A Matter of Time

4,058 total words    

16 minutes of reading

Deep breath in. Pause. Deep breath out. 

I find it mesmerizing that we can so simply conjure the ocean. As if our bodies carried still the original rhythm of our world: that of the ocean.

I wasn’t after this kind of thinking when I did my fieldwork at the Ballena National Marine Park in Costa Rica’s South Pacific. At the time, I was more interested in the concept of the boundary, that imaginary line separating a protected from an unprotected area—the way it is used and how it affects the humans-landscape relationship in place.

But somehow, this led me to rhythms and temporalities: to think about the temporal organization under which the institution “protects nature,” and its implications on its perception of the agency of the landscape. You see, normally, a national park is thought to have a spatial logic: bounding a territory for protection. A logic usually performed through fences and uniforms. But after repeatedly watching the rangers’ routines, mechanically stamping one ticket after the other, opening the gates at 7 a.m., closing them at 4 p.m., counting the daily income, filling the accounting books, and so on, I intuitively started to think about the institution through its temporal logic. I realized that designating the area as a national park had ushered in the clock-rhythm of modernity and this, in my view, had had serious implications on how the institution perceived nature.

Henri Lefebvre once described clock-time as a “time that thinks itself.” It is, according to him, an abstract, desacralized, and quantitative form of time that rose victorious in the capitalist era because it supplied the measure of the time of work, allowing capitalism to assign an exchange value to it.[1] Similarly, Barbara Adam—author of Timescapes of Modernity—has noted how “clock time is based on the principle of repetition without change.”[2] This means that the clock disembeds itself from contextual rhythms, from the transient condition of life, and so it renders a notion of time as “outside of place.” As such, it can be standardized and applied anywhere at anytime, with no distinction to the embodied experience of each place.[3] The clock pays no attention to any other rhythm but its own ticking. Positioned above life itself, it controls, measures, and commodifies.

So what does it mean for an institution that claims to manage and protect a landscape to adopt such a time? Ballena offers a very clear example. The implementation of the spatial logic of the park was effective at handling a simple cause-effect issue: local fishermen were allegedly damaging the coral reef and overexploiting the fish resource. A limit was set—traced on the sea—and fishermen were forced out, not without a fight, until they eventually gave in and transitioned into whale-watching tourism. However, over time, the main threats the place faces have changed drastically. Tourism development has brought more construction in the area and with it sediment removal. Although the construction projects happen outside the park, the river eventually washes sediments into its ocean, affecting the coral reef. In fact, any impact along the river basin, like littering or logging, has eventual repercussions for the sea.

Also, climate change has increased the temperature of the water dramatically, affecting the corals, too, and causing changes in the fish migration patterns—lately, there has even been speculation that warmer waters may mean that whales won’t need to come all the way down to Costa Rica to reproduce, which jeopardizes the livelihoods of local tour operators.[4]

Rising seas are another of the evident effects of climate change in the park: the signposts originally established fifty meters away from the high-tide line are being washed away today.[5] But none of these factors have led to changes in the functioning of the park. Under the finite spatial organization, all these problems fall out of the park’s jurisdiction. Under the temporal organization, all of these problems are ignored by the self-absorbed clock­time. That is to say, the temporal design of the park is unable—and I would add unwilling—to acknowledge the fact that the landscape changes across time. More than twenty years ago, the park was created under a logic of delimitation and control, but time has proven that most of the things in the park are neither static nor predictable. In other words, the clock‐logic of the park doesn’t know what to make of the latent, unpredictable changes of a responsive, interconnected, world‐making landscape.

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The temporality imposed by the thinking behind the management of the park has altered the ways in which locals and tourists can interact with the space of the park, and it has allowed time to be commodified. Rangers have shifts, tourists have visiting hours. The fishermen that once stayed at sea for several days now have a temporal window to operate their tours, which also have a fixed route and duration. It is an organization that assumes everything around it to be inert and fixed in time, a temporal organization concerned mainly with the park’s productivity—i.e., with money.Yet beyond the institution of the national park, more endogenous rhythms resist the imposition of this abstract, desacralized clock-time. Through the embodied ways in which many locals relate to the place and through those dedicating years of their life to understand the place, another story arises. It is a story of a landscape in constant flux, an animated place that participates daily and throughout millennia in the shaping of the place.


