Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just the Facts, Ma'am

or The Stories We Tell Our Children

A friend of mine has a precocious son who, at the age of two, would declaim random facts that he had learned from books.  He would earnestly tug your hand until he had your attention, raise solemn brown eyes to yours, and then soulfully inform you that, "An octagon has eight sides."  Or that "Water boils at 100°C."  Or "Geese migrate south every winter."  He was so wonderfully pleased that the world was full of things to know, that one could know them, and then there you were.  Fortunately, he lives in Vermont, so his bubble about some of those facts won't be burst for a long time to come.

Since the sandhill cranes have begun coming home, I've been thinking about the extent to which most of the stories we tell about the natural world in this behemoth of a country really only apply to relatively small portions of it.  If we were asked, say, whether Canada geese migrate south every winter, we would nod enthusiastically in agreement—even if they don't do that where we live.

Colorado, for example, is hardly the tropics, yet as harsh as its winters can be, most of its Canada geese do not migrate south.  They don't go anywhere at all.  Ever.  They just move from one park or lake or cornfield to another and honk for chortles in passing.  Many was the time as a young child that I would point to a V of geese in November (or December, or January) and exclaim, "Look!  They're flying south for the winter!"  And one long-suffering parent or another would say, "Actually, that's northwest," or "Nope, due east."  I learned a great many directions from Canada geese (and my parents), but south was never among them.

The snow geese, on the other hand, do migrate south, and the bosques sparkle with them at this time of year.  That is to say, this is the south to which the snow geese migrate.  Migration doesn't always mean away.  In fact, in most of the country, autumn is not the tidy season of departures summed up in "Geese migrate south every winter."  Some do, some don't; some stay, some leave, some arrive—but that's hardly the stuff that word-and-picture books suitable for precocious two-year-olds (which are most likely published in the northeast, where geese migrate south every winter) are made of.

Or take the boiling point of water.  I vividly remember a high school chemistry experiment that began with the directions, "Bring water to 100°C."  We lit our bunsen burners and started the water to heating and waited and waited and waited for it to get to 100°, while our teacher prowled around in his lab coat making knowing wisecracks every time one of our beakers would get to 95° and then...stop.  We never could get it any hotter, and meanwhile the water was boiling away to nothing (while we enjoyed a pleasant facial steam in the process).

Well, as we learned, water boils at 100°C only at sea level.  The boiling point drops by about one degree for every thousand foot gain in elevation, and in Denver, the Mile High City, the boiling point of water is 95°.  Our textbooks didn't mention that little fact; our teacher just let us know that the facts it did mention didn't apply to us, and on we went. 

Unless you live in the relatively small area of the country where received wisdom actually works, you quickly learn that most of the wisdom doesn't apply to you—but that doesn't mean you don't receive it.  You recite "April showers bring May flowers" every spring, even though the rainy season isn't until August; you associate snow with snowballs and snowmen, even though the snow in your area is generally too dry and powdery to pack; you firmly believe that Platonic ideal geese fly south every winter, even though "your" geese stick around all year.  All these little ways of describing the world—you accept them as true, perhaps even as the standard, while you also learn that they have nothing to do with, you know, reality.  In the back of your mind you just add the footnotes and the fine print that says "except..."

An octagon, on the other hand, really does have eight sides.*


* Except in alternate dimensions and universes, where normal rules of the space-time continuum do not apply.


  1. Perhaps Colorado IS an alternate universe. Or at least it seems very different from any other place I've lived.

  2. In Cape Town we grew up with an English / North European tradition of snow and evergreen conifers, which shed needles in the car before you even got them home. Only in recent years have we moved on to make new South African Christmas traditions with wire art and beadwork. Don't think you were with me when I blogged about a glass Advent wreath. Evergreen isn't in our December ;>)

  3. klbrowser—Colorado is certainly a lot less predictable than other places, at any rate!

    EE—I was actually thinking of you in part when I wrote this one and wondering how the traditions had been adapted in your part of the world. The winter-y aspects of Christmas are strange enough in the southern USA (in Florida the streets are decked with artificial snowmen at Christmas), let alone in the southern hemisphere where you must be roasting by then! You mentioned your wreath in a comment at one point—I'll have to rummage around in your archives for the blog post.