Who needs a clock anyway?

I always am amazed at the origins of words. I wonder if the ‘hands’ of a clock came from this ancient way of telling approximate time of day. This works particularly well around the Autumnal and Vernal equinoxes. This is when the Sun casts a more even glow on our part of the world.

For the morning approximation, use your left hand, and for the afternoon, use your right. Hold a pencil, or short straight stick between your thumb and palm, with the stick making a 45 degree angle with the palm of your hand. The stick is now your ‘gnomon’, the part of a sundial that casts a shadow on the time marker at that particular time of day. The angle should be the angle of your given latitude, and ours in Vermont is about 45 degrees. This aligns the gnomon along the N-S axis of the earth, and will always point at the pole star, or Polaris. The sun should always be behind you when determining the relative time of day. Observe the shadow of the gnomon on the tips of your four fingers and the ‘joint-creases’ on your little finger. The numbering goes as five, six, seven, and eight am on the tips of your fingers, and then nine, ten, eleven on your little finger. So if it was eleven am, then the shadow is cast at the base of the little finger. If it was close to noon, then the line on your palm that appears just below your little finger would have the gnomon shadow there. In the afternoon, using your right hand, the noon line is the same line below the little finger. Now, one, two, and three pm are on your little finger joint lines, and four, five, six, and seven pm are the tips of the right fingers.

At night, with a clear sky, you can also use the stars to tell time. Imagine the caravans across the desert, watching the stars. These travelers were the ones to name most of our stars, and the names have not changed for eons. You can tell the time and also navigate by the stars – celestial navigation has been used by travelers on sea and land way before the compass was invented.

We have had some amazingly clear nights this week and I just started to notice the Milky Way, and how brilliant the night sky really is. As a sign of the approaching Fall, I can get a glimpse of Orion on the eastern morning sky before the sun rises.

So, if someone dropped you off in the middle of nowhere, could you tell what time it is without a watch? Could you tell what season it is without a calendar? In this age of GPS, atomic clocks, and the Weather Channel, can we imagine a life without gadgets? Hopefully there are enough of us that still find wonder in the natural world around us. Dan