Counting Days

by Sarah West


We live in a world ruled by clocks that divide the moments of our lives into hours, days and months. When the pages of a calendar run out, we replace it with another, marking the shift with celebration, shrugging off the old and embracing the new. The first week of January feels like a gift—it is fresh, unspoiled, an offer to try again. The New Year holds new possibility.

Calendars imbue our annual cycle with meaning. Some occasions are public holidays, others are personal anniversaries, and all are marked by dates on the calendar. That a week has seven days and an hour sixty minutes seems like immutable fact, true as the bedrock under our homes, but these constructions were choices made along the way and have influenced our understanding of time.

Many early calendars marked the lunar cycle, counting each moon from its appearance to its disappearance. The Islamic calendar still does so, illustrating to our contemporary world the defining characteristic of a lunar calendar. Slightly more than twelve lunar cycles fit within the length of four seasons, so each year the lunar months shift in their relation to the seasons. The Islamic month of Ramadan may be observed in the long days of summer and the short days of winter within a practitioner’s lifetime.

Agriculture influenced the calendar as its predominance rose in human societies. A calendar that does not line up with the seasons cannot mark accurate planting or harvesting dates. To accommodate their need for calendars linked to the seasons, many ancient cultures traded the moon for the sun as their calendar’s foundational element, dividing the 365-day, twelve-month year into quarters marked by equinoxes and solstices.

Plants also follow a calendar. A seed germinates when its needs are met in the form of adequate light, water and temperature. The same environmental factors, in combination with the physical and chemical properties of the soil, influence a plant’s cycle of flowering, fruiting and death or dormancy. These factors only occur simultaneously during certain seasons of the year: in our climate, tomatoes bloom and fruit only in the late summer months.

Many plants also contain proteins that are sensitive to seasonal changes in night and day length, flowering once the sun has reached the particular angle in the sky that facilitates the photoperiod required by that plant. This level of precision is not so different from our own compulsion to calculate and live by a calendar that oscillates with nearly exact regularity between the longest and shortest days of the year.

That our measurement of a year has something in common with the plants we rely on to sustain us seems appropriate, yet plants do not lay out long calendars filled with to-do lists, nor do they (to our knowledge) maintain a cultural sense that time is slipping out of their grasp, that it moves too quickly. We may have constructed the pages of our calendar based on close observations and careful calculations, but construct it we did. A calendar moves because we turn the pages. Though as a species we have largely settled into permanent dwellings, we are nomadic still in our experience of time.

Time, for something like a plant, exists as various combinations of the characteristics of the place it sits. Time, calendars, minutes can and do stand still. Various cultures of the world apply this concept—one that focuses on the spatial quality of time through its connection to place. In this perspective, historic events belong more to the place they occurred than to the date. Meditation and mindfulness utilize this aspect of time, teaching that the only sense of time we are capable of experiencing is the present moment.

Though I certainly wouldn’t throw out the calendar or stop celebrating on December 31st, we can allow ourselves a little freedom from the obligations of our datebook. January is a fresh start, an opportunity to try something new. As the days move one to the next and slip into momentum and monotony, take a moment to step outside the minutes, sit as a plant does and feel the place you are in, what has come before, what is there now.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, January 3, 2013)