Time’s Arrow


I could see the remnants of the original forest that had been a part of this land in the distance. Between me and the trees lay expanses of fields carrying crops of corn, beans, and wheat. One hundred and sixty years ago, human beings cleared this land and, generations later, it looks much the same as it did back then. Although the landscape changes with the flow of seasons, although technology has altered the efficiency of farming, although the yield may be far greater now than it was back in time, from what I can see through my eyes and through photographs of history, little in front of me has changed. However, this has not happened in and of itself. Without the work put in by those who laboured, the forces of nature would recolonize this land. If people stopped hindering nature’s power, eventually this land would go through a secondary succession and turn into a mature forest. This may take fifty, a hundred, or one hundred and fifty years, but it would happen, though would grow would not be the same forest as it was when the land was first cleared. It may seem the same, but there will be differences, some slight, some less so, to what it would have been had it been left undisturbed. 

Farmer’s field with forest remnants – July 2021

Such small differences are also apparent in the fields, if I care to look closely. The nutrients in the soil may have changed over time, the beans are not planted quite in the same place. Water flow is a little different.  New fauna will have moved in, their populations in a constant state of flux. Weed seeds will have been blown in by wind or carried in bird droppings and taken root.  But such change is not linear, it does not go in one direction only. There is fluctuation. While we can change this world in a gross way we constantly have to adapt to the small shifts that arise.

Such adaptation takes many forms. New crop diseases result in new herbicides and new research results in new techniques.  Changing grain prices result in different crop configurations, aging farmers teach younger aspirants, and poor weather may result in replantings when crops have failed.  Yet all of these adaptations are aimed at one thing, to manage the farmland from changing back into the forest.

Time goes forward, at least it does so to our eyes.  This is known as time asymmetry or time’s arrow. It is easy to see why this seems so from our psychological perspective. You, I, all of us mortals, have the sense that our perception is a continuous movement from the known past to the unknown future. We remember the past and not the future. We believe we can influence the future but not the past.  Past events have caused our present memories.Though we cannot, due to the complexity of life, definitively say why or how the past has put us where we are, we have correlations which seem, to us, to confirm that this has happened.  Such causality is intimately tied up with how we consider time and its effects. 

At the microscopic level, however, time is different. Time is symmetric.  This means that if time was to go backwards, the theoretical statements that describe our physical world would hold true.  At this level, time need not flow in one direction, but this is not what we perceive, this is not what this writing is about.  At our perceptual level, a cause precedes its effect and this greatly affects how we regard our world.  While a relationship between cause and effect may not be able to be directly perceived, while we cannot see gravity pull an ice cube that we drop to the earth, for example, we can see the sequence, we can hear the thud, we can see the ice shatter.  

As time moves forward, the world changes and, at our level, it can never go back to what it was.

Two summers ago, I stood at the top of Niagara Falls looking out to the full moon to the east and listened.  As I did, I could hear the roar of the water as it tumbled over the falls and hit the rocks and river below.  The water in the river above had energy because it had height, gravitational potential energy.  As it flowed over the falls and fell the fifty-one metres over the Horseshoe Falls to what lay below, it gained speed.  Its potential energy was converted to motion (kinetic) energy.  Once the water hit the rock and water below, part of this energy was converted to sound energy, that which reached my ears and dissipated into the world beyond.  This energy, this sound energy could not be recaptured, things had changed, the water could not flow back up the falls.  I thought about this then and asked myself what would happen if I picked up a bucket and went and collected  the water and put it back into the river above.  In a purely theoretical sense, I could actually reverse this change, at least this is how this seems, especially if we make a tiny scale model of the falls.  There is nothing, theoretically, prohibiting me from taking all the water that has fallen and putting it back uphill.  I can reverse the change, or so it seems to my eyes. 

Niagara Falls – July 2019

There are 30,344,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules in one liter of water, and there are eighteen litres in a normal bucket. The probability of what I gather and put back into the river above being arranged the same as it was before is insignificant. The water has changed.  Or has it?  We can only know through what we see.

Yesterday, I left a tray of ice cubes out and they melted.  Change.  When I put them back in the freezer they turned to ice again.  I reversed the change. The refrozen cubes looked just like the originals. Again however, the essence that made up the cube was arranged differently, and besides, what was in that cube was in constant, imperceptible motion.

