Batteries Not Included
The Virtues of Simplicity
A Note to the Reader
Those folks who've been following Ed and Brenna's preparations for
of a Lifetime" will be happy to know that they've gone shopping
for a boat. What did they buy? You'll have to wait till next time to
find out. This week, as a winter storm moves up the east coast of the
United States, Farwell's thinking back to an earlier stormand to
what it taught him about the virtues of simplicity.
March 6, 2001
As I write this, a major winter storm
is threatening the mid-Atlantic coast. Some parts of the country where
a couple of inches of snow usually brings traffic to a standstill are
going to get a couple of feet. Funnily enough, though, New
York's northern mountains will be spared the worst. We're unlikely to
see more than a foot of snow in all, and that's just business as usual
for the North Country.
A little more than three weeks ago, the shoemake that the
snowwas on the other foot. While the rest of the state dealt
with downpours and minor flooding, we were expecting a one-two punch
of heavy ice and high winds. Surrounded as we are by 80-foot-tall
white pines, many of them already bearing the scars of earlier storms,
we were on the alert. And let it never be said that we don't heed our
own advice. Following Tamia's lead (see "
Under Pressure"), I was keeping a close eye on the barometric
trace on our Casio 950 watch, a marvel of technology combining a
digital timepiece, an altimeter, a barograph, and a thermometer, all
in a package no larger than an old-style silver dollar.
The trace wasn't encouraging. Updated automatically every two
hours, it dropped steadily, first by single 0.05-inHg increments and
then by bounds of two and three. Already the wind was a steady 20
miles per hour or so, with gusts to 30 or more. A blow was clearly in
the offing. We watched helplessly as a glaze of ice began to build up
on the trees, listened to the wind rise relentlessly in pitch, and
jumped whenever small branches blew down onto the sheet steel of our
roof. Several hours later, the National Weather Service finally caught
up with us and posted high wind warnings.
Then the impossible happened. When I went to the shelf where the
Casio sits, planning to check the updated trace and decide if the time
had come to start digging a snow-shelter well away from our towering
pines, I found
nothing at all. The watch's display was blank. I
then did what any intelligent, technologically-savvy person would do
in such a situation: I picked up the watch, shook it, and cursed.
"We're depending on you!" I muttered under my breath. "How dare you
let us downnow, of all times!"
But the watch was unaffected by my passionate entreaties. Its
display remained blank. Having failed to move it by appeal, I resorted
to science. I pressed the button to change modes, hoping to awaken the
watch to its duty. No joy. True, one button elicited a feeble ghost
image. It gave me the time and date, but then it, too, died. After
that, nothing. Our faithful atmospheric monitor had abandoned its post
under fire. Outside, the wind was rising. A branch banged down on the
roof. It was a fairly big branch, I realized, the biggest to fall so
By this time Tamia was standing by my side, drawn by my steady
drizzle of epithets. She sized up the situation in a glance, then took
the watch from me and proceeded to remove the cover. The problem, she
pointed outin the same gentle, reassuring tone I've heard her
use in speaking to lost childrenwas almost certainly a dying
battery. Sometimes, she reminded me, you can buy a few extra hours or
days of service simply by removing the battery, cleaning the contacts,
and replacing it. And she did just that.
But my attention was already elsewhere. On the same shelf that had
held our electronic weather watchdog I found Tamia's thirty-year-old
Thommen altimeter. Tucked away in a corner, covered with dust, and all
but forgotten, to be sure, but working. Epiphany! We take the
Thommen on nearly all our trips, logging pressures every so often as
part of our routine, but we seldom look at it at home. That was about
to change, however. I took the Thommen off the shelf and tapped it
gently. The needle settled at 28.65 inHg. I set the pointer. Then I
looked among the scattered papers on my desk for a sheet of graph
paper. When I found one, I ruled off a vertical scale and logged the
point. We were back in business. All I had to do was look at the
barometer every hour or two and plot the pressure. The resulting graph
would tell us how the storm was progressing and warn us when to expect
the worst winds. Better yet, there'd be no worries about batteries.
Just then, Tamia rejoined me. She'd had no luck with the Casio. The
display was finally and irretrievably lost. That wonderful, intricate,
compact technology was uselessand all because a three-dollar
battery had failed.
"Guess we'll have to use the Thommen," she said. "I'll get some
"No need," I replied. And I showed her the point I'd just plotted.
It felt good.
That storm is history now, happily. The winds mounted higher and
higher, until 60-mile-per-hour gusts were tearing the tops off nearby
trees and sending limbs as big around as my thigh crashing down on our
roof. We lost power for much of the next day, and even in the
intervals when we had power, the voltage was so low that light bulbs
gave only a feeble glow. Bad enough, certainly, but not so bad as it
would have been if we'd also lost the ability to track the passage of
the storm. Thanks to Tamia's veteran altimeter we knew when the worst
was overand we knew it hours before the official forecast
sounded the all-clear.
Now another storm is buffeting the eastern seaboard. Chances are
that we'll escape unscathed this time, but Tamia and I will still be
graphing the pressure every few hours, just in case the Weather
Service gets it wrong.
And what about our Casio? The genie's fled that bottle, I'm afraid.
Despite a new battery, the display's still blank. Nothing we've been
able to do has enticed it back into life. Of course it is ten
years old. Who'd expect a ten-year-old television to work? Or a
ten-year-old computer? No one with any sense, I suppose. Then again,
the Thommen altimeter is thirty years old if it's a day. It's been
carried up and down mountains, bounced through rapids, spent sub-zero
nights in unheated tentsand yet it's still functioning
flawlessly. Best of all, it will never need to have its battery
There's a lesson here, I think. Yes, technology is wonderful. It
makes it possible for a couple of hacks in a shack in the northern
Adirondack foothills to speak to a global audience, for instance. But
nothing comes without a price. Technology can't make us free. It can
only help us exchange one set of fetters for another. And in
liberating us from the constraints of the past, it makes us newly
dependent in unexpected ways. Canoeists and kayakers are quick to
embrace the newnew designs, new materials, new techniques. But
we can't afford to turn our backs on the old, either. Ours is a sport
rooted in "elective anachronism," after all. We choose to embrace the
past. It's one of the things that define us.
What does this mean? Simple. In an age shaped by the
internal-combustion engine, canoeists and kayakers still travel from
place to place propelled only by muscle, gravity and wind.
Self-reliance and simplicity lie at the heart of what we do. So when
we thumb through the catalogs and marvel at the newest and latest of
the engineers' offerings, it's important that we heed the warning
implicit in the note, "Batteries not included." We ignore it at our
Gotta go. It's time to check the barometer.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights