For years, when I imagined the word “relaxation,” certain stock images sprung to mind: feeling my toes in the sand of an empty beach or breathing crisp morning air in a pine grove. Lately, in wake of COVID-19 and my first pregnancy, I have a stranger answer, one that involves walking off the night’s insomnia at the local high school track.
For humans, time is something to be conquered and controlled. Monastic bells and minarets were the first to punctuate times for prayer and labor. Later, clocks began to order working and resting hours. Now, we quantify time through apps and algorithms, tracking our “productivity.” It’s no wonder we call this “industrial time.” Relaxation assumes a break from the shuffle of our daily routines. The etymology of the term derives from the Latin word “to loosen.” And, indeed, when we relax, we loosen a sense of time heavily governed by culture.
Nature operates on another plane: “horticultural time.” This form follows rhythms, not precisely calibrated industrial time. For this reason, it can cause ambivalence, even anxiety, for a species so committed to control. In northern Indiana, this distress appears in the late-April frosts, which kill the magnolia blossoms and shutter us inside. It plagues pregnant people when a due date passes without a birth.
But time in the natural world helps us understand that this control is based in illusion. Take Annie Dillard’s quest to see a muskrat in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard writes,
Lately I have given myself over almost entirely to stalking muskrats—eye food. I found out the hard way that waiting is better than pursuing; now I usually sit on a narrow pedestrian bridge at a spot where the creek is shallow and wide. I sit alone and alert, but stilled in a special way, waiting and watching for a change in the water.
Dillard’s waiting relies on horticultural time. To find a muskrat, she aligns herself with time as muskrats experience it, in this case, being at the creek at late dusk. When one finally appears, she gushes, “I felt a rush of such pure energy I thought I would not need to breathe for days.”
Like Dillard, I’ve learned about horticultural time in my own periods of waiting, particularly during my morning walks. For seven years, I did the morning walk with our elderly schnauzer. Soon after I became pregnant, however, he began demanding earlier and earlier outings. Experiencing pregnancy insomnia, I obliged. We walked regardless of the weather: wind, rain, or snow. Eventually, however, it became clear that those frantic demands were the product of a brain tumor. By March, he was gone. Nevertheless, at 4am the next day, I was awake. I trudged the quiet route alone, pausing at our usual spots to stretch my back like I usually did, but also to cry.
As the days lengthened, so did my route. Often, I found myself surprised at my encounters. Rabbits bounded into nearby bushes. A flash of red fur darted in front of me after a fox and I simultaneously startled each other. Another time, I came upon two ducks casually resting in the middle of an otherwise busy street.
Sometime in April, I found my way to the track. It overlooks a wetland punctuated with the husks of cattails, off of which hang red-winged blackbirds. After months of walking, I paused. The red wings puffed their throats as they battled with encroaching robins. Dawn slowly laced the cattails with gold. My exhalation was visible in the brisk morning air. I felt completely absorbed by the blackbirds and robins, gold and breath. My eyes rested on a thin slough that winds down the center of the wetlands. A sudden ripple of water. And, just like that, a muskrat emerged.
Jillian Snyder is a literary scholar whose work focuses on spiritual and somatic experience in early modern England. Her project, Sincere Performances: The Affective Scripts of the Pulpit and Stage in Post-Reformation England, examines how preachers and players grappled with the lived bodily experience of Protestant reform. The project explores the homiletic and theatrical performance of five bodily reactions—weeping, blushing, sighing, trembling, and laughing. Jillian’s other research interests include Shakespearean adaptation and reception, particularly in twenty and twenty-first century American religious culture. She received her Ph.D. (2019) from the University of Notre Dame. She currently is a lecturer in the humanities at Valparaiso University.
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