Appalachia journal

In the mountains, daylight saving time diminishes into the economic gimmick it truly is

WHILE HIKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I settled into an odd sleeping pattern. I would fall into the sleeping bag soon after sunset after my dishwashing duty had ended. Then, many nights, I would wake up at midnight or 1 A.M. and get up for an hour or so, sit on the shelter steps and look at the moon, write in my notebook by flashlight, or just lie there. None of my companions did this, so I thought I was chronically overtired or malnourished. What might have been true was that for the first time in my life, I was acting perfectly normal, following my natural tendencies instead of allowing the clock or electric lights to set the schedule.

Several years later, a simple mistake in packing for a July backpacking trip opened my eyes to another aspect of backcountry time. I spent five days backpacking through Baxter State Park in Maine. On the first night, I asked one of my companions what time it was. He had no idea. In fact, not one of us knew because none of the four of us had brought a watch. It did not matter, as we soon realized. We crawled into our tents when it got dark, got up at dawn, ate lunch when the sun was roughly at its high point, and ate dinner when we reached our campsite. On the last day, we hiked a long route over Pamola and the Knife Edge, up Katahdin, and down to Katahdin Stream just as the sun was setting. We had underestimated how long it would take to go down the Hunt Trail from Katahdin with two 14-year-olds. The ranger, who had a clock, knew it was 8:45 P.M. when we emerged asking him for advice on
getting back to our car. He told me that it was late and that, therefore, I was an irresponsible parent. Until this admonition, I had enjoyed my time away from clocks.

A few centuries ago, A. Roger Ekirch writes in his book At Day’s Close (Norton, 2005), people slept in two shifts: “first sleep,” followed by an hour or more of wakefulness, and then several more hours of shut-eye. Only the very wealthy, who fell into bed late after hours of social drinking, tended to sleep in one stretch without interruption. Of course, when gas lights and then electric lights were invented, everyone who used them could pretend they were wealthy and do whatever they wanted at all hours.

Lacking a body of scientific research on hikers’ circadian rhythms, I can guess that my two-phase sleep pattern on the Appalachian Trail isn’t that rare a phenomenon away from electricity, and that my group’s ability to navigate without clocks in Maine matches the ease with which many trekkers don’t need clocks. Anyone who has lived for stretches in the backcountry knows that new routines build themselves around the daylight hours and that the body slows down to match them.

Thousands of years of history prove that people like to use some kind of a clock to regulate economic and domestic life. It’s true also that the species does respond to an inner clock, the circadian rhythm, which scientists say is roughly a full day long (actually close to 25 hours). Whenever we jar our inner clocks, we should feel ill at ease for a while. Going into the woods for a period can re-set the inner clock, allowing the chance to recoup without clock pressures.

Most people in the Western world are so trained to rely on clocks that we might believe we can’t escape them, even in the woods. The reality, if you spend more than a day or two there, is that you tend to think of time on a grander scale, as in geological time, according to Michael Downing, a writing teacher in Boston who wrote the book Spring Forward (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005), a critical history of daylight saving time. In his book, Downing makes a case that daylight saving time is unnecessary, perhaps even silly. “I think that clock time is designed to move us away from that sense of how minute we are,” he said in an interview. “Our lives are part of a genuine planetary project which, if we have that thought and let those thoughts rise to the surface, really confounds the notion of getting up and being at work on time at 8 o’clock.”
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On March 11, 2007, the United States began the longest period of daylight saving time since the energy crisis of the mid-1970s. The country moved the clocks ahead three weeks earlier than last year. Daylight saving time will continue one week longer, until the first Sunday in November. This extension, set by federal law, is expected to save electricity. Daylight saving time, first tried during both world wars and then made permanent in the mid-1960s, makes the actual number of sunlit hours coincide better with people’s preferred summer schedules, many claim. In the evening, we feel as if we gain time as the sunset comes late. But the changeover does cause some havoc in schedules at first.

This year, daylight saving time will prevail for the majority of the year. In March, the dark mornings were a reminder of the winters of 1974 and 1975, during the Middle East oil embargo and subsequent drop in supplies. In those winters, as in March 2007, Americans set out to work and school in the dark so that the evenings would be lighter. This year, pay attention to your circadian rhythms. How did you fare in March, when the clock went ahead? How will you do in November, when the country regains the “lost” hour?

Daylight saving time was first proposed by a British man who was disgusted that most people slept too late. Daylight saving time places a new time on the sunset, fooling us into rising earlier to get those pleasant evenings. For some reason, we respond better to changing the clock than to deciding to get up earlier.

In the recreational backcountry—the mountains, wilderness lands, along rivers, and on the ocean—when adventurers have no electricity or business appointments, you can’t do much without the sun. No one but you expects you to be anywhere in particular when you are away from cities and towns. The only good thing about a clock is that it helps you plan your day by a map or guidebook. But even then, the usual ticking of each hour slows down, and life takes on a rhythm that is seasonal. In the backcountry, no one can pretend that every day is the same.

