Chapter 4. Time Is For The Birds

October 17, 1929

Time can change a little boy into a ten-year-old. Today I became one of those. Mom had a dandy birthday supper for me with spare ribs and butter tarts – my favorites – and a big chocolate layer cake. Jim and Grant were here and so was Grandma. Jim gave me a huge chocolate bar and Grant gave me a Mutt and Jeff comic book. Grandma brought me a windup train with four cars. It runs around a circle-track that is as far across as I am tall. Fun!

Mother gave me a really precious gift: a Brownie box camera. She said that if I’m not going to collect birds’ eggs any more, at least with a camera I can take pictures of eggs right in their nests. Maybe I can get some pictures of the birds too. I’m really looking forward to next spring.

Unfortunately what I actually accomplished with my camera did not measure up to my expectations. In fact the prints from my first roll of film were dismally disappointing. My close-up shots of eggs in nests were out of focus. Shots from farther away were clear enough but the really important details of the eggs were lost. I got two pictures of baby birds but none of adult birds. By the time I would get myself perched safely in a tree, they were no longer around to have their pictures taken. If I tried to snap them on the wing, all I caught was a blur. My first roll of film was almost entirely wasted.

When I saw the black and white prints, the sad fact came home to me that even if my pictures had been sharply focused, the delicate jewel-like tints of the eggs would not have registered. Even the most colorful birds would have appeared to be dressed in somber grays. To realize that my idyllic dreams of extraordinary exploits in bird photography simply could not come true was a bitter disappointment.

The man who developed my roll of film took me into the back room of his drugstore and explained why my photos had not turned out as I had hoped. The chemical emulsion on the film is affected by how much light falls upon it and for how long. The amount of light entering the camera is controlled by the size of the aperture at the front and by how fast the shutter opens and closes that aperture. The more light that enters the camera, the darker will be the negative. Less light will produce a fainter negative. The dark-and-light quality of the negative affects oppositely the light-and-dark quality of the prints made from it. He told me that my camera was fine for taking pictures in good daylight at a fair distance. In a shady situation however it might not let in enough light, and the light from a fast-moving subject would smear too quickly across the film to leave a clear-cut image.

I learned that there’s a lot more to photography than just “point and shoot.” I also learned that my fond hopes for my camera had collapsed because of the overruling power of my perennial troubler, Time. The balance between the speed of my camera’s shutter and that required by the film’s emulsion was entirely a matter of time. I had been thinking of the camera as mine, but I discovered that my “ownership” was always subject to the proviso that, in using it, I had to conform to the time-controlled properties of light and chemical reactions.

April 17, 1930

The springtime countryside is readying itself for what will happen when the days become longer and warmer. Against the eastern wall of our house, Mother has put up a tall trellis to support her vigorous climbing rosebush. Yesterday I watched a robin building a nest in that rosebush. Below and over a little from my bedroom window, three branches of that bush spread out into a three-prong fork. A lady robin has chosen that crotch for her construction site. First she laid out a little platform of twigs and pushed stiff dry straws into them, crisscrossed from all directions. She crouched on that rickety structure and slowly wheeled around, jiggling it from time to time until it held steady.

Then she began gathering long, strandy things that she could wind around the edge of her platform. Landing there with ridiculous beakfuls of dry grass, binder twine and even red yarn, she would slowly twirl around and around laying down her load as she turned. While she tucked in loose ends with her beak, the rising wall around her was held together by her tail and wings.

Early this morning she brought soft pellets of mud from the ditch and piled them in neat rows around the inside of the nest. From time to time she poked the mud between the strands of her nest’s wall and shook them a little to ooze the mud through and around everything. All the while she kept turning around and around in the cup, pushing outward with her breast and pulling the wall in with her tail until the nest exactly fitted her particular size and shape. This afternoon she lined it with soft fuzzy stuff. It sure looks comfy.

From now on if any kid calls me a “birdbrain” I’ll take it as a compliment! Nobody I know could build themselves a livable house of straw-stuff up in a rosebush.

I wonder why that robin chose this particular time to build a nest. Why didn’t she build one earlier, when she was still down south? Is this the first nest she has ever built? How does she know what materials to collect and how to make them hold together? How is it that her nest looks so much like all the other robins’ nests? Has she ever produced eggs before? If not, how does she know in advance that she will be needing a nest to hold egg-things she has never even seen?

In my mind’s eye I can still see that small bird arriving, so altogether intent, her beak bristling with a little sheaf of straw stuff. The questions which her activity raised for me in those days have since been joined by many more.

