Nature Notes: The Stuff of Life

The nub of my everyday life revolves around prodigious note taking — two to three sides of lined paper each day

This the last weekly column of the year 2016, and I decided to write a little bit about my peculiar daily data-taking habits, which may come to an end one day soon. After Saturday I will begin saving a few trees and a little time. After all, there may be so little left. I will no longer be receiving and clipping The New York Times and Newsday daily; I will be reading them online. The nub of my everyday life revolves around prodigious note taking — two to three sides of lined paper each day. It started in 1980, and so, with the exception of less than 100 missed days, I have accumulated a log of about 33,000 sheets, almost all written in ink, and filed chronologically in filing cabinets, loose-leaf binders, and elsewhere.

You might say to yourself that there is a lot to be gained in terms of understanding life and the world by poring through all those pages, but my wife would disagree and I would have to, too. They are filed with eclectic data of a hundred different varieties — bird sightings, road kills, vehicles encountered, trees in leaf and leafless, roadside wildflowers, road-salt days, whether the waters I pass are calm or rough, whether they are blue or red, is it cloudy or clear, windy or calm, and so on.

This craziness started a year after I left Southampton College. Having a little extra time on my hands and increasing memory loss accelerated by undiagnosed Lyme disease, I got myself some lined paper and began writing down the daily events in shorthand, from the time I first arose in the morning until I turned out the lights and went to sleep. Someday in the distant future, I thought, I will read these pages like one reads a roadmap to see where I’ve been, what I did there, and where I’m going.

I have, on occasion, reread some of these diary pages and even started databases in Excel to record certain daily activities such as sleeping hours, napping hours, what I ate, how many cups of coffee I drank, my mental and physical state, etc., etc., etc. Very boring stuff, unless you are me, but even then, very boring stuff.

It all started around the time I began a job at the Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences at Stony Brook University under the tutelage of Steven Englebright, a geology professor there. Driving the 40 miles or so back and forth from a base in Noyac each day was not to my liking, so I began jotting down observations along the route — road kills, flora and fauna, gypsy moth infestations, the coming and going of the seasons, recharge basins, vehicle types and counts, weather and highway conditions, and the like. It was better than listening to the radio and kept me in an attentive state throughout the commute.

Soon it became habitual. If I did not keep at it minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, I would feel guilty. I became tethered to all these eclectic observations. Almost nothing escaped my eye or the paper in the clipboard on my lap. 

I also began recording my physical and mental state — energy level, pain, mental acuity, affection, outlook, memory recall, and the like — three or four times a day. I started with four or five prime factors and kept adding others as the years rolled by. I now call these figures “S.S.” for self statistics, and they range from 1 to 10 and/or 1 to 5. A 10, say, for physical energy or mental acuity, would mean I was at the top of my game. Interestingly, I have never given myself a 10 for either category. Likewise, I’ve never given myself a zero.

For 30 years or so, many of the S.S. data has been written on the edges of Newsday and New York Times crossword puzzles, which I’ve done seven days a week for the past 40 years. But for better or for worse, I am slowing down. Over the last two years or so, I have only recorded the S.S. data once a day, and in almost all cases, just before retiring each night. 

As if I wasn’t kept busy enough writing down all of these happenings, in 1986 I began observing vehicles passing my house on Noyac Road in both directions — differentiating them into passenger cars, S.U.V.s, commercial trucks and the like, government and school vehicles, and utility vehicles — as well as their relative speeds and colors. Two four-minute observation periods one after another or spaced minutes apart, one to five times a day along with weather and road conditions. Since 2000, all of these records have been entered into a daily log database. 

For a long period, silver was the color of choice and chrome strips were out, but now they’re back. Two-tones disappeared, S.U.V.s began outnumbering standard passenger vehicles, there has been an upsurge in Mini Coopers, fewer and fewer military-type Jeeps. I also record pedestrians, motorcyclists, and pedal bikers and how many wear helmets and how many do not. 

As I convert this or that set of written notes and observations into digitized databases that can be subjected to rigorous statistical analysis at the rate of one or two a year, I tell myself that one day I will review all of these observations in an attempt to map out long-term trends — global warming, for example. But will I actually succeed? That is the question. Meanwhile I will continue to record this or that happening, this or that phenomena, this or that revelation. If I don’t get to making sense out of it all in some kind of documentary form before I go, Julie, my loving wife, who has had do endure this endless note-taking over for these 36 long years, says she will throw out the 33,000 lined notepaper sheets. Perhaps it is true: Two wrongs may make a right!