In Downing’s book, and another, Seize the Daylight (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), by David Prerau, I don’t find an answer to what I thought was a big question: what is natural for humans, to follow the sun or not? There is no quick answer, except to say that humans are a little out of sorts in nature and in history have always gravitated to marking time in various artificial ways. Prerau, who first studied daylight saving time for the federal government in the 1970s, tells a compelling story of the benefits of clock manipulation (to the recreational industry, for instance). He recounts the many arguments over changing the clock since Benjamin Franklin first calculated, in an essay, the waste of candles when people rise late and stay up late. Farmers complained about it from the first official trial in 1918: cows and dew didn’t know that it was suddenly an hour later than it had been the day before.

Unlike Prerau, Downing makes the case that daylight saving time is unnecessary—but not because humans run on a natural inner rhythm. “When you look at the modern research, this idea of what is natural is, for me anyway, problematic,” Downing said. “First of all, there’s a question of: is there a species-wide sense of time? Whether you go to biorhythms or a biological sense of period, a day, there doesn’t seem to be much that holds up across the species.”

Only in equatorial regions, where the length of day remains the same all year, do people feel a constant state of equilibrium, Downing said. For those of us living far from the equator, the very idea of even-paced days and nights is almost thrilling. Could it be that that is what’s natural, and the northern climes fight human nature? In New England and Canada, for example, the amount of sun constantly changes. Downing said that this creates the impulse to assert order by quantifying time. His favorite story about this is the Roman Empire’s short-lived system to change the length of a day by a few minutes per hour, day by day, to match what the sun was doing.

Some order seems appropriate. Humans need about seven or eight hours of sleep, regardless of whether we are living with sixteen hours of dark, or the reverse. My own mountain experience aside, Downing said that humans have always slept past sunrise. “That habit of blocking light precedes industrialization,” he said. It is related to the constant changes in light patterns. If you live in a place with very bright summers, like Canada, you have to sleep past sunrise or go to bed before sunset. Constant change: that’s the reality of time, no matter how we measure it, in most parts of the world. In civilized life, the theme of our days is constant order, schedules that don’t alter day to day or week to week. We need order because we are human, but we also at times chafe against its sameness. Don’t we?

The greater question, perhaps, is how to find peace with our schedules. I called John Eusden, a Congregational minister who lives in Randolph, New Hampshire, in the summer. He has spent sabbaticals studying Buddhism in Japan and written a book, Zen and Christian: The Journey Between (Crossroad, 1981). A few years back, Eusden and his brother decided to spend an entire day on Mount Washington, a peak he’d been avoiding because of the road, cog railroad, and summit house with cafeteria. He wrote about this day in the book. I asked whether he had lost track of the clock—whether he had even consulted a watch—and, taking the thinking further, whether he believes that humans can play around with the clocks twice a year without napping at their desks.

On the mountain, the Eusden brothers tried not to look at their watches, he said. They climbed it three times, starting just before dawn, continuing to the crowded middle of the day, and ending as a storm was coming on at dusk. They saw the mountain’s giantness, that people could not affect that, and they learned to appreciate Mount Washington anew. He said that they were not living by the clock that day, but “in time.” This is a Buddhist approach, but Christian and other faiths also urge it in their meditative prayer. Walking up a mountain path is a meditative act, or should be, he suggested. “There are times when you want to live totally outside of time—cast it aside,” he said. “That is one of the great principles of Buddhism, and of Christian meditation and Christian prayer. There are times when you want to put time, in or out of it, aside.” Americans are working harder, longer hours than ever before, Eusden said. We are not using time well. He suggested that we think about focusing on one task at a time, and alternating it with a very different activity.

This might seem far from the significance of daylight saving time or no daylight saving time. It is not. The reason we must turn the clocks ahead to feel in control in the summer is that we operate on artificial lights, artificial schedules, and a never-ending sense of urgency.

On Mount Washington on that long day, Eusden said, “We were dealing with our time but we were also dealing with the mountain’s time. It had its own evolution in time during the day as we did too. It was one mountain early in the morning when we started in the dark, and it was another mountain when all the people came up. … Then, when we went down again and came up again, all the pretty butterflies were gone and the people were gone. I just thought that my brother and I were in a different place, but the mountain was in a different place.”

That’s the key: to find meaning in change rather than in our efforts to impose order on it. We could turn the clocks ahead, or we could get up earlier, but neither one changes the fact that that day’s sunlight is a little longer than the previous day’s, and the next day will be different, and the next. Giving up ourselves to change might bring the clockless backcountry experiences back into civilization, and make us feel less frantic.


About This Article

This article first appeared in the summer/fall 2007 issue of Appalachia journal. As editor of Appalachia, I choose each issue’s theme, which for this issue was time in the backcountry. That year, the United States moved the start date for daylight saving time back to mid-March for the first time since the energy crisis of the 1970s. Daylight saving time always struck me as a queer policy, one possible only in a post-industrial world. I also think it is possible that people tend to ignore the signals of their natural rhythms and, therefore, blame themselves when daylight saving time jars them for weeks. The Appalachia journal page is online at Back orders of the issue with this article are available at this page.

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