Tuesday, June 4, 2013

MacGyver's Occam's Razor

Posted by:  Kim 

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” –Albert Einstein
As a rule, I think the training of field ecologists needs to include some creative problem solving instruction.  Thinking outside the box is often required and is an excellent life skill in general.  For us, the 2-3.5 hour drives to our sites with very little available to us once we leave Meanook, encourage both thinking ahead and thinking on the fly…  it is a long drive back if you forget something, or if a problem arises that you must fix on-site.  We have no electricity, very few gas-stations, and a host of unknowns every time we go out.  It is good to be prepared.  For example, I was cleaning out my field pack this morning and the contents include:   rain jacket, rain pants, 2 spare resin tubes, sunscreen, 2 headnets, granola bar, 4 sharpies, 1 pen, 2 pencils, one notebook, duct tape, electrical tape, 2 flathead screwdrivers, 2 nutdrivers, 1 blue Juice multi-tool, 5 zip ties, an adjustable wrench, 1 Loupe on a BIOGEOMON lanyard, a pair of work gloves, a pair of lab gloves, a tape measure, light in the rain matches, chemical hand warmers, a bandanna  1 carabiner knife, one baseball hat, electric fence insulators for both t-posts and tree-posts, nails, a three-way-stop-cock, flagging tape, a crank-wire setter, tissues, 4 band-aids, stretchy medical tape, lip balm, and an orange.   This motley assortment of gear has been getting me through the days.

That said, sometimes you think you are ready for a situation, and you find that you are not.  There are occasions when even in the safety of our lab back at the field station, sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution.  Two days ago, a time-sensitive project involved grinding over 150 very small samples of peat into a fine powder over a very short period of time.  Our fancy $1500 glorified coffee grinder, it turns out, is rebellious and needs 10 minutes of rest for every minute it works.  And to boot, for such small samples, it wasn’t very talented.  Lazy and inefficient, the grinder was a frustration.  We were spinning for solutions.  The mortar and pestles had all burned in the fire two falls ago, there were none in Athabasca, and golf balls and kitchen bowls were too frictionless to do anything useful.  After 6 hours of using blunt ends of hand tools to rub peat through screens overlaying sieves, our arms and hands suffered, but we were making progress.  Unable to continue to grip the knife sharpener we procured from the kitchen, achiness forced new innovations.  Why we didn’t think of it sooner is beyond me, but simply squeezing and rubbing the samples between our gloved fingers and then sifting it through the three layers of screening was the solution we’d been struggling for for days.  Who needs expensive equipment?  Who needs even small hand tools?  All we really needed was ourselves for perfectly homogenized peat powder.  Gloved hands:  $2.50.  Sweat equity:  $0.  Ground moss:  Priceless.

And so while many of our colleagues are based out of labs and run electricity to their sites and go home at the end of the day, Meanook is our summer home, we drive all over creation, we tough it out, and we MacGyver.  That is what we do.  We take pride in knowing we can handle much. We know Home-Depots like the backs of our hands, can drive quads, use chain saws, run pumps, use fire hose and sprayers, navigate mud-slop in 4WD, and safely man power tools.  We are electricians, plumbers, carpenters, lawyers, writers, scientists, students, and we know how to hammer.  We are ecologists. 

Work updates:  Plot layout- complete!  Fertilizations have begun.  Installation of collars, and resin tubes,  and water samplers, and crank wires is all in progress.  Science is happening.   Along the way, flowers are in bloom, and we’ve all seen bears out our fast-moving truck windows.  Most of us have seen moose, coyote, snowshoe hares, sand hill cranes and a host of other wildlife that keep us occupied on our travels.    

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