David Miller interviews Pagan teacher and author Waverly Fitzgerald, who says that natural time in her book is a reference to a time that can be touched. Conversely, artificial time is characterised as a temporality that is abstracted into homogenous, identical parts. Fitzgerald notes that the rhythms of natural time intersect with Pagan spirituality.

[Miller] You make a distinction in your book between what you call “natural time” and “artificial time.” Isn’t time really an abstraction? So how can it be natural?

  • [Fitzgerald] That was my quest (in writing the book), to answer that question. What is natural about time? And the answer had to do with looking at different time intervals and noticing that some of them you can actually see, touch and smell. You can tell when it’s day and when it’s night. You can observe the moon in the sky and after a few days of observing it you can know whether it’s waxing or waning. You can know what season it is by walking outside. These are all, for me, examples of natural time. What I noticed about all of those cycles was that they were, in fact, cycles. They had, if you will, an “on” and “off” position, or a maximum and a minimum. And then they had a slow gradual progression to and from that state. That’s really different than when you look at a calendar, a schedule or a clock, where everything is completely regular and all times are presumed to be exactly the same. There are blank spaces on the calendar, and you can put the same amount of activity into each of them. There is this sort of unnatural — that’s why I call it artificial — aspect to them, which I think gets us in a lot of trouble because we think, “Oh, we can do this thing in this amount of time,” when really all of these other factors play into it that are not under our control.

You’re not suggesting we throw out our calendars and clocks, are you?

  • No. There are really good reasons why those tools were developed to synchronize activities. But I think as biological beings we also need to be aware of our natural rhythms, including the need for rest. I think many people believe that when you sit down at your desk you should be working flat out at the top of your productivity for the maximum amount of time. At least that’s the ideal. But there something called the ultradian rhythm, a biological cycle where there is an arousal period, a period of waking up and becoming alert, and then a period of getting restless or bored or unfocused and then a time of rest. If you start to observe that cycle in your life, it allows you to have a more relaxed and effective approach to your daily tasks…

How and why do religion or spirituality and slow time intersect, do you think?

  • Most of the major religions have a seasonal liturgy, even though it may be sort of buried. If you look at Christianity, with the Easter cycle and the Christmas birth, there is this lovely use of the seasons to tell a story, and the same is true in the Jewish religion. And, of course, the pagan religion really works with this notion of the seasons and the cycle. So there is a very deep connection between this notion of cyclical time and spirituality. And there is a message of hope that things will come around again, that we may feel despair but spring will come again. It is a pretty profound metaphor that is imbedded in our lives (Miller 2008).

Miller, David. 2008. “Pagan teacher and author of “Slow Time, Waverly Fitzgerald talks about rethinking her relationship to time.” SFGATE. January 28, 2008. https://www.sfgate .com/living/article/Pagan-teacher-and-author-of-Slow-Time-Waverly-2525444.php


Maurice Bloch, when commentating on Clifford Geertz’s characterisation of the dual calendars by which the Balinese population live, presents the point that an unconditional sense of time’s cultural relativity is overly reductive. Nevertheless, Bloch posits that a culture’s everyday, social concepts of time, are not true concepts of time.

[T]he Balinese evidence does not support the view that notions of time vary from culture to culture, it only shows that, in ritual contexts, the Balinese use a different notion of time from that in more mundane contexts and that in these mundane contexts categories and classification are, it may be assumed from Berlin and Kay’s findings, based on cognitive universals. Furthermore, the nature of the contexts where we find these cognitive universals itself suggests an explanation of their presence. Durkheim, like others after him, rejected the notion that cognition was constrained by nature, by pointing to the variability of concepts, especially of concepts of time; but if he is wrong in this, his objection cannot hold. What is more, since it is in contexts where man is in most direct contact with nature that we find universal concepts, the hypothesis that it is something in the world beyond society which constrains at least some of our cognitive categories is strengthened, though this need not be nature as an independent entity to man, but, as I believe is suggested by Berlin and Kay’s data and foreshadowed by Marx, nature as the subject of human activity (see also Rosch 1975)…

I am not making the empiricist mistake of thinking that concepts as concepts are given in nature, I am only talking of the constraints of nature on thought given the human condition. In this I am following Piaget (1968). It would be nonsense to say that our everyday concepts are true concepts of time. The notions of time held by physicists are not remotely like folk notions of time. On the other hand my position is totally opposed to that of Levi-Strauss who argues that nature in this respect is an unordered phenomenon only ordered by culture in whatever way the logic of thought takes it (Bloch 1977, 285, 290-91).

Block, Maurice. 1977. “The past and the present in the present.” Man 12(2): 278-92.


Mario Castagnino and Rafael Ferraro explain the differentiation between curved space-time, and the measurement of it by a clock. Whilst the physical parameters recorded by the clock are recorded as natural time, there is said to exist an infinite number of such parameters, all of which are defined as observer-dependent.

