultimate authority. To question it would be tantamount to questioning modernity.

The design of Abernethy’s arboreal clock may be novel, but the underlying ideas are ancient. They predate pendulums and gearwork, originating in an era when people observed time in relation to other beings in order for all to flourish together. Ancient but mostly forgotten, these ideas are urgently needed today. Whatever practical use it might have, the arboreal clock is intended primarily to serve as a philosophical instrument.

“Anthropocene is a consequence of a worldview in which all that is not human is construed as a resource — even time itself.”

In the winter of 1999, the botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schlusser published an article in which they observed that students tend to pay more attention to animals than plants. Arguing that “plant blindness” is detrimental to scientific literacy and the well-being of flora, they followed up with a campaign to overcome this cognitive bias, distributing more than 20,000 posters to schools across the United States. Their efforts resonated with the popular media and inspired dozens of academic papers that sought to explain the phenomenon in terms of human biology and culture.

Research has shown that we don’t consider plants to be important mostly because they grow close together and don’t appear to move. As Wandersee and Schlusser wrote, “Static proximity is a visual cue humans use to group objects, so individual plants and different plant species tend to be de-emphasized.” A vine takes hours to turn toward sunlight, a bristlecone hundreds of years to mature. Each organism’s clock — its sense of time — is so different from ours that we can’t even sense it.

In other words, what we call plant blindness is really time blindness: an obliviousness to temporal frames of reference that deviate from our own. And, despite Wandersee and Schlusser’s schoolroom agitprop, the situation is probably worse today than in 1999, exacerbated by our ever-diminishing attention spans, e-commerce, social media and more. The pace of civilization continues to quicken.

Considered in these broader terms, the temporal mismatch has profound implications not only for plants but also for nonhuman animals and ecosystems. In our blundering time blindness, we recklessly disrupt the rhythms of most life on Earth.

Horology has had a profound and persistent impact on science since at least the 2nd millennium B.C.E., when Egyptian astronomers accurately mapped the night sky by observing the apparent motion of stars in relation to the steady flow of water from a punctured vessel. Some 3,000 years later, allegedly inspired by Galileo’s observations of a swinging cathedral chandelier, the Dutch scientist and inventor Christiaan Huygens built the first pendulum clock, an instrument of unprecedented precision that quickened progress in astronomy to an unprecedented degree. It also provided scientists with a deeper understanding of physiology by facilitating the measurement of the beating heart and providing insight into circadian rhythms.

Every advance in timekeeping has enhanced human perception of the surrounding world. Most of these innovations also enlarged the dominion of those who controlled the technology. With a chronometer in hand, the captain of a ship could determine longitude at sea, aiding exploration and discovery of new realms to conquer.

In Europe, timekeeping abetted the Industrial Revolution. British factories put laborers to work on the clock, enforcing long hours even in the darkest of seasons. In North America, time zones were ordained to synchronize railroad schedules, which previously were difficult to coordinate from station to station. With standardized time, freight traffic could be managed over vast distances, avoiding collisions on the tracks. With locomotives and ships, raw materials could be sourced and products distributed practically anywhere on Earth.

But there is another story to be told about timekeeping technology, and the prologue can be heard shortly after the first sundial was installed in Rome. “The gods damn that man who first discovered the hours,” proclaimed a character in a play written by Titus Maccius Plautus in the 3rd century B.C.E. “You know, when I was a boy, my stomach was the only sundial, by far the best and truest.”

“In our blundering time blindness, we recklessly disrupt the rhythms of most life on Earth.”

Skepticism of modernized timekeeping increased with technological progress, especially in the era of colonial expansion. Clock towers became a visible manifestation of colonial occupation, trampling on traditional timekeeping practices and forcing locals to conform to European norms. During a late 19th-century riot against British colonial rulers, for instance, Indian rebels responded by opening fire on the clock in Bombay’s Crawford Market.

By 1934, as the historian Lewis Mumford declared, the clock had become “the key machine of the modern industrial age. … [B]y its essential nature it dissociated time from human events.”

Mumford was correct, but he didn’t account for the nonhuman realm. Those factories and railroads ripped through ecosystems, which became as abstract as the dividend coupons on stock certificates. As time was stripped of context, nature was uprooted, conveniently making space for more factories and railroads.

What was once a natural cycle became a vicious circle.

