Time Beyond Clocks, Words Beyond the Screen

Words by Lottie Van Wijck


The ‘fast news’ cycle we consume is full of mindless scrolling, sensationalism and clickbait. Navigating this can feel overwhelming, overstimulating, and sickly, causing us to lose sight of what really matters. The drumbeat of ‘fast news’ that punctuates the cadence of modern life is so normalised and glorified that it has shifted our expectations of ourselves and our conceptions of time. 

One project trying to tackle this phenomenon is being built inside a Texan hillside. There, a global team of engineers and futurologists are creating a solar-powered, monumental scale, continuous clock which will keep accurate time for the next ten millennia and map ‘deep time’. The project is called ‘The Clock of the Long Now’ and will tick every year, toll every decade and the cuckoo chimes once a millennium. The project aims to shift the ‘time scale of civilisation’ concept andencourage us to reflect on the contours of time, space, and evolution. In an era of drastic anthropogenic change, the project hopes to encourage intergenerational responsibility and custodianship.Western culture teaches us that the past is behind us and unchangeable. However, holding such stringent, depersonalised conceptions of time may have insidious side effects. Conversely, Indigenous cultures are custodians of ‘deep time’ which means the past encircles and informs their present. This concept demonstrates that history isn’t static and stagnant but intricately woven into our culture and future.

Reflecting on the Tuvan language and culture can illustrate an intriguing variation on Western conceptions of time. The nomadic, yurt-dwelling Tuvan people live in the steppes of Central Asia. The Tuvan word songgaar means both ‘go back’ and ‘to the future’, while burungaar translates to ‘going forward’ and ‘to the past’. While this may seem confusing to English speakers, it makes perfect ontological sense to Tuvan communities because their worldview situates the past in front of you and the future behind you. Hence, we step backward blindly into an obscured, unknown future which expands out behind our backs. Conversely, we can look at the recent past clearly, whereas the more distant, blurry past spreads outward to meet the horizon. National Geographic journalist Russ Rymer studies vanishing languages and says that every time a language dies ‘we lose our diverse richness as a human species’. Hence, it is critical that we fight the replacement of ‘long tail linguistics’ by homogenous, conquering, colonial language behemoths like Spanish and English.

Given that Indigenous people are the enduring custodians and protectors of culture, biodiversity, and land, it is not surprising that biodiversity and linguistic diversity go hand in hand. By saving and strengthening languages, we strengthen ancient, innovative, intuitive ways of life and custodianship. This highlights why it is beyond critical that greater effort is made to preserve and revitalise Indigenous and remote languages. Research indicates that Indigenous languages are most often found in high profile UNESCO world heritage sites, showing the living, embodied and interconnected nature of culture, biodiversity, and place. Incorporating such worldviews could help us deconstruct the rigidity that surrounds current binaries and hard borders, such as those between genders or nation states. This could allow us to reconceptualise such things by seeing them instead as membranes, continuums, and hybrids. 

Inevitably languages shift, morph and evolve. They transition to map contemporary society and the spaces we inhabit. English is no exception. This linguistic transition can be seen in the yearly dictionary updates where older, more obsolete words are culled in favour of new flavours, trends, and often tech-based terms. The updated Oxford Junior Dictionary is one example which sparked outcry from authors, who condemned the tonal shift whereby words like acorn, buttercup and chestnut were scrapped to make way for blog, broadband, celebrity and ‘cut and paste’. This parallels the decline of children who play in natural areas, a reduction from 40% a generation ago to only 10% today.

But why should we care so much about words? Well, we need to protect the things that matter; be they words or woodlands. Without the capacity to articulate and appreciate these spaces, we are more likely to lose them as languagedeficits lead to attentiondeficits and even existencedeficits. There is an intuitive connection between the richness of vocabulary and the intimacy of knowledge. British nature–writer Robert Macfarlane believes this is because “we do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole, we do not know what we cannot name”. His poetry and children’s books highlight the irreplaceable magic of the natural world and take a stand against the disappearance of a wild childhood.

This powerful nexus between protection and linguistics highlights why we need evocative, exciting language to describe topography, ecology, and biology. We need the words to describe the intimacy of nature, the grit and groundedness of the places we cannot bear to lose. Lucy Purdy is another author who writes about the importance of this. She attests that we must ‘recognise the power of language as a whetstone upon which we can sharpen our understanding of where humanity is’ and help rekindle our relationship with the natural world. One of the most insightful words to help us do just that is ‘noosphere. It was coined by Ukrainian biogeochemist and philosopher Vladmir Vernadsky and is defined as: ‘the sphere of human consciousness and mental activity especially in regard to its influence on the biosphere and in relation to evolution.’ Another powerful example I came across was darshan, a Sanskrit word that “suggests a face-to-face encounter with the sacred on earth; with a physical manifestation of the holy”. If more of us understood such words and their ethos, surely we wouldn’t be polluting and destroying our sacred wild places with indignity, arrogance and ignorance. 

This is something that First Nations cultures and languages have centred on for millennia. Hózhó is a word used by the Native American peoples of the Navajo Nation (Southwestern USA) who speak an Apachean language. Hózhó reflects working towards a sense of balance within oneself, our planet, and in life. It has a central emphasis on harmony and suggests that connections and ephemeral links to our community, place and history are central to who we are. The related Navajo concept of ‘walking in beauty’ refers to the embodied process of living your life in a harmonious way as an active, ongoing force for good.

In Arizona, the Hopi peoples of the sovereign Hopi Nation have a word to describe the opposite of the Navajo’s Hózhó. The Hopi word Koyaanisqatsi translates as ‘life out of balance’. It describes a way of operating that is chaotic and self-destructive. The 1982 film by Godfrey Reggio by the same name is an experimental montage which acts as a warning, and a cry to action. The film depicts the consequences of the parasitic colonial way of life rooted in extractive capitalism. Philip Glass composes an elegant score which is at once eerie, with a tinge of hopeful melancholy. It’s transporting, evocative, original, and haunting; storytelling without a storyline. As shown in the film’s imagery, practices of Koyaanisquatsi embody a profound disregard for the autonomy of the natural world and are eventually bound to collapse. This is a warning we could all heed. Encouraging a paradigm shift toward a more ‘Hózhó’ way of life is a step in the right direction. It’s a step towards walking with rather than over history, place, and our responsibilities to both.

Lottie Van Wijck

The author Lottie Van Wijck

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