Every afternoon, after clearing the tasks of the tour, Fernando (one of those fishermen-turned-tour-operators) heads to the beach to spend his free time fishing from the shore or in the river mouth. We had agreed that he would let me know when he was going fishing so I could film him. Several times, however, I received a call from him canceling the plan because the sea was too choppy to fish. Finally, one morning, the sea was permitting. By the time I got there, Fernando was already throwing and rolling back his rod repetitively. With the water up to his knees, he continuously negotiated his balance with the waves. I spent about an hour observing and filming Fernando as he cyclically tossed his rod, rolled it back, aligned it, then tossed it again, all the while swaying his way among the waves. As he danced his rod back and forth, he remarked several times that the sea was rough, yet he remained completely calm, moving as the sea requested. I slowly became absorbed with the consistent cycle of the rod, the whooshing of the thread against the wind, the mechanical sound of the rolling, and Fernando’s attentive care for his craft. Several times during my fieldwork I encountered this kind of rhythm in the leisure activities of the locals. In these activities, there was a sense of self-indulgence while also a will to surrender to the passing of time and the conditions of the landscape. Absorbed as I was, the waves kept calling me back to the surrounding, as I, too, negotiated my balance. At an arbitrary moment, Fernando came out of the sea and told me he was done for the day. He didn’t seem the least disturbed about the fact that he hadn’t caught anything. However, he did mention that some years ago after an hour of fishing like that he would have come out with several fish, but now the fish populations were falling.

Through their days as fishermen, Fernando and other locals I met developed an experiential knowledge about the surroundings. Fernando told me how, as fishermen, they came to recognize the silhouette of the coastal landmarks at night in order to navigate in the darkness. Mario Vargas, whom I met while he was thread-fishing by the shore, explained how different shapes of waves made it easier or harder to get the thread deep enough and remarked the importance for fishermen to learn the sites where each kind of fish aggregated. Explanations like these abounded among former fishermen, and they usually included giving the sea personality traits such as “angry,” “stubborn,” “grumpy,” or “moody.” Without giving it much thought, these accounts attributed certain agency to the surroundings, regarding the environment as alive or conscientious. An embodied experience of the place has given Fernando, Mario, and others the ability to perceive the landscape changing daily and across time. Unlike the clock‐logic of the park, this situated knowledge allows them to recognize the possibility of change and to constantly adapt to it.

Filming Fernando and other informants in their leisure time and listening to their accounts of the landscape enhanced my sensorial attentiveness toward the place. It offered me a different attitude from that of the clock‐time logic I had encountered in the rangers’ routines. So I started to explore materiality with the same patience I had seen Fernando employ while tending to his rod. The rocks and the sea became my muses. Strata and tides suggested a timeline well beyond the national park. Wanting to know more about the story these rocks and this sea could tell me, I contacted a geologist. César Laurito was about to add deep time to the plot, in an epic tale that would make it impossible to think of rocks or the sea as inanimate.

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Approximately 110 million years ago, an arch of volcanic islands began to emerge from the Pacific Ocean close to today’s equator. This was due to a process known as subduction: thousands of meters below the surface of the sea the oceanic bottom fragmented into two parts; one of those fragments pushed itself beneath the other, reaching depths of high temperatures, and thus melting into magma. Rising powerfully, magma broke the crust above it, turning into lava, which then turned into rocks as it cooled off. New submarine mountains had begun to emerge. As they grew, they lifted themselves slowly out of the sea, one layer at a time. The islands forming an arch had surfaced—the territory that constitutes what we know today as Costa Rica and Panama.As the islands rose, currents in Earth’s mantle slowly moved them, carrying them in a millenarian journey through the Pacific Ocean up to the place where they are today, a space between two otherwise unconnected lands. Initially a set of volcanic islands, the arch formed a shallow sea between North and South America’s territories. But the arch continued to rise, until it completed the isthmus we know today. This territory is still shaped, and its climate strongly influenced, by the ocean around it. Subduction makes this bridge tremble to this day, and as the arch continues to rise, the sea around it shapes it continuously at its edges, where land and tides meet.

