I Am the Clock-Winder

Donn Haven Lathrop 2003

The excerpt from A Dresser of Sycamore Trees by Garret Keizer
(published by David R. Goodine, 2000) is edited and reprinted
with the permission of the author. All rights reserved.

In late 1997 my wife brought home a slim volume with a strange title: "A Dresser of Sycamore Trees"1 written by Garret Keizer, a priest in the Episcopal Church in the small hamlet of Island Pond, Vermont. Glancing through the chapter headings, I noted that one was titled "I am the Clock-Winder." I work on tower clocks, and have wound a few in my time, so I was naturally curious. The excerpt below brought back the year-end when I travelled Robert Frost's cold and snowy New England 'road less travelled by' some miles to hear the first tower clock I ever repaired strike midnight on New Year's Eve. The magic hour approached, and standing in front of the church, I watched the hands slip into coincidence---and go past without a sound. The clock winder, who always wound the clock on Sunday, had failed to wind the clock, and was likely off celebrating the advent of the New Year many miles away. This clock was so constructed that if the clock was not wound after striking noon on Sunday, it did not have enough fall of the strike weight left to strike the single blow one short hour later. I had the keys, and raced into the church, unlocking doors as I stumbled through the dark. Up into the choir loft, up the ladder to the level just below the clock, around the base of the steeple, and up to the clock room. The moon was just bright enough so I could see the winding crank to grab it and jam it onto the winding square. Three turns, and I tripped the strike. The Revere bell above me spoke to the town, a few minutes late---it had previously been mute for years---ringing in the New Year. The poem at right, and the comments of the author following, evoke those moments in the steeple, as I stood next to "my" clock, and listened to the overtones of the bell fade into the beginning moments of the new year while the pendulum turned the future into the present and the past.


It is dark as a cave,
Or a vault in the nave
When the iron door
Is closed, and the floor
Of the church relaid
With trowel and spade.
But the parish-clerk
Cares not for the dark
As he winds in the tower
At a regular hour
The rheumatic clock
Whose dilatory knock
You can hear when praying
At the day's decaying,
Or at any lone while
From a pew in the aisle.

Up, up from the ground,
Around and around
In the turret stair
He clambers, to where
The wheelwork is,
With its tick, click, whizz,
Reposefully measuring
Each day to its end
That mortal men spend
In sorrowing and pleasuring.
Nightly thus does he climb
To the trackway of Time.

Him I followed one night
To this place without light,
And, ere I spoke, heard
Him say, word by word,
At the end of his winding,
The darkness unminding:

"So I wipe out one more,
My Dear, of the sore
Sad days that still be,
Like a drying Dead Sea,
Between you and me!"

Who she was no man knew:
He had long borne him blind
To all womankind,-
And was ever one who
Kept his past out of view.

---Thomas Hardy
Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses, 1917

1  In modern terms, a gatherer of figs.



"When Thomas Hardy published this poem in 1917, my clock was also punctuating the prayers of a decaying day, though inaudibly; one does not hear its "dilatory knock" until halfway up the steeple. Unlike Hardy's winder, I have a wife, a past cheerfully open to view, the desire to live long, and plenty of fragile reasons to believe that I shall. Perhaps because of this contrast, I am not without some care of the darkness, which Hardy's bereaved parish clerk had climbed through and beyond. I drive over to Island Pond on a Thursday night after a well-cooked meal and a teacher's day of youthful enthusiasms and impertinence, a myriad of death-defying distractions; after winding the clock, I return to a place where even the refrigerator has a cozy light within, and four hands pull the covers up when darkness has at last settled throughout the house. So in the tower, even in the darkened Gothic church below, I am in an unfamiliar place, with a somewhat unfamiliar me, and sometimes I am afraid.

"I twist the old-fashioned turn switch at the foot of the ladder, and a light visible through a crack in the trap door tells whatever may be up there that I am coming. The black hatch thuds away from the hole; my head emerges facing the corner of the first room.
I turn around almost immediately, and complete my entrance looking behind. The light of the one bulb here is quite diffuse in the high room, but I have enough to see all the rungs of the next ladder, which makes a dull knocking against the steeple side as I climb it. Nevertheless, the ladder is steady, its iron rungs firm underfoot and to the grasp---but so chilling on winter nights that I wear gloves. The belfry is pitch-dark, except when a little moonlight slips in. It is here, and above, that I often hear a pattering around the outsides of the steeple---and perhaps up in the rafters under the apex---what, I do not know.2 I have looked with a flashlight for bats and seen none. I have grown somewhat used to the pattering now, but I confess that the first few times I heard it were unnerving. Once, as I climbed with a sideways glance at the dark hulk of the bell, dreadfully silent in the moonlit midst of that pattering, my heart jumped at the sound of a loud slam, followed by an awful hiss. Several seconds passed before I came to the logical explanation: two freight cars coupling outside on the tracks below the church.

