Editor’s Note: How Much Time Do We Have?
“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time
has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”¹ –Dr. Seuss
I almost didn’t write an Editor’s Note for Issue 4. I have been so busy. It’s the kind of busy where meals and sleep get tucked into the cracks. And yet, I always find time to squeeze in one more obligation. So why couldn’t I find time to write an Editor’s Note?
Time is a significant concept in ecological writing. David W. Orr reminds us that the urgency of our times should motivate us to act. Measuring time in ecological units, Orr points out that time is a measure of activity, but also of loss: “the exact rate at which species are being lost, for example, cannot be known with much precision.”² For writers and readers of ecoliterature, then, the problem of time becomes more complicated. The question shifts from ‘how much time do we have?’ to ‘how much time does our subject have?’
In this issue, Jacqueline Hughes Simon’s poem, “What Bird but We Would Put Up with Perfection?” begins with a boy weaving birds’ nests while waiting in an orthodontist’s office. The patience of his thumb “calming” the floor of the teardrop-shaped nest is a patience that’s becoming rare and remarkable to witness. The poem calls attention to it. It reminds us that we’ve forgotten the patience of birds.
The poem also asks us to notice that children view time differently than adults do. For young children, time itself is full, intentional play. A translation of one of Heraclitus’ Fragments reads: “Time is a game played beautifully by children.” The boy in Hughes Simon’s poem is playing time beautifully, although we get the sense that his weaving is not “play”, but rather a task that’s altogether necessary. It’s his patient way of staying close to life–and working to stave off its losses.
“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why”³ –Kurt Vonnegut
Amber L. Cook’s “Grauballe Man” ponders the idea of a body being trapped as time moves forward through months and millennia:
The moon watches too, making a milky thumbprint stamped into patched-grass. I mean
to say the moon is watching the body and waiting to see what shape the moss makes
over millennia: over years that are pressed and passed. I mean to mention the spine by
way of making bony bridges from vertebrae to vertebrae: by way of making reason for
the body as left there, great divining beetle skittering atop, and what this looks like from
far off: the not-so-bad, the at-peace. Goldthread gilds this sight with its blooms
Cook’s subject, Grauballe Man, was a bog body discovered in a peat bog near the Danish village of Grauballe in 1952. Bodies interred in bogs are extremely well-preserved due to low oxygen levels, low temperature, and other factors. Though Grauballe Man has been dated from the 3rd century BCE, his hair and skin are intact. He is trapped, as Vonnegut wrote, “in the amber of the moment”, and yet his entrapment is also his preservation.
Cook’s second poem, “Windeby Girl” refers to Windeby I, a bog body found near the town of Windeby in Northern Germany, also in 1952. In “Windeby Girl”, Cook writes:
“Leg overlapped by leg: arm pressed
to the hip, arm pressed to the rib as if making
sure they’re all accounted for in the after,
as if making sure they’re all accounted for in
Windeby I’s body was only partially accounted for. Examiners first thought the body belonged to a young girl. Fifty-five years later, Professor Heather Gill-Robinson published research in the September 2007 issue of National Geographic suggesting that Windeby “Girl” was actually Windeby “Boy”.4 How much time did the body have? The peat bog kept the body preserved against time. Windeby I died in the first century CE and until 1952 the body “was anchored by a large stone and branches from a birch tree.” Cook’s piece is a delicate exhumation. It’s a poem that preserves the first telling of Windeby I’s story. In that way, the poem itself is like a bog body–with its stories intact.
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” 5 —The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
I’ve come to believe that writing about place, nature, and the environment is a process marked not only by our willingness to be immersed, but our willingness to immerse our subject. And if we participate in this immersion in an effort to preserve or change things, perhaps we will work through these conundrums. How much time is there to preserve, to call attention to, and to change? It’s a question often so formidable that I find myself reticent to begin writing. It’s a question that forces me to ponder the connection between writing and action. Even when there is “time” to write, writing-time is a risky and unpredictable kind of time. It begs for long, ambiguous stretches. It promises no outcomes. The poets in Issue 4 have braved this conundrum and emerged “from the bog” with poems for preservation and change.
Cover artist, American painter Jason Kowalski says: “I am interested in objects that have a past. Their story is often forgotten, and their characteristics of being worn out, broken, and old are commonly seen as unattractive. Ultimately, my goal is to create art that challenges viewers to see the unique beauty found in worn and castaway objects.” Many of his paintings feature defunct mid-century gas stations, cafes, motels, and abandoned suburban landscapes in the inland deserts of Southern California. His choice of subject is significant because while these he presents these place as fragments of an old landscape, he also presents them as new landscapes. In this way, Kowalski’s work depicts the stubbornness of places and the peculiar ways they change and resist change.
This complicated notion of change echoes Plutarch’s loose translation of a Heraclitus fragment about time. Plutarch’s version of the fragment famously reads: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” And yet Daniel W. Graham suggests that Plutarch’s translation is imprecise. He argues that the interpretation given by Cleanthes from Arius and Didymus from Eusebius provides “a closer representation of the syntactical ambiguity that marked Heraclitus’ writing.” According to Graham, this translation reads: “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” 6 Graham writes:
“If this interpretation is right, the message of the one river fragment (B12), is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing.” 7
In the natural world, we know change is constant. But we often forget that the change we introduce into natural processes of change creates unforeseen or unknowable outcomes over time. Thus, the passage of time becomes peculiarly vital for writers of place, species, and environment; time is no longer cliché. In Dr. Seuss’ musical and playful line: “my goodness how the time has flewn” we get the sense that what Seuss is up to here, and elsewhere in his writing, is not simply to echo or poke fun at clichés. Instead, his uncanny humor asks us to recognize the uncanny realness of our time on earth.
So it seems right that the passing of things is a major theme in Issue 4. Stephen Siperstein’s poem, “Sand Dollars” brings us to a beach where the speaker is collecting sand dollars. Metaphorically, the poem laments that the things we collect and honor (like Jason Kowalski’s paintings of derelict roadside buildings) have value because their time is up. Such loss of time–and acknowledging that which is not yet lost–moves us to write. The last line of Siperstein’s poem echoes this: “wading through warm water, watching for the faces of angels rising, we covered those that might still live.”
Thank you for taking time to read Issue 4. I hope you enjoy the work. Leave a comment on our blog or email me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 31, 2014
¹ Dr. Suess poem, “How Did it Get So Late So Soon?”
² Orr, David W. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island, 1994.
³ Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. Dell Books, 1991.
4 Lang, Karen E. National Geographic online
5 Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
6 Daniel W. Graham, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fragment B12 reads: “potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei”
7 Daniel W. Graham, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy