the living clocks: navigation by the sun

Does the season go off inside of us, like a ringing in the blood?

People have always associated the burgeoning of spring with the coming of warmer weather; the spring warmth, we feel, has roused the earth from dormancy. But this is an assumption that is mainly incorrect. Science has shown that factors other than rising temperatures are responsible for the sprouting of seeds, the flowering of plants, the eclosion of insects, the spring migration of birds, the rousing of animals from hibernation or the turnings of romantic fancy.

The handmaidens attend Flora, the ancient goddess of spring. Jan Brueghel . detail Read More:

Scientists began to suspect that some other process was at work in the biological rites of spring as early as 1918. That year, Wightman Garner and Harry Allard set out to find a way of obtaining seeds from field crops of a new variety of tobacco, the Maryland Mammouth. After numerous failures they realized that it was the length of day that governed flowering. The phenomenon was termed “photoperiodism” and the duration of daylight was referred to as the “photoperiod” Far more remarkable than the discovery itself was what it implied: that a plant can measure a period of time which led to the concept of the living clocks.

James Thurber cover for the New Yorker, April 1940. Read More:

The living clocks studies have shown that living organisms ranging from one celled plants to people can measure time, and can do so with amazing precision. But what other variables in the environment might affect the clocks? How living organisms including people read their internal clock remains a mystery, but it does seem related to photoperiods and a complex of interior clocks in which organisms may have a way of counting daily cycles. It can probably be concurred that the behavior of all living forms has evolved to give the individual their best chance of survival. Seeds do not sprout, birds do not mate, bears do not fare forth, until the danger of killing cold has passed. Each of our well-loved signs of spring has its place in the great ecological pattern. However, as human beings go, and as “living clocks” , man and women tend to depart from patterns and are the least well understood of all living organisms that have been studied.

Botticelli. Primavera. The painting is an allegory of Spring, with mytological figures identified as (right to left): Zephyr running after the nymph Clori, who transforms herself into Flora, goddess of Fecundity; in the center is Venus, goddess of Love and here represented as queen of her realm, with Cupid straining a dart to the three Graces, while Mercury raises the caduceo to the clouds. Many flowers in the grass symbolize wedding: the picture could be indeed commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent as the wedding present offered to his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco dei Medici, who married in 1482 Semiramide Appiani. In the villa of Castello, near Florence, where lived this medicean branch the painting is documented in 1499. Tempera on wood, cm 203x314. Restored 1982. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Inv. 1890, n. 8360 Image source: University of Michigan, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Read More:

…There are some very deep mysteries. The physiological preparations for spring begin well in advance. The gonads of birds and mammals start to swell months before the first spring day, and how the internal clock initiates the process is not known. Mystery still compounds mystery.


Flowers are the sexual organs of plants, so amid all that flagrant flowering, the natural impulse for humans was (is?) to celebrate with dancing, flirting and sex. The Puritan Philip Stubbs frowned on May Day’s celebration and its rampant sexuality (1583) just after Spenser had extolled it:

Velazquez. Triumph of Bacchus. 1629. ---Evolution of art is tied up with duality of the Apolline and Dionysiac; comparison to reproduction: two sexes in perpetual conflict brought together periodically in reconciliation. The opposition is between the art of image making and the imageless art of music. These are different natural drives “stimulating and provoking each other to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring.” Eventually, these two drives will engender an equally Dionysiac and Apolline art: Attic tragedy. This generation is a “metaphysical

cle of the Hellenic ‘Will’”. Note that the Apolline and Dionysiac are “artistic powers which erupt from nature itself, without the mediation of any human artist”---Read More: image:

…“I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credit and reputation,” Stubbs wrote, “that of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the woods over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.” Read More:

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