The Fall

“Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross,” go the opening words of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1902 poem, “Herbsttag.” Autumn day. “Lord,” one might feebly translate, “it is time. The summer was very great.” The English words fail to capture the lyricism of the Teutonic original, but these words have been running through my head since about the middle of August when, standing outside before dawn waiting for the bus, some days, I think a jacket might be nice. Just a light jacket. Something to cover the parts of my arms not protected by a tee-shirt. And I realize, although autumn has always been my favorite time of year, it cannot come without a sense of loss. I’m no summer beach fan. Most of the time when I wander to the ocean it has already taken on its gray fall coat. But still, the passing of summer is sad, always sad.

At the National Watch and Clock Museum, we learn that Galileo, often presented as the antagonist of the church. got his idea for the pendulum from watching church lanterns sway from their chains. Time was passing, but it was “God’s time.” The growing season ends, and the harvest is at hand. Our children head reluctantly back to school after too few months of unstructured time. Time when sleep is abundant and the sunshine lasts long into the night. Adulthood robs us, perhaps, of such finery, but I can still appreciate it from a distance. Were I more mature, I might even say it is of greater significance for being further away. I’m a little too young, however, to have forgotten how summer can make me feel. I adore the autumn, but I miss the sun nevertheless.

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Here in that transition between hot, endless days and the chill release of Halloween, I find myself contemplating the religious nature of time. “If I could save time in a bottle,” Jim Croce wrote, and then his plane crashed on take-off. Time is like that. It promises eternity but gives mere seconds. Apart from the beach bums pining for endless summer, those of us enamored of autumn stand still and reflect on the cusp of seasonal change. Perhaps, like the year itself, this is all a cycle. The face looking back at me from the mirror has more gray hair than I remember growing. And yet the clock on the wall continues to tick. Work will always be waiting there on Monday morning, and the sun can reach quite as high in the sky as it did only last month. “Herr,” I sigh, “es ist Zeit.”

Monumental Time

One of my nieces works on the 10,000-year clock (aka Clock of the Long Now). I’ve written about the project before—the object is to build a clock that will run a myriad of years. For comparison, 10,000 years ago we were only beginning to tamper with this concept we call civilization. Clocks have been my muse this week. Monumental clocks have long fascinated people. The Engle Clock, in the National Watch and Clock Museum, was completed about 1878. In those days, these large clocks (it literally weighs half a ton) toured the country as technological marvels—something that fails to impress, I suppose, in an iWatch age. Nevertheless, this is a clock with all the whistles and bells—literally. Figures come marching out at various fractions of the hour, culminating with a skeletal death chiming the end of each sixty minutes. The figures are both secular and sacred, a mix that the people of the days just after the Civil War no doubt appreciated.

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At the top of the clock, at quarter to the hour, Jesus appears. Doors above him open and the “three Marys,” including, of course, his mother, come out. Meanwhile the twelve disciples process in front of their Lord, each respectfully turning toward him. The devil appears, shifting from window to window, and one disciple does not turn to greet Jesus. This is Peter who instead turns his back, and immediately, to borrow a Gospel trope, the cock above their heads crows. Finally, as the apostolic procession winds down, the Devil appears last in line. It is all quite elaborate. The clock took Stephen Engle two decades to build—time he would never recover. The religious message, I suspect, was taken much more seriously then than it is now. After all, the clock is a museum piece.

Throughout the museum, references to Christianity abound. Not only Galileo, but many Medieval time-watchers saw God literally in the face of time. Clocks were embossed with religious figures. Hours were kept to remind the faithful to pray. The time, as the New Testament insists, was short. Ironically, we still build monumental clocks. Some are based on the 9-billionth of a second vibration period of cesium, while others are made to last ten millennia. We have secularized time. Now its purpose is mainly to tell us when to go to work. When to wake up to go to work. And when we might eventually leave work. I might enjoy building clocks myself. The fact is, however, I don’t have that kind of time.

Time in a Museum

Over the weekend we visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I became aware of the museum during one of my steampunk phases, and since we were running out of summer, it seemed the ideal time to go. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t anything quite so profound as what we actually found. Time, as we now know, is relative. In fact, up until just two centuries ago, nobody really knew what time it was. Well, maybe those people in Greenwich did, but the average person, even if s/he owned a watch, lived on approximate time. Try telling that to any boss today! The need for people to meet trains at various stations led to the standardization of time in the United States. Now the government declares official time, kept by atomic clocks. You could be a billionth of a second late for work and Uncle Sam would know. What happened to the days of looking for when the sun was directly overhead and guessing from there? Greenwich Mean Time indeed.

