Life is accelerating at an ever increasing pace. The Internet has made the speed of life race to almost unheard of levels. As a society, the choice has been made to mash the button and hurtle towards wherever it is that the digital age decides to take us. Steve Shafer decided he didn’t want that. As a farmer, a blacksmith, and most importantly, a teacher, Steve has decided to pursue a slower lifestyle in the hills of middle Tennessee.
The idea of an island surrounded by land may sound like an oxymoron, but nowhere is it more true than Three Creeks Farm. Away from the rush and rumble of a burgeoning society, the land around Steve Shafer’s farm seems to leech the sense of haste from the very air. As soon as one crosses the Cumberland River at Ashland, any notion of freneticism seems to fade with the early morning mist.
Roads take winding paths, streams bubble and meander, and the trees stand where they have stood for millennia. Among these ancients, Steve’s farm lies semi hidden behind a small rise, the only clue of its existence a small sign promoting the weekly classes offered there. As you slowly inch your car along the gravel laneway, Hugo the English Mastiff ambles over, otter-like, tail wagging in anticipation of the attention and affection that comes with new visitors.
As the newcomers emerge from their vehicles to the hot, shaggy wheezes of the aging Hugo, a warm hello follows in the massive hound’s wake. This is the moment visitors to this island in a sea of time first meet Steve and the ever present smile behind his eyes. The surprise comes when they first approach Steve. Small of stature and quick to laugh, Steve is the antithesis of the soot streaked, gruff man-mountains that come to mind when people think of a typical blacksmith. But on closer inspection, Steve carries all the marks of a master of his trade. His warm, gnarled hands betray the decades of practice and volumes of knowledge learned at the foot of an anvil.
While Steve may sound like a man born a century too late, it is the world that has moved on a century too early. Even though he carries the trappings of a member of a modern society, a car, an iPhone, and a fondness for reality TV shows on the History Channel, Steve and his wife of 17 years, Beth, have made a conscious decision to live apart from the ever increasing speed of the modern world. On their farm nestled in the hills of rural Tennessee, Steve and his family have cultivated very carefully, and very deliberately a way of life not often seen in an increasingly urban and fast moving America.
In contrast to trends in the rest of the country, the Shafer’s choice to live on their farm puts them in the minority. Ever since the industrial revolution, populations have migrated to the cities, where speed and time have become precious resources, jealously hoarded for a day yet to come.
While the scientific measurement of time has changed little since the invention of the clock, our perception of how quickly time is passing has increased markedly in the last 50 years. The study of how we perceive time, or “Chronoception” is a relatively new field in the world of science that has its roots in psychology and neurology.
Dr. Aoife McLoughlin, a researcher at James Cook University has been studying how people’s sense of how quickly time is passing is changing.
“I’ve found some indication that interacting with technology and techno-centric societies has increased some type of pacemaker within us. While it might help us to work faster, it also makes us feel more pressured by time,” said McLoughlin.
When compared to older technologies, the rate of adoption of the computer was closer to exponential than any previous technology, save for the television. For example, it took nearly 50 years for air conditioning to go from 50% to 90% of homes in the US. The computer took less than 15.Society adopted the computer so quickly that the US Census actually had trouble tracking the expansion within their ten year census cycles.
According to McLoughlin and other researchers, the near universal use of digital devices in America has led to an overall increase in the speeds at which our brains can process new information. Because the average person now stands at the business end of a fire hose of new information and ideas, the brain has trouble filtering out and deciding what is and isn’t important. After 50,000 years of using our abnormally sized brains to process any and all information in our primitive environments, as a species humans have yet to develop a way to selectively focus their attention.
With the deluge of new and interesting bits and bytes all vying for attention, the human brain has yet to develop an effective mechanism at filtering new information and experiences. Instead, the brain is forced to dedicate more and more “processing power” to these new experiences, thus stretching the perception of how much time has passed. For example, when a person finds themselves placed into an incredibly stressful or dangerous situation, their perception of how long that moment lasted will be warped due to how much harder their brain was working to process the event. In contrast, a task that a person has completed hundreds or even thousands of times before will appear to fly by in the blink of an eye.
This phenomenon is measurable through experiments asking participants to estimate the amount of time that has passed when isolated from any sort of timekeeping devices like clocks or phones. In multiple experiments, a pattern quickly emerged relating to the subjects age. The younger a subject was, the more accurately they were able to gauge how much time had passed. In a group aged 19 to 24 were able to predict when three minutes had passed to within an average margin of error of three seconds. The group of people aged 60 to 80 who attempted the same task were off by a multiple of 10, at a margin of error that averaged 40 seconds.
The reasons that cause this discrepancy aren’t totally understood, but are thought to stem from dropping dopamine levels as the brain grows older. Another possible explanation is that the younger we are, the longer time is perceived because it is a larger portion of our lives. A year to an 8 year-old is one eighth of their life, while a year to an 80 year-old is an eightieth of their life. The larger the portion of one’s life, the longer it takes to pass.
As Steve leads his students into the forge, it quickly becomes apparent why he has decided to pass on his knowledge to younger generations.
“I was lucky enough to be mentored by an older guy who formed a group and took a number of us under his wing. We started a little group, and then went on from there,” said Steve. “There’s that part of it about paying it forward, that you owe something back.”
Amid the ringing cacophony of striking hammers, Steve is a blur of motion, moving from station to station and student to student. The natural rhythm of forging metal lends itself to Steve’s teaching style, allowing him to help one student while the others are waiting for their irons to reclaim their heat from the propane fired forge.
“That’s what I like about doing the blacksmithing. I can spend individual time with each person. I can sit there right with them, ‘Hey do this, do that, turn this, do this.’ Technology has taken some of that away,” said Steve.
After four hours in the heat and rumble of the forge, the students emerge into the warm Tennessee after noon, flush with pride and brimming with enthusiasm about their newfound craft. As they climb into their cars under the supervision of Hugo, who has returned to oversee the excitement of the departure back to their frenetic world, Steve shakes the hand of each with a beaming smile on his face.
“I would say a lot of people, millennials, people in their mid-30’s who have a couple of kids want to get away. They want life to slow down. They want to get five or ten acres and have a place where the kids can run around outside and have a couple of animals. Whether that’s possible or not I don’t know, but a lot of people want that.”