Nature’s Broken Clocks

13 August 2020

Nature’s Broken Clocks
by Paul Huebener
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Michelle Shaw
$24.95 ISBN 9780889777125

For someone who has always regarded time as primarily linear or cyclical, Paul Huebener’s book Nature’s Broken Clocks is rather mind-bending.

Weaving together science, history, narrative and the natural world, Huebener—described as one of the leading figures in the field of ecocritical time studies—challenges the reader’s perceptions of time, particularly within in the context of the environmental crisis.

He discusses varying concepts of time, from the sun (humanity’s “original clock”) to the politics of time—and points out that even so-called natural time is a lot more complex than we might think. I was especially fascinated by the various examples of the natural world he used. From the grolar (global warming has caused grizzly bears to wake from hibernation earlier in the season and come into more frequent “friendly” contact with polar bears) to what ecologists call “mistiming”. This is “the process whereby warming causes animals to fall out of step with a critical food source, particularly at breeding times, when a failure to find enough food can lead to rapid population losses.” Canadian boreal ducks have been facing this exact dilemma. Yet Huebener notes that while certain species of duck (such as the scaup and the scoter) have indeed suffered severe population declines, others (such as the mallard) have managed to shift the timing of their migrations, flying to their nesting areas earlier in order to stay synchronized with the earlier spring. If natural time is infinitely varied, then obviously the disruption of natural time is equally complex.

Huebener explains that the way we perceive time is typically shaped by cultural narratives. “For human beings … the concept of time takes shape not merely through the language of science, in which time is understood as a dimension or a theoretical principle, and not merely through the language of economics, in which time is money, but through the everyday practice of figurative thinking.“

And, he says, if narrative is—as has been suggested—the primary mechanism that we have for ordering and comprehending time, for making time human, then “thoughtful literary texts should be among our most capable tools for expanding, questioning and shaping our awareness…” Huebener examines this premise by drawing from the works of an extensive array of writers including Margaret Atwood, Rita Wong, Thomas King, Emily St. John Mandel, Don McKay and Waubgeshig Rice.

I found this book a fascinating read. It not only expanded my understanding of the concept of time, particularly in relation to the environmental crisis, but it also gave me a narrative framework in which to grapple with the complexities of the subject.

Paul Huebener is an associate professor of English at Athabasca University. He is also the author of Timing Canada: The Shifting Politics of Time in Canadian Literary Culture, which was a finalist for the Gabrielle Roy Prize.


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