Slow Time, Fast Time

One of the tensions in my life -is that between two kinds of time. "Fast Time" is the world I live in, the one with a two hour meeting scheduled at 7pm, my husband's classes at 12:35, Eli's bus at 8:15 and 3:30... payments due by the first of the month, etc... It is the world run on clocks and calendars, where expectations can be fixed and formalized. All of us live in fast time in some measure, some of us almost completely, others only barely. There is, however, no good way of escaping it entirely.

I also live in slow time. Slow time is the world of things that cannot be subject to fast time - things that take their own time, that you cannot schedule, that get done when they are ready. This is the time in which the wheat is ready to harvest, in which babies are birthed, in which winter sets in for real, in which children learn to walk or read or ride a bicycle, in which the plums ripen, in the ill recover strength, in which bread rises, in which change happens. These are things that occur, as the saying goes, "in their own sweet time." They cannot be hurried - and that is part of the problem, since we often are in a hurry, tied as we are to fast time.

The two are connected, of course, and often in conflict. How often do we need to go back to work in fast time before we are recovered from our illness? How often do we need to be somewhere at the same time the plums are ripe and ready for harvest? How often do we pass the child who had not mastered a skill set ahead, because fast time defines the school year, and there isn't time enough to wait for him to read or learn algebra completely. How often do we schedule the c-section for the day that's convenient, harvest the corn early and then pay extra to dry it with fossil fuels?

It doesn't work only this way - sometimes things that belong to the territory of fast time take their own sweet time - the project at work that turned out to be more involved than you thought, and won't be done until it is done. The house that the builder promised by February, delayed in the excavation stage and then when the plumber was ill. The meeting that reveals a deep chasm - or better yet, deep possibilities, that will take their time to be resolved or brought to fruition.

In either case, slow time and fast time often bang up against each other, and it can be challenging to give each one its due. We live in a society that gives strong preference to fast time - our answer to the conflict between them has been to live ever more in fast time, where things do not take their own sweet time. And there are some merits to this - my oldest, Eli, who has autism, for example, received early intervention help by the time he was two, rather than waiting, as in the past one might have, until he was five or six to diagnose him and begin addressing his delays.

On the other hand, there's a price to this - my nine year old had difficulty with writing and pre-writing skills when he was younger. Enormous pressure was brought to bear on us to give him early interventions like his brother, and we did, a little bit. What we found, however, was that Simon disliked being pressured, and responded by not wanting to learn to write, and was frustrated by the emphasis placed on what he didn't do well. He did not progress. We stopped the interventions, left him alone for a year without any reference to writing, and in the meantime, he discovered cartooning. At almost-9, other than slightly messier than average handwriting, there's little difference between him and his peers. What Simon needed was time - and so did Eli. But different kinds of time - one was served by fast time interventions that said that a child should be doing these things by this date, the other was not served by them.

Much of my life involved finding time outside of fast time to do slow time work - to give things the time that they actually take. My work is biological in nature, for the most part, and organisms are messy things. Days to maturity are estimates. Time to harvest depends on sun and wind and temperature and soil. Good flavor in a lacto-fermented pickle or a pan of goat cheese depends as much on time and temperature as it does my work and intention in them. Relationships take time - the time to get to a barter relationship with my neighbor can vary - one might have something to offer immediately, another might take months of friendly approaches and talking and time before taking that risk.

Parenting takes time - and it takes the time you have to give it, and always a little more besdes. Marriage takes time - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Trees grow in their own times - the sugar maples I'm establishing now take my time and attention, but it will be 30 years before they return syrup. Who knows if my climate will support sugar maples by then? And yet they take the time they take - and it seems worth investing in their possible future.

Haying comes when it comes, in a stretch of warm dry weather. The tomatoes come when they come, with as much as a month between first ripe tomatoes. Peace between neighbors, or families being ready to talk about a touchy issue or make a life change comes when it comes. Elders needing care, babies being born - that happens when it happens and it throws our lives into disarray, as we try frantically to rearrange the fast time realities that say "you cannot give this all the time it really needs."

I have no good or simple answers for the conflict between fast and slow time. For some of us, barely making it, we may need to give over to fast time almost entirely, taking what little sneaked slow time we can get, but the most important thing is to keep body and soul together. For other people, caught up in too much slow time, without the anchor of fast time and the job that went with it, it might be necessary to find solutions in slow time - perhaps the garden and the children that had been going to daycare and embracing the work that needs to be done in its own time is a kind of answer to the despair of exclusion from fast time. For most of us, we are destined to be caught betwixt and between.

In a society that lived mostly in slow time - and much of human history did - there would be little need for me to assert the merits of this kind of time. Indeed, I can certainly imagine myself an advocate for standardization and formalization in some measures in a society that lived almost entirely slowly. But that's not the world in which I live - instead, we live in a world that heavily prioritizes fast time, and tends towards contempt for the idea of slow time.