In the 17th century, on opposite sides of the vast Asian continent, Ming dynasty and Ottoman Empire rulers were beset by decades of political upheaval, civilian rebellions and battles with foreign forces. Although historians have noted that the turmoil was partly driven by unusually intense droughts across the continent, which caused starvation in places, nobody could convincingly connect the tribulations until they consulted the trees.

Careful examination of tree rings in multiple locations has recently revealed that, all around the world, warmer temperatures expanded from the tropics for about 60 years starting around 1570, probably a consequence of natural climate variation. Scientists at the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research now believe that this phenomenon caused the droughts in Eurasia that destabilized the Ming and the Ottomans, and also hastened the collapse of the Jamestown colony in Virginia in the 1690s.

Such analysis of historical environmental conditions is possible only because trees are natural calendars — growing a ring each year — and because the calendars are rich in contextual information. Dendrochronology has helped us discern long-term climate change, especially variations so gradual that they occur over several human generations.

Time is similarly embedded in other organisms. For instance, giant clams record daily variations in marine conditions in the growth bands of their shells over hundreds of years. And at a molecular scale, nucleotide sequences reveal the mutation rate of life forms ranging from plankton to whales.  

Humankind appears to be the only species to have contrived clocks that count without reference to something outside of themselves. We also appear to be the only species to have use for these contraptions, to use time in this peculiar way. (Mumford astutely described clocks as “power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.”)

All life depends on timekeeping. But nonhuman life treats time as a mixed medium: entangled with the environment, dependent on other organisms.

“Nonhuman life treats time as a mixed medium: entangled with the environment, dependent on other organisms.”

Consider circannual rhythms. Migratory birds must coordinate their yearly flights based on the expected availability of nutrients along routes that are thousands of miles long. The insects they devour must coordinate the end of their pupation to coincide with the budding of plants they eat. The needs of different species are different but codependent. And all of these processes take time, meaning that decisions must be made without direct knowledge of what other creatures have decided.

Such dazzling coordination is a product of the co-evolution of circannual clocks, all of which are calibrated by environmental cues. Some organisms set theirs by observing the relative length of day and night. Others rely more on temperature, tallying freezes or tracking summer’s heat. The ability of species to adjust their timing varies depending on their living environment, their physical needs and the time between when a decision is made and its consequences felt. By monitoring loosely coupled local phenomena and making decisions patterned on past experience, species collaborate and the food web operates like clockwork.

Ironically, the degree of coordination has become more evident because of the threat of extreme and sudden changes to the global climate. Synchronization is failing and species face extinction. Light- and temperature-sensitive organisms are migrating, hatching or maturing when other species or conditions they depend on are out of sync with them. Driven by the master clock of human civilization, we are wreaking havoc on the myriad clocks that sustain the biosphere.

This problem is exacerbated by human impatience. To increase the rate of food production to a level that can sustain our rapidly growing population, we have been clearcutting old-growth forests and loading soils with manufactured fertilizer for many decades. Ecosystems made resilient by biodiversity are replaced with monoculture farming.

Biodiversity depends on chronodiversity, the warp and weft of lifeways and lifecycles that absorb natural perturbations and facilitate recovery from periodic catastrophes. The variety of life dies in a temporal monoculture.

“Why do not the Esquimaux keep God’s day?” wrote the Anglican missionary Edmund Peck in his diary while living on Quebec’s Little Whale River in the 1870s and 80s. Peck was one of the first clergymen to visit the region, where he sought to convert the Inuit “Esquimaux” using an Inuktitut New Testament. Persuading the natives to praise Jesus proved easier than getting them to worship on the right day of the week. Whereas seasons and months could be tracked by observing the sun and the moon, the seven-day cycle of the sabbath was astronomically arbitrary. To overcome their Sunday blindness, Inuit converts learned to mark chunks of wood with their knives, religiously counting sunsets.

The Inuit already had calendars more sophisticated than Peck’s, which, richly layered with ecological knowledge, were more suitable for everyday life. These and other Indigenous timekeeping methods are still salient today.

In many Indigenous calendars, traditional lifeways and environmental phenomena are explicitly identified. For instance, when the Haida talk about the time corresponding to January/February on the Gregorian calendar, they speak of hlgidguun kongaas, or “Canada goose moon,” referring to the geese flying down the coast. February/March is known as taan kongaas, or “black bear moon,” commemorating the time when bears emerge from hibernation.

Unlike the absolute occurrence of Sunday after Saturday (or February after January), the correlations are kept loose so that the name of a moon makes people attentive to important events in their midst, and those events help to determine when the month takes place. (To keep time flexible, calendars are oral.) Given that the events are all related by the climate conditions that influence them, the sequence of names anticipates a sequence of events that can be tracked over the year through the lunar cycle. 

