West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A taxonomy of snow shovels

A few years ago, I lived in a house with a long, steep driveway. At the top there was space for five or six cars, and a retaining wall on one side. It cost $90 a pop to get the whole thing plowed. Being graduate students, my housemates and I decided we’d shovel instead. After all, how many big snowstorms does Connecticut get in a winter? When I lived there, it seemed like at least one every week. It took a solid hour to get the standard 4-6 inches off that driveway, and when one storm dropped a foot overnight, I spent three hours out there. I’d grown up shoveling snow, but never quite on such a scale. It was there that I developed my taxonomy of snow shovels.

There are really only two kinds: a plow shovel and a scoop shovel. (Occasionally one finds a hybrid, but the hybrids are always inferior.) A plow shovel is the deep-bellied variety, usually made of plastic and often with a crook in the handle. It’s best for light dustings of 2-3 inches. You push it across the surface of the driveway like a snowplow, pushing a mound of snow to the far side. A scoop shovel is the lighter, nearly flat variety, usually made of metal, with a straight handle. It requires a more active technique, where you lift up a load of snow and toss it to the far side of the driveway. Or over the retaining wall, if you are so unfortunate as to have a retaining wall. If there’s more than four inches on the ground, a scoop shovel is preferable—if you try to use the plow shovel, especially if the snow is wet, you end up with an impenetrable moraine about halfway across the driveway and you have to attack it with scoop shovels anyway.

I came to be very proficient with both types of shovels, but I always preferred the scoop shovel. On that long driveway, I developed a rhythm, and even, if I might say so, a style. I’d shovel from one side to the other, flip the shovel into the other hand without even thinking, and go back across. The tiny lines of snow left behind—even the best shoveler can’t get it all—would form a neat herringbone pattern, checkered with my footprints.

When I’m shoveling snow, it’s almost like meditation. I can forget about everything except the work at hand. So I was overjoyed to wake up this morning to a bright white landscape of maple branches stacked with snow. I’m house-sitting and dog-sitting for a friend who’s out of town. Her driveway’s just long enough that shoveling provides a pleasant break from reality, but not so long or steep that it feels like a chore.

There are a lot of things I would like to not think about right now. Even barring the usual horrors of the modern world that I generally block out to stay sane, it’s been a rough week. This week I had to go through applications for a summer program I’ll be running in Costa Rica. There were eighty applications for twelve spots, and it was heartbreaking to turn some of those kids away. Also, my research is not going well right now. I’m learning how to program, and I’ve gotten to a point where I think I know what I’m doing, only to find that the machine thinks it should be doing something quite unrelated. I spent a fruitless couple of hours this morning poring over eight lines of code. And an analysis I’ve been working on for the past six weeks, on data I’ve collected over three years, revealed that there’s essentially no structure in my data set. An ideal data set would show up in this sort of plot as several discrete little clusters of points. Mine looks more like something from Jackson Pollock. The trouble with almost all ecological data is the difficulty of separating signal from noise. In my case, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any signal there at all.

The minute I got out there on the driveway, in the bright glare of morning, all my data analysis worries vanished. It was just me and the snow and the scoop shovel; white snow ahead and black driveway behind. There’s something wonderful about work that’s so repetitive it becomes automatic, work where the progress is visible, work that stays done when you turn your back on it. That’s what I loved about carpentry. When I was laying floorboards or framing a doorway, I knew that my work would probably outlive me. I don’t think I can say that for any of the work I do these days. Who knows? Unless I can find some meaning in my Jackson Pollock data set, I might end up going back to carpentry after all.


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