One Cubic Meter

[Robert Krulwich has a lovely reminder on his NPR blog ]( about the power of simply inventorying the contents of an area or space. In this case it is one meter cubes of dirt and air in a corn field, but the cube could be anywhere, with imagination the only limit.

The power of this kind of survey, of counting, is so powerful that it deserves a bit more elaboration. Marking off a square meter is, after all, what archeologists do when they are exploring a site: they mark it off and then proceed to dig very carefully, keeping a record of what they find and where in the volume as it is slowly unearthed. A piece of pottery found five centimeters down is different from one found fifty down. The same is true of biologists and geologists who take cylindrical samples of a spot of Earth. Simply counting. I am also reminded of Henry Glassie once being moved by a student’s simple response to an assignment in his vernacular architecture class: the student, not knowing what to do nor how to start, decided simply to inventory everything in a family’s living room. In the process, they wrote a very compelling portrait of that family. (This reminds me of the various garbage-ology studies I come across now and then.)

I have often considered this as an assignment for one of my folklore courses, but I usually forget, imagining that the “higher concept” assignments are the better ones. But, really, counting works.

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