The Journeys of Holling C. Holling

Paddle to the Sea. 1941. Tree in the Trail. 1942. Seabird. 1948. Minn of the Mississippi. 1951

Each of these books tells a story about travelers. Paddle to the Sea is a small wood carving of a Native American in a canoe, placed by its maker into the water north of Lake Superior. Paddle finds his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence after years of travel through each of the Great Lakes in turn. Seabird follows the career of a boy named Ezra on a New Bedford whaler and his son’s on yankee clippers, accompanied by a carving in walrus ivory of an ivory gull. Father and son grow to manhood in the age of sail, but the story ends with Ezra’s great-grandson still carrying the white bird as he pilots airplanes over the ocean.  Minn is a snapping turtle, who hatches in Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, and who travels slowly south, ending up as a moss covered ancient in the deep backwaters of the Delta. Only the tree in the trail stays put; it begins as a young cottonwood sapling by a tributary of the Arkansas River near present day Great Bend, Kansas. It is witness to generations of Native American Buffalo hunters, the arrival of the Spanish and then the Americans – trappers, traders, settlers and all along the Santa Fe Trail. After hundreds of years, the dead tree is carved into an ox yoke and travels the Santa Fe trail at last. All the books are filled from beginning to end with the natural and human history of the places the travelers pass through. These books are about journeys, but even more about the passage of time.

As a child, I loved Holling’s illustrations, both the large color ones on nearly every other page and the monochrome drawings that filled the margins – maps and diagrams of everything from whales to ships to arrowheads and rivers. I’ve never had difficulty picturing the outlines of the Great Lakes, because Holling, in Paddle to the Sea, provided an object to fit each shape: A wolf’s head for Superior, a summer squash fruit with leaves for Michigan, a trapper carrying a pack of furs for Huron, a lump of coal for Erie and a carrot for Ontario. The forms connected to the regional economies: trapping in the north woods around Superior and Huron, farming in  the midwest around Lake Michigan and in the lake plain of central New York, heavy industry from  western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio to Michigan. Even Lake St. Clair, by Detroit, had a shape like a heart: that region was at the time Holling wrote and illustrated, the industrial heart of the continent.

His marginal illustrations include beautiful maps, both historical and contemporary of the regions his travelers pass. He shows how glaciation shaped the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Showing the history of Minn’s evolution, he goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and there are numerous geological diagrams. his painting of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake in Minn of the Mississippi is unforgettable.

He illustrations and drawings take you back in time through the history of the regions he depicts.  He illustrates whaling ships and steamboats and covered wagons, often in great detail, showing the different types and how they were used. There are diagrams, beautifully lettered, showing the parts of tools and machines, plans for corrals, sawmills, river locks and how pearl buttons were cut from mussel shells.

In his scenes of life, whether aboard ships at sea or in the bayou country of Louisiana, Holling illustrates the people with sympathy and an absence of satire or irony (he studied anthropology as well as art).  He draws plants and animals in great detail (he was a taxidermist at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was young) and with the same sympathy as his people. Landscapes, wild, rural or industrial are usually shown from a human perspective, as if one were in the scene, with dramatic effect when he shows storms, floods or wildfires. Much of what he depicts he had seen firsthand; he and his wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling, were great travelers themselves.

The Hollings left a legacy of beautifully illustrated books for children. While in many respects, the world they show has changed tremendously since they were published in the 1930s to 1950s, they are still wonderful. There is a love of the natural and the human  coming through these pages that is impossible to miss.

[Here’s another fascinating bit from Wikipedia: “Holling wrote and illustrated a full-page Sunday comic strip titled The World Museum. Each strip included a diorama, which could be cut out and assembled into a 3-D scene of, for example, a buffalo hunt or an undersea panorama.”]

