Times Like These

Justin Pickard

A spotlight on alternative temporal orders, where the hold of gridded time loosens or breaks; spaces and situations beyond the reach of the clock.

Remove the flattening pull of the clock and the calendar schedule, and time relaxes, becoming lumpy, heterogenous, with its own grain and texture, knots and seams. Rather than temporal coordinates, marking the frame of an event, we turn an eye to the embodied experience of time as duration, something choppy, throbbing, variable, and uneven.

Inhabiting the order of measured, quantified time, as most of us do, already inhibits our capacity to imagine another way of being in time. Our enclosure within the human-built world, in both its analog and digital dimensions, obscures the markers of alternative temporal orders.

L.M. Sacasas, Whose Time? Which Temporality?

Natural cycles – seed and harvest, day and night, birth and death – generate many waiting periods. Fisherman wait for the tide to turn, and hunters lie in wait for their prey.

Gregor Dobler, Waiting: Elements of a Conceptual Framework

Grasping for experiences of less intensively gridded temporalities, there are hints of what is distinctive – where and what could differ – in the queue or the waiting room, the canal boat, and the allotment garden.

A common, quotidian occurrence, the experience of waiting interrupts to the standard rules of temporal engagement, while the experiences of live-aboard boaters and allotment plot-holders reflect varying, if more durable, efforts to hold gridded time separate, keeping its demands at arm’s length. For boaters, the soup of canal time comes to condition their whole existence, while for allotment gardeners, the plot is a bounded, self-contained space, offering a respite from clock time.

Waiting Time: Duration & Suspension

Queues, waiting rooms, bottlenecks and chokepoints of all kinds.Time, here, is an obstacle or blockage, to be passed or endured, even as it continues elsewhere. In these settings, waiting becomes a shared experience; an interruption, often disempowering, but also something held in common, a collective state or predicament. Limbo-like, these settings are rich in potential; fertile ground for fresh alliances and solidarities, however ephemeral.

Post office, doctor’s surgery, ferry terminal. Time pooling, thick and slow as molasses. Hesitant smiles and small talk from those arriving early to a scheduled video call, fragments of conversation, pre-prepared masks faltering, flashes of a Labrador or tabby cat in-motion, evidence of life beyond the box, frame, or screen. Another time, another place. A delayed train on a hot day, this impromptu republic of the victims of brittle infrastructure, cascading cancellations, system failure. Gradations in an incremental softening of reserve; rolled eyes and half-shrugs, gestures to the shared opponent of circumstance. Bags jammed into gaps and crevices, or heaved overhead, as the second hand of a wristwatch slows a crawl.

Consider timepass. An idiom of Indian English, sucked in to fill an unmet need; a meaning unexpressed (inexpressible) in the local vernacular. Two words run together, simultaneously noun and verb – a doing; not organised recreation, but aimless, unproductive time, contrasted with serious, productive, meaningful things, passing under the watchful gaze of the clock or employer. Time passed in the company of others; drinking tea, playing card games, reading cheap paperbacks and magazines. Diversions holding tedium at arm’s length, as you wait and hope for the situation to improve. See Craig Jeffrey, Timepass

Waiting can have value, if experienced not as an obstacle to the realisation of one’s goals, but time out, time uninterrupted, apart from the relentless succession of the clock or calendar. Surrendering the grids and milestones of organisational time, as if dropping ballast, waiting becomes an occasion to practice inaction, to rest – easily attributed to events beyond your (anyone’s) control. In such times of stasis and suspension, directed action is futile, wasted energy, and efforts to master the situation assume shades of the ludicrous or the risible – poise and composure dissolving, shattering on contact with an oblivious world. Better to adjust, remaining responsive and flexible, and adapting to changing circumstance; an opportunity to improvise in the face of suspended expectations.

