News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

March 14, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

TERRE HAUTE — The future is something which everyone reaches at a rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.

— C.S. Lewis

And so today we begin a uniquely human period, one we made up to “save” the daylight segment of a concept we also made up to foster the delusion that the span between our birth and death can be ordered.

We’re talking time. Or rather, the fiction of time.

Animals, you may have noticed, do not wear wrist watches. Birds do not keep clocks in their nests or caves. Fish and insects possess no hour glass or sundial. To trees, flowers and weeds, it is never noon, half-past 7 or too late.

And to no living thing on Earth, other than Homo Sapiens, do the notions of standard and daylight saving time exist. Only people spring forward and fall back, not to mention rejigger the closing hours of a bar.

How are you feeling today, by the way? As if it were an hour earlier than your clocks and watch tell you it is? As if it were the same time today as it was this time yesterday?

Or did you forget to turn, punch and twist your various time pieces forward 60 minutes because the federal government and the state of Indiana say that is what you must do on March 14, 2010? Do you now feel stupid because you showed up at church at the usual hour, but everyone else was coming out of the building?

Clocks slay time … time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.

— William Faulkner

Not surprising with a uniquely human fiction, we have invested much energy and almost infinite tinkering in time. From ancient eras until now, “time” is whatever a given authority says it is. Never mind the position of the sun or our place under it. If we want to — and apparently humans want to very much — we can add and subtract time, bend it, turn it upside down, freeze it, make it disappear or increase its size.

For example: On the date we in the United States spring forward — lately, the second Sunday in March — the “day” is 23 hours long. In the autumn, when we fall back — lately, the first Sunday in November — the “day” is 25 hours long.

Unless, of course, we live in most of Arizona or Hawaii, where springing and falling are left to plants and leaves, and clocks and watches stay where they are.

From 1986 to 2006, when most of Indiana was like Arizona and Hawaii, most of the United States sprang forward the first Sunday of April and fell back the last Sunday of October. Our friends in Europe don’t spring until the last Sunday of March, and they fall the last Sunday of October.

Despite the fact that actual spring — the season — does not end until the solstice on June 21, most Europeans also refer to the hours they keep from March through October as “Summer Time.”

As for multi-millions in Asia and Africa, they are like Arizona and Hawaii; most choose not to save daylight.

Day, n. A period of 24 hours, mostly misspent.

— Ambrose Bierce

Given that time is as old as the first human who made it up, daylight saving time, as we know it, is a brand new phenomenon.

According to historians, the current concept was dreamed up near the turn of the 20th century by men in two separate corners of the world within a few years of one another. One guy, an entomologist in New Zealand, wanted to spend more time in nice weather looking for bugs. The other guy, a home builder in England, wanted to spend more time in nice weather playing golf.

The United States adopted daylight saving time in 1918 and also established official time zones. The time zones stayed, but DST was repealed the following year. For the next half-century, Americans sometimes saved time and sometimes didn’t, or some states did and others didn’t. Then, in 1966, Congress got serious.

The Uniform Time Act of 1966 was passed. Using 15-degree increments along longitudinal lines (more human-made measurements ignored by all flora and fauna), the U.S. Department of Transportation identified eight time zones from the tip of the easternmost United States to the South Pacific U.S. territory of Samoa. (A ninth zone was added 10 years ago to cover Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.)

A 15-degree increment was selected because the Earth rotates about 15 degrees per hour. This never would have worked in ancient Rome, where one of the official “hours” in summer lasted 75 minutes, while the same “hour” in winter lasted only 44 minutes.

Part of the Uniform Time Act of 1966 also mandated that DST springing and DST falling had to be done by an entire state or not at all. That mandate was amended five years later.

The clock talked loud. I  threw it away, it scared me what it talked.

— Tillie Olsen

In 2006, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels persuaded the legislature to adopt daylight saving time for every Hoosier, thus dragging the state into the U.S. majority. Many people predicted the bold move would fail. Part of their objection was the accompanying placement of almost all of Indiana in the Eastern time zone.

Folks who care about where the sun is positioned — folks like scientists — pointed out that the center of the natural Central time zone is 90 degrees longitude, which is near Peoria, Ill. The eastern-most border of that zone is Columbus, Ohio, which means all of Indiana belongs, sun-wise, in the Central time zone.

The objections were loud but futile. Time zones and time savings exist primarily for “the convenience of commerce,” as the U.S. Department of Transportation puts it. Commerce won, as it nearly always does.

After a few years and a few bumps, Hoosiers have settled into the spring-forward/fall-back dance. Some people still hate eating dinner when the sun is blasting through their windows, but many more seem to like stretching the light of day toward the 10 o’clock news.

Meanwhile, animals, birds, insects, fish, trees and plants go on about their eternal business, unknowing and uncaring of time saved, spent, wasted, used well or stopped.

 Lost yesterday, somewhere between Sunrise and Sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered, for they are gone forever.

— Horace Mann



Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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