birds as clocks, beethoven as whale

24 Feb

Clocks mentioned in a recent (possibly recycled) Radiolab episode:

Spice Clock
Clock of Birds
Flower Clock (+ Scent Calendar)

The episode is on time, specifically its relativity. Einstein knew about this, knew that time was relative, that someone moving quickly had to experience time differently than someone moving slowly. In other words, hummingbirds literally experience time at a faster rate than we do, and we experience time at a faster rate than a whale.

They mention whales first in regard to Beethoven. In what is one of the simpler but more fascinating musical experiments, a sound artist slowed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony so that it stretched an entire day; a piece that was intended for 70 minutes now lasted exactly 24 hours. It’s as if a whale had written the piece, as if time was happening altogether more slowly.

But what of the clocks mentioned above? The spice clock, the clock of birds. Those were interesting—and telling I think.

They come from Jay Griffiths, who wrote a book called A Sideways Look at Time. Before clocks were lit up, people had no idea how to tell what time it was in the dark. So someone created a spice clock. “Cinnamon for about 1 o’clock, turmeric at 2 o’clock…” You wake up, smell turmeric, and go back to sleep. It’s not time to wake up yet.

The clock of birds comes from Papua New Guinea, where certain people teach their children that it’s the morning call of the New Guinea friarbird or the hooded butcherbird—not an alarm buzzing in their ears, or a digital clock blinking 7:30 am—that will let them know it’s time to wake up and getting ready for school. Likewise, when those birds begin their afternoon calls, the kids know it’s time to go home.

The flower clock? From Carl Linnaeus, botanist, zoologist, and “father or taxonomy.” In 1751, he created a clock from a variety of flowers. “Something that blooms in the morning and then folds up, like a morning glory, would be there in the morning, then in the evening, an evening primrose would come out.”

“And connected to that,” Griffiths says, “…on the Andaman islands in the Indian Ocean, people have a scent calendar, which I found to be the most beautiful idea, because what it was is a way of describing the months by the scents of certain fruits and flowers.”

Each of these is inventive and fun to imagine, but likewise, each highlights something rather grievous in contemporary American culture. What once was a basic way of understanding and interacting with the natural world is now a novel contraption highlighted on a popular radio show.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that people could tell what time it was based on the flowers blooming, or that you could tell it’s spring by the aromas in the air. Aside from the spice clock, these are not inventions; they are incredibly natural ways to perceive time. Waking up to a bird call is little different than waking up to a sound coming from a small box next to the bed. In fact, it’s much less painful, it doesn’t require energy or plastic or take up space. Why don’t we train our children to wake to the sounds of the hooded butcherbirds any longer?

I think Griffiths does understand this. After the segment on clocks she says, “Time is everywhere in nature. One of the things I wanted to do with the book, was to say, ‘We think of time being to do with clocks,’ but in fact, for most of the world for most of history, time has been absolutely embedded in nature in some beautiful ways.”

It’s impossible to explain just how lovely Griffiths is when she speaks. Her British accent and almost giddy joy is infectious; her voice alone is reason to listen. At the very end, before the show circles back to that elongated symphony of Beethoven’s, she says something beautiful, something that, in a way, explains an earlier post:

“In prayer, in meditation, in art, and in love, actually, people lose that very fretful ticking-off sense of clock time, and what you fall into is something transcendent. All that you have to have done is loved somebody to know that, and to hold them for half an hour, and you can know that that half an hour has lasted an eternity.”

“Time standing still in a moment like that,” says host Robert Krulwich, “is like a very… swollen… now.”

“Yes! Exactly! Exactly. And in a sense, that’s when the moment meets the eternal. That is all that matters, this moment that you’re holding in your hand.”

4 Responses to “birds as clocks, beethoven as whale”

  1. Sean February 24, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    I enjoyed how you framed this post. Letting the content you discuss speak for itself, and not apply too much to it. NJ.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] how things swirl around. Muybridge was mentioned in the Radiolab episode I wrote about two weeks [...]

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    [...] too long ago, I mentioned using dawn- and dusk-time birdsong as a clock, a practice still of some Papua New Guineans, but one [...]

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