online: 24 november 2005
modified: 22, 23, 24 november 2005

22 november 2005 the folly of counting

14:55 As i sit near to an isolated oak tree i notice that a leaf drops from it about once or twice a minute... interested, i counted the number falling in the next 5 minutes - it was 8 - which = 96 (say 100) per hour, = 2400 per day, = 16800 a week, = 67200 a month, = say 20,000 in an autumn of 3 months... Is that the approximate number of leaves on this small oak tree?

I estimate that there are about 100 branches in the tree, each with about 200 leaves = 20,000 in all. I'm amazed that both estimates come to the same total!...

[24 november: i notice a mistake - it's 200,000 in 3 months, not 20,000 - perhaps the leaves do not always fall steadily, or at the rate they were falling when i watched them?... today, for instance, a sudden storm blew away most of the remaining leaves from the trees outside my flat in 20 minutes or so.]

...a squirrel has now appeared on the lowest branch and is eating something. Could it be a leaf?... We all of us eat - and thus change the arithmetic of our surroundings!

So how many trees are there in this park, in the nearby forest, or in world... and how many leaves...? I could easily continue and find the approximate numbers... but i'm beginning to remember the folly of measurement.

What attracted me to the sight of leaves falling off the tree, one by one, was not the wish to count but the opportunity to witness, in detail, the slow process by which a deciduous tree turns into bare branches... to be able to see this happening, one of the grand slow processes of nature.

My mania to estimate quantities reminds me of a train journey in the USA during which we passed through forests for many hours, or even days - which led me to estimate the number of trees in North America... To know when to count and to measure, and when not to, is surely one of the meta-skills that might comprise the education of everyone? (See creative democracy.)

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