The Sun is the Same, in a Relative Way

Personification of Time

Personification of Time by Carstian Luyckx, 1650

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And, as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!

– Andrew Marvell, The Garden (1681)

The above poet describes the natural rhythms of a garden landscape—the opening and closing of flowers, the path of the sun across the sky, and the movements of animals—and how one can understand time in this way. This intuitive sense of timekeeping seems to be in contradiction to the strict segmentation of many of our busy days into regular hours and minutes. With the advent of “factory time” and a standardization of hours, the day became regimented by the minutes on the clock rather than the flows of nature—corresponding to the similar increased order and symmetry in landscaping, architecture, and dining brought about in the Georgian era—that is, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (see Leone and Shackel for more information on this process). The world of economic elite during this time became a very segmented and ordered place, including the way they thought about time. However, I don’t think there is a complete separation between an intuitive, natural timekeeping and an artificial, Georgian one.

Even in an urban environment, there is a rhythmic pattern to the day. You could probably provide a rough estimate of the time based on a familiar bus going by your window, schoolchildren walking home, or the sound of the garbage truck making its rounds. Despite the power the clock has over us, the sights and sounds that make up everyday life still help us position ourselves in time throughout the day. Most interestingly to this idea, I think, is how these multiple ways of orienting ourselves in time would have come together on the plantation landscape. We’ve talked before on this blog about how different residents of plantation would have experienced the landscape in a variety of ways depending on status, race, and ideology. I wonder how a different sense of time would change this experience as well.

Nature itself has an innate sense of time, as the poet Marvell noted of gardens in the seventeenth century. Circadian rhythms, which also determine your sleep patterns, even dictate the movements of plants throughout the day. A French astronomer named Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan experimented on the plant Mimosa pudica, publishing his results in 1729. De Mairan found that rather than responding directly to the sun, the plant followed some form of instinctive timing in its motions, even while confined to a dark room.

Linnaeus' Observations

Linnaeus’ observations of leaves drawn in transverse shapes. Source: Carl Linnaeus.

Not long after, Carl Linnaeus, who helped to popularize a scientific system of plant naming that is still used in botany today, published his observations of the precise timings of petal and leaf movements in 1751 in Philosophia Botanica (Philosophy of Botany). He describes plants as having a sleeping cycle, saying “This sleep of plants is a certain position or situation of their leaves very different from that they have by day, and takes place almost in every species of plants.”  Certain flowers, Linnaeus found and recorded, opened and closed at precise times every day. This repeated motion is so regular he proposed that a comprehensive list of the combined observations of these flowers from various climates would allow everyone to tell the time without use of a clock. His insights culminated in what could become a horologium florae (flower clock), which has since been illustrated and even built by gardening enthusiasts.

Flower Clock

Flower Clock. Source: Ursula Schleicher-Benz, 1948.

Other natural scientists, such as Charles Darwin, continued these careful observations, fitting the intuitive sense timekeeping provided by nature into the segmented order of clocks. On a plantation, where the agricultural fields and gardens kept time just as much as the clocks in the great house, it is interesting to speculate in what ways these two forms of time came together for different people. The enslaved who worked in the gardens and fields would have navigated not just through the landscape, but also through time in a particular way. The successful growth of plants would have depended on their literacy of this sense of time—when to water, when to rotate, when to harvest. Those living in the great house would have experienced time in a very different way, the day being controlled by the hours on a grandfather clock or a pocket watch. This is not to say that there wouldn’t be overlapped understandings; in fact, I think there would have to be. The plantation owner—and probably the overseer—would have to have an understanding of both clock-time and natural rhythms in order to keep the plantation in working order. Kitchen servants would have to keep an intuitive as well as a precise sense of minutes in order to complete meals within the framework of an exact “dinnertime.”

There is pollen evidence that water lilies, carnations, and sunflowers were grown in or around the greenhouse at the Wye House plantation in the late eighteenth century and later, and each of these flowers opens and closes at a particular time of day. While I do not think there was a floral clock on the Wye Plantation, the interest that the owner, Edward Lloyd IV, showed in scientific gardening means that it would be surprising if he did not recognize and understand the movements of such flowers.

References and Further Reading

Darwin, Charles, and Francis Darwin
2004 The Power of Movement in Plants.

Leone, Mark P., and Paul A. Shackel
1987 “Forks, clocks and power.” Mirror and metaphor: Material and social constructions of reality, edited by Ingersoll, Daniel W., Gordon Bronitsky, 45-62. Larham, MD: University Press of America.

McClung, C. Robertson
2006 Plant Circadian Rhythms. The Plant Cell 18(4): 792–803.

Rose, Hugh, and Carl von Linné
1775 The elements of botany: Being a translation of the Philosophia Botanica…


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