"On the uppermost level, with the bright light shining through the clock house's lone and dirty window, I complete my ascent from superstition to a sublimer awe.

2   Pigeons...


Inside are the ticking and the light, no longer vague as at the ladder's lower rungs, but distinct and canny as my breath and heartbeat. Here in the night, floating almost among the clouds, yet anchored by long, arboreal bones to the earth, unseen, unthought of, discreet and patiently relentless, the clock marks time, turns its moon-colored arms each minute of the sixty in the twenty-fourth part of the earth's rotation in a darker, infinitely vaster steeple. I am the mystic now, at the top of his tower, flinging open the door to behold the vision of the clockworks and the light---as inviting as a snack bar on a dark wooded road in summer---homely, as more than one of the adepts have described it.

"Not long ago we reconciled science and what remained of religion in the "clock model of creation," which saw God as the maker and onetime winder of the cosmos. We have since outgrown that model---or at least most of us have. I confess that I find myself rather fond of it lately. But in my version, the winder is not an eighteenth-century Intelligence snoozing in a stuffed chair someplace inside the chambers of a divine Royal Society as the cosmos efficiently ticks on the mantelpiece. He puts on greasy coveralls and climbs a tower through the void, past the bones of prehistoric animals, fallen angels, and the turds of ancient bats, as the Big Bang echoes in his ears like railroad cars coupling.
Rung by rung he rises through the terrible darkness. At the top of his ascent, he winds up the sun and other stars with a crank-like key, adjusts for the weathers of unknowable dimensions, and lubricates each equinox and comet. Then, stooping to a tiny gear amid the wheelwork, he wipes away the surface dirt of railroads and religious strife and, with a fresh rag, every human tear.

"And I am one of his ministers; I tend one of his metaphors. I am the clock-winder of Island Pond."


There is a magical quality to these massive clocks that live in the steeples of churches, the cupolas of town halls, or on the umpteenth floor of a skyscraper. I don't know how many times I have sat lost in thought---literally for hours, thinking long thoughts about those who first made these clocks centuries ago, about the long-dead maker of the clock and admiring his handiwork---in a clock room, watching and listening as a resurrected clock goes about its business of regulating the cosmos. It is, I think, as Otto Mayr wrote:

"...the magic of the self-moving machine..."

a fascination recorded by the ancient Greeks, and,


"...the clock [was made] unique [in] the unprecedented veneration that it commanded in the society of that day."3

It is a veneration, or perhaps a fascination (perhaps a fascination with the realization that this machine is ticking away into your future, making it your present and your past as you watch) that affects all of us, from the editor looking at a deadline who rails at and resents the cruelly swift passage of time, to a priest who winds the clock in his own church, and finds therein an affirmation of his faith.

As the parish clerk was heard to say:

"So I wipe out one more,
My Dear, of the sore
Sad days that still be,
Like a drying Dead Sea,
Between you and me!"

it is the passage of time, measured by the clock, that seems to heal all wounds---his will be healed when time for him ceases, the wounds of others will be healed by the fading of memories as did the overtones of the bell striking the midnight hour just a bit late, some will be be healed by a new love, a new life in a new place---a passage
that almost invariably encounters the winder who "stooping to a tiny gear amid the wheelwork, ...wipes away the surface dirt of railroads and religious strife and, with a fresh rag, every human tear."

This, it seems, lies at the root of the fascination for timekeepers shared by so many of us. They, in all their permutations since the first clock awoke a religious order that the brothers could begin their cycle of daily prayers, define our days and our nights, making them "real," if you will, in their definition of "time" which is really indefinable. But these tower clocks also speak to all within sight and hearing as they have for centuries, they watch over and they regulate our lives, from the time we draw our first breaths to the time the clock's voice sounds the passing bell as we are borne to our final resting place. They give us a reassurance there is a continuity to the cosmos, as well as the reassurance of which Keith Richard Barney, a fellow historian, wrote about a sister clock to the one I wound at midnight:

"The sound of the clock striking, especially when heard in the quiet of the night was a delightful one, and comforting to a small boy who was awake."

3  For a thorough discussion of the "clock metaphor" as applied to the workings of the cosmos by the thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, see: Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe by Otto Mayr. It is a fascinating account of clocks and their effect on everyone, from the serf huddled in his hovel to royalty disporting themselves in somewhat more comfortable circumstances.


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