Saving Daylight

April 07, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Since last Sunday it's been darker in the mornings, but I've grown so mellow with the advancing years that it no longer infuriates me. Instead of cursing the darkness and those responsible for it, I just turn on the lights.

So-called daylight saving time still seems to me basically a snare and a delusion, the equivalent of politicians legislating a longer day. It used to begin the last weekend in April, but now they've moved it up to the beginning of the month. Eventually, probably in an election year, I suppose they'll order it into effect all year round so they can boast about all the time they've saved for us.

But no matter how they direct us to adjust our clocks, the sun and the big balls of dirt spinning around it in space won't pay any attention to them. Neither will the cardinal who whistles outside my bedroom window when he decides it's morning. There's some comfort in that.

Years ago there was strong rural opposition to daylight saving time, mostly for practical reasons. Farmers themselves, who started work as soon as it was light enough to see, didn't much care what time the politicians said it was, but farmers' wives and farmers' children and people who worked for farmers did care.

If the change in the clocks meant that town people would get off work an hour earlier with the sun still high, then people employed on farms -- quite understandably -- expected the same thing. But the farmer who employed them couldn't say ''Fine, we'll just start an hour earlier,'' because an hour earlier it would be pitch dark. So he preferred to remain on standard time.

Now, though, rural life isn't synchronized to the old agricultural rhythms any more. Even in remote areas, it's important to know what time it really is, not just where the sun is in the sky. A rancher in Idaho can't very well tell his commodity broker in Chicago to call him '' 'bout sun-up.'' A little more precision is required.

These days, small farmers often have town jobs to support themselves, so they welcome daylight saving time because it gives them a chance to do more farm chores in the evening. If that means leaving home before sunrise, well, so be it.

As for the big farmers, they have so much expensive equipment, and operate on such narrow margins, they don't pay any more attention to the sun's whereabouts than they do to Michael Jackson's. Their big tractors have lights, and so at this time of year, with corn to get in the ground, they're planting day and night until they're finished. When they're harvesting they'll do the same thing. They don't care what time the legislature says it is.

Before the enactment of the Uniform Time Act of 1966, which established a federal standard for daylight saving time for all states except those which chose to exempt themselves, American time zones were confusing. You could drive from Steubenville, Ohio, to Moundsville, West Virginia, a distance of 35 miles, and pass through seven different time zones established by different sets of local officials.

That was inconvenient, but it reflected the intense personal interest people have always taken in time. Whether we watch clocks or not, time is a sensitive subject. We can decide, up to a point, how to spend it, but we can't ever control it. ''Time's the king of men,'' says a character in ''Pericles, Prince of Tyre.'' ''He's both their parent, and he is their grave, And gives them what he will, not what they crave.''

Some philosophers have seen time as cyclical, like the seasons and the rotation of the earth, and some as linear, like a river. But however we visualize it, it's a complex and emotional concept.

Long before the first legislator put in the first bill to make the days seem longer, Isaac Newton thought there was an ''absolute'' time which ruled the entire universe. In 1905, Albert Einstein said that was nonsense, and Newton was consigned to the dust heap of scientific history.

Einstein's theory of special relativity says there can be all kinds of times. This may or may not be what encourages the time-tinkering legislators, who always like to cite important authorities when messing around with our lives.

Einstein liked to put his complex ideas in terms that ordinary people could understand. He once defined his revolutionary theory this way: ''When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it's only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it's two hours. That's relativity.''

His theory also holds that if there are two twins, and one makes a round trip to outer space at the speed of light, when he comes back he'll be younger than the twin who remained behind. Or something like that. He didn't say whether it would still work if we were on daylight saving time.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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