Marking Time


   Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”
   “If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”
   “I don’t know what you mean,” said Alice.
   “Of course you don’t!” the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. “I dare say you never even spoke to Time!”
   “Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied; “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”
   “Ah! That accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.”

— from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.


Did the new decade begin a few days ago, or more than a year ago? Sticklers for numerical accuracy would say the 2020s began on January 1, 2021. But for most people, referring to the decade in the course of everyday conversation, it makes more sense to speak of January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2029, as the 2020s. It’s awkward to claim the year 2020 is not part of the 2020s, while the year 2030 is the last year of the decade. This enumeration is technically correct, but it requires a tedious explanation every time it’s dragged out and it smacks of pedantry.

In the Christian system of marking time since the birth of Christ there was no Year Zero. Unlike the rest of us, whose lives begin at 0 and progress through the days, weeks, and months up to our first birthday, when we are said to be a one-year-old, by the accounting of two monks in the Middle Ages Christ started His time on Earth at the beginning of the Year One, Anno Domini (in the Year of the Lord). He was presumably nonetheless an infant for a time, and did not spring forth fully formed as a toddler, at least according to artists and theologians over the past two thousand years Christ was an infant first.

Illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for the 1865 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. At the table for the Tea Party are Alice, the March Hare, the Dormouse, and the Mad Hatter.

There has been confusion ever since in our decimal system of counting the years as units of ten, one hundred, and one thousand years tick over. Recall the most recent change of century and the confusion over whether the 21st century began on January 1, 2000, or January 1, 2001. Without a Year Zero to fall back on two thousand years ago, the correct year to anoint as the beginning of the New Millennium was 2001. Looking back from the Year 2000 would, despite it’s name, take one back only one thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine years. It’s as if Time were a bank teller whose true accounting for a check’s amount came from reading the numbers spelled out in alphabetical characters, and not the Arabic numerals in the box to the right. And that supposes there are still a significant number of people around in this New Millennium who use and understand written checks.

So yes, there are discrepancies. Not that they matter much to most people: it’s not as if there is real money at stake from missing appointments and having communication failures. Those dates and times have a finer point to them than the decades that roll by, as Alice knew when she disputed with the Mad Hatter the necessity of broad markings of time on a watch. A watch is for marking seconds, minutes, and hours, and a calendar is for marking days, weeks, and months. Nature, however, continues to mark the time for all on the broadest possible scale and, for those who pay attention, on the smallest scale imaginable.

David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash perform “Wasted on the Way”, a song written by Mr. Nash.

Stroll through Nature and you will note that Time is subjective, and different creatures and plants exist on different scales. A hummingbird lives at a pace unimaginably fast to us, but of course the hummingbird is adjusted to its own timescale. To a hummingbird, we must appear to be moving in slow motion. The opposite may be the case for a giant redwood tree, if it can be said to have perceptions. To the redwood, we are perhaps like hummingbirds. We lose sight of Nature’s timekeeping, and instead give undue importance to our own arbitrary social constructs for timekeeping. The middle ground from seconds to years suits us well on the timescale of our lifespans, which are not as short as that of hummingbirds nor as long as that of giant redwood trees. Take the time to stroll through Nature, and leave the watch behind.
— Izzy


I’ll Have the General Tso’s Chicken

Davidia involucrata inflorescence foliage 01
Dove Tree flowers and foliage; photo by Myrabella.
January 28 is the Chinese New Year, which this time is the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese celebrations include an acknowledgement of America’s current influence on their culture, and in reply the Supreme Leader no doubt will wish “Good Luck” to all our Chinese friends, perhaps with a tweet or a cluck. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, we look back on Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson (1876-1930) and his accomplishments in bringing hundreds of Chinese plant varieties to Westerners in the early years of the Twentieth Century.


“Chinese” Wilson was English by birth, and he started out on his plant collecting in China on behalf of the English firm of James Veitch & Sons, who primarily sent him to retrieve the Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata. Wilson made numerous trips to China, Japan, and other Eastern, African, and Latin American locales over the first twenty years of the Twentieth Century, eventually collecting plants on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. In 1930, he and his wife died in an automobile accident in Worcester, outside of Boston.
E H Wilson
Ernest Henry Wilson
Weiße Königs-Lilie (Lilium regale)
Regal Lily; photo by Pimpinellus.


Wilson sent back to the West a staggering number of plant species, many of which, like Camellia, Magnolia, Azalea, and Crepe Myrtle, while not entirely unknown here before his collection efforts, have become so common since he gathered their multiple varieties that Westerners could be forgiven for thinking they have always been here. Wilson himself was most proud of his discovery in 1907 of the Regal Lily, Lilium regale, on an expedition to the Min River valley in western Sichuan Province, where he paid the high cost of having his right leg broken in two places in a rock slide. He made it out of the wilds safely in three days and recovered, but ever after he walked with a limp.


This New Year of the Rooster it does us good to remember a good man, “Chinese” Wilson, and his positive contributions to the Western world borne of his expeditions to China and the Far East. It’s better still to think of how the Chinese reservoir of plant diversity has enriched our own gardens. And it’s best of all to realize in these difficult times that the influence of Wilson’s good work will over the long run outweigh the tribulations visited upon us by one petulant, puffed-up rooster of a man. The General Tso’s Chicken is good; let’s enjoy that and leave aside for now it’s American variant, Orange Chicken.
― Izzy


Happy New Year!

The award for Malaprop of the Year goes to Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter, who criticized a video by the rapper Jay Z which, according to her, depicted members of a crowd “throwing mazel tov cocktails at the police.” Presumably the police needed congratulating for a job well done. A suggestion for ingredients in the new cocktail would be two parts Manischewitz and one part gin over ice, a splash of seltzer, and a slice of lime for garnish.


Some time back another Scott was similarly confused over this Hebrew phrase meaning congratulations, or blessings. Wisconsin Governor Scott “What, me worry?” Walker signed off a letter to a Jewish constituent by writing “Thank you again and Molotov.”


The fireworks in this video are from the “Phoenix” section of the Nagaoka Festival in Japan in early August, commemorating those lost to war and natural disasters. The festival is held every year over three days, with fireworks on the second and third nights. The display is world-renowned, and every year in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation the city of Nagaoka puts on a similar fireworks display in Honolulu at Pearl Harbor. The music in the video is by Ayaka Hirahara, singing her 2003 hit “Jupiter.” The melody is from Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” movement of The Planets suite.


– Ed.