In this world, there is nothing that should not be available on a fast time schedule - here strawberries and tomatoes may take time, but the time is erased with international shipping and hothouses. The time that a tomato takes - 60 days to transplant, another 75 to harvest, and a four month harvest season, that time is erased into the time it takes to stop by the supermarket in February on the way home from work - on the way from picking up your daughter at SAT prep classes.

Here I feel the need to assert the merits of slow time - of stopping sometimes to give things the time they actually require. Of having experienced, at least, slow time and the sweet, sweet time that things actually take when left to do the work as they do it. This is not an argument against early intervention, against breeding plants for shorter or longer seasons, in favor of letting earthworms build topsoil alone. It is an argument for seeing things, however, that take their own sweet time as being a thing worth having. For seeing natural time as something other than a burden, a pain that we must bear in order to get on to the next event and meeting. It is a case for suggesting that sometimes the answer is to hurry less, and to slow down, and that perhaps we do not always make our best choices on fast time.

The fact that slow time has a place in our society does have a few lingering acknowledgements - summer vacation for kids is a lingering acknowledgement not of children's need for an unstructured couple of months in the hot weather, but for children's participation in the slow time of hay and harvest. The week or so most people take at the darkest time of the year is an acknowledgement both of our lowered productivity in the deepest of winter and our need to celebrate the slow time return of the light and life.

We grew and evolved on slow time, and the place fast time has tken in our space is new to us. I make no claims about what that means, only wonder what how we are changed as we live at a pace and in a time that has little precedent. What I do know is this - when I can allow things to take their own sweet time, that time is truly sweet.



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In the woods behind my house ten thousand hickory nuts are going to fall. No one but the squirrels will pick them up. The nutmeat of the hickory is actually delicious, especially for cooking, but it is locked in hard convolutions in the shell. I think you need the slow time of winter in order to eat hickory nuts. To sit with a vise and a bucket for the shells and a bowl for the nutmeats and chat and think and pick the bits of nut from the convolutions. I think sometimes that I won't really have tried out slow time until I've gathered a barrel of hickory nuts and then emptied in over the course of a winter.

My favorite philosopher, Henri Bergson, discussed these two kinds of time over a hundred years ago in his doctoral dissertation, which became, translated into English, "Time and Free Will." Clock time consists of small intervals of regular length. Lived time (duration) passes sometimes more slowly but sometimes more quickly.

As a corollary to the slow food movement, I once proposed to a publisher I was working for at the time a "slow book" movement. She was horrified, seeing only fewer books being sold. But this fall I am not only enjoying, as always, the occasional slow book--I am also, uncharacteristically, re-reading books for the second time mere weeks or months after my first reading. That's slow, too, and it yields rich harvests, like those hickory nuts Andy dreams of gathering in the woods. Do it, Andy!

Andy, I've done that thing with the hickory nuts, the vise, and the pail. The results are well worth it. My maternal grandparents had three shagbark hickory trees on their property and during the early days of our marriage, before grandma and grandpa died, we would stop by there every year and collect nuts.

We made the most delicious "pecan" pies with those nuts. They were better than pies made with real pecans (which are just another species of hickory, for those who didn't know). How I wish I could go back and collect nuts again!

I suspect that tree breeding would count as "slow time" and, in that vein, I present They've been working for 30 years on hazels and chestnuts and have added hickories and butternuts to their repertoire in the last few years. On checking out other data from Northern Nut Growers Association (and other sources), I've found that crosses similar to what Badgersett is doing have previously resulted in hand-crackable hickories. Not the same as clean meats after cracking - but that's what breeding should develop after multiple generations.

Also - check out They've got some interesting tree lines as well...

Lastly, my favorite - read anything you can find by J. Russell Smith. He argues for tree-based agriculture - and that takes time to set up.


By Eric Smith (not verified) on 26 Oct 2010 #permalink

Thank you for a lovely essay. I guess the trick is figuring out the right mix between fast time and slow time (and the tradeoffs they entail). Being impatient in nature, it's all too easy for me to favor the quick, defined chore (e.g., washing dishes) vs the amorphous activity (play with the kid). But I should remember that that playing time is part of cultivating him and my relationship with him. Thanks for the reminder.

Wonderful! It brings to mind a larger issue for those of us who have homesteaded or are now working out the details of a post carbon lifestyle. And it isn't just a matter of slow time and fast time. I am talking about the matter of "having our feet in two worlds". The two worlds have very different demands and realities, and the result can be frustration and conflict. Working with one's hands, then trying to get them clean enough to be presentable for that meeting at work. Staying up late to boil sap, and being bright eyed and alert at work at 8 a.m. the next morning. Keeping the focus on home and hearth and not the world of money and possessions. The list goes on, but thanks for sharing your thoughts about time. BTW, for our Amish neighbors, "slow time" is standard time and "fast time" is daylight savings time.

