Figures don’t tell stories of catch, disaster

Those who spend time outdoors, even on traditional sports like hunting and fishing, spend a lot more time dealing with numbers than one might think. The sports require one to develop a certain reasoning ability with numerical values and concepts of scale.
Consider the sport of fishing. It requires, among other things, fishing line. And a successful angler needs to have a pretty good idea how strong 4-pound test line is, and what it’s like to cast with or tie knots with, and what the differences are between 4-, 8-, 12-, and 20-pound test.
One needs to know not just a manufacturer’s definition of “4-pound test,” but what it means in practice when there is a fish on the line, or when a lure is hooked on a log or rock. There is also a certain linear scale so that even an experienced angler who has never used 12-pound test has a good idea what it will feel like compared to 4-, 6-, and 8-pound test.
Likewise, guns and ammunitions are measured in caliber, or gauge. These are numbers that also have a meaning and relationships with one another — as do the numbers representing the lengths of skis or canoes or the water flow out of a dam. If you have a bow, you may not know exactly what it will feel like to draw if you set it to 75 pounds, but if you’ve drawn it at 65 pounds and 70 pounds you’ll have a pretty good idea.
The largest largemouth bass I ever caught weighed 5 pounds and measured 20 inches. I had a good sense how big it was when I hooked it, even before I weighed it, because I had caught plenty of 2- to 4-pound largemouth bass before then. I think if I hooked a 7- or 8-pound bass I’d have a pretty good idea how big it was too. (And I’d be happy to test out my ability some time.)
And although I’ve not yet climbed any 14,000-foot peaks in the Rockies, because the actual vertical climb might be only 7,000 feet based on the elevation of the starting point, I have a sense of what the climb would be like because I’ve climbed 4,000- and 5,000-foot peaks in New England and some 10,000-foot peaks in the Rockies.
At some point, though, this sense of scale and perspective begins to break down. The largest largemouth ever caught weighed over 25 pounds. The jump in scale from my measly 5-pound fish to the behemoth of that 25-pounder is too big for me. I can fathom a 25-pound largemouth only because I have caught 25-pound fish of other species.
Otherwise, if I ever hooked a fish that big I don’t know if I’d have any real idea just how big it really was. (Though that, too, is an experiment I wouldn’t mind trying.) And what about the world record brown or rainbow trout, both of which were set last year, and both of which are up around 60-pounds) That about times heavier than the largest brown trout I’ve ever caught.
Or what about climbing 29,000-foot-plus Mount Everest? I’ve never seen Mount Everest. Can I understand something about its height by looking at Mount Abe — which just squeaks over 4,000 feet — and then trying to imagine seven of them stacked on top of each other? Moving from Mount Abe to Mount Mansfield might help me to prepare for climbing Mount Washington, but I don’t think it would even begin to help me fathom Mount Everest.
Over the past couple months, my sense of scale and numbers has failed me even more completely as I’ve tried to come to grips with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not quite sure whose estimates about the number of gallons spilling each day are most accurate. Is it 500,000 gallons per day? Or 1.5 million per day?
Part of the point is that both numbers are so far beyond what I can picture that they are almost meaningless. Even the word “massive” fails to capture it. One estimate of the total as I’m writing this is 82 million gallons.
Here are more numbers. I’ve read that over 400 species of animals living in the area have been affected by the spill. I think it would take me a long time to name 400 species of animals living in Addison County, not including insects. Something like 413 sea turtles and 47 dolphins have already been found dead within the spill area. I’ve not seen that many sea turtles or dolphins in my life.
Several websites try to give perspective on the area of the spill. I tried to see how the spill compared with Addison County. It turns out that the area of the spill doesn’t compare with Addison County: Oil now covers an area more like the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, we still need oil. The economy needs oil. People who process the oil need jobs. So we’re still drilling. And the number I keep thinking about is the number 1. It is a number I understand. Its scale makes sense to me. It is the number of people whose decisions I can directly control, to make just a few more decisions to demand less energy and fewer of the world’s resources.
And maybe, with enough 1s put together, the combined effect will eliminate the demand for the next deep-water oil well that isn’t likely to be a whole lot safer than any of the ones that have been drilled in the past.
And maybe, by the time I learn the names of 400 species of animals in Addison County those species will still be alive. Maybe one of those species will be an 8-pound largemouth bass.

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