It is well known that there is a small confusion between a physical observer’s system and a geometrical coordinate system (or chart) in several papers. Of course they are two different concepts, e.g., in classical physics, an observer’s system is a rigid frame and a clock, where we can use all kinds of charts, for instance, Cartesian or polar coordinates. In curved space-time we cannot use a rigid frame and the natural generalization of the observer’s system will be a timelike fluid of observers, each one endowed with a clock, i.e., a set of timelike paths, each one with a different parameter, the “time” measured by the clock. This time is not necessarily the proper time; it is only an arbitrary continuous function of space-time. Of course we can describe this fluid of observers with any chart we like. We will find that physics is, in fact, observer dependent, but it is of course, chart independent. We shall restrict ourselves to irrotational fluid; thus we can define a set of orthogonal timelike hypersurfaces to the fluid paths, and we can define a parameter T, on each surface, such that the equations T = const would define the orthogonal hypersurfaces. We shall call this parameter a “natural time.” Of course, there exists an infinite set of natural times. We can pass from one to another via a continuous function T -> T’ = T'( T). We shall see that physics is independent of the natural time we use; it is only dependent on the chosen observer’s fluid. Of course, in general, natural time is different from proper time. We can label each fluid world line by three real parameters x1, x2 , x3 ,* and we can call x0 to the natural time T induced by the fluid of observers. Then x0, x1, x2, x3 is a chart and every event of space-time has its coordinates x0, x1, x2, x3 – namely, the space coordinates of the fluid world line, where the event happens, plus the natural time measured by the clock of this world line when the event happens. We shall call this chart an adapted chart (Castagnino and Ferraro 1988, 52-53).

Castagnino, Mario, and Ferraro, Rafael. 1988. “Toward a complete theory for unconventional vacua,” In Claudio Teitelboim (ed.) Quantum mechanics of fundamental systems 1, 51-62. New York: Springer Science+Business Media.


Norbert Elias interrogates the conceptual separation of natural time and social time by noting that, contrary to the impression of an autonomous natural rhythm waiting to be discovered, a sense of natural time is shaped via devices that were originally developed for the measurement of human, social time. Natural, physical time, duly manifests, and diverges, from human time concepts.

[N]ever before had human-made time-pieces been used in this manner as a measuring rod for physical processes. The clepsydra, an elaborate version of which he used in his experiments, was traditionally a timepiece employed for timing human affairs. It was a social time-meter. Timing had been human centered. Galileo’s innovatory imagination led him to change the function of the ancient timing device by using it systematically as a gauge not for the flux of social but of natural events. In that way a new concept of ‘time’, that of physical time, began to branch off from the older, relatively more unitary human-centred concept. It was the corollary of a corresponding change in people’s concept of nature. Increasingly, ‘nature’ assumed in people’s eyes the character of an autonomous, mechanical nexus of events which was purposeless, but well ordered: it obeyed ‘laws’…

The significance of this emergence of the concept of ‘physical’ time from the matrix of ‘social time’ can hardly be overrated. It went hand in hand with the emergence of a new function for human-made timepieces; it implied the timing of ‘nature’ for its own sake. Hence it was one of the earliest steps in a process of concept-formation whose results today have become fossilized and are very much taken for granted – steps on the road towards the conceptual split of the universe which has come to dominate increasingly people’s modes of speaking and thinking and which appears as a consensual axiom that no one can doubt. As an autonomous nexus represented by eternal laws, ‘nature’ appears to stand on one side, people and their social world – artificial, arbitrary and structure-less – on the other. Endowed with regularities of its own, ‘nature’ as an object of people’s studies seems to be, in some way not clearly explained, divorced from the world of humans. One has not yet come to recognize that the illusion arises from the very fact that humans have learned to distance themselves, in their reflection and observation, from ‘nature’ in order to explore it – to distance themselves more from ‘nature’ than from themselves. In their imagination, the greater distancing and self-discipline required for the exploration of the inanimate nexus of events transformed itself into the notion of a really existing distance between themselves, the subjects, and ‘nature’, the nexus of objects…

In connection with this wider conceptual divide ‘time’, too, came to be divided into two different types: physical and social ‘time’. In the former sense, ‘time’  appeared as an aspect of ‘physical nature’, as one of the unchanging variables which physicists measure and which, as such, plays its part in the mathematical equations intended as symbolic representations of nature’s ‘laws’. In the latter sense, ‘time’ had the character of a social institution, a regulator of social events, a mode of human experience – and clocks had that of an integral part of a social order which could not work without them (Elias 1992, 114-16).

Elias, Norbert. 1992. Time: An Essay. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.


Johannes Fabian critiques the anthropological cultural relativisation of time, in part because it distances the anthropologist’s time from the time of the culture being studied. Fabian further notes that physical time is not referred to in its nakedness in anthropological work, but rather the foci are culturally distinguishable times.

Let us call the first one Physical Time. it serves as a sort of parameter or vector in describing sociocultural process. It appears in evolutionary, prehistorical reconstruction over vast spans but also in “objective” or “neutral” time scales used to measure demographic or ecological changes or the recurrence of various social events (economic, ritual, and so forth). The assumption is (and this is why we may call it physical) that this kind of Time, while it is a parameter of cultural process, is itself not subject to cultural variation…

Physical Time is seldom used in its naked, chronological form. More often than not, chronologies shade into Mundane or Typological Time. As distancing devices, categorizations of this kind are used, for instance, when we are told that certain elements in our culture are “neolithic” or “archaic”; or when certain living societies are said to practice “stone age economics”; or when certain styles of thought are identified as “savage” or “primitive.” Labels that connote temporal distancing need not have explicitly temporal references (such as cyclical or repetitive). Adjectives like mythicalritual, or even tribal, will serve the same function. They, too, connote temporal distancing as a way of creating the objects or referents of anthropological discourse. To use an extreme formulation: temporal distance is objectivity in the minds of many practitioners. This, by the way, is reflected with great accuracy and exasperating predictability in the popular image of our discipline. I am surely not the only anthropologist who, when he identifies himself as such to his neighbor, barber, or physician, conjures up visions of a distant past. When popular opinion identifies all anthropologists as handlers of bones and stones it is not in error. It grasps the essential role of anthropology as a provider of temporal distance (Fabian 1983, 22, 30).

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.