Biologists say that each cell in a bird’s body contains double strings of atoms – DNA molecules – and that this DNA issues preset instructions for building new cells. I cannot understand, however, how a spatial sequence of atoms in a single cell or a lot of cells can translate into choosing a particular nesting location or the coordinated timing of complex actions by a whole bird. That robin’s activities were not altogether random nor were they merely mindless repetitions. All of them were completely relevant to some current phase of her nest-building enterprise and also to the specific usefulness of all sorts of available building materials – scattered miscellaneous twigs, straws and strings. Surely something more definitely focused than regular cell-building DNA was operating in her.

The tasks which technologists have succeeded in programming into robots are much, much simpler than the complicated decisions which have to be made by a nest-building robin. “Which items in this clutter could be useful? Which of them shall I pick up now? Which one next? Now that I have this beakful of long things, what do I do with it? Do I fly off with it? In which direction? Where in this tangle of twigs should I insert this short stiff straw? Why not pull some stuff out of this structure that I have built? When do I stop gathering straw? When should I start gathering something else? Mud? When do I stop gathering mud? What exactly should I do with this beakload of mud? When do I knock off for lunch?” Could all these particular decisions and actions by a whole bird really originate from its specifically cellular DNA?

A bird’s range of flexible behavior surpasses by far the best that any expert in “artificial intelligence” (AI) has yet programmed into a robot. What has been achieved by the clever and expensive technical skills of top AI people falls far short of the expertise demonstrated by robins – expertise which some biologists say has been given to them by “brainless chance mutations,” “quantum fluctuations,” “fortunate accidents,” or “incredibly lucky coincidences.” If highly intelligent technical manipulators ever compare their meager accomplishments with those achieved by “dumb chance,” they must surely feel humiliated.

Past and future in a present nest

In the English language an event of interest is commonly located in one of three segments of the course of time – the past, present or future – by the tenses of verbs. “We have eaten our lunch. We are having a snack. We shall be having our dinner this evening.”

That nest-building episode which I once observed with such interest involved all three of these general divisions of the time-process. When Mrs. Robin was intensely engaged in her building project, “past,” “present” and “future” merged smoothly to produce a comfortable nest.

That robin had been hatched in some previous spring. During the following summer she was maturing and, as winter approached, she had sensibly gone south for the winter. During past months Mother’s rosebush had grown higher up the trellis. The dry grass, dead twigs and well-weathered fibers which that robin built into her nest had all been produced by last year’s growth. Eroded rock-particles from past geological ages, mixed with decaying vegetation and snow-melt water, became her mud-cement. Thus the characteristic forms of robin, rosebush, fibers and mud had all come to be what they were because of previous conditions and past agencies.

Plants stay alive by assimilating certain substances from the air and from the ground. Using the warmth and light of the sun, they live and grow by transforming their intake into their own living being. Materials which once were unorganized, cold, stagnant and dead are somehow transmuted into forms which are presently alive. Soil, sunlight and air are transformed into living roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds.

With the coming of winter’s chill, many northern plants die, wither and dry out in the wind. The living forms achieved during the past growing season turn into gaunt skeletons: brittle straws and twigs which linger on into the next year. In the spring birds salvage some of these relics of past forms and combine them into new, different and up-to-date present forms: their various styles of nests.

In just such a way time keeps converting the materials, energies and forms of things past into new configurations.

In my view, what Mrs. Robin was doing was definitely directed toward the future. Although some animals engage in elaborate construction projects, many psychologists and biologists have been reluctant to admit that those creatures have any sense of “purpose” in what they do. But when I watch a spider spinning a web or a beaver damming a stream or a robin building a nest, I have no doubt that their present labor is intended to produce a fairly definite future result.

If these individual builders don’t imagine any future use for their construction, from what source are they deriving their architectural guidance? Is Something or Someone with a purpose larger and deeper than their individual consciousnesses prompting individual animal workers to undertake a variety of particular activities which will collectively provide for their welfare?

“Explanatory” notions such as “instinct” or “DNA instructions programmed into individual cells” cannot account for the very particular and diverse, but coordinated, acts of a whole organism as it goes about a construction project. The creature must select specific pieces of possible materials and place them together in those specific and relevant locations which will produce an intricate and useful structure. Although the creature may find itself in unique and unfamiliar circumstances, its moves must take place in a sequence appropriate to the situation. Spider webs may have some superficial general similarities, but it would be hard to find two webs which have been anchored to an identical configuration of attachments. A whole community of organisms may be engaged in a construction project, e.g., termites erecting towers or beavers building dams or bees crafting honeycomb. In such cases it is very, very difficult to explain how “random” and diverse activities could successfully result in such complicated and useful structures.

