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A Yankee Notebook

March 2, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – Those of us who yearn for the good old days might reasonably be accused of having short memories. How soon we’ve forgotten the days before painless dentistry, antibiotics, 12-volt car batteries, touchtone phones, convenient indoor plumbing, and light switches. “Going to bed with the chickens,” considered evidence of rural virtue, was instead born of a necessity in poor households that couldn’t afford kerosene (then popularly called “coal oil”) to run lamps for such foolishness as recreational reading. It’s hard to believe that Abraham Lincoln was able to achieve his mastery of language when, according to legend, he learned to read by firelight, jotting his thoughts on a wooden shovel blade with chunks of charcoal. It’s a wonder he learned to read at all. Most folks, instead of wrestling with poor light or chatting in the dark, simply went to bed.

The rise of our so-called civilized society has stimulated the invention of all sorts of conveniences that have over time assumed the status of necessities. The aforementioned electric lights and indoor plumbing, are examples. But there are others less thought of – like time.

There was a lot of time before measured time. I often keep myself alert on long drives by switching from public broadcasting to radio evangelists; they’re almost guaranteed anti-soporifics. I recently heard one pronounce, in authoritative tones, that God existed before time. He repeated the mantra so many times that I evolved gradually from, “Well, duh!” to, “Geez, I missed a chance when I decided not to go into that racket. He’s getting paid for that obvious foolishness!”

The preacher’s argument was that God, in creating the earth, divided the darkness from the light and thus created day and night – the first awareness of time. I guess so. But life was more pastoral and agricultural then, so that’s about all people needed. They got up with the dawn and the rooster, worked all day, and retired with the sunset and the hens.

Organized activity, however – like construction or the harvest – required that a lot of workers show up at roughly the same time; so people began dividing the day into smaller units. Monasteries helped, by observing daily canonical rites (and ringing a bell in a tower to announce them) at times of the day they often measured with water clocks.

Maritime explorers – once scientists had concluded the earth was round, and rotated – had a keen interest in a new invention called longitude. For this determination, an accurate chronometer was by far the best tool. Its development is best described in Dava Sobel’s Longitude, a slightly overheated description of the genius that finally put the Royal Navy accurately on the map.

The United States, incredible though it seems, had no standard time for over 200 years; there was no need of it. But with the development of railroads in the mid-19th century, trouble was clearly on the horizon. Each railroad ran on its own time, creating chaos for travelers who needed to switch lines. Not until the 1880s, pressured by the fear that the federal government might solve the problem by fiat, was there a convention of interested parties that divided the nation into four time zones. Implementation was not coordinated, but by 1890 Standard Time was what its name implied. Various observatories provided telegraphic time signals at exact noon each day.

During the First World War the Germans adopted Daylight Saving Time, an idea proposed, but never adopted, in the 1890s in England. It was 1918 before the United States finally established an official standard. The same law provided for Daylight Saving Time, but that provision was dropped a year later. It returned during the Second World War, and was called War Time.

Originally intended to save energy and extend the working day, Daylight Saving is nowadays seen as a chance for recreation after the end of the work day. DST disappears in the fall along with the sun, because of the concern that children waiting for school buses in the morning darkness might be at risk. It recently expanded into March and November. As a longtime (mostly) outdoor worker, I can only wish it had happened sooner. But it does give me a longer afternoon hike.

At each end of the period, folks show up an hour late or an hour early for church on the Sunday of the change. The once that it really fouled me up was the Saturday evening in November I agreed to guide a trio of New York City deer hunters the next day. “We have to start early,” I told them, “so be sure to set your clocks an hour ahead, and I’ll be there at five to pick you up.”

It was bitterly cold before dawn the next morning. I showed up right on time, and off we went. I set each of them on a watch and hiked off to start a long drive. It seemed to stay dark far longer than it should have. Finally it trickled into my brain that I had actually picked them up at three, and that out there in the icy woods waited a trio of freezing hunters, each reaching the same conclusion and armed with a high-powered rifle. It was not my finest hour.

Over the years, as the demand for precision has increased, we’ve developed ever more sophisticated ways of keeping time. We’re surrounded here at home with clocks – on our wrists, in the bedroom, on all the appliances, in the living room, in the vehicles – all run by electricity or batteries (no more wind-ups) and in some cases regulated by satellite signals. Almost all of them have got to be reset twice a year. One requires a ladder and nerves of steel, the others obscure protocols with lots of beeps. I’m wishing for at least one more advance in timekeeping: a large electronic blob that settles over the house on the appropriate dates and resets them all at once.

Photo by Willem lange