“There’s a phrase that has recently been resonating for me in several areas of my work. Appropriately – given that it is often attributed to St Augustine - I first heard it from a Christian bishop: solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.”
Perhaps that’s all that needs to be shared from the conversation I had with Christopher Daniel, current organiser of the London meetup for the Long Now Foundation. One of the most engaging and insightful dialogues that Taking Time has granted me, to say that we covered a lot of different subject matter would be an understatement beginning with an attempt to affirm whether a certain duration of time spent in one place can offer a firm sense of identity. Yet the narrative that runs through our conversation is not one of stasis, but one of action, Solvitur ambulando, perhaps not always walking, but in the motion lies the answer to find a greater sense of being.
Chris’s engagement with the Long Now began nearly 20 years ago, “I can’t quite remember how I first found Stewart Brand’s book ‘How Buildings Learn’. I was training as an architect, and at the time the dominant narrative was still not far from the tradition of high modernism. We were searching for perfect solutions; trying to be great designers coming up with the ‘correct’ answer so that once a ‘problem’ was ‘solved’ it would stay perfectly fixed forevermore. This approach never quite sat right with me, and it was while searching for alternative perspectives that I discovered ‘How Buildings Learn’, at the core of which is the belief that a building is not something you finish, it's something you start.”
“Places that last, places that serve a function (whatever that might be) over generations, they have usually gone through some form of evolution. Whether by accident or design, they have been able to change over time. There is a term ‘loose fit, long life’, and that is an acknowledgement that when we are designing something with an expectation of exactly how it is going to be used, we are rarely absolutely correct. Things get knocked around a bit. Plans, hopes and desires change; and that is absolutely natural. The challenge is to make beautiful things that can evolve with the people they serve.”
This mindset confronted a sense of defined permanence, something from which architecture in particular, invites us to believe as truth. The challenge was to assume this longer term approach into practice.
“My first experience of Burning Man was a revelation. The event is in Nevada, but the spirit – to me, a European outsider – was that of California. An infusion of hopeful energy and a belief that anything is possible. I didn’t necessarily feel that everything I encountered there was a good idea, but I loved the invitation to be part of making and doing new and hopeful things. I came back to London with a renewed energy for creative projects. That first year I worked with one group to start a festival in the Westcountry and another to build a theatre in East London. The festival lasted for six years and the theatre is still going from strength-to-strength. I was just looking for interesting things to get involved with and said yes to anything that enthused me.”
During that time, he engaged with the Long Now through it’s podcast and discovered there was an occasional event in London organised by people in the UK. “I’d sign up immediately when someone organised something, but I didn’t for a moment think I could be anything more than one of the crowd.” He ended up visiting Long Now HQ in San Francisco, spent some time in the cafe, had a few drinks with people, went to some of the talks but didn’t quite know where he fitted in, “I thought, where's my place in any of these conversations? This is fantastic, but still, what am I other than just the consumer of this? I spoke to the peoplewho ran the Long Now London group about getting involved and then asked Nick Brysiewicz in San Francisco about how he got people together. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like: ‘Every Friday I am in our bar (The Interval at Long Now); people know I will be there and when they turn up, the conversation forms itself”.’ So I just thought: what’s the London equivalent? Getting people together on a Thursday night in a pub.”.”
The simplicity of it all may belie the notion of going down the pub to discuss notions of our personal and global long-term futures, but as far as Chris is concerned, the basis is well within the ideals of Long Now. “The point of the foundation really, is to encourage conversations. It’s about finding fellow travelers who are interested, open to new ideas and open to these kinds of things. Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Long Now wrote about 10 years ago about having 1,000 true fans. My instinct is that for a topic that crosses disciplines and invites new approaches to older ideas, the key is to be having deeper conversations at a smaller scale and – one hopes – let the ripples spread from there.”
To understand the ethos of the Long Now, you have to dig back a bit further in time. The Long Now Foundation was founded in 01996 (note the five-digit year) with the aim of designing and building The Clock of the Long Now: initially a thought experiment, then a giant functional artwork by supercomputer designer Danny Hillis. When you dig a bit further, the Long Now has its roots in the Silicon Valley land of early tech.
Global Business Network was a consultancy that had grown out of various groups of people that go back through history to something called The WELL, one of the earliest bulletin boards before the World Wide Web. It was like a social media or a social gathering place. Before that in the 1970’s Stewart Brand had to rely on old fashion paper and ink. The ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ was a key text in the counterculture of the 1960s & 70s. Over several years it came out like a normal magazine or sales catalogue (with varying degrees of regularity) but it was a catalogue for everything you might need to start a whole new life. In those analogue days it was a major influence in spreading new ideas not just throughout North America but also across the world. It was a tool for thinking differently. A way to ‘find the others’ (as Timothy Leary put it) and then learn from each other..