The facile notion of “instinct” simply puts a label on our ignorance about what actually governs animal behavior. We don’t really know what it is that ensures the continuity of characteristic behavior patterns from generation to generation. Why does each individual of each kind of organism seek out a similar ecological niche?

Behavioral psychologists used to deny outright that animals can entertain purposes. Currently it is the fashion to claim that animal actions are “preprogrammed.” A single action such as a muscle twitch could indeed be dubbed “involuntary.” But when a whole animal or group of animals over a considerable period of time persists in performing an orderly sequence of un-preprogrammable, situation-specific actions, actions which cease once a useful structure has been attained, purposefulness would definitely seem to have been present throughout the entire construction process.

A bird nest is obviously being built for possible future use. When finished it will be a stable, efficient container for roll-prone eggs and clumsy, turbulent young. Its shape and location will be such that a brooding bird will be able to keep eggs warm, inaccessible to certain possible predators, as well as protected from rain and excessive heat or cold.

No one knows whether or not that pregnant robin realized that she would eventually bring forth several eggs. Did she know in advance that she would have to incubate them for many days until they turned into little naked creatures that for weeks she would have to feed and protect? I do know however that all aspects of her complicated nest-building activity were essential for accommodating those future developments.

December 5, 1930

All last night it snowed heavily. This morning the fence posts along the road were wearing tall snow caps. The upper surfaces of dark tree limbs were outlined by two inches of new-fallen white. On my way out to the road I glanced up at my bedroom window. The leaves have fallen from the rosebush. Up there, draped with snow, the nest which the robin had labored so hard to build looks awfully forlorn. I wonder where that robin family is spending these cold winter days and nights?

May 12, 1931

This afternoon Dad finished shingling the eastern slope of the woodshed roof. After school I helped him gather up the broken old shingles he had shoveled down. We’ll use the best of them for kindling.

Before Dad put the ladder away in the garage, I propped it up against the side of the house beside the rosebush trellis. I wanted to look at that old robin’s nest. No eggs in it now. It looked pretty frazzled. I guess the fall rains washed out some of the mud and the winter winds whipped loose some of the straw. It won’t last up there much longer.

Dad asked me what I’d been looking at. I told him that there was an old robin’s nest up there, falling to pieces. He said, “That’s weather for you. It chews things up and tears them down. That’s why I had to reshingle the roof. Soon I’ll have to paint the back porch. See how the paint has been scaling off. Paint lasts only four or five years.”

When carpenters are putting up houses, they use many tools and put in a lot of careful, hard work. To pull those houses down again, Time needs only plain old weather.

In this world a sinister destroyer seems to be on the prowl, maliciously determined to drag down every structure that has ever been built. The rock in the mountains crumbles. Water flows down, down, down, carrying even the “everlasting hills” into the sea. Everywhere and always something obsessed with compulsive demolition keeps clawing away at things. It gradually removes names from tombstones, even as it vampired out of existence the lives which the stones commemorate. All movements eventually slow to a halt. Everything organized breaks up. Our loudest shouts die away. The brightest of colors will fade. What is warm will grow cold. Beautiful young girls age into old women. The most powerful engines wear out. Shiny new appliances become obsolete junk. Nothing is safe from this elusive, menacing aggression.

Could it be that the name of this ravaging predator is … Time?

Time is the ongoing change-process throughout the universe. When anything changes anywhere in the universe, a portion of the energy involved always slips away as useless radiated heat. While the total amount of energy in the changing universe always theoretically remains the same, as time goes on, local concentrations of energy tend to disperse and become unavailable. Engineers give the name “entropy” to this inevitable decrease of order and organization, or the increase of disorder and disorganization.

Some scientists hold that this ongoing degradation of the universe’s energy is a clear indicator of the direction in which time is going. Entropy has therefore sometimes been called “Time’s arrow.”

Entropy however is not a complete account of time’s activity in this world. Truthful history cannot be entirely a tale of destruction. Only what has been previously constructed can ever be destroyed. Considering the billions of years that have allegedly elapsed since the universe began, by now the world ought to have become far more dismal, disorganized and desolate than it actually is.

