Hunter - gatherer time


Hunter - gatherer time

excerpt from LIVINGTIME

by Jay Griffiths


The Euro-American image of time is a machine, a factory assembly line chucking out identical hours, each unremarked and indistinguishable. Worse than that, it has insisted that its time is the time, and that indigenous peoples all over the world lack a ‘proper’ sense of time. It is not a lack. Rather they have cultivated a far more subtle and sensitive relationship to time and timing.

The Leco people of Bolivia have tree calendars, the U’wa of Colombia have insect clocks ‘which whistle on the U’wa hour’ and the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea have a clock of birds. To the Karen of Burma, the forest over the course of a day supplies a symphony of time, provided you know the score.

The San Bushmen of the Kalahari would never schedule when to hunt but would read and assess animal behaviour and choose a ‘right’ time spontaneously, ‘waiting for the moment to be lucky.’ Hunter-gatherer time is a series of unique moments, confluences of a hundred streams, a thousand interconnecting factors, including a person’s mood, a shift in wind direction, knowledge of a cubbing season, a sight of fresh tracks. Scheduling or planning would destroy the necessary elusiveness of this subtle sense of timing, and would kill stone dead the exquisite sense that time is alive.

‘Sustainability’ seems to weigh in with the burden of a heavy stasis, a life half-lived and a death half-died, all the dirgey effort of a worthy cause and none of the dynamite of ‘progress’. But the opposite is true. Progress, along the trajectory Euro-American culture is now on, is a one-word lie; it is neither the travel nor the arrival, but the ultimate ending; not the flame of thought, but a bonfire of humanity: the vaunted ‘progress’ of cars and unlimited plane travel leading to global warming and millions of environmental refugees – this so-called progress is a politics which tends towards death. Sustainability, on the other hand, is where the life lies, where time touches eternity, the time of the natural world, of ice and melt, of the seas’ times and tides. Both sustainability and progress need to be redefined and reclaimed. In order to do this, Western culture needs to listen to indigenous peoples because in their ideas of cyclical time, time is constantly restored, nature sustained and sustaining. These are the very ideas the world needs most.

Jay Griffiths is the author of Pip Pip: A Sideways Look At Time.