Time in inherently religious. For human beings, conscious of its passage, it is a limited commodity. Our concerns for our personal A.D. (“After Death” as the misnomer used to go) have led to religions suggesting that God, or gods, take a special interest in the passing of time. That became clear from the first display in the museum. Hardly a placard existed without some reference to the gods—people knew that time was somehow divine. Not only that, but the passage of time was punctuated by religious observances. Even such things as deciding when to harvest your crops could lead to religious revelations. Besides, time was set in motion by those ageless beings known as gods, and they mandated on-time performance. The ability to influence time was far beyond human capacity, thus deities informed us how to handle it. Into the Medieval period clocks maintained a regular array of religious imagery, reminding the user that this is the ultimate non-renewable resource.

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It was almost overwhelming, being surrounded by so many clocks. I remember being a young man—indeed a little boy—when time seemed to be in infinite supply. Religious observance was always a large part of that pool. Here I stood, a middle-aged man, spending my time pondering time. All the while, it was passing. Time is measured by regularity. Uniformitarianism is the geologic principle that informs us of the age of the earth itself. Beyond that, we’re told, the universe—so long ago—had its own beginning and anything that has a beginning will inevitably have an end. Such sobering thoughts amid the beautiful timepieces that so many spent their lives crafting. Now we only need glance in the corner of our computer monitors, or pull out our phones to glance the time. Taking a bit of it is wise, it seems to me, to explore our fascination with time itself. There is an air of eternity about the very enterprise itself. Well worth a summer’s day when forever is in your rear-view mirror on the way home.

Eternal Huckleberries

It began as a quest for immortality. Sometimes, however, you don’t recognize something even when it’s all around you. As an historian of religion, the quest for immortality is a familiar one. Certainly the ancient Egyptians believed they had found the keys, at least for royalty, and most religions haven’t given up trying since then. Some clonal plants have achieved extreme longevity. Since they grow by extending their roots, rather than by sexual reproduction, a single plant can remain alive as long at, at least 8,000 years. The specific plant to which I’m referring is the box huckleberry. I first learned to pick huckleberries for food in the Pacific Northwest. In that part of the country, I’ve learned to identify the plant from a distance and have spent many contented hours picking berries. Time, however, is something always endangered for those of us aware of its passing.

The box huckleberry colony in the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area in Pennsylvania is about 1,300 years old. Summer is waning and my family wanted to see it. Indeed, for this particular colony, development probably destroyed parts of the system and so it has to be preserved. With that strange east-coast worldview, “just over there in Pennsylvania” comes to mean things are closer together in the imagination than they really are. Driving three hours just to see a huckleberry colony became more appealing when we combined it with the idea of visiting the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Both concepts were obviously related to the theme of time. They aren’t quite as close together as they look on a map. Map, after all, we are told, is not territory. The museum exists in a fixed location marked by a street address, so we went there first. There will be plenty to write about that later. As, ironically, we didn’t allow as much time as we should have for the museum, we had to head out further west and north to find the elusive huckleberry. All we had were the GSP coordinates and the name of a local town.

From the length of the line of cars behind me, the locals preferred to travel faster. Knowing only the relative direction and an approximate mile count, we stumbled upon Huckleberry Road and knew we must be close. Off into the woods we drove. As onetime manic geocachers, we had learned to both trust and distrust a GPS, but there was a trail head out here and a single parking spot. No one else was around. The signed indicated we were in the right place, but where were these ancient huckleberries? The ones we generally harvest grow knee-to-waste high with distinctive leaves. We walked the entire nature trail in frustration. How could a 1,300 year-old plant hide so well? Frustrated, we went back to the start. Fortunately, there were brochures. We found the box huckleberries. Indeed, they had been all along the trail, but we didn’t know what we were seeking. Just a few inches high, they cover the ground like a carpet. A few ripe berries poked through. We were in the presence of an entity that was older than Beowulf. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, this plant had been alive. Without the guide we’d never have realized we were standing in the midst of a kind of immortality.

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