Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Time for the White Egret

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of Time for the White Egret by Natalie Savage Carlson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 5(2): 1.

Suppose there were someone or something, S, such that

  1. S can be relied on to take care of all my problems, if I just wait long enough:
  2. whenever I am busy, there is no S;
  3. if I go away and come back, S is sure to have passed while I was gone;
  4. S always passes quickly when I get interested in something;
  5. in an emergency, there is no S;
  6. anyone who occupies my attention to no good purpose, wastes.

What could S be?

It’s time, of course – that wonderfully elusive ”stuff,” or dimension, or pseudo-dimension, or whatever it is.

“What, then, is time?” Augustine asks in Book XI of the Confessions. “I know well enough what it is,” he goes on, “provided nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.”

Part, though not all, of what we need to have to be able to handle Augustine’s question is a good grasp of the many curious idioms in which we talk about time. Time for the White Egret helps us to tighten our grip on those idioms and to reflect on their surprising and wonderful variety.

In the story the white egret needs to have a cow stir up some insects for him to eat; but all the cows in the field are already paired off with other egrets and he is left out. The brown cow under the sweet gum tree feels sorry for him and tells him that time will take care of his problems. Encouraged, the white egret goes in search of the alleged benefactor, time. He thinks of time, we are told, as “some big, strong creature like the farmer or the hump-backed brahma bull.”

On being told that time sometimes passes fast and sometimes slowly, the white egret hopes to catch time in a slow phase. Mischievously the brown cow encourages him in his search for time with the baffling assurance that searching will make time pass faster.

The hound dog barks out that he ” has no time” for the white egret. The deer, refusing to help in the egret’s search, snorts, “A dog is chasing me, so there is no time.” But the alligator is helpful.

”I have time now,” announces the alligator. Thinking he has at last found time, the white egret is thoroughly delighted. But delight soon turns to frustration and the alligator turns him aside with the complaint, “You’ve wasted too much of my time already.”

The blue heron, who refuses to help, tells the egret, “I wish I had time, but I’m busy fishing. ” Later on, the heron adds, mysteriously, “Not this time, another time.”

Returning to the brown cow, the white egret is told, ”Time passed while you were gone.” But the brown cow has found the egret, if not time, then at least a little calf to stir up insects for him. To the egret’s complaint that the calf is so little, the brown cow replies, “Time will take care of that. ”

The author of Time for the White Egret does nothing to sort out the idioms in which we talk of time. But only the most unreflective reader can read this story without at least beginning that task. A truly reflective reader, goaded, perhaps by a respectful parent or teacher, might even be encouraged by the story to be­ gin the daunting task of developing a metaphysical theory of time. Though the task is daunting, the rewards are immediate.