It is easy to see this territory as a bridge between North and South America, but it is not so common to shift that perspective and focus on how this bridge had an even deeper geological implication as a separator of two oceans, re‐routing currents in both of them. In a geological perspective that looks beyond the human story, my country’s territory has been ocean bottom for way longer than it has been land. And it was more captivating still to hear Laurito narrate all this in the present tense, recognizing this million‐year process as an active and continuous one:

Actually, we have 110 million continuous years and we are still moving. Each time there is an earthquake, this territory continues to elevate, the Central American isthmus is still traveling, it is still deforming. And it is getting in between North and South America. So it is a process that began 110 million years ago, and that I think will continue for many million years.[6]

My encounter with Laurito left me no doubt that Costa Rica was essentially oceanic; yet when I look at environmental, educational, and cultural policies, the ocean seems absent from the national concerns. Even I admit that before I did my fieldwork, I didn’t know that Costa Rica’s marine territory is around nine to eleven times larger than its land territory (due to the fact that Cocos Island belongs to Costa Rica). Biologist José David Palacios stated it plainly:

It seems to me that Costa Rica has always been very focused on its terrestrial part. When I was in school, they used to say Costa Rica has an area of 51,100 square kilometers; and it has its borders to the north with Nicaragua, to the south with Panama, in the north with the Caribbean Sea, and in the south with the Pacific. So it was somehow a vision that we are a small piece of land. But actually, we are close to 90% sea surface, and the rest is the terrestrial part. We have borders with countries that sometimes people don’t even believe, we have a border with Ecuador and we have a border with Colombia. So it seems to me that it is necessary to make a change of vision. Costa Rica needs to put their eyes on the sea.[7]

If one looks at the politics of conservation, this phenomenon of neglecting the ocean persists. The government of Costa Rica constantly boasts (fairly enough) about the fact that 26.4 percent of its continental territory is made up of protected areas. However, when it comes to the sea, only approximately 1.7 to 3 percent[8] of Costa Rican seas are protected.[9]  The Bellena was in fact the first marine protected area of the region, and it wasn’t established until 1991. And even when there is protection on paper, in practice things might be different—like in Ballena, where there’s not even a boat with which to conduct patrols. Rangers, who work under precarious conditions and whose time is dedicated mainly to ticket sales, express deep dissatisfaction about their role.[10] In fact, many locals in Ballena maintain that setting stations on land along the beach had more to do with profiting than with protecting, and they find it ironic that there is no actual protection at sea.

In both the official statements and the institutional practices of the park, I encountered a lack of connection with the sea. But this is not the case for those who, one way or another, come in contact with the materiality of the place. Be it Fernando who fishes at the shore every time the sea allows him, or Laurito who “reads” the codes of history left in the rocks, matter matters. They take seriously their relationship to materiality and, not simply as figures of speech, they think of the water and the rocks as part of their identity and as intrinsically linked to their histories and daily lives. Across time and through their own bodies and senses, these persons have come to acknowledge that their surroundings present changing behaviors, and they have learned to pay attention to the materiality to be aware of these changes, sustaining very particular and situated relations to the place. Antonio Quesada, a former fisherman and one of the few informants I met who had been born and raised in the area, even claimed to be able to predict the sea’s behavior just by the way it sounds:

I was born here, and we have always lived near the beach. . . . So you learn this. Old people back then they were very [pointing to his forehead] . . . my dad was very [pointing again to his forehead] . . . “Listen!”—he would say the day before—“Tomorrow the sea will wake up angry.” So, I would ask “why, daddy?” “Well, listen, he[11] is changing his sound.” So you would learn through their situation. And no kidding, the sea would wake up angry. So that way you learned. And then, well, I have worked at sea my whole life. . . . I hear him [the sea] when he changes his noises. . . . The wind makes him noisy. And when there’s a big tide, he changes the wave stroke, ’cause the waves are bigger. He gets angrier so he changes his sound. It sounds totally different. He rumbles: “ruum.” As the wave falls: “ruum.” As a stroke, as an echo. It sounds very loud.”[12]

Through listening, through fishing with water up to the knees, through brushing rocks in search of clues—that is, through a sensorial and corporeal encounter with materiality—all these persons have noticed and taken seriously this materiality, rendering the sea and the rocks active, with their own trajectories, and even respecting their capabilities that escape human understanding. All these informants expressed, in their own ways, a regard for the sea and the rocks as lively and exhibiting a certain agency.

