Random thoughts on time, nostalgia and the human experience

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This photo taken on my way to work doesn’t do it justice. but the sun looked really eerie here, like a science fiction movie.  As you can see, the light was directed upward, while the ground below was in shadows.  And it was such a temporary phenomenon.  By the time I’d driven about 20 more blocks, the clouds were completely gone and the sun was blindingly bright.

Last January I wrote a post about a “miracle” class discussion in my freshman humanities class about the nature of time.  Among other things, we took a close look at the concepts of “past,” “present,” and “future.”  Two years ago I wrote a post about “chasing light,” in which I showed how different the same tree looked in two photos, snapped just seconds apart, as the sunlight suffusing its autumn leaves faded.

Time is such an elusive, illusory thing.

Outside my office in the Grohmann Museum are several paintings of horses in harness, mostly hauling huge logs.  In fact, much of my floor is devoted to “earth”-related work—marble quarries, bridge building, lumber, agriculture, brickmaking, peat harvesting, road construction—and many of those industries once employed oxen and horses.

As I think about time, sitting here surrounded by a visual record of other eras, it occurs to me how strange it is, and how recent, that today’s world is scheduled and documented and organized into queues that are all simultaneously synchronized and segmented into micro-second increments.

In the world of horses and oxen, time moved in shadows.  Shadows that slipped slowly across fields.  Long shadows in the morning and evening, short shadows at mid-day.

I have an acute feeling of nostalgia associated with this “physical” sense of time.  Time measured in shadows is something very different from time measured in mechanized ticks or electronic transition frequency.

“Nostalgia” is one of my favorite words.  (Do you have favorite words?  When my older daughter was a toddler, I’d ask her to tell me her three favorite words that morning, and then I wrote them down in my journal.  She was sort of impressed with the idea that her words were being recorded.  And it’s fun to go back and see them now: ponies, lace, ribbons, rainbows 🙂 )

There is something very sad about the idea of “nostalgia,” yet also something comforting.  There’s an ambiguity, an imprecision in our “imagined” past.  Ironically, our imagined past often also seems so simple, so filled with clarity.

When railroads were introduced in Victorian England, people were alarmed not only by their effect on the landscape and on livestock but also on the people on board the trains themselves.  Who knew what ill effects might befall a person at breakneck speeds of 35 miles per hour!  How silly and naïve that seems now.

And yet.

For thousands of years human existence was grounded in the natural world.  As our relationship with technology has evolved, as our very concept of time has evolved, I have to wonder how that has altered us.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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