Our understanding of the length of a day, month, or year is proportional to the length of the lives we live, measured against how many birthdays have passed and how many more decades we believe lie before us. Thus, an hour is an agonizingly long time to wait for a toddler anticipating a play date, whereas the seasons are cyclical and fleeting to our elders. On a smaller scale, however, our perception of time is a unique consequence of the setting, companions, and experiences in a particular moment. When there is a lack of engaging tasks to occupy your mind, impatiently count down the minutes to the end of the workday, and time will seem to stretch, drawing out every second. On the other hand, when friends and good stories are as abundant as the food and drink on the heavily laden dinner table, time flashes by in the blink of an eye.
How, then, does time pass for others? How might we perceive time’s passing if we were not human beings? If you lived in a tide pool, where the gravitational pull of the moon causes the sea to envelop and then recede, would your concept of time coincide with the arc of the sun or the arrival of the waves? If you migrated with the change of seasons on feathered wings, would chasing the sunlight make the day longer, or more elusive as night inevitably caught up to you? Here, we imagine how other organisms’ ways of life might impact the way they experience time.
Thoughts of the Northern California coast can conjure images of large redwood groves, their crimson trunks standing tall and stately under a cloak of mist. These trees are capable of lifespans reaching into the range of millennia. Rooted in place, they can stand watch over endless transformations taking place in the landscapes surrounding them. Having witnessed stretches of drought and periods of flood, do they patiently wait for the period of recovery, unfazed by the effects of natural disasters in light of the reassurance that life will return as it always has? Have they greeted their furry friends, begrudgingly accepted invasive insects, and bid farewell as habitats shift and species leave or experience extinction? In a lifetime ten times as long as our own, minutes and seconds may recede to insignificance. Whereas we time our meals to the hours, perhaps these giant trees adjust their schedules to the rhythm of the seasons, when the fog rolls in to provide them with moisture.
One of the largest differences between a human and a tree is that, while humans physically grow for a limited period early in life, trees expand in both girth and height for all of the years they live. As adults, we forget the growing pains that used to nestle in our limbs, and no longer remember the surprise of suddenly being able to see above the table lip or to reach the cookie shelf that used to hang tantalizingly out of reach. Instead of buying longer pants and larger shoes at the beginning of each school year, we reach for the same coat that has wrapped us in warmth and comfort for the last decade, a presence fitted to our shoulders and back year after year. Would each year be more exciting than the last if we, like a tree, gained an inch or two a year, and with it found new viewpoints and perspectives of our homes?
The mayfly, like many of its insect relatives, has a fleeting life cycle, primarily defined by rapid development to sexual maturity, followed by swift expiration after reproduction. In a lifespan counted in days rather than years, is a minute or a second richer and fuller, filled with the tiniest changes that no longer escape notice? Does the flit of a wing or the flick of a leg become a deliberate movement, rather than a barely perceived tremor? Does every action gain a sense of purpose and urgency, a desire to be fulfilled before the opportunity has passed? Or does it become inconsequential, knowing that the inevitable end is near?
Perhaps when life is engaged for such a short span of time, every hour brings a new experience: a foreign scent, a never encountered fear, or a budding friendship. A second opportunity rarely arises, and déjà vu does not exist.
Chipmunks are notoriously flighty creatures, freezing in a split second when anyone approaches, then dashing off in a straight line to the nearest hideaway. One might expect their lives to operate at a frantic, breakneck speed, as they scamper about to pin down the next morsels to fuel their high metabolisms. However, once a year, these small ground mammals wind down and still their limbs: when winter sets in, chipmunks join their fellow fur-covered relatives in hibernation. While hibernation is a widely defined phenomenon that can manifest in a variety of ways, in mammals, it is usually accompanied by a dramatic slowing of the heartbeat and the torpor of partial or full sleep. During this state of rest, does time pass unnoticed, like the snowflakes drifting outside and accumulating on the snowbank, only to melt and disappear by the time these mammals venture out from their nests and dens? Just as we are unaware of the events taking place while we dream upon our pillows, are these critters oblivious to the fact that winter is happening on their doorstep? Does their year only contain nine months and three seasons? Or, somewhere in the corners of their minds, do they slowly count down the minutes and hours until the snow melts and a breath of warm air returns?
While many organisms engage in a necessary relationship with the sun as a source of energy, a means to synthesize vitamin D, or an anchor to reset their circadian rhythms, there are a curious subset of creatures who spend most of their lives far from the reaches of the sun’s rays. The giant squid, which lives deep undersea, is one of them. At these depths, not only is there a disorienting lack of ground and sky to communicate to your eyes which way is up and which way is down, but there is also an absence of light, and therefore, nearly nothing to determine whether it is night or day. In a life of constant darkness, when does one determine when to sleep and when to wake? Is it possible to perceive time’s passing, or does the concept simply not exist when there is no clock against which to measure?