Note: I first found Holling’s books when I was in grade school in the Mary Bailey Pratt Children’s Library in Chapel Hill NC. The library was housed on the upper floor of the elementary school on Franklin Street. It was there, as well as at home, that my love for books developed, thanks to the librarians, especially Mrs Hardee. I worked for her at least one summer, learning how to care for the books. Books with pictures by great American illustrators from N. C. Wyeth to Doctor Seuss, made up a large part of the collection, and two large, framed watercolors, done years before by a student, hung on the wall opposite the desk. One was of Ichabod Crane, walking down the road, reading a book, the other was of Tom Sawyer, heading off to go fishing. After the old school was demolished in the late 1960s, I wondered what had become of those pictures. Years later, I was delighted to find them hanging in the new Chapel Hill Public Library children’s section.

Playful Explorations

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (And Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth. The Experiment. New York. 2018.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2017.

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Bloomsbury USA. 2015.

 These three books form a progression from the most concrete to the most abstract or, taking a different point of view, from the most serious to the most playful. At the same time all three are in different ways, highly imaginative.

The first is an account of particle physics, framed as a voyage into the unknown waters of the atomic and subatomic scales in the natural world, accompanied by charts at the beginning of each section that map physicists’ increasing knowledge as they probe matter at ever higher energies. The classes of particles recognized by current theory are shown as islands, while the forces that link them are shown as connections – electromagnetism as bridges traversed by cars, the strong force as sea lanes crossed by boats and the weak force as airplane routes. Butterworth describes the steps by which these waters were charted, from the development of the atomic theory of matter to the Standard Model, which culminated recently with the finding of the Higgs boson, using the Large Hadron Collider.

This model is a triumph of the partnership between theoretical and experimental physics, relying on both advanced mathematics and powerful machines, such as particle colliders  for achieving high energy at incredibly tiny scales and sophisticated detectors for examining the resulting products. Both the mathematical calculations and the engineering are among the most challenging being carried out anywhere in the world, and it is an open question how much deeper we can push these explorations.

Butterworth concludes by describing some of the conjectures and hints of what lies beyond (at even higher energies) cast in the form of sailors’ tales of the prodigies and monsters found in uncharted waters, like dark matter and energy, super symmetry and string theories. His account spares his reader all but the most basic mathematics and yet provides a very helpful overview of the current theory of our physical universe as well as an enjoyable tale.

The second book is a biography of the pioneer of communications theory, Claude Shannon, mathematician and engineer, whose work helped provide the basis for today’s digital computers and the entire structure of information technology built on their power. Shannon is a man who loved both thinking and tinkering and who was fortunate to be brilliant enough to be allowed to make those activities his career, without having to worry too much about where it all led. His most influential work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, changed the way communications engineers thought about their work by eliminating the focus on the mechanism (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) and instead considering the fundamental logic of information. Among his key contributions were a focus on probability and his demonstration that all messages can be reduced to simple binary codes, consisting of “bits.” His basic measure of information is familiar to me from my days as an ecology graduate student, because it can be repurposed as a way of measuring species diversity in samples of organisms. This was one of my first experiences with the idea that information is a property of more than just human communications. The authors discuss the way in which the concept of information ( especially its conceptualization as uncertainty or randomness) pervades many aspects of modern science. They warn that this may prove just another version of the old “clockwork universe,” an example of the tendency to imagine nature in terms of our own inventions. Still, there is no doubting the extent of Shannon’s influence.

Despite his reputation, and despite being associated with many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century at Bell Labs and MIT, Shannon preferred his private family life and his playful activities, from robot building to unicycle riding, over fame and influence. He and his mathematician wife, Betty, spent much time devising toys and games, some quite sophisticated, including one of the earliest chess playing computers. He could accomplish amazing results with erector sets and a few switches and relays, like a juggling robot, dressed to look like W.C. Fields. He had earned, in the eyes of his employers, the right to pursue these activities by his amazing early achievements. Perhaps as robots and IT gradually take away the need for so many to spend lives in repetitive toil, more of us will be able to enjoy such a playful existence.

