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It's the little things

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. It’s the little things. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, November:17–18.

Many things in everyday life have an impact that can hardly be ignored... Christmas shopping and the ensuing income tax season, for two timely examples. But the presence of such unsubtle things can make us overlook the multitude of little things are every bit as much a part of life. For instance, have you ever paused to think just how it is that you tie your shoes? Unless you've recently taught a child how to do this, you probably do it automatically, without thinking of it. Just for one moment, sit down and make a conscious effort to tie your shoes... you may be surprised to find that the task is easier if you don't think about it, that approximately half a dozen distinct movements are required. This is a rather elementary example, but there are other more interesting things we forget about. Here, then, are a few choice examples:

Maple trees bear flowers. You may have been aware of this previously, but I suspect that you don't pay the flowers much, if any, attention. Until I stopped one day to look closely at a maple, I knew about the flowers mostly from my forestry textbooks. The flowers are mostly inconspicuous, and they don't smell much, if at all—I can't say, as my nose works poorly at the best of times. But they're pretty enough, if one pauses to look. They also inspire an ecologically trained bloke like myself to wonder about the evolution of flowers, to wit: why do maples have relatively colorless, unscented flowers, whereas tulip-tree flowers are larger, brighter, and stronger smelling? (The answers could be profitably dealt with in a large book on pollination biology, so I won't elaborate further here.) At times, I've been accused of intellectual wool-gathering, and this sort of mental diversion while walking to work certainly qualifies, but on the other hand, one must gather wool to make sweaters and other useful things.

While walking home one evening, I came across a flock of seagulls at rest in a parking lot. (You may have noticed that I do a lot of this thinking while walking. Although this gives the lie to the rumor that I can't even walk and think at the same time, I sometimes wonder what this says about the rest of my day, spent sitting at a desk.) What caught my attention was that all the gulls lay facing in precisely the same direction. When I paused to think about it, I noticed that the flock was facing into the light wind that was blowing. This makes sense if you think about it: seagulls are heavy birds, but their wings provide a lot of lift. As I discovered when I came closer, the birds had merely to get to their feet and raise their wings to become airborne—surely a far easier process than having to beat their wings rapidly to take off downwind. This could lead into a discussion of why pilots always face their planes upwind to take off if they can possibly manage it, but we'll leave that too for another essay.

On the subject of birds, have you noticed the flocks of geese that gather in the parks and foul the grass? They're pretty hard to miss, actually. But when I saw my first "goose crossing" sign by Queen Elizabeth park [in Sault Ste. Marie], I originally thought this was a cute joke by one of the locals. When the geese started gathering, I realized that the sign was a practical one. That is, it seemed more practical to me than the "moose crossing" signs along every highway in northern Ontario, as I've never seen a moose on the road, but I sure saw plenty of geese. I had never seen geese flocking before, other than in zoos and on the TV nature specials... blame it on a sheltered urban upbringing. But I suspect that no one in Sault Ste. Marie thinks twice about this, unless you happen to be someone playing late-season baseball on one of these fields. They're pretty birds, but...

The past summer has been a dry one, but I didn't think much of this until my wife pointed out how few crickets sang in the evening. I suppose that there wasn't enough moisture this year to let them breed and reach their accustomed levels, at least in the area where I live. I noticed this again towards the end of the summer while walking through a field of tall brown grass. From the halcyon days of my youth, I distinctly recall the buzzing hordes of grasshoppers that took flight at my every step. (I also recall the gallon jar of grasshoppers that was tipped over accidentally in the house, but that's yet another story. See the biblical passages on the plagues of Egypt for details.) This year, no grasshoppers. And I confess that I feel the lack, as I always used to enjoy chasing them around the field, if not around the house.

Speaking of the night, have you  noticed how late the sun remains in the summer sky here in the Soo [Sault Ste. Marie]? You probably haven't unless, like me, you came from Montreal. We're in the same time zone as Montreal, but it took a friend's comment to remind me that time zones are man-made devices, not a fact of nature. Looked at in this manner, the late-night sun becomes easier to understand: Montreal is approximately 10° of longitude to the east, which means that sunset occurs about 40 minutes earlier than it does here. You can see this with a quick calculation: there are 360° of longitude that encompass the Earth, and the sun takes 24 hours to circle the Earth. (Yes, I know what the astronomers say. But it's all relative, as Einstein is rumored to have said.) Thus, one hour equates to 15° of longitude. Voila! (The astute reader will note that latitude also has an effect on the time of sunset, but the calculations are considerably messier and I'll pass.)

Consider the information explosion for a moment. We all know that more information is being produced every year, but have you ever stopped to consider the magnitude of this production? I went down to the library and took a look in Forestry Abstracts (an index of all forestry publications that appeared in printed form in a given year). In 1945, 1840 abstracts were indexed; in 1985, the total had reached 7150. This represents a fourfold increase during the last 40 years. Biological Abstracts, which covers considerably more areas of biology, indexed 17,124 papers in 1938 and a whopping 110,000 in 1985, an increase of more than six times. If the average publication takes 30 minutes to read and absorb, and one read steadily for 16 hours a day, then in 1938, one could read every publication in the field of biology in a bit under 550 days. (I've rounded rather heavily to make the calculations simple... I didn't have my calculator with me. Lazy, aren't I?) This means you would fall behind at a rate of nearly 200 days of reading per year. Today, to keep up with everything in biology, you could expect to take nearly 3500 days to complete the same task. Is it any wonder that a scientists is forced to become ever more narrowly specialized in his field just to keep current? (Note: Foresters are comparatively lucky... in 1985, we only had to spend 225 days just reading to keep fully up to date.) I hesitate even to mention the total mass of literature for chemistry, physics, computer science, history, and so on and on.

How often do we stop to ponder the blessings of a warm secure home and hot running water? When I used to do field research in the boreal forest, these things were a decided luxury. (Anyone who has bunked in an undermaintained Junior Ranger camp, let alone worked from a tent, can empathize.) I was reminded of this again when the recent cold snap hit, and I arrived home lusting for a warm shower only to discover that a highway repair crew had knocked out the water main that led to our apartment building. Fortunately, we have a small spa in the building, so we could steal water from the jacuzzi for use in the toilets. But I must admit to my admiration for the PUC [public utilities corporation] workers who stayed out in the wind and sleet until 11 PM to restore our water. I don't take hot showers quite so much for granted anymore.

Ah! The Little things!

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