For years I have wondered what it feels like to be deep in the wilderness. Then, on a trip to the Taku River watershed of Alaska, I found out. Wilderness is a ferocious intoxication that sweeps over your senses. It is an untouched place that leaves you elated, awed, and changed. It is an aphrodisiac, a place of furious, ripe fullness.
To me, this experience offers a model of how we might think in new ways about time. Just as vast wilderness once surrounded us, so, too, time was wild: everlasting, undefined, unenclosed, unnamed, a mystery. Now, wild land and wild time exist only in patches around the world.Western society’s peculiar way of marking time—the clock, the schedule, the urgency—has become the standard; wild time the exception.
The desire to seize time and colonize it runs rampant among those in power in the West, who have long defined their time as the time. The pretense that “time is money” has profited those who invented the slogan and impoverished everyone else. Wild time, by contrast, was free—the open-handed hour, the open-hearted day, until Benjamin Franklin and all his efficiency-seeking successors preached to us that free time was wasted (much as wild land was, equally falsely, called waste land).
What hope is there now for wild time? Loads. Every child is born chock-full of it, for starters. State-of-the-art physics is revealing facts about time’s chaos, caprice, illogicality—its many varieties of exuberant disequilibrium. And then there’s hope that everyone will see that clock time—tamed time—is a mere construct of modern society. It’s hard, though, because people are taught since childhood to see time as if it a were physical, concrete thing. Tuesday is spoken of as if it were made of slate, a deadline as if it were a wall, “three o’clock” as a chimney. We brick ourselves into a house of time which we then find claustrophobic. But wild time is still around and, if we wanted to, we could huff and puff and blow our house down.
So what is wild time? For answers, look at those things most resistant to the mechanisms of clock time. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, for instance. Three ways of having a “wild” time. There is also a transcendent quality to wild time, of escaping the ordinary, as many religions know. Wild time thrives in the spirit of play and in nature. All the arts (serious play) have an affinity with the experience of living beyond the clock.
Let’s start with sex. Sex always wants to have its own way with the hours, shaming all that’s scheduled. In a beautiful paradox, Eros, god of Love, was understood by the Greeks to be at once the oldest and the youngest of the gods, born a child with an anything but innocent wink. Love detests the clock. Lovers have no sense of time and, equally, nothing kills passion faster than noticing time. It is the clock striking midnight that abruptly stops the burgeoning love affair between Cinderella and Prince Charming.
And then there’s drugs. Surely one reason alcohol and drugs are so much in demand in modern life is that they twist and tangle time, stretch and bounce it and resist the clock’s coercion. Perhaps, sadly, this is partly why many indigenous peoples across the world, who have been enclosed in reservations and subjected to Western imperialism of both land and time, now have such a strong desire for alcohol—it’s a way of releasing themselves metaphysically into the only freedom still available to them—the wild time of drunkenness.
And finally rock ’n’ roll. The music of tribal peoples is almost always designed to take people out of ordinary time, into an extraordinary trance time, for hours or even days. And the roots of rock ’n’ roll reach into these rituals, as well as blues, jazz, dance, rap, techno and most other pop music forms. Wild time has also found its way into the Western classical tradition. Around the turn of the 20th century, just when time had been widely standardized and wild lands were being ransacked by industrial civilization, the most brilliant musicians in Europe exploded with a rendition of wildness. Claude Debussy wrote “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” with its unforgettable, wild flute opening, which evokes hillsides, barrows, and woods. The passage then evokes the great god Pan, the pagan patron saint of Wild Time, who himself played the pipes. According to tradition, he, like the Pied Piper, lures you out of town into a green wilderness to dance on the wild side of time. Gustav Mahler’s third symphony, originally called the Pan symphony, is passionate and playful, and hums with the erotic intensity and earthy beat of wild time.
Wild time transcends ordinary limits of hours, days, weeks. In many languages of India, the day-before-yesterday and the-day-after-tomorrow are expressed by the same words—more testimony to the centrality of the present. Now is what matters. Now transcends into wild time.
Ancient religions honor this and have long sought a sacred eternity where the secular clock is stopped. Shamans in many tribal cultures seek ecstasy by entering a primordial Great Time. Hui-neng, the Sixth Zen patriarch, says: “The absolute tranquillity is the present moment. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein is eternal delight.” The Tao Te Ching says: “Move with the present,” this moment, which is described as a river, the flow with which we want to go. The 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart—unusual in the Christian tradition—speaks of time’s uncounted beauty of now; in moments of inner quiet. He wrote, “There exists only the present instant . . . a Now which always and without end is itself new.”
Wild time is playful. In the mythology of India, a sense of play—serious play—is the deepest energy in creation. Johan Huizinga, author of the anthropological classic Homo Ludens: (“Mankind at Play,”) argues that play is a “stepping outside of ordinary time.” Against the gray backdrop of workaday life, play is the rainbow, the energy source, the wicked flirtation, the unstoppable laughter, the Cup Which Runneth Over. Play is harvest, abundance, generosity, pleasure, excess and gusto.
Western society fears play, frightened of its subversive, anarchic nature. Grown-ups resent the Peter Pan in every child. In the U.K., the government is issuing guidelines that require children as young as 4 to do homework daily.
Traditionally, many indigenous peoples do not work for more than four hours a day. This fits with philosopher Bertrand Russell’s view that “there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.” Aristotle said that “nature requires us not only to be able to work well but also to idle well.” But that’s hard for most of us.
To really play is to let go of the hand of the clock, to dive deep into the fathoms of wild time. It is a chancy, risky, fluxy world where immersion in the moment reigns. Wild time is far richer, though far flukier, than clock-time. It is not necessarily easy to be in, for its waters are uncontrolled, uncommanded, and uncharted. Without a clock you are on your own, and it is a challenging but richly rewarding experience.
Jay Griffiths’ writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the Observer, The Ecologist, and Resurgence, of which she is an associate editor. She lives in London . Excerpted from A Sideways Look at Time (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam).