The story goes that Samuel Goldwyn was walking in a garden and came upon an unfamiliar object. “What’s that?” he asked the gardener.
“A sundial,” the gardener responded.
“What’s it for?” asked Goldwyn.
“It tells time by the sun,” the gardener replied.
“My God!” Goldwyn said. “What’ll they think of next?”
Goldwyn was famous for his malapropisms, which eventually came to be known as Goldwynisms (“Keep a stiff upper chin.”; “Include me out.”), but this tale about him not knowing what a sundial is must surely be an invention. Sundials are among the oldest forms of timekeeping, and over time they have become something of an art form in themselves. In 1872, Mrs. Alfred Garry published the exhaustive Book of Sun-Dials, which includes sundials from across the globe from the earliest times, either attached (to a building) or detached (stand-alone). As decorative as they are instrumental, it’s unsurprising that a great many sundials find their way into gardens, where, in a tacit refutation of Berkeley, they mark the passing hours among nodding flowers and bumbling bees.
My garden boasts a sundial, a single pillar topped with a bronze face. I found the dial some years ago on a neighboring property belonging to the same company that owns my apartment building. When I called them up to ask them if I could move it into my garden, they said, “What sundial?” Thinking quickly, I said I must have dialed the wrong number, hung up, and with considerable effort involving a rope and a wheelbarrow, moved the heavy pillar a half-block down the street to my herb bed, where it stands today.
The face on my dial is worn and has no gnomon. Take note, people: you can buy a sundial face with a gnomon, but not a gnomon without a face. It also has a rather trite motto: “Tempus Fugit.” Mrs. Garry’s book lists no less than 1,682 mottoes. They all have something to do with aging, the ephemerality of life, or the movement of the heavens. This year, I’ve vowed to have a new face made for my sundial, complete with an ornate (yet accurate) gnomon, and upon it, I am going to have inscribed those immortal words that taught my generation about the movement of time:
It’s just a jump to the left . . .