It was no surprise, then, when I started asking people around the park what they imagined would happen to the place in a thousand or a million years, that their imaginaries were filled with a “reclaiming” sea. Local residents, rangers, biologists working in the area, and even visitors have noticed that the sea is rising every year. Some gave an explanation of rising seas as an effect of climate change; others simply used phrases like “the sea is taking what is his.” Most of these attitudes are based on empiricism. They are conclusions drawn from what these people have experienced over time as they relate to the materiality of their surroundings. They have to notice and care about what the sea and the rocks do because their craft, their profession, their knowledge about the world, and simply their daily lives are contingent on the trajectories of these things. Their position, therefore, is not of mastering or administering these materialities, but instead it is one of observation across time, cooperation, and, mainly, adaptation to a land and sea they know to be in constant change.

As an exponent of the “new materialism” in philosophy, Jane Bennett’s ethical project underlines the importance of sensing the world in order to care for it. She believes that the image of dead or instrumentalized matter feeds a position of conquest and consumption, because it prevents us from “detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.”[13]  Tapping into the sensuous, situated, and emotional relationships that already exist in the area—those capable of detecting non-human powers—should be, in my opinion, the starting point for designing an institution that actually cares about protecting the place, and not just profiting from and controlling it. This would be an institution that transcends the bounding structure of the bureaucratic clock logic, an institution that facilitates for its personnel and the community the conditions required in order to pay serious sensorial and corporeal attention to the multi-rhythmical bodies that make up the landscape. This is necessary if they are to better respond to its changes and needs.

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Once we understand that everything is becoming, that we live in an animated world, that everything around us has world-making abilities that manifest at different rhythms, then protection can no longer be a matter of “preserving,” as if the world were a natural museum. Things change. They respond to our actions, although maybe not immediately. Under a multi-temporal mindset, attuned to the many rhythms to which this planet beats, conservation is a matter of cultivating responsive relationships that can hold space for wildness, where wildness is understood as in the words of Vandana Shiva: “an ability to self-organize and evolve on your own terms.”[14]

And I would add, with your own rhythms. As scholars Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose note, what it means for each being or thing, in each case, to respond to the world around them may be quite different, but nonetheless, it is through these responses that worlds are constituted.[15]

There is no singular “responsible” course of action; there is only the constantly shifting capacity to respond to another. . . . Here, responsibility is about developing the openness and the sensitivities necessary to be curious, to understand and respond in ways that are never perfect, never innocent, never final, and yet always required.[16]

The project of conservation should be one of attunement, of learning to listen to the landscape on a daily basis and respond to its needs across time. I don’t pretend to know what the exact redesign of the Ballena National Marine Park would look like, but I believe this openness and this sensitivity to the acting and response capacities of non-human others should be at the center of an institution that claims to protect them. Where protecting no longer falls under a master mentality, but one of care, of “constantly shifting the capacity to respond to one another’s needs.” This necessarily means having a flexible institution—one that is able to shift its rhythm in accordance with the ecosystem it is looking to respond to.

Shifting our perspective of time allows us to understand differently the constitution of a landscape, its trajectories and its entanglement with different actors in that landscape. As philosopher Michelle Bastian notes, challenging the dominant conceptions of time opens up our understanding of agency. According to her, this calls for an attitude that assumes that environments are not “available immediately to an actor but must be experienced through time, in their different seasons, throughout their (and one’s own) changes.”[17] Yet in modern societies, most of us live under an unbending clock-rhythm that ignores the changes and rhythms in the environment and our own bodies. And most of our institutions are designed under this rhythm, too; even those whose main job is supposed to be caring for the environment.

