- gatherer time
image of time is a machine, a factory assembly line chucking out identical
hours, each unremarked and indistinguishable. Worse than that, it has insisted
that its time is the time, and that indigenous peoples all over the world lack
a ‘proper’ sense of time. It is not a lack. Rather they have cultivated a
far more subtle and sensitive relationship to time and timing.
The Leco people of Bolivia have
tree calendars, the U’wa of Colombia have insect clocks ‘which whistle on
the U’wa hour’ and the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea have a clock of
birds. To the Karen of Burma, the forest over the course of a day supplies a
symphony of time, provided you know the score.
The San Bushmen of the Kalahari
would never schedule when to hunt but would read and assess animal behaviour
and choose a ‘right’ time spontaneously, ‘waiting for the moment to be
lucky.’ Hunter-gatherer time is a series of unique moments, confluences of a
hundred streams, a thousand interconnecting factors, including a person’s
mood, a shift in wind direction, knowledge of a cubbing season, a sight of
fresh tracks. Scheduling or planning would destroy the necessary elusiveness
of this subtle sense of timing, and would kill stone dead the exquisite sense
that time is alive.
‘Sustainability’ seems to
weigh in with the burden of a heavy stasis, a life half-lived and a death
half-died, all the dirgey effort of a worthy cause and none of the dynamite of
‘progress’. But the opposite is true. Progress, along the trajectory
Euro-American culture is now on, is a one-word lie; it is neither the travel
nor the arrival, but the ultimate ending; not the flame of thought, but a
bonfire of humanity: the vaunted ‘progress’ of cars and unlimited plane
travel leading to global warming and millions of environmental refugees –
this so-called progress is a politics which tends towards death.
Sustainability, on the other hand, is where the life lies, where time touches
eternity, the time of the natural world, of ice and melt, of the seas’ times
and tides. Both sustainability and progress need to be redefined and reclaimed.
In order to do this, Western culture needs to listen to indigenous peoples
because in their ideas of cyclical time, time is constantly restored, nature
sustained and sustaining. These are the very ideas the world needs most.
Griffiths is the author of Pip Pip: A Sideways Look At Time.