The last book suggests what a life of pure play might look like. I heard and saw John Conway at my institution many years ago giving a talk and demonstration on knots. It was a virtuoso performance, culminating it a dance in which a group of volunteers from the audience followed his directions to turn themselves into an amazingly elaborate pattern while joined together by a web of pieces of rope. I don’t recall the final result except that it was quite astonishing. Conway is widely known as the inventor of Conway’s Game of Life and of surreal numbers, among the numerous mathematical subjects that have engaged his attention over the years. The game of life has become a staple among computer pastimes, both because of the fascinating and sometimes beautiful patterns it generates and because of the way it models self replication and the universal Turing machine (the mathematical essence of computers). Indeed, as the Wikipedia article on the game notes, with those two properties, it can be thought of as modeling life itself, at least as mathematically defined.

Conway is in Roberts’ account perpetually at play, and like a heedless child, he leaves messes everywhere he lights. His offices at various venerable centers of mathematical research have been famous for the nearly impenetrable heaps of toys, games and paper constructions he accumulates. Conway loves games (he sees every game as a number, indeed games for him seem to underlie numbers, and provide a basic way to conceive of his surreal numbers). His method of solving problems is frequently to construct something or use a game as a model. His play leads to real mathematical discoveries, however, and other mathematicians, including some far more serious in demeanor than Conway, have been eager to collaborate with him on major projects.

Roberts biography is interspersed with accounts of her interactions with Conway during the time she was gathering material from and about him. Someone referred to the book as “metabiography,” since its making is part of the story, and it certainly manages to convey some of the strangeness of a life so dedicated to play. Mathematics, like tinkering, is one of the most primal forms play can take. When our educators come to understand that learning is about how to live and not just how to earn a living, they will have new and even better reasons to be sure everyone learns the fundamentals. We all need math to open up the horizons of beauty and pleasure.

 I know I’m going to keep rereading these books and also plunge into the colder waters of Wikipedia to try to better understand some of the concepts presented, but for now, I will post these impressions.

Assessment and the seeds of learning

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Thoreau

I have taught for forty years at a state institution that started out as a small state college in 1971 and has become, as of 2015, a university, at least in name. For about the past five years, the main thrust of my institution’s curriculum development efforts have been geared towards developing detailed lists of “Essential Learning Outcomes.” These are objectives that are supposed to be evaluated on a three step ordinal scale of “aware, competent, or skilled.” Faculty are being told to develop ELOs for their academic programs and individual courses and to align their assessments to their ELO rubrics (or maybe it’s their assessment rubrics to their ELOs). The goal is to demonstrate that students are learning very specific skills and “competencies” as a direct result of what happened in the classroom, during or immediately after the “activity” took place. This is no way to assess real learning, which is something beyond the reach of techniques based in so-called “learning research.”

The current drive to assess “learning outcomes” is equivalent to demanding that teachers produce fully developed knowledge in the minds of their students immediately. It it like demanding that a gardener show you a fully developed garden of plants, with flowers and fruit, in a day, or at most a few months. Such a garden can only be a hot house full of exotic plants in pots or a heavily tended garden, using every artificial help available. Hothouses and artificial landscapes have no organic connection to the environment in which they are growing. Once the heat, water and fertilizer are are cut off, the plants die.

This botanical metaphor is quite revealing. Just as there are subjects that can be learned quickly and retained if the mind is well prepared (the minds of children are extremely retentive and often not overly cluttered), sometimes the effect of seeding is immediate, and plants take root and begin to grow. More often in teaching, the best that happens is that a few weeds of false opinion are rooted out or at least identified, preparing the mind to receive something true. Teachers of science know that this weeding is essential: students do not understand and retain correct ideas if they continue to harbor false ones that interfere. Most seeds do not germinate right away. Indeed, they often wait years to develop. The teacher must have what Thoreau called “faith in a seed.” In some future circumstance of the student’s life, the environment of the mind may be right for this idea, and then it will develop. Most of the important things we learn in our lives have to develop like natural vegetation, through a process of succession in which different ideas only grow under the circumstances that are suited to them. Because natural communities have a “seed bank,” of dormant seed accumulated over many years, as well as a constant influx of seeds from outside, as one plant dies, another will immediately occupy the spot where it grew. Often many new plants will spring up and compete for the space until one takes over, or a plant that has been waiting, as it were, in the shadow of the current dominant one, will quickly grow up to fill its place.

