“It’s about time” (Part I)

Thoughts about calendars at the “end of the world”
“It’s About Time” is a three-part series that will explore the role calendars play in organizing our lives. It will offer a perspective on the confusion surrounding the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” of 2012 by going into detail on the concept of a calendar. We will ask “What DOES a Calendar do?” (Dec. 5), “How has OUR calendar evolved?” (Dec. 12) and “What CAN a calendar do?” (Dec. 19).

As most people are aware, this Winter Solstice (Dec. 21) is considered to be a special day because in the Mayan “Long Count” it marks the end of a cycle of roughly 5,200 years.

There are a number of views as to what this actually means for us. Some people think the date is meaningless. Some think a disaster is likely to happen. Some think a miracle is coming. But which of these makes the most sense, if any? For those who are undecided or just curious, this three-part series will look at the 2012 “apocalypse” and what it might mean (and not mean).

The calendar

Since all the buzz about this date surrounds a calendar, the most important question for us to ask is, “What does a calendar actually do?” Let’s begin by looking at the role of a calendar – any calendar – in the way it relates to how society forms, evolves and functions.

Let me paint you a picture: Imagine yourself at the dawn of human civilization. Imagine a way of living that did not include written language, mathematics, or abstract concepts. Imagine just being present in a world that had no fixed names, no “ideas” as such, and simply was as it was, directly to the senses. Imagine what our awareness would have been like when the world was still an un-narrated mystery to us. Would it have been dim, or clear?  What senses were strongest? What factors would we have been most aware of in our environments? Did we live purely for the moment or were we able to remember, or to plan?

In considering these questions, it is likely that you would have thought of the seasons, and of the moon and the sun and the stars. Certainly, a person exposed day after day, and night after night to the apparent rotation of the stars, the movements of the sun and the moon, and the transformation of the seasons would start to recognize that a pattern of some sort is repeating.

It is on this recognition that memory first forms. The first calendars in the world all seem to have been based on the phases of the moons. The moon-th would then lead us to the year, which was made clear to us by a shift of seasons. This would have been a harder process to pin down, at first, but it would have been possible for people who were  attentive to the  patterns of the stars in the sky to discover the Solstices and Equinoxes — the four transitional points of the year.

Rhythm, the timekeeper

The oldest lunar calendars and earliest constellations have been identified in cave art found in France and Germany. The astronomer-priests of these late Upper Paleolithic cultures understood mathematical sets, and the interplay between the moon annual cycle, ecliptic, solstice and seasonal changes on earth. The archaeological record’s earliest data that speaks to human awareness of the stars and ‘heavens’ dates to the Aurignacian Culture of Europe, 32,000 B.C. (From www.environmentalgraffiti.com).

These are the rhythms that the natural world gives to us, and with them it would have become possible to intuit what was going to come next, from what had come before. By recognizing the patterns of nature we were able to measure time for ourselves by projecting our awareness forward and backward across the months and the years. We went from what we knew to what we didn’t know, much like at how people dancing can anticipate how to move to a song they have never heard before.

In this way, the rhythms we saw in the heavens were like a kind of music that allowed us to conceive of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ that was based on a reliable, steady, yet mysterious law of return. And so, with this musical basis, we were able to develop memory on both the personal and cultural levels. We are able to say to ourselves, “three moons ago I met my love,” or, “four turnings of the heavens ago, I bore a child.”

Since we could roughly know how many moons would give us a season, or even fit into a “turning of the heavens”, we could also guess when the next season might come: “In three moon’s time, the leaves will turn, and three moons after the waters will become solid, and the winds will become cold”. We were beginning to inhabit a world where we could record and anticipate events, by our dancer’s consciousness of the months and seasons and years.

We began to refine this ability. First, we embellished the comings and goings of the moons and the years with magic rituals and dramas. We created festivals to mark the seasons, we developed habits that synchronized ourselves with the full and new moons, and in short, on the rhythmic frame of the natural cycles, we wove a tapestry of  stories, myths, allegories. We wove ourselves out of memory, on the loom of the cycles of heaven.

A portal to new possibilities

By and by, as we became more and more the product of our crafted memories, we discovered abstract principles within the patterns we observed. We invented ways of recording and writing things down. We discovered geometry, arithmetic, and architecture. We began to develop much larger societies, which depended on a shared sense of time. Specialists; priests and kings would literally command time by scripting the stories that bound the society together into a common vision, and by enacting those stories at important times throughout the year.

“We went from keeping the years and seasons by watching them to keeping the years and seasons by counting them…”

Eventually, a profound shift in how we measured time occurred. With our mathematics and our assembled knowledge, aided by the various writing systems we had developed, we were able to move away from ‘Observational Timekeeping’ to ‘Algorithmic Timekeeping’. We went from keeping the years and seasons by watching them to keeping the years and seasons by counting them according to systems designed to keep pace with them over centuries. With this development, we could see much further into time. We were able to project our awareness into the future on scales of millennia. Our calendar has started to operate automatically, without (we thought) the need to keep a watch on the outside. It is as if we had applied the art of architecture to time itself, and moved from the outside with its apparent cycles, to an inner world measured by numbers.

Time as a linear progression

This development brings us to the state of time as we now experience it: We imagine a linear progression of one year to the next marked by seasonal festivals such as Christmas and Easter, all bundled into centuries and eventually millennia. The months no longer need to keep pace with the moon, but are basically arbitrary divisions within the count of time. We have also introduced the week, the seconds and the hours and the minutes: non-natural cycles that allow us to organize our work in closer and closer detail.

But does a Calendar merely tick off time without changing it, or does it still somehow shape what happens? In other words, by establishing the tempo of our lives, does a calendar actually determine how we view the past and what we strive for in the future?  A given cultural calendar is clearly a work of craft and design. It obviously tells a story, over and over again, in a way which brings that story and its performers along with it through time. If you take a good look at history, you might notice that the great civilizations are distinguished by having their own calendars, their own account of time. Human labour, memory, and context are shaped by the patterns of the calendars much in the same way that water is shaped by the structure of its container.

Calendar as a vehicle

Put simply, a calendar does not just count time, it shapes the experience of time. The answer to our question, “What DOES a calendar do?” is clear: A calendar is a system by which we direct our journey through time. The design of the calendar supports the stories that we use to make sense of the past, and to inform our course into the future.

“In a very real way, the calendar is the first foundation of human social order…”

So what does it mean when a calendar that uses an algorithmic system begins adopting internal rhythms that do not map onto the actual, naturally occurring cycles that it is supposed to track? What does it mean when a constructed calendar actively puts us at odds with “true time”? In a very real way, the calendar is the first foundation of human social order, and so it is vital to consider whether or not a given calendar is working in our collective interests, or against them. We will address this issue more closely in Part II of this series, where I will be looking into the history of our “Gregorian” calendar, the changes that it has undergone in its development, and the challenges it has faced and continues to face.

Peter Duchemin is a sleight of hand magician, a scholar, and a student of the variety of approaches that humans have made towards finding (and creating) order in the world. He advocates looking beyond our assumptions for creative solutions to the obstacles that confront us. He believes that a good, clear metaphor can move mountains. He travels, writes, performs and thinks from his base in St John’s.

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