Posted by: Memorizing Nature | May 23, 2011

So Easy to Know

There was a time when, not being able to find the information I needed at my high-school library or the neighbourhood library (once it was an essay about John Barth, an author too obscure),  I would trudge to the bus stop, which dropped me off at the subway station, then dash to beat the closing doors, get jostled for nine stops, joining the baseball fans along the way, be deposited in the city’s core, with its smell of baked donuts from those pre-Starbucks grimy coffee shops, right at the intersection where ascended the metropolitan resource library.    

Photo by E. Medline

This was the hub of learning at the time, a place where facts were sequestered there and nowhere else.  Once through the vaulted doors, I would climb up the carpeted steps lined with greenery, nod at the semi-regulars I recognized, and wait in line for the librarian rather than bother with the tiny, tedious drawers of the card catalogue. Inevitably, the chairs at the pine tables would all be taken, and so I would hover and give the occupiers the evil eye until one of them relinquished their prized seat. I would lay out the tomes, having gratefully discovered them in the basement stacks, and pore over the pages, finding relevant passages that needed photocopying, because it was the rule, you couldn’t take out the books. (And stealing them was made near impossible.) Next, waiting in line for the exhausted photocopier, hoping it wouldn’t give out before my turn arrived, I would gather my nickels and dimes from my purse held in my teeth, and with my other hand juggling four hardbacks that I wouldn’t dare put down for fear they’d be carted away, and hoping the man in front of me had only a page to do. Finally, it was time to push the machine’s button that would mysteriously duplicate the words and spew out curls of greasy paper, the ink blurry and smelling of diesel.  John Barth, writer of the novel Giles Goat Boy, how I don’t remember anything about you, but you made me what I am today.   

Oh, that was just the beginning. When I arrived home, energizing myself perhaps with a green apple and a Coke, I would write out by hand a rough draft of the essay, crossing out lines, adding messy phrases on the side margins, re-writing a final copy in terrible longhand. By then, there was no more crossing out, but instead it was necessary to cover up entire paragraphs with Liquid Paper that, when dried, caused caking of the foolscap so that my excuse for an opus became a relief map. Only thirty years ago this was, when we worked harder for our bits and bytes of knowledge, in the same way it seems we worked harder for everything. (Yes, we rolled down our car windows, or could that have been earlier?) Mind you, we were forgiven more, as perfection wasn’t possible. We handed in what we had, there was no going back.   

And now to the point. Yesterday, I noticed a millipede crawling wave-like along the rocks, and wondered what exactly it was, as I am supposed to be a nature poet. No problem – how breezily I sat down at my computer and typed in three words – millipede, orange, black – and within minutes, maybe seconds, was informed the creature was called Narceus americanus, or North American millipede. The photo matched perfectly.   

Photo by E. Medline

Narceus americanus, gorgeous bottom-feeder of the forest floor, with its fiery racing stripes, monstrous mandible and feathery feet, this valuable arthropod, a crucial piece of the living chain.

Actually, Narceus americanus, you deserved a greater homage than an easy sit-down at a twenty-first century gadget. I could have travelled nine subway stops to find you out, spent all my nickels and dimes. I typed three words, and got the answer. There you were, the photo matched. Thank you, the Internet. So easy to know.

Narceus americanus, you segmented hard-bodied marvel, raking up dead leaves and spitting on your meal to soften it with chemistry. Little-noticed mass of grounded beauty, whether created by science or God.

Now I’m thinking of the demise of the library, so much in the news now, as these institutions are closing one by one, their future debatable. I am tempted, at the moment, to type in the words “John Barth” on Google Search. Should I do it, or by doing it, will the past be obliterated, like a species that evolved?



  1. I loved your post!
    Beautifully written. This really took me back. Amazing how far we’ve come. Information in a click and not just one article but thousands.
    I want to google John Barth. 🙂
    Your writing took me away from the macro – nice one though!

    • Thanks for your comment, Carletta. Lol, this morning I put this post on and one commenter thought I was trying too hard on the descriptions. My response, “Done on purpose, to contrast the utilitarian nature of the Internet with the poetry found in the old libraries.”
      Pretty ironic, ’cause usually I try to avoid adjectives! Your dandelion macros – superb.

  2. Another wonderful post Elaine! It also brought to mind for me the huge leap we so unthinkingly make between the micro and the macro. Even though today we have so much information available to us at a milisecond’s notice, I don’t think we really appreciate the volume of information that we are drawing from as we did back when we had to visit those hushed halls of wisdom.

    • Diane, that’s interesting. Got me thinking that close-up photography is now called macro, not micro. Viruses are so small we can’t see them, and the universe is so large we can’t fathom it. Microscopes and telescopes are getting more and more sophisticated. Confusing. We ‘get’ a certain spectrum – after that our minds are messed up.

  3. I vividly remember typing essays at 3 a.m. that were due at 9 a.m. My poor parents trying to sleep above as I rat-a-tat-tatted below never complained. And we didn’t have the TO Reference Library then. The books I needed from U. of T. were always out. So, at my age, it’s a pleasure to run to the computer and google anything I want. I wish I’d had it back then. Good work, Elaine. I’m going to google John Barth right now.

    • You were fortunate you could type well (didn’t you win a typing trophy in high school?) It wasn’t easy to correct a mistake back then – precision was crucial and no Liquid Paper to rescue the typist! Yikes.I guess my generation had it pretty easy:)

  4. Yes this common, but very important detritus shredder is an intricate link to reintroducing carbon and other nutrients back into the soil so that they may be reutilized by future plants for growth. One of natures unnoticed but important treasures. And in these days when carbon sequestering may be more important than ever, they have a particularly important job to do.

    • This is why habitat protection is so key. We don’t even know what we’re destroying half the time. Every millipede is, like you say, a treasure.

  5. Hello, Elaine — I’m new to your blog, but I love what I’ve read so far!

    I know exactly what you mean here. It’s amazing how much we can learn with just a few clicks, and equally amazing how quickly that information can dissolve away since often we didn’t work that hard for it in the first place. Ah, well — the internet did help me identify a bird song the other day, and I can’t say I wasn’t happy about that. 🙂

    • Emily, it’s so nice to hear that someone knows exactly what I mean. Usually I get raised eyebrows. Just looked at your blog, Landing on Cloudy Water, and it is beautiful.

  6. Thanks Elaine for this delightful piece – I thoroughly enjoyed it and could relate to it perfectly. I sometimes miss those times – I spent so many hours at McGill’s Redpath Library photocopying – many trees were sacrificed. I’d like to say that I don’t sacrifice trees as much but truth is I’m still tied to paper so I print out way too much but I’m getting better.

    • I also spent time in libraries at McGill. My favourite was the architecture library, even though it had nothing to do with my field of study. Very distracting to find books illustrating cool houses!

  7. “Little-noticed mass of grounded beauty.” That phrase jumped right out at me. Like beauty, I think it’s good for knowledge to be grounded — to have a physical home, as in the Toronto Reference Library. And for us to do some physical grappling, on subways, with photo-copy machines, to make it ours. I think it sticks to us better. (Or some of it anyway — maybe not a paper’s worth of information on John Barth.) But then, I still have a car with roll-down windows.

    • Sue, you understood my post better than I did. That’s exactly what I was getting at!

  8. […] are times I have been skeptical (see a prior blog post called So Easy to Know which reminisces about library photocopying efforts), but mostly I remain convinced of the […]

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