I the human mind, if it remains active and receptive, old ideas are gradually replaced as the short-lived ones fade and are replaced by those that live longer. These may be new, but more often, I believe the best ones were first encountered earlier in life and have lain dormant, like seeds in the seed bank, or have been waiting in the shadow for us to reject an idea that up to then had been dominant. Gradually, one develops a set of ideas that have stood the test of time and the challenges of surviving in a complex world. If the good ideas are there at the time when circumstances become right for them, they will grow and flourish. All the teacher can do for the minds of his young students is to try to plant ieas of lasting potential value and have faith that they will eventually grow.

I am extremely grateful that I had the benefit of a home and school environment that made me reasonably competent as a reader, a fair master of math up through algebra and geometry, with a little bit of Latin and French, before I went to college. Furthermore, these were taught me in a way that did not kill my enjoyment of learning.

I attended Saint John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as an undergraduate. The core of the all-required curriculum was the seminar, a twice weekly evening class, where for two hours or more around 15-20 students and two tutors discussed a sequence of great books, from Homer and Dante to Darwin and Freud. Discussions began with a question from one of the tutors and then went, slowly or sometimes explosively, around and through the text, following the argument where it led, occasionally being set back on course by the tutors. Some tutors were more active in pushing the question; others preferred to sit back and see what we would come up with. The outcome of a Saint John’s seminar was that, as the etymology of “seminar” implies, seeds would have been planted in the minds of the participants.

Outside of class, we students often wondered what it was we were learning. It was very hard to summarize what any seminar was “about,” and impossible to state in a few words what had been concluded from the reading and discussion. Attrition at Saint John’s was quite high, and a frequent reason was the sense that we were “not getting anywhere.” Math tutorial and laboratories, another major component of the curriculum were subject to similar criticism, as we worked our way through texts like Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Principia and Maxwell’s Experimental Researches on Electricity. I stayed with the Program to the end and went on to a successful graduate career at Cornell in ecology. I have never regretted my Saint John’s education and still view it as the best undergraduate program in the country.

I did learn a lot of things while at Saint John’s: The rudiments of Greek and some important ideas about geometry and arithmetic, the nature of mathematical proof, etc. I could recollect some of the specific content of the many books I read. But what was really valuable was that the experience made me confident in my ability to understand texts, to dissect arguments and to hold my own in discussion. This preparation of the ground enabled me to breeze through most of what I was required to learn in graduate school and to pass my qualifying exams without difficulty. Even there, though, it was the seeds that were sown, especially while reading many key papers in ecology assigned by my professors, that were most valuable. These came to fruition over my years as a college teacher. There were quite a few subjects, animal physiology for example, which I took and passed with A’s, from which I can recall almost nothing, yet I still have the notebooks and final exams to prove I once knew them very well. I passed the graduate reading exam in German (a particularly dreaded “assessment”) without much sweat. Having, however, no necessity or leisure to read anything in German, I forgot most of it in a matter of months. Short term memory stuffing is easy; long term requires a lot more application, at least for me (and many of my students).

Many of the great books from Saint John’s and benchmark papers from my Cornell years are still part of the courses I teach, both in the Environmental Studies Program and in General Studies. I still lead discussion-based classes. Over the years, I have received some, but not much, support for this approach from colleagues and administrators.

I hear from many of my former students who have gone on to successful careers. Often I am surprised by the places they have ended up. Rarely is the memory I have of how well they did a predictor of how brilliantly they have succeeded. Many an ugly duckling has proved to be a swan. Of course, the love of a subject, if it is a real passion, often grows into a brilliant career, but it is not necessarily the case that those students would have come off well in assessments of their learning at the time. Quite a few were low B and even C students in many of their courses.

