How to Build a Sundial


1. Borrow a Book

I borrowed mine from an old family friend but you could try the library. It’s called “Sundials: Their Theory and Construction,” and it was written by Albert E. Waugh. The copy I hold belonged to Art Sparling, a man who was a second father to me. I spied it on his bookshelf one cottage afternoon while drinking with his widow. She probably does not like being called a widow, so we’ll call her Barb. It is still impossible for me to believe Art is gone. Think how Barb feels.

2. Read the book, or at least the parts that are interesting.

It gets quite seriously math-y, with a lot of graphs and equations, but parts of it are great. For instance, the chapter titles. “Kinds of Time.” “Memory Dials.” “Practical Hints on Dialling.” The first paragraph goes like this:

 “Fortunately we need not begin by defining time, since the concept has perplexed philosophers and lexicographers and served as the basis for learned and inconclusive arguments. We shall assume, with the man on the street, that we know what time is, and that our problem is measuring rather than defining it.”

 Speak for yourself, Mr. Waugh. I have never thought for a second that I know what time is. Howsoever, I do love a “learned but inconclusive argument.” Who among us does not? And haven’t you always wanted to build a sundial?

 3. Think about it.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as “Local Apparent Time,” that is different from what time it really is.

 “Every schoolchild knows that the earth revolves around the sun even though it looks as though the sun were revolving around us. For our purposes it really makes no difference, since a sundial designed to tell time on an earth with the sun revolving around it would be identical in every detail with one designed for use on an earth which was revolving around the sun. In our treatment of the matter we shall ordinarily describe things as they seem rather than as they really are.”

Certainly that would be my preference, and I have felt for some years now that time is not what it seems to be. The Local Apparent Time (L.A.T), then, is explained as follows:

 “…no two points will share the same time unless they lie on the same meridian with one directly north of the other. The time is thus localized to a particular meridian, and since it is also based on the apparent motion of the sun we call it local apparent time…”

 I also did not know, but might have realized it if I had stopped to think, that

 ”…two towns only 13 ½ miles apart will differ in L.A.T. by one minute. There is even a difference of about ¼ second in L.A.T. at opposite ends of a football field if it lies in an east-west direction, and precisely accurate clocks would show different times in different rooms of the same house.”

 That explains a lot.

 4. Suddenly decide to buy a new house.

We live in a lovely neighbourhood along the Red River and have always watched for riverfront properties to come on the market. Still, one never thinks one is just going to wake up one day, mortgage everything, and do it. But my mate and I are starting to realize that if we are going to do anything big, we’d better do it before our knees give out.

5.  Grieve.

Sixteen years is the longest I have ever lived anywhere and this house has been comfortable and serviceable and nice enough but it was never our dream house. The yard is tiny, hemmed in by garages and fences and power lines, and I am a farm girl at heart. The house is one room short and my study is a corner of the basement where it is always two degrees and it smells weird. There’s no main floor bath and nowhere to put one. However. This is the house where we got married and brought the babies home. This is the house where we marked their growth on the closet doorjambs. Etcetera.

If the house leaves a little to be desired, the street the house is on is perfection, full of big leafy elms and the kind of friends you can make only when you’re all raising your kids at the same time. We love the couple next door so much I avoid seeing them for two weeks because I can’t bring myself to tell them we are leaving. When we break it to them, they are happy for us but upset. One of the Other Mothers down the street drives past me, lowers her window and yells “I’m really angry with you!” The day we sign the papers we come home to find it is one of those perfect fall evenings when summer comes back in the door for a minute and all the kids on the street are running loose as they have always done, playing Capture the Flag in the early dusk and I think: “what have we done?” We are only moving twelve blocks north but it feels like Mars and it won’t be the same. We will miss our village.

 5. Thank goodness, or whatever you want to call it, for children.

Anybody’s children, anywhere, doing anything. Even if they’re just crying on the bus or picking their noses. I don’t believe that children are the future. Children aren’t the future. The future, after all, cannot do us much good. Too uncertain. It doesn’t bear thinking about, not if you’re really thinking. No, children are the present. For children it is always now, in all its pain and glory, and thank goodness they are around so we can catch a glimpse of it, of now, from our uncomfortable seats here in the future, while we try to sort out the past.

 6. Misplace the sundial book while packing.

The Good Widow Sparling told you to be very careful with the book and now see what you’ve done. But you’ve no time to think about sundials now. The new garden will be very shady with all those great big riverbank cottonwoods. It’s hard to say if you’ll have a place for a sundial there at all.

7. Renovate the new house.

Make a zillion decisions. Get excited. Get overwhelmed. Get anxious. Get excited. Get discouraged. Go to a hundred stores. Spend many, many hours searching online for the perfect dining room light fixture. Reflect on how silly this all is when you think about it. Be grateful your husband knows what the hell he’s doing. Get seriously exhausted. Spend buckets and buckets of cash. Spend it all. Ask the bank for more. Spend that.

 8. Get strep throat.

You and your son. Get strep twice in two months. That’ll slow you down. Strep is just about the absolute worst. All the individual cells in your body feel as though they have come unglued from each other and they are falling, constantly falling, and you have lost all hope. Play Crazy Eights with your son. Pause to note that you have started referring to yourself in the third person. Realize this is not a good sign. Keep packing. My goodness what a lot of crap you have.

9. Make a zillion more decisions.

How should I know what colour the inside of the closets should be? Closet coloured? There are a lot of closets at the new house. I never thought I was the kind of woman who could get really excited about closets, but wow. Then I realize that the reason there are so many closets on the second floor is because our new house is, yes, on the part of this Winnipeg street that is famous for going underwater once in a while. Those familiar photographs of the famous Flood of 1950? Taken in my new back yard. People who live on this street put all the things they care about in the upstairs closets and hope for the best. We knew all this when we bought the place, of course. It’s a concern, but the city has taken a couple of reassuring steps. There is now a berm, a permanent earth dyke across all the back yards on this low part of the bank. They have increased the capacity of the floodway, the protective ditch that curves around the city to the east, to ensure that never again will floods be as bad as they sometimes have been in the past. Unless the climate changes for some reason and we get a real doozy. Which could never happen! So we are cautiously optimistic, but one is aware that some years the coming of spring may be marked by the arrival not of robins but of sandbags. Too late to worry about that now.

 10. Move.

Moving is an act of violence. Even when the place you are moving to is lovely, and your sweet new study is above ground and doesn’t smell weird and has the slanted ceilings you adore, moving is a brutal event. Not at all surprising that moving always tops the list of “Most Stressful Life Events.” Testify. How could one day be so long? How can I be so tired and still be unable to sleep?

11. Look out the window.

At the new house, where you intend to grow old and can do so because there is a main floor bathroom, the sun comes up over the river. The shadows of those big cottonwoods stretch towards you, measuring the new day, the first day here. It is early spring and nature is being kind: there will be no flood, not this year. The new neighbour tells you “the river is a pussycat.” Ice floes tick by. Later on you’ll unpack a box and find the sundial book so you can return it to Barb with thanks. In the fall the sun will move south. The tree shadows will turn and stretch the other way. The Local Image (1)Apparent Time is now.



©2016 by Ellen Peterson. With love to Sparlings everywhere.

The book “Sundials: Their Theory and Construction” was first published by Dover Publications Inc., 1973. © Albert E. Waugh.


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