This article is part of a series, in collaboration with the Civic Paths working group at the University of Southern California.
In pre-Classical Greece, time was kept by cicadas’ songs and the flowering of artichokes and the migration of cranes. Ballads recounted these annual events and provided their interpretation. Constellations also provided guidance, but celestial authority was contingent. Days were arbitrarily added as the stars fell out of sync with nature.
Gradually, society made calendars more regular. First, the moon was used, and then the sun. Julius Caesar improved the reliability of solar timekeeping by introducing the leap year. We’re now on the Gregorian calendar and Coordinated Universal Time, in which the year is exactly 365.2425 days in duration, as calibrated by atomic clocks with an accuracy exceeding one second every hundred million years.
Of course, the Gregorian calendar and Coordinated Universal Time are useful for keeping appointments and managing multinational corporations. They support industrial development and economic efficiency.
The question is whether this techno-capitalist world is one we want to inhabit — and whether it’s a world that will remain habitable for much longer.
Here’s an alternative plan: Instead of observing atoms or stars, we can look at living trees.
Trees are natural calendars. Every year, they grow a new ring — and you can determine their age by counting. But that’s not all the rings indicate.
As dendroclimatologists have learned, the thickness of each ring is a measure of environmental conditions in a given year. So, the growing girth of the tree is an indication of time — but one that varies with the changing climate.
Imagine a sapling. Imagine a young bristlecone pine tree with an expected lifespan of as many as 5,000 years. Around that tree — which happens to be the longest-living complex organism on the planet — you might set markers made out of stone, regularly spaced in 500-year increments based on the estimate girth of the tree in 500 years, 1000 years and more. That is, if the future growth rate were to remain the same as in the present because the climate didn’t change.
Then you might stand back — and give the tree authority.
The tree will almost certainly grow out of sync with Gregorian years. For instance, if it grows faster in the future because of rising carbon dioxide, it may tell you that the year is 3500 when your smartwatch says it’s 3127.
What if we were to accept what the tree says? What if we were to choose to live on bristlecone time?
The bristlecone year could easily be subdivided into shorter increments: months, days, hours, minutes, seconds. For practical purposes, the time kept by the tree could be indicated on a municipal clock. Or, a time signal could be distributed through an internet protocol equivalent to Network Time Protocol used to synchronize computer systems today. This arboreal protocol would allow people to put their smart watches, their computers, and their entire lives onto bristlecone time.
The planet would have a new time standard. A standard that would be anything but standard.
Time would be irregular. The planning of future events would be uncertain.
First, when we superimpose atomic time on the planet, we implicitly assert control over the world. We take charge of nature. And looking at the environmental ruin of the Anthropocene, that doesn’t seem to be turning out so well.
Second, the regular time of atomic clocks gives us the false illusion of being able to forecast the future. With a bristlecone clock, time is alive with contingencies, and we come to terms with where prediction fails us: the limitations of what we can know about the future, and the threat of hubris.
Third, with the bristlecone clock, there is the possibility of interacting with deep time. There’s the possibility of changing the future based on our present behavior.
Our actions will affect bristlecone time. And while we need to be aware of our hubris, we also need to be aware that we have choices and responsibilities. Arboreal time can provide us with an ecological feedback mechanism. The bristlecones can calibrate our time on this planet.