Our costliest expenditure is time

"Our costliest expenditure is time." Theophrastus (c. 370-287 B.C.)

Two springs ago, I wrote about the gash of colour that an acacia tree grown from seed in my garden had brought forth. The expectant wait for a shrub or tree to flower well for the first time is always delicious, doubly so when that acacia shouldn't really get on so well as it does in my garden.

Another wait has been repaid this winter. A wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) planted nearly nine years ago has finally given a mature burst of flowering. A few flowers have come in the previous two winters, but now it has almost 70 flowers (open and in bud) with their yellow, slightly waxy look and giving off a wonderful fragrance.

Gardeners deal in timelines. A sowing or crop failure in one season is soon forgotten in the return to success in the following season. A top-fruit tree gives its yields after two to seven years depending on the dwarfing nature of its rootstock. Management of blackcurrant bushes and willow coppice is on a three-year schedule. Summer raspberries fruit on last year's wood, autumn raspberries on this year's wood.

In the main, timelines don't cause us much contemplation. The cycles or spans fit into our lives, without consuming great portions of it. However, the wintersweet has given me pause for thought. I am 50 years old, with perhaps 20 more years to go. I have just two consecutive 10-year waits left to me.

My cat lived for 17 years. For 10 of those he gamely coped with only three legs, but his infirmity in his last year was pretty undignified. I miss him awfully, but I am scared to find a replacement as I will live just long enough to see that also perish. Maybe I should have a donkey instead, as its life expectancy of 50 years means at least it will have to grieve for me.

I want to see a rewilding of Britain. It's a recent passion and although there are ways to help Mother Nature along, I would rather trust her to do it for herself. Most agree that this would be measured not in tens of years, but in a 100-150 years. Even then, we could not be sure that this new self-willed land was enduring and it may need over 500 years - the lifetime of some trees - before we could have some certainty.

My immediate timeline is dominated by hours and minutes. I loathe it. Another fulltime period in this mongrel of a work life sees me hunched at a desk, the world reflected through phosphorescence. I abhor the triple accounting of flexitime - 7.5 hours a day, 37 hours a week, 148 hours a month - recorded in writing as well as spreadsheeted, TOIL compensating evening-time work. I am embarrassed that someone else's time is consumed in reconciling the accountings.

David Holmgren in his recent book (Permaculture - Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability) presents perhaps the most important imperative facing us and it also represents an immense factor in how we should view our timelines: and this imperative is our approach to energy descent. The hydro-carbon legacy will be spent at some point in the future. Estimates of reserves are a fruitless waste of time. Our need is to design and implement a gliding path to accommodate their eventual exhaustion. Thus the timeline is not about the years of oil, coal and gas that we have left. It is the re-evolution of living and landscape to sustain us without those energy sources.

Holmgren also has something useful to say about our more immediate timeline. Our waking lives should have, in equal measure, time spent working for our self, time spent working for our community, and time for self development, reflection and contemplation. This balance would be my personal choice. I have those 20 years ahead of me in which to accomplish that balance and to begin on that gliding path. It will be my costliest expenditure so far, and I hope I will be able to spend it wisely.

Mark Fisher, January 2004

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk