Book Excerpt: Math and Nature

I have spent three decades talking with my dad about the radius, circumference, and area of the Ferris Wheel carrying us round and round at Darien Lake or whether the angles we see between the statuesque oak tree and its shadow are obtuse or acute.

That’s what you sign up for when you’re a high school math teacher’s kid. He trained me well; I can’t avoid seeing math in most instances. I make a mental note of each sighting to share with him later as he is always looking for new test problems or book material. Traveling through the wilderness provides loads of math material.

I deal in simple algebra every day: “It is nine o’clock. I expect we’ll arrive in camp around three o’clock this afternoon based on past experience. If we have ten kilometers to canoe today across Bell, Balsam, and David Lakes and roughly two kilometers of portage trail to cover, what’s our average speed?” Solve for X.

I see geometrical symmetry in a shoreline reflected in the water on a perfectly still morning. Fractals pop out at me from the lacy, green ferns we hike past on our way to Silver Peak, from a lone American Beech tree, from the Milky Way we gaze at from a smooth granite outcrop on David Lake in Killarney Provincial Park. Hanging a tarp means working with the right height of the rope and the right angles of the tarp to get rain to run off rather than pool in the middle, a great trigonometry exercise.

math and nature

While I might not be able to avoid seeing math in nature when it presents itself to me, I don’t often think consciously about anything or anyone when I’m off in the woods. That’s the beauty of spending time immersed in the backcountry. The act of getting from one campsite to the next consumes me. It forces me to be present. It presses pause on the incessant chatter in my head.

 

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