Boat Time: Slowness & Viscosity

Where waiting is experienced as an interruption or suspension of gridded time, another alternative temporality can be glimpsed in the activities of live-aboard boaters, those dwelling on the navigable waterways of England’s canals. Their lives scaffolded and structured by old, ostensibly obsolete technologies and infrastructures. The UK canal network grew rapidly in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, as a way to transport industrial goods over long distances, at a time when roads were unsuitable for large loads or fragile goods; canal boats were faster, capable of carrying higher volumes, and more reliable. these boaters comprise a loose, practically-minded community, who place a premium on autonomy, self-sufficiency, and ‘off-grid’ living. See Benjamin Bowles, The linear village?

Some use “off-the-grid” to label people who wish to run and hide, to go incommunicado. Off-grid, in actuality, is a technical expression with a precise meaning. Engineers and architects – to whom the expression can be attributed – call “off-grid” those dwellings that are disconnected from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a particular region.

Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart, Off the Grid

Time flows on the canal, but it slowly and unpredictably. Like a soup, it can be murky or opaque, its composition obscured to outside observers – something that can only be experienced from within. In the words of one boater: “things happen when they happen.” Benjamin Bowles, Time is like a soup An atmosphere of its own, boat time contrasts sharply with the tightly-gridded times of life on land.

For boaters, time is punctuated equilibrium A term from evolutionary theory, which posits branching speciation as a response to rare, sudden geological ruptures, rather than the more gradual, continuous accumulation of small changes., with stops and starts – long stretches of continuity interrupted by sudden shifts, or unforeseen developments. Shifting intersections of multiple uncertainties, the practical complexities of sustaining life aboard, and a deliberately slower pace make it difficult to tame the future. For those immersed, swimming in soupy boat time:

forward planning is … more akin to divination than science: time framing must be guessed at and interpreted from current conditions rather than fixed in one’s calendar or diary.

Benjamin Bowles, Time is like a soup

See also: Everyday Hedging.

As a result, plans must be held lightly, made with the expectation that they may have to be changed, stretched out over longer durations or timescales, or abandoned altogether.

Boat time is shaped by the material specifics of the waterways, and practicalities of life afloat. Boaters without fixed, permanent moorings, so-called ‘continuous cruisers’, Language reflecting a category of boat license issued by the UK Canal and River Trust. are limited to a maximum of two weeks in any single location. When on the move, time gets mapped to distance; with boats limited to a maximum cruising speed of four miles per hour, a comfortable walking pace. I remember a narrowboat holiday with friends, and the singular deflation, at the trip’s end, in covering the same distance we had managed over five days in a matter of minutes, on a train running parallel to those same waterways. For those on the move, locks Fixed chambers with watertight gates, usually able to accommodate two narrowboats at a time, making it possible to run a direct route through inclined or uneven terrain, despite changes in height. are slow to navigate, requiring gravity to fill and empty. A literal bottleneck, each lock encountered can swell journey time, beyond what could be assumed based on distance, if in use when the boater arrives.

Slow and unpredictable, sculpted by bottlenecks and uncertainties, boat time can be a source of greater frustration, but boaters also cite it as something desirable. Springing from interactions between boaters and other canal users, the weather, the seasons, the canal network itself, their boats, (often irregular) employment, and the vicissitudes of chance or fortune, boat time is seen as operating closer to natural rhythms, separate from, and contrasting favourably with gridded, organisational clock time. As a result, a key part of becoming a boater is in swimming in the soup; relaxing one’s hold on structured time, and, with it, any sense of mastery or control.

Allotment Time: Transience & Repetition

The allotment garden is a window into another temporal order; a framed space where time is thick and full, occupying the body and the senses. For many, even those in stressful, high-pressure jobs, allotment gardening is satisfying, offering emotional and practical reward. A form of ‘obligatory’ leisure, it provides a scaffold, stemming the encroachment of work demands into the plot-holder's free time. See Abigail Schoneboom, “It makes you make the time: ‘Obligatory’ leisure, work intensification, and allotment gardening” Requiring participants to maintain particular standards of upkeep as a condition of ownership, many appreciate this social pressure as a form of accountability, sustaining commitment where they may have otherwise faltered.

