Aug 14 2008

The Law of Inverse Appreciation

Rain has been a nearly daily feature in northern New York this summer, and it plays hob with cycling for pleasure as well as with plans for utility trips. Not that pedaling in the rain is impossible. But if I can avoid it, I prefer to, since drivers are less likely to give any quarter in rain, and bike clean-up is tedious. So when rain threatened on Wednesday, a hike along the river seemed a good idea, particularly because I needed some pictures to illustrate an In the Same Boat article. I took 141 photos in two hours. Some were to illustrate the article, but many more were just nature shots. And as I hiked back into the teeth of the rain, trying to avoid a face-plant when striding quickly over a hard-packed trail with exposed roots, I thought on the nature of speed.

The speed you travel determines what you see. I suppose this is a corollary to what Colin Fletcher called The Law of Inverse Appreciation, which states that “The less there is between you and the environment, the more you appreciate the environment.”

For example, in a moving vehicle, this is the kind of sight I’ve seen traveling at a legal 55 mph:

New Mexico by bus


On a bike, my maximum reasonable speed without resistance or help from the wind or downhill coasting is about 17-18 mph. This is the kind of view which attracts me then:

Roadside flowers


When paddling, with a maximum speed of about 4 mph in a solo kayak and no hindrance or help from the wind, this is the kind of sight which imprints itself on my mind:

New Mexico by bus


But when hiking, my top speed is no more than 4 mph, and I see more small sights. Here’s an example—the left picture is a spider web in a tree-hole which is about three inches long, the middle picture is a frog trying to hide among streamers of algae in a pothole eroded out of riverside bedrock, and the right photo is a shot of bracken fungi on a maple tree:

As seen on foot


When working as a field geologist, I walked over long distances and dug holes in the ground every 50 feet or so, sometimes at shorter intervals, and I came to realize just how much more you see when going slow.

To my mind, the bicycle is the best compromise between speed and the need to get somewhere, and the ability to see. You can stop quickly, but you can move relatively quickly, as well. But now and then, it’s wonderful to stretch the legs on a woodland trail along the river, just to see.