Ever since reading Jay Griffith’s book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, I’ve been fascinated by the extent to which our relationship and understanding of time is culturally constructed. Our system of numbering off the days and years and months and weeks, and splitting the year into four neat quarters bears little relationship to the reality of their origins: the cycles of the moon, the changing of the seasons.
In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver describes the cultural friction that emerges between the American missionary family and the Congolese villagers over their different conceptions of time. Pivotally, the missionaries experience a great deal of angst around enforcing the idea of “Sunday” in a land without weeks. The family is mortified that the village market is held not on a regular day according to their concept of a seven-day week, but rather on every fifth day. So one week, the market may be on a Friday, according to the Americans’ calendar, but when it next occurs it will be on a Wednesday, then on the Sunday (when the missionaries hope the villagers will instead attend the sermon), then on a Friday again, and so on.
In another book, Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, I remember how the boy’s Cherokee grandparents keep a ‘marriage stick’. The stick was a treasured object, into which the couple would mark emotionally significant events with notches in the wood. Regardless of whether the events were of great joy or great sadness, each would be marked with a notch. There’s something quite profound about such a deeply personal way of marking the passing of time, where each notch demands a keenness of memory.
Recently, I came across the idea of the ‘Winter Count’, practiced by the Lakota Native American nation. Measuring a year from first snowfall to first snowfall, the Lakota would traditionally keep calendars, using a single image to describe the year. As a both a calendar and a community history, the image for each year would define a significant shared experience for the community, so rather than being numbered off against a historically dubious year zero, years are instead known by such names as “Buffalo belly was plenty”, or “White soldiers make their first appearance in the region”.
Over the years there have been some exciting projects to develop more ecologically grounded conceptions of time. The Ecological Calendar is one North American project that produces frieze-like calendars that draws together a wealth of ecological information for North America, from seasonal happenings to changing patterns of sunlight. Similar projects have been carried out over years by organisations like the Gould League in an effort to build a culture of ecological and landscape awareness. Another great contribution is The Six Seasons Rap, by Melbourne-based singing, dancing, world-changing wunderkind Ilan Abrahams on his album Well. With keen observation skills and a sense of humour, The Six Seasons Rap, celebrates the six traditional seasons of the Yarra watershed and has been on high rotation at our house.
There’s lots more – the Celtic or pagan calendar, for example, offers one European-based model of marking time in a way that is tied to ecological and astronomical phenomena. When inverted for the southern hemisphere is works for marking certain significant seasonal changes. Combined with the depth of ecological knowledge embodied in the seasonal calendars of indigenous nations all over the continent, perhaps there are the roots for a calendar that acknowledges the unique capacities and patterns of our distinct bioregions as well as the cultural diversity present within them. A sense of time, it appears, is deeply linked to a sense of place, and perhaps like so many other things, time too, needs to become more local in the emergence of a sustainable culture.
In this spirit, I’ve been tooling around with creating a different kind of calendar to celebrate the passing of each year. Partly by coincidence and partly by design, I’ve produced my first one as the cold months kick in. So there it is: the year of two houses, two bikes and four pumpkins.