“Slow down, you move too fast …” — Simon and Garfunkel

And now it’s mid-July. This weekend the annual North Atlantic Blues Festival takes place. Blink and it will be the Friendship Sloop Days, then the Maine Lobster Festival, then Labor Day and, before you know it, Christmas. Time to break out the wrapping paper.

I exaggerate (a bit). Time does not speed up in the summer, nor slow down in the winter. Time is, well, time. We will get an extra second at the close of this year, true, but generally a year is a year, a month is a month, and so forth.

Time has been on my mind this week. In part my preoccupation is due to the demise of a century-old hard maple behind my garage, one of two. On a calm early evening the towering tree split in half, toppled onto an adjacent parking lot, and crushed 30 feet of my fence. A close inspection of the trunk showed an expanse of rot; old age and infirmity had taken their toll. 

The tree, which Rockland Public Works Department calls a “line” tree, was planted when the street was first developed; it and other trees mark the property lines for homes in this section of Rockland’s historic district. Unlike fir, hard maples are not fast growers. But in time, if they have room enough and sun, they can reach great heights and breadth, as my tree did. 

On another day last week, I was loitering at a local beach at low tide, conducting myself as I typically do:  squatting above tidal pools, turning over various rocks and banks of seaweed, spending long moments gazing downward. It’s a harmless eccentricity, one that my family and friends tolerate without much comment.

I got hooked, again, on Littorina littorea, the common periwinkle. The periwinkle is not a very scintillating animal. The snails are an introduced species, brought from Europe to North America sometime in the 19th century. It is an omnivore, happy to graze on algae and other items it scrapes up from rocks with its radula (tongue). Speed is not its principal characteristic. A periwinkle moves forward by alternately flexing each side of its divided foot, which is coated with a film of mucus to reduce friction. When startled, it contracts that foot into its shell, covers the opening with a hard coating, and waits for the trouble to go away.

Time seems to stand still when you watch a periwinkle creep millimeter by millimeter across a slick rock. But it doesn’t. It ticks away, and I know that it is ticking. Not because of a watch or cell phone, but because of a chemical in my brain called dopamine. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in time processing. We have lots of it when we are young and less and less as we grow older, which contributes to the impression that time is moving faster. Drugs such as cocaine or Ritalin, prescribed for attention deficit disorder, will activate dopamine receptors in the brain, making a recipient of any age perceive time as passing by more quickly. But other elements can affect one’s perception of time. Acute fear makes time feel as if it has nearly stopped.  People who have been involved in car accidents often say that the accident appeared to happen in slow-motion. A novel experience also affects one’s perception of time. Research shows that taking part in a new activity or learning something different alters a person’s sense of time, causing time to move more slowly. 

Yet there is a point in our lives when we truly live “in the moment.” According to psychologist Professor Sylvie Droit-Volet of Blaise Pascal University in France, very young children exist in a perpetual “now.” Through experiments, Droit-Volet found that children younger than 5 only experienced time in terms of how long it took them to do something and, then, only when forced to pay attention to that duration. Otherwise, time had no meaning to the child.

Now think of the periwinkle. I must assume that the periwinkle, like a very young child, has no sense of time, no notion of the days or years sliding by (periwinkles live for five to ten years). There are just the tides, rising and falling, rising and falling. For at least a century my maple tree stood sentinel to a bewildering array of events on its street, from the advent of automobiles to the arrival of drones. Yet for the two organisms, life was similar — the sun rose, the sun set, winter came and then the spring and summer. There are worse ways to spend a lifetime.