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Tue, 29 Jul 2008

The Ten Essentials as Poetry

In 1906, a club called "The Mountaineers" was formed by a group of people interested in exploring the wild areas and peaks surrounding the city of Seattle. Still going strong with over 10,000 members, The Mountaineers club is a major hiking, climbing, and conservation organization in the Pacific Northwest.

Some time in the 1930s, The Mountaineers club newsletter published a list of items that experienced wilderness trekkers felt were essential for back country survival. The list came to be know as The Ten Essentials. Today, most books on hiking or climbing contain a version of this list. As of 2008, the Wikipedia version was:

  1. Map
  2. Compass (optionally supplemented with a GPS receiver)
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra food and water
  5. Extra clothes
  6. Headlamp/flashlight
  7. First aid kit
  8. Fire starter
  9. Matches
  10. Knife

Personally, I think this is a fine list. There are variations to this list, and they are fine too. These things are good to have in the wild; they are also good to have in civilization; they are to have in your pack when you are walking around; they also represent a pretty good list of things to have in your bike or motorcycle or car when you are riding around. They would be great to carry while traveling, in general – just throw them in your suitcase or daypack and forget them till needed. Unfortunately, airport security feels half these essentials are safety hazards; you will find yourself re-accumulating them at your destination (if possible) should you travel by air. In any case, the point is that the list is general purpose. It's not just for Mt Everest expeditions.

The need to repeatedly check our inventory and maintain our complete stock of ten essentials leads to the one big problem with this or any other list of essential items. Once we have a list, it's easy to check our stock, but how the heck are we supposed to remember what's on the list in the first place? It seems that the list itself is the most essential item, so there really should be eleven essentials. Yet the number eleven doesn't feel right. Ten fingers. Ten Commandments. Ten Essentials. Ten is simply better for us decimal bigots. But we can't throw anything out of the list of eleven to make it ten again. Every item is, after all, essential.

It occurred to me that if I could come up with a way to easily remember the ten essentials, I could internalize the list. It would then be part of my natural thinking and wouldn't represent anything extra. Many an experienced sportsman has commented that an "ounce of brains is worth ten pounds of gear". So I set about trying to rephrase the list to be more memorable.

The first thing I did was to pair up the items. This makes it more like five essentials, cutting in half the memorization task. My original five "essential" couplets are

  1. Sun and Moon
  2. Food and Water
  3. Tools and Fire
  4. Map and Compass
  5. Meds and Threads

I list them in a sort of "Ascent of Man" order. A few of these may require explanation. Sun and Moon refers to dealing with issues unique to daytime and nighttime. Sunglasses, sunscreen, and sun hats are for daytime. Headlamps, flashlights, and IR goggles are for the night. I list this first because the sun and moon surely were here before man, although Cool Rays and Coppertone didn't appear on the scene till much later.

Food and water is an obvious survival essential. As a concept I think of it as also including a way to get more food and water. In civilized front country, a credit card can serve. In the back country a water purifier and a fly rod (with fishing license) might be required.

The "Tools and Fire" pair represent a dividing line between animals and civilized man. Swiss army knives, Letherman multi-tools, anything incorporating a piece of pointy steel counts as a tool. Fire is something to make fire, like a match or a stove. Fires can be for cooking, warmth, light, or emotional mood-setting. Each of these can be essential for the long term survival of the species.

Map and Compass are essential for getting to and from places, especially out of jams and into congenial restaurants. Again this is the general concept of navigational devices. These days, GPS receivers with built in graphical maps can do the complete job. But be careful. Batteries in hand held GPS units die at the most inopportune times, and built-in automotive Nav systems often have unverified data that will lead you astray. Knowing how to orient and use a paper map, as well as having a paper map, remain essential in my opinion, even if (especially if) you typically rely on GPS.

The final pair, Meds and Threads, comprise modern medicine to shield us from disease, and modern clothing to shield us from the elements. Pills, cremes, and Band Aids are in the first category; rain jackets and Capaline long johns are in the second category. Sometimes I say "Needles and Threads" for this pair, which is an appropriate combination if you are a diabetic who needs to remember your glucose test kit, insulin, and syringes.

Also, I can continue Meds and Threads with and Beds if there's even a remote possibility I'll need a place to sleep. Here we cover sleeping bags, tents, or Hilton Honors cards. The reader may fear that and Beds sleazes in an eleventh essential, but a tent and sleeping bag is a generalized form of clothing (less so a Motel, of course). The rhyme does help forgive the cheat.

I've thought of some alternative formulations. Maybe Map and Compass could be compressed to "Nav", and we could almost rhyme "Nav and Cave" to cover both our navigational needs and sleep-shelter needs. "Grave" might almost work, but that's the sort of big sleep that the essentials are attempting to avoid. "Maps and Naps" could cover the navigational needs and the sleepy-time stuff, allowing Meds and Threads to stand alone without "Beds" being needed.

  1. Sun and Moon
  2. Food and Water
  3. Tools and Fire
  4. Maps and Naps
  5. Meds and Threads

This is definitely a more concentrated list, but it has one flaw: I can't get myself not to pair "Map and Compass". No matter how I try, "Maps and Naps" doesn't stick in my head.

Anyway, fine points aside, now that we have the ten essentials boiled down to some set of five convenient pairs, the next natural step toward the end of facilitating memorization is to code them into a poem. As they stand, they could be considered a blank verse 5 line poem, but a little rhythm and rhyme can be a valuable aid to memory.

Here's one way to rhyme the ten essentials as three couplets.

Ten Essentials must be in your pack as
Sun and Moon glide o'er your track.

Food and Water to sustain your life while
Map and Compass steer away from strife.

Meds and Threads shield your body from harm and
Tools and Fire keep it safe and warm.

This form effectively ads "Ten" and "Essentials" as two more essentials, bringing the total to twelve, something we wanted to avoid. But it does rhyme, and scan. Sort of.

A limerick is a natural with its five lines, and such a form would be easily possible if two of the pairs actually rhymed. Unfortunately, none do. More words are needed, and this stresses the scan of a limerick. Iambic pentameter worked well as handy and flexible structure for millennium. Does it do well with the ten E's? Alexandrine and Triplet can handle five lines, but so can the limerick rhyming pattern.

The Sun and Moon in time can come and go
But with us Food and Water must be so
Our Tools and Fire set us from the ape
With Meds and Threads all ills we do escape
And Map and Compass point to home's sweet glow

Shakespeare it ain't, I admit, but it gets the job done.

Posted Jul 29, 2008 at 19:16 UTC, 1348 words,  [/danPermalink