Beyond the formal responsibilities of ownership, the plot presents its own, pressing demands. There’s always more to be doing – an inexhaustible series of tasks; sowing, plating out, weeding, coaxing, pruning, harvesting. Unbending to personal priorities, plant life broaches no truce with human excuses, procrastination, or demands beyond the boundaries of the plot.

There is no negotiating with the march of the seasons or the pace of the natural growth force. You cannot slow them down or speed them up. You have to submit to the rhythm of garden time and you have to work within that frame.

Sue Stuart-Smith

The cycle of seasonal succession provides its own structure, with each new season eliciting a new set of tasks and activities. Allotment work encourages the plot-holder to attune more closely to seasonal rhythms, the ebb and flow of growth and decay. See Planning with the Seasons, for how a greater sensitivity to seasonal cycles can contribute to a rewilding of organisational or working time. Approached as part of this cycle, even the darkest depths of winter can be appreciated on their own terms – valued as a time for planning and reflection, rather than ink-black dead space, an obstacle to be endured.

Once the plot-holder has managed their allotment for a year or more, the recurrence of the seasons offers a firm, unwavering foundation for action; temporal landmarks providing orientation and an abiding sense of security. Year on year, some things vary, altered by circumstance A particularly hot summer, for example, might prompt different cultivation strategies, or force an abrupt change in plans., while other hold, remaining constant. A gardener’s lived, first-hand experience of variance accrues over time, as tree ring depositions of memory.

If and when things go wrong, these familiar cycles of renewal and succession also offer the chance to try again. Nothing in the allotment is truly final; last year’s mistakes crumble with falling leaves. Being, dwelling, remaining in the same place, working the same soil in successive years or seasons, offers abundant opportunities for iteration, learning, and improvement – something with few equivalents in the worlds of gridded clock time. Though see A Lab Aproach, which probes comparable approaches to iterative experimentation, as a way of creating space for emergence.

Immersed in the needs of the garden, you lose track of time. Allotment gardeners often experience states of flow. In dialogue with the garden, the aperture of their attention narrows to the details of the plants and activities at hand – only returning to full awareness when ambushed by the pangs of hunger, or encroaching twilight. Even when not actively engaged in cultivation, the allotment gardener is immersed in the plot’s rhythms and cross-cutting layers. Present in the moment, attentive and attuned to details of growth and change; budding fruit trees, shoots and blossom, ripening fruit, dragonflies, birds rooting for food or nest material in the undergrowth.

Conducive to shaping and cultivation, but resisting hard control, the allotment permits a savouring and appreciation of experience. Part of the appeal of plot-holding derives from the allotment’s position as a space of respite, typically located at a distance from their homes and workplaces. The allotment may produce (fruit and vegetables, flowers, to consume and share), but it isn’t a space of productivity.

Taken together, seasonal succession, the hinging of plant and human time, and gardening’s anticipatory forward tilt contribute to plot-holders’ experience of an elongated present, reaching beyond the immediacy of the now. Rooting in a specific landscape provides a ‘toehold in the future’ Sue Stuart-Smith, The Well Gardened Mind . The allotment plot is an open space, ripe with future possibilities. But there is also a sense of continuity and abiding commitment. The plot-holder is but a temporary custodian of this small patch of land. Others have had their hands in the same soil, the same earth, and there will come a time when the current plot-holder may move on, passing the plot to a successor.

Times change

The waiting room, the delayed train, the canal boat, and the allotment garden – all reveal alternative temporal orders existing alongside, against, and occasionally bursting through the gaps of the dominant, gridded order of clock or calendar time. Times change, depending on one’s vantage point, and varying with circumstance. And times like these call for receptivity and surrender, improvisation and iteration, alongside prediction, projection, or planning. The Dance of Not-Knowing.


Further reading & references