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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Small is Beautiful

Getting Close to Nature with a Hand Lens

By Tamia Nelson

I drifted lazily in less than a foot of water, while a slanting autumn sun illuminated the 'Flow around me. Riffles gently rocked my kayak. I sat relaxed, feet off the blocks, paddle resting across my cockpit combing. Through half-closed eyes, I watched the play of sunlight on the wave-washed beach just a boat-length away.

Suddenly, I became aware of a constellation of twinkling points all along the sandy shore. I picked up my paddle and moved in closer. When my boat grounded, I reached down and scooped up a handful of sand. The grains were all of a size, but they varied greatly in color. That was all I could tell on quick inspection, but by now I was really curious. So I pulled my hand lens out of the pocket in my life jacket where it travels and looked through it at a smear of sand in my palm.

Seen under ten-power magnification, the individual grains leapt into focus—each one distinct. As "alike as grains of sand"? What nonsense! Each was unique. Some were well-rounded bits of quartz, ranging from glassy transparency to dullish tan. Others were tiny, black double pyramids of magnetite. As I rolled these in my hand, the magnetite crystals sparkled in the sun.

Of course, a hand lens isn't usually thought of as paddling gear, but for decades Farwell and I have taken one of these powerful little magnifiers along on all our trips. They're a natural complement to our binoculars. What " far-seeing eyes" do for distant objects, hand lenses do for the invisible world beneath our feet. They're wonderful tools, and they're inexpensive, too. The best hand lens money can buy—a Bausch & Lomb 10x Hastings triplet, for example—costs no more than the cheapest pair of good-quality binoculars. Better yet, if you're happy with less than the best, you can get a perfectly serviceable hand lens for only ten bucks. Now that's cheap! They're handy, too. No bigger than your key ring and weighing no more than the change you get from buying a cup of coffee, a hand lens can find a place in even the most ardent go-lighter's pack.

Up Close

OK. Hand lenses are cheap and handy, but what do you look for when you go shopping for one of your own? What are the hallmarks of a high-quality hand lens, in other words? Simple. You want three things: a good case, reasonable power, and good-quality optics.

What's a "good case"? Look at the sketch above. When not in use, a hand lens pivots into an attached, protective post-and-plate case. If the case fits snugly—if, that is, it's easy to pivot the lens in and out, but if it then stays put—and if the case is made of some sturdy, corrosion-resistant material (chromed brass or hard plastic, for example), then you've got a good case.

"Reasonable power" is a bit harder to judge by inspection, but you'll quickly learn what it means. Too little power (3x or less, say) is, well, just too little. A hand lens is a magnifier. You want it to magnify, don't you? Of course you do! Then again, as Mae West probably didn't say, too much of a good thing can be awful. Too much power means too small a field of view, as well as too short a working distance. This last is particularly important. Sometimes you need to keep your distance. Whether you're inspecting the stinger of a not-quite-dead honey bee or looking at the wood chips in beaver scat—both are fascinating things, by the way—you don't want to get too close to your work. How much power is too much? It's a judgment call. How far do you want to be from what you're looking at? Anything more than 20x is a microscope, not a magnifier. It's definitely too much. Ten power (10x) is a good compromise. It's high enough to be useful, but low enough to let you stand back. I like it, and so do many pros, including botanists, geologists, and graphic artists.

And optical quality—what about optical quality? That's even tougher to judge. Tougher, but not impossible. Like binoculars, the best test of a hand lens is side-by-side comparison with several others. Failing that, the next best thing is an extended, critical trial. Here's what to look for. A good lens will have a crisp, bright image. It won't distort colors or create rainbow halos around objects. Finally, it will have a broad, flat field. Straight lines will look straight. Distortion, even at the edges of the field where it's always most noticeable, will be slight.

