“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.”
Henry David Thoreau
Nebraska: Late Winter, 2022
“You know you’re getting old when you start bird-watching.” That’s what Caroline said as we huddled in the cold on the banks of the Platte River in central Nebraska. Sandhill cranes spend the winter in Mexico, and their summer breeding grounds are in Canada. Their migration flight pattern forms an hourglass over a map of the U.S. with the narrow isthmus directly over Kearney, where the birds pause to rest and refuel on their journey north in the spring. At night the cranes roost in the braided waters of the river where they are safe from predators, and during the day they fly to the surrounding fields to feast on grain left over from fall harvest.
The Sandhill Crane migration brings people from all over to watch the spectacular takeoffs and landings that happen on the river every sunrise and sunset. Eighty percent of the world population funnels through central Nebraska, so it’s a lot of birds in one place.
It was an evening in late winter on the Great Plains, cold and clear, as if the air had been polished. There was a bottle of wine and some binoculars in my backpack. We wanted to stay warm and figured a beverage might help. Another group of people brought shots of whiskey to stave off the cold.
There was a general air of anticipation as we waited. Some people chatted, while others made ready their cameras, some with lenses the size of tree trunks. The late winter sun, along with the temperature, slowly descended and when it touched the western edge of the earth, we all went quiet. It was like the moment before a church service or concert begins, when somebody backstage dims the lights and silence comes over the audience.
Like any good performance, it started softly and gradually built up to a crescendo. We knew the cranes were coming when we heard their distant squawking, as faint as your breath on a cold day. The sounds grew louder until the first line of birds appeared above the horizon. Soon there were hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousand, of birds, waves upon waves of them, like when the ocean approaches the shore.
Caroline was partly right about the demographics. Most of the people were our age, but not everyone. I spotted a brooding teenager with orange hair, wearing black clothes and a black attitude. I felt bad for her and could imagine what else she would rather being doing on a Friday night instead of spending it bird-watching with her parents.
When we are young, it’s all about building up and creating. We are busy learning and growing and don’t have as much time to notice and savor—skills we cultivate as we mature. But nature is a great equalizer, and when I saw that family later as the cranes receded into the darkness, I noticed that the daughter looked as transfixed as the rest of us, gazing at the sky with a half smile on her face and wonderment in her eyes.
We walked back to our cars in silence as the evening star led the way and a rising full moon reflected over the surface of the Platte.
Time and the River
I have been thinking about time. I wonder what it is like to be a Sandhill Crane and wedded to the timing of the seasons, swayed by the rhythm of the earth. As I observe the turning of my personal seasons, the rhythms of my own lifecycle become clearer.
Humans, like all creatures, are “time” beings. Time is a river that we are dropped into, and it sweeps us downstream whether we paddle with or against the current.
I am of two minds about my place on a river of time; it flows so much swifter than the meandering Platte. I know I should move with time’s current, but sometimes I don’t. I want to keep up, but am amazed at the amount of popular culture that is common knowledge to other people, yet I know nothing about. I resist being bullied by society into spending a lot of time on social media, yet don’t want to miss out or feel left behind.
There is a story about Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia. He once said that most of his friends were now emailing each other and he was being “excluded.” To the suggestion that he learn to email he replied, “It’s too late.”
I don’t want it to be too late for me, so I recently decided that I should learn some new music and stop listening to the familiar favorites from my past. However, in another unfortunate instance of me overthinking something, I went so far as to almost sell our tickets to see Elton John in concert, telling myself that if I am going to a concert, the artist should at least be younger than me. Canceling on the concert would have been taking it too far (and a monumental mistake), but I did ask my children and grandchildren to help me connect with newer artists. They have tried, but I always drift back to the upstream music, the singers and melodies from my youth. Going back to them can feel like going home.
Time and Entropy
We are creatures of time while not really knowing what time is. We think we know, until we are asked to explain it. Time is as hard for physicists to define as life is for biologists. Many have tried without coming up with an entirely satisfying explanation. Aristotle thought time is simply a measure of change, while Isaac Newton said it is something more fundamental than that. Saint Augustine said this, “What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it…plainly I do not know.”
The nature of time (along with the nature of consciousness) is one of our most enduring mysteries. What is hard about it is that time is not an actual thing. There is really no such thing as wasting or saving time, it doesn’t fly and we don’t actually run out of it. When we try to examine it—to look closely at time—it melts away, like trying to hold a snowflake.
Time, for those who have tried to define it, seems to be intimately involved with entropy. Entropy—being the progression from order to disorder, structure to dissolution—is when the waves erode and reshape a beach or the house paint fades and cracks with the seasons. In the movie Out of Africa, Karin speaks of the difficulty in cultivating a coffee plantation in the African bush. She says, “Every time I turn my back, it wants to go wild.” She is describing entropy. Entropy is the shape shifting of a towering cumulous cloud on a summer afternoon. It appears static, but, when we look away for a few seconds and then back again, it has changed form; its entropy has increased slightly and in proportion to the amount of time that has passed.
