Time, Space, and Travel
How Perceptions of Time and Space
© 1993 Patrick Clark (First published in Kokopelli Notes)
From the travels of Marco Polo through China to those of Lewis and Clark across North America and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, people have long been fascinated with travel and mobility. Today transportation dominates the social landscape. A cursory glance at any town or city shows how thoroughly our lives are impacted by our transportation vehicle of choice--pavement for ease of travel, billboards informing where to buy what, signs instructing where to turn or not to turn, drive-thu banks, restaurants, car-washes, and the staggering hubbub of autos and trucks coming from every direction. The landscape has been so shaped to facilitate the movement of people, goods, and information that one feels almost uncomfortable not moving. How did Western society get to this point?
From the Neolithic era until the advent of the steamship and steam locomotive in the 1800s, human travel and transport had been shaped primarily by three innovations: the invention of the wheel, the domestication of the horse, and the perfection of the sailing ship. These were sufficient to build and topple numerous civilizations; to move the Roman legions from Britain to Persia, to allow Genghis Khan to conquer most of Asia, and to move millions of Europeans to the Americas. These developments, however radical, took centuries and millennia to unfold.
Since 1800, Western civilization has rapidly advanced from one transportation mode to another--the horse, steamship, clipper ship, steam locomotive, bicycle, automobile, airplane--and is still trying to go faster (e.g. wider highways) and farther (space exploration). Although exciting at first, each new travel mode has been superseded by the introduction of yet another new technology.
For example the introduction of the steam train in the early 1800s held the promise of salvation for the nation. The train would open up new land to settlement and resource exploitation, and would allow people to move about, interact, and exchange ideas more freely. When, 50 years later the bicycle was introduced, the country fell head-over-heels in love with it. Dubbed the Scorcher, it was the fasted thing on the road. Twenty years after that, history was again repeated when the motorcar became the star. Did the train and the bicycle fail in their promise?
View of Time and Motion
The key to understanding the transportation choices a culture makes is understanding its world view, particularly its perception of the scale of the world and the movement of time. The Europeans brought to America a predominantly linear view: time advances from an inherently inferior past, through a fleeting present, which will in turn be measured against a superior future world. “Progress,” according to this world view, is based on a relentless manifest destiny: a requirement of constant upward and forward motion in science and commerce. There is a corresponding belief that tribal cultures are innately or developmentally inferior in their humanity and lifeways. (1)
In contrast, tribal people see time and process as cyclical, or sacred. From the cyclical perspective, past and future are united in the present, within a perennial reality of the now. (2) Even in the languages of most Native American cultures there are no past or future tenses. Instead of focusing on the forward march of progress, there is a focus on enjoyment of the here and now in all its manifestations. Says Dee Brown in The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, “The rich mythic accounts of creation, for example, do not tell of chronological time past, but of processes that are eternally happening. The same processes are recurring now and are to recur in other future cycles. (3)
A high level of sophistication and appreciation for this cyclical perspective can be seen in the following statement by Luther Standing Bear, a chief of the Oglala Sioux in the late 1880s. “The man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures and acknowledging unity with the universe of things was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization. And when native man left off this form of development, his humanization was retarded in growth.” (4)
Let’s look at how cultural perspective has influenced the transportation systems of these different societies.
When the train was first introduced in the early 1800s, life for Euro-Americans was primarily agrarian--almost the entire population lived on farms. But people were far from content. Tired of being stuck on dirt roads which became impassable in the rain, they demanded a transportation system that could get them--and their produce--around with greater ease. Farmers and residents of small towns were fascinated with the passenger trains that sped by their otherwise “sleepy” rural communities. Often the whole town would stop business to watch the trains go by. According to John Stilgoe in the book Metropolitan Corridor,
“All the wonders of the metropolitan corridor (railroad), the elegance, the speed, the precision, and above all, the energy, sapped the traditional strength of small town America...At the end of the nineteenth century, such communities existed as shadows of their once-prosperous selves; their ‘best’ citizens deserted them for places with ‘get-up-and-go,’ while American slang identified them as ‘wide places in the road.’” (5)
The train had indeed opened up the continent for the new American nation. At the same time, the train created a new definition of accessibility--a new transportation context. Before the railroad, people had no expectations of getting to outlying areas. With the railroad, people came to expect to travel to far away places--and fast. By the late 1800s when the continent was linked by the iron rail from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the prairie and plains fenced in, the wilderness ‘tamed,’ and people could buy and sell goods at will, they still wanted more.
Although the pace of life had become much faster, it would continue to accelerate as more and more people competed for a piece of the prosperity. To slow down meant to miss opportunity; to do things as quickly as possible meant to ‘succeed.’ This thinking would later lead to the first fast-food restaurants and the term ‘rat-race.’ (6) From the dawn of the steam locomotive, the race was on to invent vehicles and machines which would facilitate commerce even faster.
