Monday, November 22, 2010


I once worked for a guy who liked to speak in metaphors -- especially when he was giving bad news.

One time he was being hectored about the lack of progress we were making on a very low-priority piece of work that happened to be the kvetch's pet project.

"Exactly when can I expect to see this task completed?"

"The leaves will come. And the leaves will go. And the leaves will come again." my manager responded. There was a clearly implied "and so on".

For years I thought that answer was the perfect definition of "never". I also believed the passage of time was linear. That, as Saint Augustine said, "human experience is a one-way journey from Genesis to Judgment, regardless of any recurring patterns or cycles in nature."

However not everyone believes that time marches in even increments along a straight line.

Native Americans, Australian aborigines and others conceive of time as circular -- a repetitive process that nonetheless creates infinite possibilities and unique situations and results. Stories and sentences frequently circle back on themselves, with repetition used to arrive back at the same point in time from which the speaker started. Some languages use the same word to mean both "soon" and "recent".

Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American author, says:

The Pueblo people and the indigenous people of the Americas see time as round, not as a long linear string. If time is round, if time is an ocean, then something that happened 500 years ago may be quite immediate and real, whereas something inconsequential that happened an hour ago could be far away.

I had heard about this non-sequential view of time. It even seemed kind of cool in a New Agey kind of way. But I never could really understand what it could possibly mean. Then Mars and I became the owners of a house on a piece of property bordered by several deciduous trees.

We moved into our new abode in the spring, after the leaves had come. Seven months later they went from the branches to the front lawn. Then they went (with lots of effort) from the front lawn to the curb. And then they went into the bowels of our town's long-funneled, truck-mounted, leaf collection machinery (aka Mr. Snuffleupagus).

About one week and two swirling windstorms later, they came again.

And again they went -- this time into the mulching blade of my gasoline-powered lawn mower.

And again they came -- and again -- et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Ultimately the supply of leafage dwindled down to a precious few at the same time that my interest in de-leafing also ran out. The Sisyphean ritual was over. Until the next autumn came. And the one after that,....

But this fall season, thirty-plus years later, I actually thought for a moment that the cycle had been broken.

My perception of the situation was probably warped because I got an earlier than usual start on the rake-to-the-curb routine. The weather was warm, time was available, the leaves were down, and my energy was up. As a result the first shipment of foliage was delivered to the roadside a week or so before the earliest possible scheduled pickup date. Because of this, when the leaves came again (as they did two days later), I felt as if I was merely doing minimal mop-ups - even though I actually partook in four, full-blown, full-lawn cleanups before the cycle ceased and Snuffleupagus did its thing.

The lawn was then clear for several days. But within a week there was once again sufficient leaf cover to warrant a walkabout with the mulching mower. Now, almost fourteen days later, it once again is time to fire up either the calorie-burning rake or the carbon-emitting compost-creator for one more spin around my property.

Then, the leaves will come. And the leaves will go. And the leaves will come again. But hopefully not for at least twelve months.

Up to the nineteenth century both Science and Philosophy agreed with me that time is linear.

However, in the twentieth century, Gödel and others discovered solutions to the equations of Einstein's general theory of relativity that allowed closed loops of proper time...[which would] allow you to go forward continuously in time until you arrive back into your past. You will become your younger self in the future. Time Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In other words, the passage of time could be circular.

[But] As far as we can tell today, our universe does not exemplify any of these solutions to Einstein's equations. (ibid)

Except of course for those of us with deciduous trees.

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