by Glenn Reed
(Swans - July 15, 2013) I was never really into science in high school. I'd always gravitated towards the English classes, the arts, and the "softer" social sciences (with the notable exception of economics).
I think I perceived of art and science as polar opposites. Or, perhaps, it was more that one came natural to me and the other seemed more like work. What possible connection could there be between writing a short story and memorizing the periodic table, I wondered?
Objective, subjective. Facts, fantasy.
My sophomore year in high school we got a new biology teacher. One of her first projects for the class was to go off behind the school building to the edge of a field, just where the ground began sloping upwards into woods on the side of a hill. This began in the second week of September.
Of course, any excuse to get out of the stuffy classroom, which smelled of formaldehyde, Bunsen burners, and other tools of science, was welcomed by us. But when she explained what we were to do, we all thought it was a dumb idea and a waste of time. Most had no clue as to the point of the exercise.
First, the teacher asked us to pair-up in teams. This, in itself, was often a painful exercise for those labeled as outcasts in high school. It was similar to choosing teams in grade school gym classes and being the last ones to be picked. Humiliation was a constant threat in those early- to mid-teen years.
The teacher next gave each team some balls of string, four small wooden stakes, and tape measures. We then made our way out of the classroom, outside the building, down the long parking lot, and into the field where we were to conduct our "research." We all figured this would be the most fun part of the whole venture.
After, painstakingly (how teenagers can dawdle) reaching our destination, we were told to, with our "field research" partners, select separate, five-by-five-foot plots of ground and section them off with the string and the stakes.
We marked our territories, so to speak, when the weather was still warm, the leaves just starting to change color on some of the trees, the grass still green. Once a week, for the rest of that school year, we'd trudge out to our little plots of land and try to find something significant to write in our notes. We were to practice being carefully observant scientists, I guess, and to take meticulous notes. These were submitted to the biology teacher each week. My partner tried to write one such note in the first-person perspective of a blade of grass. Very creative, yes, but not viewed favorably by the teacher.
I don't remember much about our observations beyond the fact that my five-by-five-foot square contained a lot of tall grass, maybe some wildflowers like milkweed and goldenrod, and not a whole lot more. The strongest image that comes to mind is of trudging out there on bitter winter days, when it was a challenge to try to take notes with mittens on your hands or else painfully cold if you tried to scribble them as fast as possible with those mittens off. I remember one such time, when my field research partner and I were stamping in the foot or so of snow that lay on the ground, staring at the seemingly bleak plot before us, and wondering how we could ever have found this exercise appealing way back in September.
Then one of us noticed something. Little footprints in the snow. And then a trail of tiny seeds. For a brief time there was something vaguely resembling enthusiasm between the two of us. Just imagine such a thing in high school biology! And this from the literature and artsy types.
So, maybe we did learn something from this exercise after all.
I've carried this enjoyment of the careful observation of nature with me throughout the years, even though I never pursued a college or career path in the sciences. It's brought endless joy on my backpacking trips as well as when I've just been sitting on a porch chair, watching what's happening in front of me, overhead, at my feet. It's meant staring out the kitchen window as goldfinches bicker and chatter over seeds in the feeder, spying a hawk circling above a rocky peak in Washington State's Olympic Mountains and hearing the alarm whistles (in actuality, they're guttural screams) of sentry marmots, and lying on an outcrop of bedrock to follow ants as they painstakingly and persistently hauled bits of food to their nest.
These moments spent observing are both science, through my ongoing fascination with how the world works, and art in that they frequently inspire poetry, music, and painting or drawing.
Above all else the connectedness felt in these times has no real need to be defined. They allow me to be focused on the present and keep life's stresses at bay. They tie me intimately with place and time. They also make me more aware of the past that has led to them, and the paths to the future.
They're spiritual, which, in the end, is both art and science, with no need to distinguish between the two.
I truly appreciate this lesson now, especially in a world where the powerful seek to divide and conquer, define in black and white, draw property lines and national borders, perceive the parts and not the whole.
I wish more of those in power could take time out, walk into the parks behind their office buildings or the woods behind their gated homes, and really see the world. I wish they could make the connection between their decisions and the ants on the sidewalk or the polar bears in the Arctic.
I wish they would all just humble themselves for once, not say a word, and just look and listen.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed Glenn Reed is a writer and activist from Fair Haven, Vermont, who works in the non-profit world. (back)