Entropy is a quantifiable and measurable quantity that can increase or stay the same but never decrease, so it seems to contain the directionality that we associate with time. Yet in the flow of time, what, exactly, is flowing? That’s a good question, but we do know that every time there’s a difference between the past and future, entropy is involved.
Time and Memory
We also can’t think about time without thinking what it’s like to be concretely human, to be one’s self. No concept lies nearer to the core of our consciousness than our awareness of the passage of time, and we are marked by the imprinted memories that become a part of who we are. They make us feel connected to a certain time and place, so that, fifty years later, the lyrics to “our” songs arise from out of the basement of our subconscious.
Our minds are not tape recorders, so the firmness of the past is an illusion, and our memories a kaleidoscope pattern of images rather than one that is fixed. The world of our shifting past is like shapes in clouds, and our memories become a river without banks (like the Platte, come to think of it ), where everything is moving, drifting, and mixing together. As we accumulate memories, our brains winnow through them, weighing consequence, burying pain, and holding contentment.
Why is the future different than the past? We fully expect it to be. What has been called the arrow of time seems to point in only one direction. If time moved in any other direction, it would be hard to make sense of it, and a world that didn’t change at all would be exceedingly boring. The physicist Alan Lightman points out that, “…without the ability to imagine the future …each parting of friends is a death….each loneliness is final…each laugh is the last laugh….and people (would) cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.”
Time and the Journey
What youth has going for it is energy and possibility. We will never be more resilient than when we are young — so small that falling down doesn’t even hurt that much. Even though I don’t want to go back, I remember the thrill of youth and the idea that you can be anyone.
As we age our bodies encounter our own version of entropy, and we exchange the vigor and potentiality of youth for hard-fought wisdom. As it turns out, wisdom and good judgment come from experience, while experience often comes from poor judgment. Some of my elderly patients who are farmers know that all too well; not all of them have ten fingers. The best we can do is learn from our mistakes and try to get better. Hopefully, we find that success isn’t something you can measure, and life isn’t a race you can win.
Life does nothing if not humble us. As we age we realize how much energy we have wasted on nonsense. I look around and see that I have acquired all this “stuff” without knowing how many things there are in the world that I don’t need. I’ve also seen the fallacy of giving too much weight to what other people think of me. It’s like how Winston Churchill put it, “When you are twenty, you care about what everyone thinks about you. When you are forty, you stop caring what others think about you. When you are sixty, you realize they were never thinking of you in the first place.” He was not only stating a truth but also warning us that it takes a long time to learn it.
In a “On Being” podcast, the Irish poet David Whyte said that one of the gifts of getting older is a form of youthfulness that has nothing to do with the body. It involves a sense of discovery which is tied to an awareness and acceptance of our mortality. He also said that a sign of maturity is not that we know we are going to die—that happens in your 40s—but the realization that the rest of creation might be just fine when we do, even “a little relieved to see us go.” He put it this way, “We have to make way for something else, for what, or who, we have broken trail for.”
The world will keep turning without me, and fear of death is like being afraid of reality itself, like being afraid of the sun. Before we know it, all of this will be “20 years ago,” so it is best to not put things off too long. “Someday” can be a dangerous word.
At this point I’m just happy that I can dance at all, whether anyone is watching or not. I read that Frederick the Great of Prussia, at the height of his power and influence, took lessons and learned how to play the flute. My first thought was how much better the world might be if all political and military leaders were required to play the flute. I also thought about how wise it was that Frederick wanted to play the flute at all, and that he didn’t put it off until he was finished doing all the things that made him so great.
Life is like eating an avocado; it’s all in the timing. Sometimes things happen exactly when they need to; they lodge in our memory and steer our trajectory. Some things are valuable only because of their position in time: a birth in the family, a first kiss, a love late in life. For other things, their transient nature is one of the things we value: breathing in the air on a cold winter evening, a lover’s smile or a child’s laugh, the taste of fine wine or a special dessert. If they lasted forever, we would not appreciate them as much as we do.
I don’t want to last forever, either. To me, immortality would lead to indifference, and even eternal bliss seems overrated. That my days are numbered is the cost of making them count. That there is no turning back in time is what makes my life precious.
Nothing is as responsible for the “good old days” as a bad memory. Still, our memories are enduring artifacts of the past, and we draw on our memory of events, experiences, and emotions in order to imagine and anticipate future events.
We don’t have memories of the future, so time certainly appears to us to be linear. Katherine May, in her book, Wintering, suggests that we can reset our very notion of time. She writes that we can try to look at time as something that is not only linear, but also circular, bending back on itself, like the seasons of the year do. When things look cold and dark, we don’t have to think it is the way our life has turned out—it’s just winter. We all know from experience that although winter can be bleak, it’s not going to last forever.
May writes, “We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical…we grow gradually older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and bad, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become our past and our future will be our present. We know that because it’s happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will one day be past history. Every time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time, we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made.”
Many things we consider essential in youth prove with time that they are not. The thing that an old person might tell a young one about the fears and fractures of life is that life teaches us through our mistakes. All things change and life goes on. It goes on until it doesn’t. And then, when it doesn’t, it is another way of coming home. After all, the sea refuses no river.