Colleges and universities and those that fund them have to learn to deal with the fact that short term assessment is not a good predictor of future success. Changes made in teaching methods and curriculum will not show up until long after the students have gone on. It is far more important to look carefully to the quality of the seed being planted. This can only be done if you have a faculty who are willing to think long and hard about what things are important to include in the curriculum and who are not forced to waste their time developing short term assessments, rubrics and other specious projects that only value pretty but ephemeral flowers.

Amphibious reflections

I have been carrying out a study of wood frogs Rana (Lithobates) sylvatica for a couple of years now on the campus where I work. We’re trapping frogs as they move toward the small vernal pond where they breed, to see how far away from the breeding site they overwinter. Wood frogs are explosive breeders, doing all their mating and egg-laying in a few days in late winter, after the pond thaws. The other night, after checking the traps and releasing the captured frog into the water, we stood on the N side of the pond and listened as the occasional calls began, gradually building up to a full chorus. I reflected that these frogs must have been coming to this pond for thousands of years to put their eggs in this collective womb, where their embryos can grow safely. Late winter after late winter, they have rasped out their certainty that another spring will arrive. The next morning sitting and contemplating, another thought occurred to me.

How is a college like a frog pond? Female frogs bring eggs to put in pond; parents bring students to college. Males come to inseminate eggs. Faculty plant the seeds of learning in the students.

Eggs are not simply passive matter, as Aristotle thought: they contain half the genome and are in many ways already non-genetically programmed to develop along certain lines. Rarely, eggs may develop apomicticly, not accepting any of the genes of the male. Students come already full of opinions, beliefs and predispositions that reflect their culture, social environment and upbringing. Some may refuse to absorb anything new.

Some frog eggs may already be badly damaged goods, burdened with issues that may stunt development and prevent successful growth and metamorphosis. New students can be the same.

Male frogs are intensely competitive, trying to inseminate as many eggs with their own seed as possible. Some faculty want to create exact copies of themselves; whole departments and program can become like this. Luckily, unlike frog eggs, students can undergo multiple fertilizations. The faculty, like the frogs, are driven by eros. As Socrates’ friend Diotima says in Plato’s Symposium, love is the desire to beget immortal beauty, wisdom and human excellence in the soul of another, as it was once conceived in the teacher’s own soul. Like male frogs, faculty love to engage in noisy display at times.

The male frog does not fill the egg up with stuff and shape it into what it is going to become. The male brings another part of the heritage of the frog population, new material that complements and completes what is already there. Good teachers sow ideas and let them complement, complete or rarely overwrite what is already in the student, sometimes supporting, sometimes challenging their beliefs and opinions.

The pond is the womb of the frog embryos, before and after they hatch. It must provide all the nutrition beyond what is in the egg itself, if the tadpole is to metamorphose into a froglet. A good pond contains a rich stock of nutrients and an active ecological community. A good college is an environment for learning. Students are not force-fed predetermined packages of nutrition, but instead forage for themselves in a place that holds a great store of thought from the past, especially recorded works of words and symbols. Unlike tadpoles, the students must learn to read these recorded thoughts and feelings for themselves.

A pond may be polluted, undergo eutrophication from excess nutrients, be invaded by predators or parasites, drained or have its water supply diverted, be filled in with sediment or disrupted by careless small boys or scientists. Like the pond, the college may allow the problems of the outside world to overwhelm it, become over-enriched with amusements, fall prey to ambitious or self-aggrandizing leaders, have its critical resources drained away or diverted, be destroyed to build something else or muddied up in the name of assessment or accountability by people who don’t realize the delicacy and vulnerability of what takes place.  As when ruling a great nation or cooking a small fish, a college must be handled very carefully, and those to whom a college is entrusted have tremendous responsibility.

If all goes well, in a few weeks or months the tadpoles reabsorb their childish tails, put forth their limbs and venture out onto the land to face the challenges of adult life well prepared. Likewise students, if they are well nourished, will leave behind the juvenile stage and enter into the vigor of young adulthood. Unlike frogs, it may be possible for them to return periodically throughout life to the pond to refresh and renew themselves.