Thursday, February 24, 2011

Life's Little Joke

The term Stephen Jay Gould used to describe the way humans tend to see younger, or nearly-extinct species (such as horses and, well, themselves) as evolutionarily superior to those that have been around for the long haul (such as roaches, alligators and many birds).

There are at least 8 species of Pelican on the Earth today, found on every continent but Antarctica, each one perhaps a minute punchline in Life's Little Joke. You see, the Pelican as we know it has changed so little over the past 30 million years that a fossil found from that long ago was classified in the same family with today's modern Pelicans. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The name comes from the Greek word pelekys which means "axe". The bird with the largest beak in the world has the ability to chop through wood with it. That, and its "trapdoor" ability to catch fish has left the Pelican in evolutionary stasis... merely bored and waiting for it's competition to get better. Or perhaps not bored, but free to pursue other interests.


These birds look like they are made of foam, delicately carved and halfway borrowed from Pterodactyls. They are the original wave riders, surfing in fast, swift groups six inches above breaking waves as the rippling crest rushes air up underneath them, shooting down the beach as fast as A1A traffic. They soar high, fast and beautifully. Once in the air, they rarely flap their wings; they fly with enough innate ease to make any person dream of one day being a bird. Their dive-bombs are kamikaze in nature. They drop full force from the sky like a WWII plane and land with a magnificent splash, usually to surface with a beak-pouch full of movement. White pelicans hunt in groups, herding schools of bait fish into their pouches, fashioned like scoop nets. Once full on fish, they luxuriate in social groups on piers or coastal rocks.

 Pelicans as objects are almost exclusively seen in the tropics and coastal environments. Statues adorn dock posts, poolsides and patios. Every roadside souvenir shop in Florida is flooded with tchotchkes of pelicans. They are intricately tied to the coast, they live off of the sea. They are synonymous with Old Florida and the Keys. They catch fish mid-air at piers; unabashedly chase small children holding food; and consistently taunt fishermen--often times stealing their catch as they reel it in. Postcards, posters, T-shirts and diner napkins beam their image to let the tourist know they have arrived at the coast, and remind the locals why they live where they do. My pelican came from an old dock, built in the 50s. It used to perch proudly atop the farthest post out, a tropical gargoyle. Eventually the dock went down, all that salt air just withered the wood after so many years. But my concrete guy is heavier than a boat anchor, and has only suffered a few nicks and dings after a harrowing life halfway out to sea.

My Dockpost Pelican

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Grain Cradle

As the gasoline engine got smaller, it became more and more ubiquitous; over time finding its way into barns first, then (as America turned into a land of not-quite-city and not-quite-county) home garages. Now every house in Suburbia comes equipped with a gas-powered arsenal of land-management tools. Or more aptly, landscaping tools. People no longer work the land to reap benefits like food, but rather to confine it, keep it trimmed and meeting HOA codes.

But in the days before wire trimmers, or so-called weed whackers, there reigned a king capable of taking down an entire field of grass in a single day, never needing so much as a drop of gasoline. Looking at the American Scythe (different from the European Scythe in its shaped handle design) I wonder why we ever made the switch to those little gas monsters. The jump in complexity is preposterous and beyond exponential. But speed! Ah yes, and efficiency! God Loves Efficiency! If like me, you were sure a gas trimmer must be way faster than a scythe, well friend, we were both wrong.

American Scythe

European Scythe

Grain Cradle

In fact, there are many stories about people racing gas trimmers with scythes, most telling the tale of a woman with a scythe cutting a patch of grass faster and cleaner than a man with a gas trimmer. And they are true.

 The scythe is such a simple, elegant tool because of its organic evolution. Clark Dodsworth of The Informal Learning review did a paper on the evolution of tools and in it talks briefly about the scythe. He writes:

"Now, the scythe is not at first glance an obvious solution. In fact, it looks extremely primitive; the handle is very like a piece of a tree limb, and the blade looks exactly like a cross-section of some Pleistocene carnivore's fang. It has an oddly curved shaft and weirdly-placed handles. The thing does not even initially make sense until you pick it up. Then, extraordinarily, it teaches you how to hold itself and how to wield itself, even if you picked it up the wrong way. Parts of it gradually became shaped to the task, and the rest of it became shaped to the user, so that, finally, it became able to shape the behavior of the user. Sounds a little like dog training, doesn't it? It is an excellent example of both a well-designed interface and an evolutionarily mature device; one that wants to do what it is intended to do, and has technique implicit in its design."

I think that pretty much sums up the elegance and usefulness of the American Scythe.

And at the local flea market this morning I found and purchased that elegance. I'm going to peen and sharpen the blade , like they do here. Then, well, the grass grows tall around this place, and after getting the hang of it I bet I won't be gassing up the Bush Hog any more.

My new American Scythe; ca. 1940s

The previous owner may have shortened this blade

Adjustable Pitch for the Blade