Can you tell a good lens from a bad one by reading catalog copy? Maybe. The best lenses are probably those identified as Hastings triplets, but not all Hasting triplets are equal. And some doublet (two-element) lenses are pretty good. I have both types, and each is perfectly satisfactory, though the triplet is noticeably better. In evaluating a lens, look through the lens, not at the label. What should you look at? Almost anything. Look at the print in your daily newspaper, the surface of your skin, or—as I did shortly before I sat down to write this piece—the minute bones of a fossil fish embedded in a Green River siltstone. Look carefully. Look critically. Then make your choice. You can believe your eyes.

And, now, speaking of choice.... Everybody likes to have a choice. So why settle for a single power when you can have three or more? Some manufacturers make two- and even three-lens magnifiers*, after all. The idea is attractive. You can use the lenses singly or in combination. The result? A whole smorgasbord of powers, and all for half the price of a single Hastings triplet lens. You'll always be able to match the exact power to each job. This sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But is it? In a word: No. I suppose there may be an exception somewhere, but every two- and three-lens magnifier I've tried to date has been a disappointment. Color fringing. Distortion. Blurry images. Not quite ready for prime time, in short. If you really need (or want) magnifiers of two different powers, I'm afraid you'll have to buy two single-power hand lenses.

Now, supposing I've sold you on the idea of taking a hand lens with you on your next paddling trip, where can you buy one? You may get lucky. You may find a good-quality lens in a local outfitter or hobby shop. But you most likely won't. That's not a problem. You'll find all the selection you could want in the catalogs of scientific and forestry supply houses like Edmund Scientific and the Ben Meadows Company. Study the catalogs, and then order the lens that looks right for you. Just be sure that you can return it if it proves unsatisfactory. Even simple optical instruments are complex things. Sometimes the best manufacturers miss a defective lens element or a poorly-aligned case.

Once you're satisfied with the lens you've purchased, it's time to go exploring. And, if there are any children in your life, why not invite them along? In fact, if they're old enough to trust with small objects, consider getting them inexpensive, good-quality hand lenses of their own. (Attach brightly colored lanyards to the cases, however, so that a "lost" lens can be found easily and returned to its owner.) Kids love magnifiers. There are few better ways to encourage their natural curiosity.

With magnifier in hand, the wilderness begins at your own skin. Everywhere you turn, you'll see familiar things in a new light. Start by holding your lens close (1"-2") to your eye, and then bring both eye and lens down to your subject. Compare different fabrics, different woods, even different papers. Look at the leaves and stems of your houseplants. Have you found a book louse in your library? Give it a stay of execution while you examine it from head to abdomen. Can you see the rust-red spots? When you're done, consider leaving it as bait to attract a spider-like pseudoscorpion—another subject for your lens, and an even more interesting one!

Out-of-doors and on the water, you'll find that the immense, microscopic wilderness you've been exploring suddenly gets even bigger. Check out the sand grains on the beach, as I did. In spring and early summer, look for black fly larvae in small streams. If you find them attached to a flat rock near the surface, you can watch their delicate cephalic fans strain food from the rushing water. Search the stream bottom for the improbable sand-and-stick tubes that caddisfly larvae call home.

Ashore, at any time from late spring through autumn, examine the caps, gills, and stalks of forest mushrooms. See if you can identify the incisor marks left by hungry mice and voles. (But DON'T assume that you can eat what they can! That could be your last mistake.) And in winter, when ice has silenced all the streams and you'd think that insects of any sort would be long gone, keep your eyes open for tiny, primitive springtails ("snow fleas"), swarming like a sooty smudge on the surface of the drifting snow. The long, forked "spring tail" is worth a look, but you'd better be quick. These lively creatures don't hold still for long, and they can leap a foot or more with each bound.

That's it. You've got the idea by now. To someone with a hand lens, there's a wildlife park in each square foot of stream bottom, and a wilderness in every brush pile. Be sure to use a notebook to record your discoveries, though—and remember, "Small is beautiful!"

* Don't confuse a three-lens magnifier with a triplet. A triplet is a single lens with three elements. A three-lens magnifier, on the other hand, has three individual pivoting lenses.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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