Thank you so much for writing this. You put into words what I felt but could not express. I grew up on a hippy back-to-the-lander homestead, very much in slow time. I moved to the city for university and I don't think I could ever go back to the country - mainly because of the isolation - but I do miss the slow time. It's so easy to lose slow time completely in the city.

By fullerenedream (not verified) on 26 Oct 2010 #permalink


I am not sure where the enrichment originates - with your article, or the learned comments.

But it occurs to me - what you call fast time are all focused on - the industrial age definition of efficiency, of the efficiency of producing wealth with the application of cheap energy.

Which means that learning to cherish and respect slow time is an exercise in adapting; many of the demands of fast time might not be as enduring in our lives or for society.

You've expressed a tension I feel a lot.

grrljock's comment echos with me. Me and my wife work part time so we share a desk-based job with looking after the kids (ages 1 and 4) on different days. Work is fast-time and kids time is slow-time.

The transitions cause friction. Just after work (or before) I'm not patient enough with the kids, I need to achieve "jobs" - and I get frustrated at how long things take with them. But once I've adjusted to their speed (they don't know about fast-time yet) then things go much more smoothly and we enjoy our time together more.

By Adrian (UK) (not verified) on 27 Oct 2010 #permalink

And I have another convolution in the time problem for you. When I was a young whippersnapper like you, Sharon, I was aware of this, but it wasn't a serious factor in my life.

Now, at the interesting age of 62, it is. As you get older, the years go faster.

We realize this first, I think, at around age 14, when the Holidays come around sooner than we expected; when Summer is shorter than we remember in the good old days of 8 years old.

Mostly, that's an interesting phenomenon, at that stage; and through your 20's and 30's. But for me, it's now a problem. A measly 10 years ago, I planned on another 30 years or so of productive endeavors ahead of me; based on the lives of my relatives. And it's still not unreasonable, judging from the lives of my old professors, quite a few of whom are still 100% functional, way out there ahead of me.

Reality however, is that my productive years are being truncated by the temporal contraction as we age. My year is just not nearly as long as it used to be; and my inner planner still has not really managed to cope with this. "Sure, I can do that." I think; but the time is not sufficient, and it does not get done.

Here's the scary part, whippersnappers. If the duration of a year can be fixed - say as the length of the year when you were 14- my years are now only about 5 months long.

That short. And the word from the elders is, the contraction never stops.

So, put that in your pipe, and smoke it, as you patiently crack hickory nuts.

The upside of this is; there's really no end to the conundrums of being human. And a good thing, too; otherwise we'd have to start inventing imaginary ones...


When I get into my spaceship & whiz around the solar system at nearly the speed of light, an interesting thing happens. Doesn't seem like I'm gone long but when I return to Earth, entire biotic communities have changed, I note changes in sea level & climate, civilizations have risen & fallen in the interim. It's as if the rate at which time passes is relative to my velocity, or something. Could this be what you mean by "Slow Time, Fast Time"?

What is time but motion,
To a mountain or the ocean,
To a glacier, irrefragable,
grinding slowly to the sea?

To a person that is living
What is taking, what is giving,
When we inhale then we exhale,
When we drink and then we pee?

Does hope permeate creation
or is the situation
hopeless? Does it matter?
I don't think it does to me. --dd

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 28 Oct 2010 #permalink

Indeed- if you believe you don't matter- you don't. It seems likely the corollary is; if you believe you do matter; you do.

By ranklebiter (not verified) on 28 Oct 2010 #permalink

You must understand fractal time - there are infinite time cycles, clocks of time, in the Universe. What you call fast time is the time of clocks, of machines, which evolve fast and speed up human time. Our time cycles are slower, eating, seeing, reproducing. And even slower are the time cycles of life and the planet. Yet we are dominated by clocks and wages per hour, by the time of machines since Galileo found the clock and said that time is what a clock measures. Of course is not, but physicists will not be the people to fully grasp this next stage in the evolution of time and our understanding of the Grand Design - it is achieved in the science of complexity:

Indeed- if you believe you don't matter- you don't. It seems likely the corollary is; if you believe you do matter; you do.

So if I believe I'm a millionaire I can start spending like one? If I believe I can fly I can jump off the roof? Is this how things work?

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink

Hey, it's called the power of positive thinking! America runs on it, don't you know?

Yea, right! Ask Barbara Eherenreich.

Hey, it's called the power of positive thinking! America runs on it, don't you know?

Was going to let such silliness slide, but it exemplifies the illogic demonstrated by the same poster on the current "Onion Headline" thread.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Oct 2010 #permalink