Confluence - Choosing the Right One
December, 2016
View this email in your browser
Choosing one thing or another has been much in the news lately. As we pick candidates, collect pebbles, artworks, or measurements, broader patterns emerge from the sample, which come to express the whole.

Stream invertebrates often build protective camouflage as juveniles (larvae), leaving empty shells behind as they grow into adulthood. Imagine millions of tiny animals in a stretch of stream, choosing and binding together pebbles, generation after generation. Collectively they are shifting the balance and movement of sediment, and effecting the structure of habitat for everything downstream.
Science methods seek to distance personal choice from data collection, even while people, access to funding, sites and tools, determine what work is accomplished. Inhabiting such carefully attentive yet impersonal processes is challenging, energizing and confounding, since in everyday life I'm used to my own wishes guiding my choices.

During last summer's stream surveys we measured fifty rocks from each study site. We'd reach down at a grid point and measure whatever stone, pebble or sand our fingers first touch. We strove to make neutral assessments, for example, not being swayed to pick speckled or brown, rough or smooth. Above, Bruce Medhurst measures water velocities and plucks rocks from the stream, calling out numbers, while I write them down and take pictures. Year after year, these measurements are combined with samples of water temperature and chemistry, algae, invertebrates and other criteria. Looked at together, they give a rough picture of the stream ecosystem and its changes even though we've recorded only a part of a millionth of the total environment.
It's apparently difficult, in everyday life, to see a million millions. Yet that is exactly what is in play - in the space of a glance, a meeting of friends, the wearing of rock and pooling water.
Tools such as numbers can help understanding cross such conceptual expanses, as stepping stones or a hand lens allow access into other spaces by extending the body's limits. Likewise, a collection of samples allows a  leap between the collection, whether of algae or artworks, toward an assessment  of broader conditions. During our stream surveys I was tasked to choose three typical stones from the study streams, one every fifty meters, scrub off the algae and pass it through a small filter assembly. Each stone was measured so that, multiplied, algae densities for the whole stream section could be approximated and compared.

The process was a study in the tensions between protocol and variability. And it made clear that the bulk of experience lies outside data points, that in leaping from the known to the inferred we set aside most of what goes on before us.
Quiet observation, drawing, writing, a warm drink and life out of doors; may the season and the New Year bring you ample time for refreshment, reflection and conversation.

Please let me know something of your own experiences,
by email to or by paper to 1529 Addison St, Berkeley CA 94703

Include a physical return address and I'll respond with a postcard.
For previous Confluence newsletters, CLICK HERE
For more on My Work, see
For an introduction to the Confluence projects, see my page at

All images are by Todd Gilens unless noted otherwise.

Copyright © 2016 Todd Gilens, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp