A Purpose for Every Time

Folk singer-songwriter Pete Seeger promised us a time for every purpose under heaven. This comforting eschatological notion underlies Western beliefs in nature as governed by a coherent divine plan unfolding in unitary time. In Nature’s Broken Clocks, Paul Huebener calls for critical reflection on this foundational notion, inscribed in material culture as well as in our cultural and personal narratives. Nature, he argues, displays not one temporality but many temporalities that, especially in the era of modernity and climate change, are observably out of sync. The migratory patterns of some birds, for instance, are disturbed by human-sourced disruptions of seasonal temperatures; the bird’s “clock” is “broken,” no longer coordinated with the seasonal cycle that is itself also “broken.” Leading readers through careful and entertaining analyses of various “broken clocks,” as well as through literary critical analyses of novels, short stories, and poems bearing messages about time, Huebener sets out to create in us a keener “literacy of time.” His instructive discussions of literary works include Margaret Atwood’s “Bear Lament,” Christian Bök’s The Xenotext: Book One, Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Don McKay’s “Quartz Crystal,” Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, Robert J. Sawyer’s Flashforward, and Thomas Wharton’s Icefields, among others. Huebener’s imaginative and generally accessible literary analyses are informed by diverse works from a variety of fields including philosophy, environmental studies, and science.

According to Huebener, encoded in the stories we tell ourselves about nature are conceptions of time that serve diverse, often conflicting political and economic agendas. These ideas about time inform our visions of the future and shape our notions of progress; they emphasize elements of nature we arbitrarily prize, as well as those we wish to alter without sufficient attention to consequences. Our ideas about time determine our response to human suffering and our ability to imagine the future, including alternatives to industrial capitalism. Finally, some of these stories we tell ourselves may help us to “question all the other stories.” The author hopes that “a thoughtful literacy of time” might result from our queries, since at stake “is our ability to negotiate the age of ecological collapse.”

Huebener examines representative examples of “broken clocks”—material phenomena that reveal our misconceptions about time. First, however, he lays the groundwork of his “eco-critical time studies” by reminding us that not only mechanical time is constructed but also “natural time.” We know that measuring time with clocks and calendars is a human invention. However, when we imagine that guidance by diurnal and seasonal cycles amounts to a pristine, “natural” alternative, we blind ourselves to human interference that has permanently altered this imagined “nature.” For example, artificial light affects biological processes such as the circadian rhythms of both human and non-human animals. What, then, is “natural” time if birds, for instance, begin to arrive “too late” for an unnaturally early spring? What is “natural” about a new type of hybrid bear, the “grolar,” that appears because the grizzly bears’ and polar bears’ territories overlap, and their hibernation times change as the planet warms? Huebener would have us see that there is no fixed “natural” time unaffected by our conceptions and actions. However, our fixed notions of “natural time” persist and are preserved in the stories we tell ourselves about reality.

Such stories we tell ourselves occur even in advertisements for products that mythologize the natural world. Huebener points to an interesting and internally contradictory temporal narrative in advertisements for recreational vehicles that purportedly give buyers the chance to slow down, get “back to nature,” and escape the humanly-constructed world. In ads nostalgically associated with an idealized past, nature is ironically constructed for consumer entertainment. Among the stories we tell ourselves about time are also our intellectual constructions of the prehistoric past. Huebener reminds us that today’s frozen North was once hot and humid. The imagined past—the “Arctic Alligator Swamp”—is the projected future of the Arctic on a warming planet.

Understanding how we think about time, the author contends, makes us see that there is no simple “reset,” no simple “return” to nature. Instead, we must move on with new awareness of how our conceptions of time, and the purposes we assign to imagined time, themselves determine our experiences in time and the effects of these experiences on the earth.

This review “A Purpose for Every Time” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

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