The watch I have had strapped to my wrist my entire working life is a marvel. In spite of the heat sweat water and dirt, it churns on. This little workhorse enables me to to organize and schedule any number of things. Being off or behind schedule can be trouble; ahead of schedule-this I like. Around January 15, I take it off for 6 weeks, and let my internal clock handle the day. Landscapes have long been host to various mechanisms for telling time. The old clock face pictured above was salvaged from a monumental public timepiece in a Belgian town square, due for refurbishment after many years of service.
Sundials vastly predate the invention of watches and clocks; ancient cultures told time via the position of the sun in the sky. The device needed to be positioned in a sunny place in the landscape. As they are big chunky scientific instruments, people constructed them to be beautiful, as well as utilitarian. The dial portion of a sundial is small and unassuming. A flat plate was engraved or otherwise etched with a clock face. The triangular shaped gnomen set into the plate would cast a shadow from the sun, onto a different mark on the plate for every hour, or portion of an hour, of any given sunny day.
The engraving on the plates was often quite elaborate. This plate is engraved with the hours in Roman numerals; each numeral is further subdivided into increments of an hour. This plate is a beautiful drawing about time. The name and date- Thomas Grice,1705 might refer to the artist who engraved the plate, or the person’s garden to whom this sundial belonged.
As the sundial needed to be placed in a level spot with the gnomen, or needle, set due north when the sun was directly overhead, the base needed to be sturdy, stable, and equally as lovely as the plate. This handcarved stone baluster sets the plate at 50 inches above grade-right at my eye level. Inscribed in spidery script, ” Let others tell of storms and showers/I’ll only tell your sunny hours”.
As a time telling device, a sundial has become obsolete. As a garden ornament, they are unmatched for their quiet beauty and dignity. They are as at home in a kitchen garden as a formal boxwood parterre. They refer to the ephemeral nature of life, and the repeating cycle of nature. I have never seen them made of materials that did not suggest permanence. Modern makers have expanded upon the traditional materials to include stainless steel, glass and mirror, but my favorites are the pieces dating from an age when they were still in use.
It is hard for me to believe that this sundial and base graced an English garden in the mid nineteenth century. It seems so unfazed by the 160 years it has been recording the movement of the sun in the sky. Michigan is not know for its sunny days; sunny winter days are scarce indeed. I have no need of a sunny day to appreciate a garden ornament of this caliber. I am also interested in how this object was part of another place and another time; there are days when I long for just that state of being. Garden spaces made from that longing have a special atmosphere about them that resonates with me.
This collection of English sundials vary greatly in their details, but all of them are remarkably intact, considering their age, and exposure to weather. I am sure they will all find a new home in a treasured garden space.