In many ways the universe appears to be becoming increasingly structured. It seems to have started out as a ball of fire, one so hot that within it no shapes of any kind could form nor could any random contacts remain stable. But as the fireball expanded and cooled, it condensed into atoms and molecules of the various elements. Gravitation and electrostatic forces have kept pulling together this dispersed matter into structured crystals, clumps, stars, planets and far-flung galaxies. This is definitely not disintegration.

In each living thing, the dust of the earth – previously pulverized and dispersed by entropy – is nevertheless being recycled and reconstructed into complexly organized forms. Organisms are capable of selective assimilation, cell reproduction and growth in size and form. They develop intricate systems of specialized organs and use all sorts of clever techniques for their maintenance and survival. More humans are alive today than ever before. Throughout the centuries the human race has been pouring out a torrent of ingenious new structures, processes, inventions, artworks and organizations. Information is actually accumulating at an incredible rate, accelerated by new forms of communication technology.

Time obviously has a constructive mode as well as a destructive mode. If concentrations of energy are doomed to dribble away, how did they ever get concentrated in the first place? If a system comes apart when its energy drains away, it originally had to be organized. Time never disorganizes, ruins or loses anything that it had not initially brought into being.

Some people say, however, that each construction job takes energy away from somewhere else, and in using it, degrades it. In other words, putting something in order somewhere just increases the disorder elsewhere. Merely by staying alive, organisms are thus held to be fashioning gradually the final end of life and the world.

But living creatures employ radiated energy for keeping warm, for growing and multiplying. Thus they use entropy not only to maintain their wonderful status as living beings, but also to hold at bay entropy’s perpetual threat. Organisms actually make gains by utilizing the downward current of the world’s energy. I am reminded of the way salmon, in migrating from the ocean to spawning grounds, make their way up countless cascades and roaring rapids. They use the downward-coursing waters which oppose their ascent as ladders by which, though lacking legs, they succeed in climbing uphill.

Life is actually sustained by entropy. The processes which break down and “burn” food substances release the energy which is necessary for activities, growth and development. Metabolic processes use entropy, not to destroy life but to continue it. Life can take the entropy that is responsible for disorganizing and destroying the world and make it contribute to the world’s ordering and organization.

Time is much more than entropy. While organisms are slowing, stalling or exploiting entropy, within them time continues at its usual pace without missing a beat.

In the strictest sense, entropy is the measure of the increase of disorderliness within a system during a period of time. If the time process ever ceased to move on, obviously there would be no entropy. The ongoing of time does not depend upon entropy. Entropy however depends upon time.

It’s no wonder that thinking seriously about time can raise within me vague feelings of anxiety. Time sustains not only the processes of construction and maintenance but also the processes of destruction and deterioration. Time, an inescapable factor in my life, is both my friend and my foe.

It is easy to resent the destructiveness of time. The inevitable deterioration of our house and car doesn’t please me. Having to replace the food which we have consumed is expensive. So are essential municipal services: police and fire departments, water supply and sewage disposal. My study seems never to stay tidy. Keeping a kitchen clean is a daily problem. No one is glad to get sick or become decrepit with age. Funerals are no fun.

In this world we become emotionally attached to certain persons, creatures, possessions and situations. All of them must eventually pass away or be left behind. Having to part with them can be most painful. Although knowing that we must someday lose dear ones may make them seem even more precious to us, that enhanced value may make the eventual parting even more sorrowful.

Time is involved in all changes and accordingly can be both blamed and praised. Some changes seem to be simply dreadful and others can be happily glorious. But would I really want to live in a world where nothing ever changed? If electrons ceased to move, the material world would entirely collapse. If my heart did not beat or I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t stay alive. If people could not change anything, the cultures of the world would vanish. No speaking, writing, drawing, painting, music, dancing or travel. No record-breaking athletic achievements. Nothing to do in that changeless world, for nothing could be done. All in all, I think I prefer to suffer some untoward changes than to forfeit all joys and excitement by experiencing no changes at all. The time-process must not be entirely deplored.

If it weren’t for time there would be no possibility of changing things for the better. But in order to change something for the better, what is not so desirable has to go. In order to think positively and clearly, some negative, vague and alternative thoughts must be rejected. To construct or create anything new and better, some unsatisfactory former conditions and situations must be done away with. In order to build a house trees must be cut down, holes dug, and unhelpful things excluded from the site. But once the building has been completed, whoever lives in that house can rejoice at being cozy and safe during the onslaughts of inclement weather. I may sometimes complain about time’s performance, but where would I be without it?