Ernst Gotsch and the lesson of Phenomenological Time

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This article is based on one of Ernst Gotsch’s anecdotes about how he learnt the notion of phenomenological time from the Pygmies of arid Namibia in Africa. The linear notion of time is a Judeo-Christian concept that is adopted by most societies worldwide today. This notion implies that the future will be different from what has gone before. Traditional cultures in general understand time as cyclical. This notion is based on the way that natural phenomena repeats itself over time. Tribal life, or a life in close contact with nature implies yet another concept of time; the phenomenological notion of time. This notion implies the perception of natural phenomena that is interconnected. For example, when the flowering of certain plants or the appearance of certain animals indicate that another natural phenomena is about to happen

Note: Ernst shared this episode of his life in a talk given at the Catholic University of Lisbon, Portual in October, 2017. The talk is available (in Portuguese) from:


Photo by Davina Diaries –

In 1966 Ernst was stationed by a Swiss media corporation to work in Namíbia. In addition to his reportingjob he was also looking after a cattle station. Namíbia has an arid climate due to its geographical location in a sub-tropical High Pressure Belt. In fact, Namibia is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa. A poor yearly average of 350mm rain is expected in January, but often most part of the country will go without rain for years.

On a given day late August a young Swiss scientist arrives at the cattle station and finds the Pygmies drumming and dancing. The scene was already strange to Ernst, but wanted to know why were they dancing. “- It’s going to rain!” a dancing man told Ersnt. The rain, if it was meant to come at all, was due to January, so Ernst asked “- How do you know it’s going to rain?”. “- Well, the gazelles are in heat and already mating.” Without being able to see the connection, Ernst thought it was a superstition. He then asked “- And if it wasn’t meant to rain?”. “- The lions would be mating early instead, of course!”, replied the dancing Pygmy. And Ernst was left with that.

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The penny dropped 26 years later for Ernst. He recalls that was early 1990s when the revelation came to him. Nature works through unconditional love! To keep that ecosystem balanced, Nature needs more gazelles to eat a greener vegetation in an year that rain will come. If the rains won’t come, Nature needs more predators to keep the numbers of gazelles at bay. Ernst then explained that even the predator’s hunger is one of Nature’s manifestations of love and cooperation to keep a system balanced.

Bill Mollisson, the co-creator of Permaculture also calls attention to how tribal people, such as the aboriginal tribes of Australia, guide their life-cycles of migration, hunting, harvesting, etc. through a phenomenological notion of time (1989:98). The Pitjatjantjara tribe of Northern Australia, for example, know that when an specific desert flower blossom, the dingoes are pupping in hill ranges far north. So when they see these flowers beginning to blossom they head north to collect the puppies and domesticate them.

Ernst’s point is that even when Nature displays what it might seem to us like a competitive behavior, there is a wisdom behind fighting entropy and optimising life.

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