The association of names with events also prompts action. For example, wiid gyaas — the “salmonberry bird moon,” which marks the end of winter — is announced by the song of the salmonberry bird, otherwise known as the Swainson’s thrush. Arriving in Haida territory in early spring, the bird is a phenological indicator: Its presence is a signal that salmonberries, which are dainty and difficult to find, are ripening. The connection is probably a consequence of circannual rhythms set by the shared climate.

“Naturally calibrated clocks and calendars integrate people into their environment.”

Many cultures relied on phenological indicators and ecological calendars once upon a time. In “The Natural History,” the foremost encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder articulated this point of view by evoking the voice of nature: “I have given you plants that mark the hours,” he wrote. “Why then do you still look higher and scan the heavens themselves? Lo! you have Pleiads at your very feet.” Nature, in other words, kept track of time in ways more germane than the constellations circling across the sky above. He continued in his own voice:

Glowworms do not make their appearance on fixed days or last a definite period, but certain it is that they are the offspring of this particular constellation. Consequently anybody who does his summer sowing before they appear ‘will have himself to thank for labor wasted.’ In this interval also the little bee comes forth and announces that the bean is flowering, and the bean begins to flower to tempt her out. We will also give another sign of cold weather being ended: when you see the mulberry budding, after that you need not fear damage from cold.

Clocks and calendars in this tradition are maps. They map relationships between phenomena that also map relationships between beings. The tradition is extensive. In Slavic and Baltic cultures, the root of the name for March, berza, refers to the leafing of birch trees, and words for September variously refer to the blooming of heather, the mating of deer, the sowing of grains and the harvesting of grapes.

Traditional clocks and calendars orient people. They provide practical and ethical direction. Salmonberries should be picked only after they have ripened. To take berries earlier would deprive the birds and inhibit seeding of future generations. And to ungratefully leave behind berries in their ripened state would offend the plant’s spirit, causing the brambles to stop bearing fruit. If these customs are ignored, the consequences will be felt in future years.

In other words, naturally calibrated clocks and calendars integrate people into their environment. They guide traditional care and management practices including planting and harvesting.

And they provide feedback. The feedback steadies the environment by bringing all who act on it into equilibrium. Time and the environment become indistinguishable.

Near the peak of Mt. Washington in Nevada’s Great Basin, which rises more than 11,600 feet above sea level, the bristlecone pines are as scraggly as the tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Until very recently, bristlecones didn’t grow at this elevation. To walk down the slope is to stroll through time, eventually reaching trees that are several thousand years old and as solid as sculpted stone.

Over the past decade, I have gotten to know these trees, visiting with members of the Long Now Foundation, the organization that stewards part of the mountaintop and has partnered with me on the clock at the Nevada Museum of Art. By observing the trees and their embodied experience of time, I have been able to see the inadequacy of my wristwatch.

The trees sensitized me to the time reckoning of other life forms, both plants and animals. They attuned me to the time kept collectively in living systems such as rivers, where the flow rate is affected by the melting of glaciers and the eagerness of beavers, not to mention the unquenchable thirst of industrial agriculture. By gearing the flow of time to match the flow of the Susitna or Matanuska — as I have done in partnership with the Anchorage Museum — fluvial clocks can integrate people into local watersheds.

An arboreal clock can likewise integrate people into the forest. Or to be more accurate, it can reintegrate people into their ecosystems, counteracting the human denaturing of the Anthropocene.

“By observing the trees and their embodied experience of time, I have been able to see the inadequacy of my wristwatch.”

This transformation will not be instantaneous. However, the vernacular of the modern clock provides an expression of time that can readily be applied to everyday situations. The mechanism is compatible with the here and now even when subverted by the logic of time immemorial. People can decide to meet at noon on the arboreal clock. Corporations can issue dividends on the first day of arboreal January.

Legal recognition of arboreal time standards will increase the impact. This need not merely be symbolic. As the rights of nature evolve from protecting biodiversity to promoting chronodiversity, natural time standards will be instrumental to recognizing the right of life to live at its own pace.

Abernethy is building the bristlecone clock to run for the next five millennia, the estimated lifespan of the hardiest trees in the Great Basin. If the clock serves its intended purpose as a philosophical instrument, people will turn away from it much sooner than that. As the clock unwinds, people will direct their temporal gaze to the environment shared with all other life on Earth.