All of these connections and ideas led towards them thinking about time, and Danny Hillis put forward this idea of a clock that could last 10,000 years. He started designing this clock, and then this group of people came together to propose how they were going to make the clock, build a prototype. One of the founders is Brian Eno the musician, who designed the chimes for this clock. He was going from ambient music through to generative music, rather than ‘you’ making the music, you make the tool that makes the music. There is an artistry to creating something that creates music, you can be a musician by designing an instrument that works. That is that the music is played by the wind.
This may not be a public art in the local town square, but it’s serving a purpose beyond your usual timepiece. “It’s a clock on an almost unimaginable scale, it's inside a mountain. It's wound by the change of temperature in the mountain over the course of a day to night cycle. It corrects itself automatically at noon every day, according to where the daylights lands, coming through a hole into it. But it can go without daylight for like, nearly 1000 years and then still recorrect itself. Apart from maintaining time, a human has to come and winds it in order for it to tell the time. So in order to tell the time you have to engage with it. And when you do, I think for every day for the next 10,000 years the chimes within it will play a different chime.”
The idea of needing to tell the time for 10,000 years may seem trivial to some, but even the concept asks an important question about the influence and legacy we bestow upon this planet. “Over the last fifteen years or so, when the Long Now invite someone to speak in their SALT (Seminars About Long-Term Thinking) series, they are often asking that person to start in the timeframe in which they would normally consider a topic, and then stick a zero on it. If your subject is normally framed in terms of 100 years, what happens in 1,000? If people mostly talk about how something happens in the next five years, what might happen in fifty? And in areas where we’re considering 10s of thousands of years, what about hundreds of thousands of years? To me, that has always felt like a useful provocation, a reframing that leads to interesting places
Closer to home, Chris has found a way for the Long Now London group to contribute by doing, whilst also asking questions of our long term existence. “Preservation can be an unexpectedly challenging term. How we care for our heritages and cultures; what we maintain for the future (whether consciously or unconsciously) and how that can be balanced with quality of life as our species heads into this deepening global climate crisis. I wanted to engage with these ideas and to do so in a way that included something we could actively go and do.”
Chris got in touch with The National Trust, who look after and maintain the White Horse in Uffington, Oxfordshire. “By our current understanding, the horse has been carved into that hillside for between 2,500 and 3,000 years. It is the oldest geoglyph on Great Britain. Most are from the last couple of hundred years and even the Cerne Abbas Giant – another great ancient figure – is currently believed to be only around 1,000 years old”
“It is likely we will never truly know the original function of the figure, but what we do know is that it has only survived through the millennia because people have cared for it. Whatever its pagan origins, it survived for over 1,500 in a Christian country because the locals considered it important. I’ve recently been reading a Victorian book on the horse and the rituals that surrounded it even in those prim and proper times. There’s a lovely line in it, a local farmer is describing the cluster of ancient sites on and around White Horse hill and “though he didn’t know much about how they got there, he was sort of proud of them, and was glad to pay his pound or two, or double that if it was wanted, to keep them as they should be”. In those days the site was maintained only every seven years, with the local lord organising a festival day centred on the “scouring” of the horse. All the peoples of the surrounding areas would gather for a day of communal work followed by plenty of festivities. This was a feast day, a minor carnival, and as such provided an important opportunity for both gathering and release for these rural communities.”
“The horse has likely been cared for differently across the centuries, at variable frequencies and with a variety of motivations, but the work remains the same. Encroaching grass is scraped away, fresh chalk is brought from a small quarry site elsewhere on the hill, and that chalk is compacted into the steep hillside by hand. These days the National Trust has stewardship of the site and organises chalking days every year. Since 02019 (with a gap for lockdowns) a group organised by Long Now London has been coming together (so far from various places in southern England) to spend a day on our hands and knees hammering rocks into dust, followed by a trip to the local pub. It is our intention for this to be a regular trip, a form of secular pilgrimage.”
Once again we seamlessly segue into another subject area, “Worldwide, religion (to an extent that may surprise us in the UK) has long been a major reason for travel, but in recent decades there has been a quantified rise in pilgrimage in terms of conscious tourism, the idea of going somewhere with purpose and the journey being at least part of the destination. Pilgrimage in the 21st century is not the preserve only of religion, it is applicable anywhere where belief, meaning and purpose are woven into our reasons for travel. A trip to follow a football team on the other side of England or visit the filming sites for a favoured film in New Zealand can have personal resonance in the same way as a walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a circuit of Mount Kailash in Tibet or a visit to Lourdes in France. In medieval Christian pilgrimage the stated focus was on the end goal of visiting a holy site, but often it was the long and dangerous journey that left the most profound impressions. In contemporary pilgrimage we are often more intent on our experience of the journey, but (as I found on a recent walk from London to Canterbury) the arrival at a place on which one has been so intent for so long may still have a deep resonance.”
Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.