Time Enough

How we view time can be a source of comfort or pain. Many people, particularly eastern cultures, adhere to the belief that we live any number of lives: time is seen as cyclical and forgiving. Westerners tend to see time as linear, something we use up, something we never have enough of.

Whatever our beliefs, we all know that the lives we are living now will one day end. This knowledge is the ultimate spoiler, the price we pay for having a neocortex. Other animals are not saddled with this awareness—at least I assume, I hope, they are not.

In 1777 the British explorer Captain Cook gave a newly hatched tortoise to a royal family in Polynesia, who kept the creature as a pet until it died of natural causes 188 years later. That turtle pulled its heavy self across the ground, presumably the same well-worn ground, for 68,620 days. Was it weary by then? Bored? Might it have opted for a life half as long?

On the other end of the spectrum is the mayfly, a creature whose adult life amounts to less than a day; in some species, just a few minutes. The larval versions, naiads, can live up to a year, during which they hide in aquatic debris and progress through several stages—instars—before growing a pair of wings and becoming immature adults. The winged juveniles last no longer than the final version and are not sexually viable until a few hours later, when they emerge from their last molt with features unique in the insect world, paired genitals: two penises for the males and two gonopores for the females. They do not feed: their mouths are useless and their digestive tracks are filled with air. This day, their first and last on earth, all they do is mate—little wonder our creator doubled up on their genitalia.

Like locusts, mayflies “hatch” in stupendous numbers, trillions at a time. The males begin swarming over a river and the females fly into this mass. With specialized legs, the male grab a female and copulation takes place in mid-air, after which the female falls to the water’s surface and lays her eggs before dying. The spent females cover the water, providing a feast for the fish below. The males fly off to die on land, a boon to local birds.

Even the waiting wildlife cannot keep pace with these mayfly windfalls, and in some municipalities snow plows are deployed to clear away the mountains of corpses. While Americans consider mayflies a nuisance, tribes in Africa make nutritious patties out of them.

It would seem that a mayfly’s fleeting life amounts to nothing more than sustenance for larger creatures. Mayflies, all 2500 species of them, are designed as sacrifices, put here for the greater good. Twenty-four hours is all the time they are given and all the time they need.

The ancient Greeks had a saying:

“There is not a short life or a long life.
There is only the life that you have,
and the life you have is the life you are given,
the life you work with.
It has its own shape, describes its own arc, and is perfect.”

A whole life in one day. It must be glorious.

All At Once

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Most of the time our feelings are produced by our thoughts. We think of a person or situation, and our bodies respond with love, anger, fear, regret, despair, disgust—there’s no end to the places our minds can take us.

But sometimes the obverse is true. For just an instant, we are brushed by a fragment of memory. We pause, transfixed, thrilled not by the memory itself, which never coalesces, but by our closeness to it. We scramble after this phantom, try to fix it in time. Too late. It was gone as soon as it arrived, like the rainbow flash of an abalone shell before the dark waves rush over.

For me, these sensations occur most frequently in the spring, as if the earth, in her exuberance, is churning up my secrets along with her own, reminding me that nothing is lost. Akin to deja vu, this experience involves more certainty than suggestion. We are not stirred by a sense of the familiar but seized by our own lives, summoned to wakefulness. For a second or two, we exist in a portal, the distinction between past and present indiscernible. That fragment of memory was not an idle daydream; it was a clue, a means to the truth. We live all at once and probably forever.

Photo credit: Doreeno via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA