Mist-shrouded mountains offer mystery to the eyes of a flatlander like myself, and the moonscape of the lava fields, in the half-dusk of the midnight sun, make rocks pop into trolls, and trolls exist to remind us that even something as seemingly mundane as a rock is really a living and sentient, or at least semi-sentient, being, even if it may be malformed in human eyes.
Iceland's is a landscape that opens and engages the imagination, but it is also stark enough, and unforgiving enough, that I felt glad to retreat to my home—to tall trees, lush undergrowth, and to this thing that lives under the grass called “topsoil.” The imagination stirring landscape also alienates with (what I see as) its harshness. Icelanders have called it home for over a millennium, but where I found it engaging my fantasies, I also found the placeness of it, the living nature of it, those strange dichotomies of mist and light, steam and glacier, alienating. The storied landscape grabbed me while the living landscape often pushed me away. The fantasy of it is a great place to visit and explore, but I never found myself fantasizing about living there. Too alien a landscape in my eyes.
But I don’t really want to talk about this anymore than I have already, that’s not the point of this piece. Rather I want to question the metric system, and Iceland brought me to a minor epiphany into my own mistrust of logical systems (like the metric).
|an enchanting alien|
The natural landscape in Iceland, which we explored behind the wheel of a 1999 Toyota that took us to geysers, waterfalls, and fjords, reminded me that landscapes make us human. We measure ourselves, both the length of our imaginations, and the (dis)comfort of our bodies, in relation to the landscapes we find ourselves in. The landscape reminds us that we are human. The blast of a geyser catches our eye, the hot steam cools into a heavy mist that touches our skin if we stand downwind of it, and the sulfuric stink of the volcanic action that drives the geyser’s explosion tangs at our nostrils. I was awed by the sight, rinsed with the mist, and repulsed by the odor all at the same time; I was enchanted and alienated.
What does this have to do with the metric system? My travels in Iceland reminded me that we measure landscapes against our expectations, our imaginations, and our bodies. It is easy to forget such mundane things when we are moving through the routine places of our lives; it takes the strange to remind us of the familiar.
Driving in Iceland requires someone like myself to adjust from familiar miles to strange kilometers. It seems like they aren’t quite so long as a mile and so whenever a roadsign reported that some Icelandic town with a mile-long and largely unpronounceable name was 27 distant, I would quickly do the mental math—1 mile = 1.6 kms and so 27 kms divided by 1.6 = 16 or so miles—to get an idea of how much time it would take me to get there.
This experience of calculating the strange into the familiar will no doubt be discounted by many with that kind of cultural relativism that holds if only I had been born in a forward-thinking country that had long ago adopted the metric system I would not be applying any mental effort to a formula vaguely recalled from sixth grade, and that perhaps is true—but my newly formed objection to metric system is not rooted in the accident of my birth in the United States. Rather, my objection is to the way the metric system dehumanizes the way we interact with our landscapes.
|where are the trolls?|
Though the metric is a system of measurement based on the dimensions of the earth, it abstracts us from the earth, from our familiar landscapes, by making us quantify them from outside of ourselves. We measure the earth from above (as it were) and then decimalize the result to arrive at the ideal form of measurement, the meter. The meter exists outside our bodies and above the earth. It is logical, perhaps, but it is alienating; the earth is an object of measurement, not a living environment. There are no trolls in a decimalized landscape.
I got to thinking about the metric as an alienating, though eminently logical and reasonable, form of measurement as I cartwheeled through the mental gymnastics of making kms into miles, but it really hit me when in a pair of emails I tried to convey to a couple of flatlanders like myself how strange it was to see the sun still in the sky at ten pm. (Even at the height of summer here in Minnesota, the sun barely makes it past nine pm before setting). To convey the strangeness of sending an email at ten pm in a fully sunlit room, I described to my friends that the sun was still three fingers above the horizon. Three fingers, not .48 meters or 4.8 cms.
Driving around the volcanic highlands of Snaefellsnes the next day I thought about this finger measurement (imagining that it was probably a familiar form of measurement to the Norse longboatmen who settled Iceland) and got to thinking about the inch. I knew it had been defined a few centuries back as being the width of a man’s thumb at the base of the nail. It is an embodied form of measurement.
|if you have it, you can measure it|
Etymologically the word “inch” comes from the Latin uncia, which means the one-twelfth part of something, and so it is most definitely not a decimalized form of measure. The inch—the width of a thumbnail—is one-twelfth of a foot. Need I say more to make my point about embodiment? A foot is both that, generally speaking, strange appendage at the far end of your leg and it is a way to measure length—and you can extend the foot measurement into a yard, which is thought by some to have derived from the length of a stride, otherwise known as what you do with your feet as you move through a landscape. Our bodies help us understand the landscapes we inch our ways through, foot-by-foot and stride-by-stride.
On the other, um, hand, a meter is a mental construct, and though based on the size of the earth divided decimally, it nonetheless exists as a disembodied ideal: it is logically meaningful in that way so many Enlightenment ideals were, and yet it abstracts the humanity out of the task of meaningfully having an embodied relationship with our natural and social environments.*
My fingers then were meaningful for making sense of this strange place. Rather than some abstract metric, my body gave meaning to the relationship of the sun to the horizon and the three of us were brought together in an embodied sense. An inch, a finger, or a foot make our bodies a part of the landscape we move through; they humanize the world we live in as the landscape naturalizes us. An inch grounds my body with my environment in a way that a meter cannot. A meter is data; the width of the thumbnail at its base is poetry.
* I add social environments because it is critical to remember that “reasonable” Enlightenment ideals lay behind the great scourges of colonialist dispossession and chattel slavery that marked the early Modern era by logically measuring indigenous peoples as being lesser-than Enlightened peoples and therefore less-human and more available to dispossess, oppress, and otherwise deny their humanity.