Friday, March 15, 2013

This is Science

My current office is in a building beside a lake. A system of trails, paved and unpaved, leads around the lake on both sides. Every day at lunch time, I eat for about 15 minutes* and then set off from our parking lot, on to those trails, for the rest of my hour. I've walked from the winter into the spring since I started working here, on sunny days and rainy ones, in the wind and the warmth. I get to pick from about four branches of trails, and I try to go down each at least once a week.

When I walk, I look around. I look up into the tree canopy and at the sky, and I look down at the sides of the path and into ditches. I see squirrels, birds, moths, butterflies, and lizards. I don't listen to music while I walk, nor do I take phone calls or texts. I listen to the world around me and the people that pass by. I listen to the scolding mockingbirds and the whirring of bike tires.

Sometimes, I see plants or animals that I don't recognize. If I'm curious about them, I'll try to take a quick photo (the moment a cell phone is allowed on my walk) and look them up when I get back to my office. I don't always do this, though; sometimes I just let the strange flower or unknown butterfly linger in my brain, and look for it again on the next walk.

I started walking in late December. I wore waterproof boots and a coat with a warm scarf at my neck. Sometimes I carried an umbrella. I had the trails mostly to myself. I looked at the lake edges and saw the water level rise and fall, dictated not only by falling rain but by the activity at the dam that created the lake. I saw squirrels taking shelter. I slipped on rocks.

For a month and a half I braved the colder weather, the wind, and the drizzle. Braved is a funny word because, being a transplant to California from the Pacific Northwest, I really don't mind days like that. I enjoy the solitude it gives me and the bright, emerald wetness of trees and ferns. I like walking to warm up. The only person I saw regularly on these days was a quiet man, probably ten years my senior, in a dark red jacket. We never spoke to each other (and still haven't), but we gave smiles and nods in passing.

A few weeks ago, something changed. I started to get warm on my walks. I would walk out wearing a light coat or sweater, and walk back with it slung over my arm. As a big fan of autumn and winter, I wondered if my sweater-and-soup season was coming to an end...

It did, abruptly, over a weekend. In just two days of absence from my walking paths, everything changed. On that Monday that I will always think of as the real start of spring, I saw butterflies for the first time -- the black and iridescent blue of the Red-Spotted Purple, who loves to feast on oaks as a caterpillar, and who flits charmingly to animal droppings as an adult. I saw squirrels chase each other on looping routes up trees, chattering away. Ducks and geese were honking their loud calls of anger and lust (who can tell the difference with geese?), and frogs were piping away in the little ponds beside the road.

Only a week after the animal outpouring, the plants followed suit. Dutchman's Pipe cast its lime green tendrils over last year's dead brush, and the tender leaves of Liliaceae pushed through the dry, scrubby grass on banks. A few brief rains came and went, and suddenly catkins were out here and there, like little Christmas bulbs. Wild onions and mustard bloomed, the deli in the wilderness, and new grass started replacing old, tired blades.

The people changed, too. The few lone cyclists and frustrated looking joggers** multiplied, and more people were bringing their babies along for the ride. Single mountain bikers became pairs and packs, and the winter tights peeled away in favor of the ever-flattering Spandex shorts. Others started walking, too, and chatting, filling the air with conversation as well as goose rage.

I knew it was spring before the calendar told me. I knew before Daylight Saving Time. I knew because I was there, and I felt the undeniable urge to bounce back to the office with a flower behind one ear. I experienced the change and recognized it because of my familiarity with what preceded it.

This is science.

To walk in the world, to revisit the same ideas and routes over and over, until they are familiar enough that minute changes leap easily to our eyes. Science treads the same steps until they are predictable, routine, and then introduces one new element -- to witness the change and absorb the repercussions.

Science isn't dry, or boring, or removed from the world at hand. It doesn't exist only in a lab, and you certainly don't need a degree to do it. Some science looks stodgy, but that doesn't make the fun science any less real.

Science is alive, vibrant, and exciting. It happens when you cook, when you train your dog, when we meet, and all that we do. It is merely the act of observing a situation, thinking about the elements that make it up, and perhaps seeing those things play out, over and over, until a pattern becomes clear. There is power in that pattern, the power to predict and effect change.

I do science by walking around. Everyone can. We just need to clear away the distractions and not worry about being "bored," because there is plenty happening around us to keep our minds occupied.

Today, when I went for a walk, there were little orange flowers blooming. I need to go look them up...


*Don't worry, I don't scarf my food. I'm just a light eater... at lunch...
**Joggers always look unhappy, to me. I will ride my bike, walk, and hike, but jogging just looks and feels unpleasant! Sorry to any joggers reading this.

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