While Euro-Americans became convinced that new machines and increased trade represented ‘progress’ and would lead to prosperity and well-being, Native Americans held a different world view. Plains Indians, for example, saw their world as contained within established territorial boundaries. (7) All their needs were filled with what was found in the immediate environment. Each detail of the land--every knoll, river, ravine--told of some memorable event filled with meaning and purpose. Within this territory, the world was perceived as infinite and timeless. The impact of a mythical event which occurred at a particular landmark remained ever present.
Before Europeans brought the horse to this continent, bands of Native Americans roamed the great plains and prairies, transporting their tipis and gear on travois, or drags harnessed to dogs. The buffalo which they hunted provided food, housing, clothing, tools, and implements. The introduction of the horse by Spanish explorers in the 1400s gave this already nomadic culture a greater power of mobility. The horse allowed the Kiowa, Sioux, Crow, Arapahoe, Blackfeet, and other tribes to carry larger homes and more equipment while covering the vast stretches of the prairie. Not only did obtaining sustenance become easier, but contact with other tribes increased and alliances formed. The horse came to represent the character of the Plains Indians.
The Plains Indians found the horse sufficient for their needs. When they observed long caravans of horse-drawn wagons carrying settlers across the frontier, the natives made no effort to obtain this new mode of transport. Unlike the Euro-Americans they were not focused on increasing the complexities of their technology or the speed and power of their transportation. In the 1860’s railroad trains (the ‘iron horse’) came rolling down the fresh-laid tracks venturing west, intruding on the land and lifestyle of the native peoples. Roman Nose, an intrepid chief of the southern Cheyenne, declared at a council in 1866 near Fort Ellsworth, Kansas, “We will not have the wagons which make a noise in the hunting grounds of the buffalo.” (8)
The Plains Indians, though nomadic, were already in the center of their universe; they didn’t need to expand far from their home. Their home was a center--and this center was an essential part of their life. Living within set territorial boundaries was a way of dealing with the indefiniteness of space and of recognizing human limits. The fire inside each tipi was the ritual or conceptual center of the Plains Indian territory and of the universe. The fire provided an anchor in the physical realm which grounded individuals in the experience of the present moment. “Living in the moment of the present allows us to be in immediate and continual interrelationship with the qualities and forces of our natural environment.” (9)
Euro-Americans, however, had lost their sense of center. Home and community had been left behind when fleeing the mother country. The landmarks of the new world were strange and couldn’t serve as comforting points of reference. In an attempt to feel at ease and in control, these people set out to ‘conquer’ the continent.
Without the view of sacred place and time, people are bound within the confines of a mundane or mechanical world (that which is measured quantitatively and scientifically). While linear thinking can come in handy, for example, in the practical task of building a bridge, by itself it cannot provide meaning and purpose to life. The bridge may really improve our ability to cross the river. But without cyclical, holistic, or right-brain thinking, one may see improving navigation as life’s purpose. The linear orientation of never-ending progress cannot provide a sense of wholeness and completion. Searching for the feeling of expansiveness in the material realm is futile, for it is an inner experience.
Western society has been trying to conquer time and space through transportation ‘improvements’ for ages, and it still trying to reduce the gap between physical time and distance. But there is no transportation vehicle or communication device which can solve our longing to experience unlimitedness and unboundedness. We are looking in the wrong place. As long as this quest is on a physical and, thus, quantitative order, even the seemingly limitless reaches of outer space are limited, bound to the laws of the material realm. It is not speed we seek--it is a feeling of ease and security within our surroundings, which can only come about by feeling the unity of all things. Unless we come to realize this, we will continue to repeat history with every new technological invention and find our thirst for the ultimate unquenchable.
1. Brown, Joseph Epes, The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, pg. 50. New York. 1982. Crossroad Publishing.
2. Ibid. pg. 50.
3. Ibid, pg. 50.
4. McLuhan, T.C., Touch the Earth: A self-portrait of Indian Existence, pg. 90. New York. 1971. Outerbridge & Dienstrfrey.
5. Stilgoe, John R., Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene. New Haven & London. Yale Univ. Press. 1983.
6. Ibid. The term ‘rat race’ originated around the turn of the century as a result of the chaos of people changing trains in Grand Central Station. This led to the development of traffic-control engineering.
7. Brown, J.E., ibid., pg. 14. Native American groups of the Plains and Prairie area represent very diverse cultural histories and tribal origins. Yet over time these groups developed a common style of life and thought. This happened through adaptations to the same environment and interaction with each other due to the mobility provided by the horse.
8. McCluhan, T.C., ibid., pg.88
9. Brown, J.E., ibid., pg. 117.