Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stamp Collecting

'Twas Earnest Rutherford who said, "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

I don't think he was meaning to say that physics rules and every other science drools.  I think he was meaning to say that you can do physics, or you can do some other applied science that eventually boils down to...physics.  Because chemisry is molecules interacting based on rules of chemistry that come from...physics.  Biology is life doing life things based on rules of biology that come from rules of chemistry that come from rules of...physics.  Ecology is the individual biology of things in concert, which is in tern a bunch of chemisry in concert....etc. 

Or maybe he was meaning to say that nothing is worthwhile but physics...and in that case I do not agree.

Well today, I did a fair bit of something an awful lot like stamp collecting.  I "collected" the following wildflowers, meaning I saw them on my hike and keyed them out in my Newcomb's wildflower guide:

Jerusalem Artichoke
Green Coneflower
Pink Lady
Wild Violet
Cardinal Flower
Pale Sunflower

There were of course about a zillion more that I couldn't or didn't stop to identify cause I was worried about making loud noises and seeming large and scary to the black bears.  And yes, I did see a bear scamper off. 

I also collected the following new trees.  I thought I was already fairly experienced at trees so the very prevalent ones aren't listed, though I can't separate out all the sub-red or sub-white oak species of blackjack and post and river and hybridized-monkey-fist--okay I made the lats one up just to show you there are a LOT of oak species out there.

Basswood, American or other?
Mountain Maple (an uncommon species very distinct from red and sugar maple)
Sugar Maple (not so present in southern Appalachians, but quite abundant here)
Black Walnut (that one I am re-remembering)

I don't know what it is about identifying the species of the plants and animals you encounter that is so compulsively fun.  It is kind of like building a collection.  Okay, got bobcat, got black bear, got skunk, what's next!  Maybe delineating out all those oak species.  The thing you learn when you get into plant ID and keying out wildflowers, trees, and shurbs is, well, I used to think tree ID was simple.  A white oak is a white oak, just like a black bear is, you know, a black bear.

Oh, but black bears actually comprise sixteen, sixteen subspecies in North America.  And I already mentioned the long list of oaks that doesn't even count when one species hybridizes with another.  Plus, some species, rather like people, have a variety of phenotypes, or, shapes and sizes, so that one particular leaf shape or set of leaf shapes per species is nowhere near all you need to know.

Like any new thing that one tries to learn, you start off thinking it is simple and that, having the basics, the rest is well within your grasp.  It is only when you being to glimpse the actual complexity that you can consider yourself something slightly past novice in any subject. 

In short:  Nature is multifaceted, complex, environmentally dependent and constantly changing.  Kind of like the real world.  This is advanced stamp collecting.

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