In 1996, when I was seven-and-a-half, approximately sixty miles north of Seattle, I counted bald eagles on the Skagit river. In that one morning, in about two hours, I saw 126 eagles. I know this because I kept count.
For the purpose, my dad had given me a clicker, a small sleek shiny metal device whose entire job was to be a number. The clicker had a satisfactorily cool feel to it and felt dense owing to its durable metal construction. On the right hand side was a silver knob with ridges. Twist the knob, and four centered analog dials with stenciled white Courier New numbers behind a centered crystal display would satisfactorily click-click-click and advance from 0000 to 9999 to reset the clicker. Further up, and closer to the side of the clicker, was a metal lever that looked something like a gas pedal that had been bent out of shape. It stuck out enough from the rest of the clicker that any absentminded flick of the fingers would advance the count by one. On the left hand side you could put your thumb through a rotating metal ring to make sure that the clicker did not fall out of your hand. Hence your number would stay with you, always a palm away at your fingertips.
I remember that first counting experience vividly because it was the beginning of a long indoctrination of the certainty that numbers provide. In the sixteen years since that time I could sleep soundly knowing exactly how many eagles I saw that crisp fall morning. Knowing was a satisfactory feeling. Counting seemed simple at the time, but my days of naïveté were numbered.
Are numbers really as certain as we make them out to be in school? From an early age we are taught to deal with numbers. Perhaps we learn how to count things we know the answer to, like the number of bananas or cookies on a Sesame Street set, because it is the easiest way to see how a three dimensional object can be represented, first by two dimensions (describing the object as a word), and then by something even simpler: a number. Flip through any children’s book, and you will also see collections of animals that are very countable and verifiable.