Paper pile ecology

by Alison Munson


Einstein’s desk on the day that he died.

Which pile do you fall into? Those who never, ever have piles of paper on their desk, those who irremediably have several accumulating piles (and maybe on the floor, too), or those who have piles but attempt to clean them up once in awhile? I am in the latter category, and this is cleanup day, one of those pre-session days when I tell myself again that I will never accumulate paper on my desk, ever again. I will have a zen office where students hang out just to calm themselves, with fresh flowers and a tibetan rug on which I can meditate before departmental meetings. However, no Enya music, nor essential oil diffuser, I promise.

Archaeology of a pile :

– lots of pdfs from reviewing manuscripts for journals, reviewing proposals, and for my students’ manuscripts. I am not one to read papers on screen (yes, one of those), and so I print them, and they tend to pile up in a disorganized fashion until cleanup day. I don’t think I will ever learn to read entire papers on screen if I haven’t by now.

– Scribbled «to do» lists from a few months ago. I don’t dare to look and see if I «did»

– Ideas in a folder for an ecological science fiction manuscript. I am trying to figure who might want to publish a hybrid research-fantasy manuscript. Any suggestions are welcome.

– Crumbs. In my new, zen office there will be no cookies, nor their crumbs.

– Older versions of students’ proposals, or essays, or their manuscripts. I know, there is no excuse for these on my desk. Time moves on, so do students.

– Some funny artistic scribblings from a workshop, where I sat beside a colleague who liked making funnies, while listening to boring talks. The last note refers to edible biochar; evidently we were really bored. I’ll keep this.

– Submissions for lab equipment. Now I just need to get that equipment grant (I’ll know in one month from now). I guess I’ll be positive and keep that folder.

– A copy of the article «The one-degree war plan» by Jorgen Randers et al. 2010, in the Journal of Global Responsibility. Except 8 years later, this should read «The three-degree war plan». I check to see if there is a followup paper. Nope. Definitely too long in the pile.

– Rejection letter for a recent manuscript. Reviewer 1 was the guilty one this time. I couldn’t decipher most of his complaints. We are re-submitting soon, elsewhere of course.

– Notebook for a project that wasn’t funded. I change the name for one that was recently funded. Some you win, some you don’t (I think that is a song title).

– An expired lottery ticket for a new, architect-drawn house. Some you win…..

Getting to the bottom of the pile, wow that was not so bad. Most of it is in the recycling bin. Hardly anything worth keeping, except the journal articles, filed, and the new project notes, and the scribbles. This inspires me to tackle another pile tomorrow, by the end of the week, a zen tabletop? Could it be possible? If not, I can always comfort myself with that widely circulated Einstein quote. “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Author biography: I am a professor of forest biogeochemistry working at Université Laval in Quebec, in boreal, temperate and now urban forests. In my spare time I write fiction and clean up my desk.

Image credit:  Widely circulated image found on Creative Commons in Flikr: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Categories: Communication, Uncategorized

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