The point here is that time matters. The timeframes from which we explore a place make a difference; the rhythms we pay attention to (or on the contrary, choose to ignore) influence our ethical attitudes toward others inhabiting the Earth. And so, in a greater sense, time matters when it comes to rethinking our place within our ecosystems. What I learned in this process is that, in order to start paying attention and attributing significance to those other rhythms around us, it is necessary to re-evaluate our senses and our corporeal experience and to see them as being as important as our rational and abstract thinking processes. Noticing other rhythms demands sensorial and corporeal attention, and so it demands letting go of Cartesian dualisms that separate mind and body, and hierarchize thought over senses. In this regard, I would like to close with one final story about our own human bodies.

Geologist César Laurito told me that for him, our bodies tell as much of the history of Earth as fossils do. As he spoke of the human evolution, he described our bodies in a way that made me feel as if we still carried the sea within us:

We come from the sea. And when I say that we come from the sea, I mean it. We come from the sea. That is, every terrestrial vertebrate at some point evolved from a common ancestor that came from the sea, which adapted to the coast and to the land, and conquered it. . . . And still, when I tell you that we carry a fish inside, well, we still have many things from the fish. The swimming bladder of the fish became our pulmonary sacs. From the gills, we were left with the ears—the ear openings, those are branchial. Our balance organ inside our ears, which allows us to walk and not suffer from vertigo, that comes from the balance system of the fish. The fact that we have, for example, the hand, all the bones from the arm, all this comes from the fin bones of ancient fish. So we depend so much on the sea, I think . . . we cannot disconnect ourselves from the sea.[18]

We carry within us a corporeal knowledge about the Earth, its rhythms and its evolution. In the accumulated knowledge of our bodies there is still the memory of the sea, where it all began. Just as the landscape of Ballena, our bodies are made of materiality once shaped slowly, over time, by the sea. Just as the deep history of the place we now call Costa Rica, our bodies’ deep history also emerges from the sea. This history has equipped and specialized our bodies to sense the world in order to respond to it: we are corporeally fit for this multi-rhythmical earthdance.

Deep breathe in. Pause. Deep breathe out. The sea never left us.

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[1] H. Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis. Space, Time and Everyday Life. (London: Continuum, 2004).

[2] B. Adam, Timescapes of Modernity: The Environment and Invisible Hazards (London: Routledge, 1998).

[3] Ibid.

[4] M. Soto, “Turismo teme que ballenas se alejen ante aumento de la temperatura del mar.” Latinclima.org, 2018, http://latinclima.org/articulos/turismo-teme-que-ballenas-se-alejen-ante-aumento-de-la-temperatura-del-mar.

[5] As noted by biologist José David Palacios, in discussion with John Tresemer, 2016.

[6] Cesar Laurito, in discussion with the author, 2016.

[7] José David Palacios interview.

[8] There is no conclusive agreement about the exact measurement of the maritime territory of Costa Rica, thus neither is there agreement about the percentage that is officially protected.

[9] V. Chacón, Protección de la riqueza marina en Costa Rica es “de papel”. Semanario Universidad, August 25, 2016.

[10] Through personal interviews and conversations with different rangers, I heard repeating testimonies of their dissatisfaction and frustration, as well of the excruciating lack of resources.

[11] Spanish is a gendered language. I have decided to keep it this way in the translation as it speaks of Antonio’s perception of the sea as an animate being.

[12] Antonio Quesada in conversation with the author, 2016.

[13] J. Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

[14] V. Shiva, “On the Emancipation of Seed, Water and Women,” episode 188, For the Wild Podcast, 2019, http://forthewild.world/listen/vandana-shiva-on-the-emancipation-of-seed-water-and-women-118

[15] T. van Dooren, and D. Bird Rose, “Lively Ethography. Storying Animist Worlds,”. Environmental Humanities 8, no. 1 (2016): 77-94.

[16] Ibid.

[17] M. Bastian, “Inventing Nature: Re-writing Time and Agency in a More-than-Human World,” Australian Humanities Review: Ecological Humanities Corner 47 (2009): 99-116.

[18] Cesar Laurito interview.


Photo Credits

Alessandra Baltodano Estrada, used with permission.

  • Alessandra Baltodano Estrada

    Alessandra Baltodano Estrada is a documentary photographer/filmmaker and anthropologist whose work explores the human-environment relationship. Her projects are inspired and informed by ecological anthropology, ecofeminism, and environmental humanities in general.
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