Even though it seems like I could reverse the change, things were not constant, there was an impermanence. This is much like the world outside of what I can sense, much like the water of the falls, or the farmland I looked at. Things are always moving in ways that I cannot see, in ways I do not know about or cannot predict until the change becomes so big that it meets my eyes. This is the world I must live in.

We often hear comments of how we must simply accept that things have changed and “move on” with our lives, that we must live in the present moment and garner from it the best we can.  However, such comments carry with them a dark message, and it is important to dwell on this.

Consider if you had no memory, if this moment right now was all you “knew”.  How would you act? By instinct, by chance?  If you just touched a hot pan and burnt your hand, you would simply realise the pain that was existing but have no idea of what caused this pain.  There would be no sequence that you could identify, and so, you might well do the same thing over and over again.

But this is not the way we are, we do have memories and these memories, whether recent, individual, collective, oral or written, tell us of events of the past. We need to keep in mind that the world is impermanent, but we also need to be aware that we are actors in this world, and through our memories of experiences we have seen ways we want our world to be, and not be.  We can never hope to go back to what was, however, we can work towards what we want to be, we can adapt with purpose, in the awareness that we will never again experience exactly what was.

If we cast our mind back to all the atrocities that we humans have committed in the past, the belief that we simply do not accept change as an unchallengeable given and “move on” gains much more gravity.  We might never be able to give displaced people their lives back, but we can, and have, made their lives better because this is where we have directed ourselves.  There is no permanence, but it is this that provides the opportunity to make the world better.

By the same token, if we look back and consider those times and places where we have found peace, and we look hard at what was, we may be able to identify the conditions within which this lived, and strive to walk a path that encourages such things to grow.

We can adapt to what is, but not solely for our own sakes, for our own happiness, but for a vision of what might be beyond ourselves.

Certainly, we will make mistakes.  Our memories may fail us, we will be faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable, our fragility will be tested by those factors beyond our control. Yes, we cannot control others, but we can control ourselves.  We can refuse to throw our arms up in the air and just accept what is.  History has shown us what we are capable of when we have the will, the courage, and the energy to direct ourselves to what we find in front of us.

If we want something for this world and of this world, then we must make choices for this world. This may well mean that we have to attend to our own growth and develop ourselves in ways that give us what is needed to walk our paths. It may mean that we have to act in ways that frighten us, that move us away from the seeming security of where we are.  Or it may mean simple changes, like attending to those things that might influence the anthropomorphic effects on our climate.

Time may not be able to go backward, but this doesn’t mean that as it goes forwards those things that are meaningful for us cannot be worked for.  We can not expect that they will mirror the past, or be the past, but we can take the lessons of the past and use these to make the world as best as we can.

And we do not live in a vacuum. We interact with others and our environment and, through such interaction, we affect it.  How we may do this, we may not know fully, but we affect it, and we need to notice.

Yes the world changes, but a better way to consider this is that it is impermanent. Life is impermanent, it shifts in many, many ways, but there are things we can do to take the steps to be what we want. There is a lot more that can be said about this, especially when we consider the relationships we have with others, but, for now, let’s keep it a little simpler.  Envisage what you want of the future, keep in mind that you will have to adapt, that some of it will be a struggle, that there will be periods when you feel that you are not moving ahead and times when you feel like you have gone backwards.  But never lose sight of the lessons of the past, for these make up who you are, and these tell you who you want to be.

As was finishing this post, a big thunderstorm hit. Wind wrapped around the porch I was sitting on, bringing with it torrents of rain. I did not sit there fighting it, nor did I go and find a place of safety to continue. You see, I liked the porch and its stillness. So I adapted. I put things away for a while and worked with the shifts that occurred. The storm passed, the air cooled, and I went back when it was safe to do so. It wasn’t as it was previously, but my heart was still singing because this was a place where, for now, I belonged.

Ontario Government Archives – Ploughing in 1919

Published by Athan Rodostianos

Educator, world traveller, dreamer. The world is there and open. Live it, love it, breathe it share your experiences, be kind, be good.

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