Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gathering Data vs. "Smelling the Roses"

I was sitting on the lawn, chatting with my wife, when I noticed pine needles lying about.  They were from the Ponderosa Pines surrounding our neighborhood.  For some reason they brought back a memory of a passage from one of my field guides that said the needles of Pinus ponderosa occur in bundles of three and are from 5 to 10 inches long.  These looked bigger, so a I gathered a few, 11 bundles to be exact, and brought them inside to measure.  As serious taxonomy goes, 11 is a pretty small sample, far too small for generalizations.  Yet, out of 11 bundles, 4 of them exceeded 11 inches in length!  The two champions at 11 9/16 inches are above the ruler in the photo.  This little episode brought back memories of my formal study of biology years ago and the emphasis on gathering data.  I realize how useful data gathering is, but I also realize how the practice can narrow one's relationship with the natural world and possibly warp it, especially when the politics of funding research enters the picture.  In recent years, I've chosen to call myself a naturalist.  To me, a naturalist is part scientist, but also somewhat of an artist and philosopher.  I wouldn't complain if someone called me a "jack of all trades and master of none."  I am just incredibly fascinated by natural history and love to share what I find out.  Data are just one small part of what my senses gather.  Yet, for the next little while, I'll be looking for a bundle of pine needles longer than 11 9/16 inches.

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