Are These Superimpositions, Or Are They Reality?

View from outside Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Nomadic hunters and gatherers, even early agricultural societies, aligned their lives and toils to the rhythms of nature. How much and how often they worked, and when they migrated and to where, were influenced by surrounding conditions and pressures: hours of daylight, weather, migration of wildlife, outbreaks of sickness and health of tribal members.

Effort then related to environmental conditions.

On a balmy harvest moon, whole rural societies might toil together to reap and store grain until well after midnight, bolstered by the mutual drive and appreciation of working with neighbors and achieving a common goal. Or, during cold winter storms, Native Americans hunting buffalo on the Great Plains (of what is now the United States) might be curtailed until temperatures ascended. Effort, and time spent wielding effort, were inextricably related to surrounding natural conditions.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and subsequent abuse of employees working over a dozen hours a day, at least six days a week. Cruel and lengthy work hours were finally curtailed by legislation (and by bold initiative of a few companies) into a healthier and saner (and likely more productive) ‘forty hour workweek.’ This was a blessing within an almost cursed framework—that which incited relentless toil to attain maximum productivity, and profit for a few, within simplistically delineated packages of time.

Today, most employees in the world are expected to begin work at X hour, end work at Y hour and take Z minutes break at Q o’clock to eat lunch.

In other words, a somewhat rectilinear organization of time for toil and relaxation has been superimposed—like a well carpented window frame—over the previously malleable time frame followed by (not imposed by) hunter-gathering tribes and early agricultural societies, who were more attuned to the rhythms of sunlight and seasons.

Near Craters of The Moon National Monument, Idaho

No doubt this is more efficient, and allowed the development of a middle class to emerge from agricultural societies. The fruits of such organization have led to greater aggregate wealth, health care, availability of nutritious and diverse foods, increased life spans and a better climate controlled lifestyle for adherents of society weaned under this structured lifestyle paradigm

As we gained, so also we lost. When is the last time you watched a sunrise or moonrise or peered at a meteor shower or got lost in the woods tracking the flight of wildlife? How often do you wander along the fractal, splitting and unpredictably aligned edges of rocky coastlines?

Layers of Himalayan foothills in Pakistan

As our societies organized time, they also delineated space.

If you inspect a map of the western United States (a topographical ‘quadrangle’ printed by the U.S. Geological Survey), you will notice that the layout of towns and cities and geographical parcels belonging both to private and public landowners is almost rigidly rectilinear. That means: squares, rectangles, straight lines and ninety degree angle corners. This is the Township system, the geographical milieu imposed on California and Oregon and U.S. geographies by limited minded technocrats who dwelled in Washington DC over a century ago. These persons knew little of wilderness except for tangled Virginia overgrowth and swampy banks of the Hudson River.

In other words, a 17th century Cartesian coordinate system, favored by East coast politicians with no direct knowledge from having ever visited the West, was superimposed over the organic, curling, swerving patterns of geographical natural landforms—rivers, watersheds, wood lots and mountain ridges of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states.

[I wrote a chapter about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing The Waterways of Lewis & Clark. Here is a link to that chapter. It also mentions how ‘climate change’ is nothing new, having altered landscapes 200 years ago, as it has impacted our earth for millions of years.]

Somewhere in the Western U.S.

In the same way that the Industrial Revolution led to the imposition—like an omnipresent flyswatter—of modular and measured parcels of structured minutes and hours over the fluid and ephemeral nature of quotidian time, the map makers of yore (ignoring the pleas of wise explorers such as John Wesley Powell) smacked a grid—like window mesh—over intricate topographical undulations, declivities, hilly skylines and roughly spaced scrublands of the natural topography of the Western United States.

In other words, rather than choose to divide up geography following the natural, fractal boundaries defined by watersheds, they chose a geometry that is largely unrelated to landforms.

Again, as we gained, so we lost.

In adopting this system, those responsible ignored the truth that ranchers and farmers and shopkeepers tended to congregate with neighbors who lived within the natural boundaries of their own watershed, rather than others who may or may not have shared land within the same rectilinear basin/township/range land division. Those communities might also have lived over a mountain ridge within that same system, and therefore included virtual strangers.

The imposition of a rectilinear grid over landscapes legally separated people who lived within the same geographical communities, while associating them with others they may never have met before.

Not Idaho, but Iceland

These two actions, the artificial division of work life into measurable minutes as measured by a clock, and the division of geographies using Cartesian coordinates, have led to effective and replicable management systems, but are unnatural enough to a degree that they may tend to alienate people from the very seasons and geography in which they live. This is not a criticism of these systems as much as an encouragement to temper them with time spent ignoring watches and wandering in the wilds, when possible.

Mountains lack straight edges. Lakes are never shaped as perfect circles. Yet such ‘sloppiness’ belies a greater, powerful longer-term economy of natural energies than any organizational system humans have ever devised.

The ‘badlands’ of New Mexico

That is why the beauty of nature attracts us. It is why the glow of a full moon or the fulsome whish of tidal waters attracts our attentions fully. These vistas may lack the engineered attraction of television scenes where camera angles change each three seconds or sooner; they may not be as dopamine churning as fingering your cellular screen to review the number of ‘likes’ you received within the past hour, but they are—through millions of years of coevolution with life on earth—effectively calming, inspiring, and suggestive that perhaps we should be more appreciative of our precious time on this planet, and our natural surroundings.

We should, at times, listen to nature to better understand how to live with, and within, its wise but jagged organization, as well as its thundering beauty.

Again, thanks for tuning in.





Share Your Thoughts