Reflection 43: A Sense of Space

December 31, 2008

 

Copyright © 2008.

In consciousness, where time is the signature of the observer, space is the signature of the actor, the doer, the mover. Both of which we are—observers and actors—often at the same time. Consciousness is the domain where these two aspects of the self work together in coordinating those sensory changes due to events in the world with those changes due to our own actions. If we don’t keep the two straight in our minds, we can’t tell ourselves from the world, and so get confused. Are you crazy, or is it me?

 

It’s snowing in Acadia National Park, with two feet already on the ground. I’m climbing Sargent Mountain on snowshoes. No blazes to show the way, no ruts in the snow, no familiar landmarks: I’ve mislaid the trail. Here I am in thick, sloping woods somewhere between the Hadlock Brook Trail below and Sargent South Ridge Trail above. If I keep going up, I know I’ll cross that ridge trail. Excelsior!

          Up through the storm, navigating among black stems of spruce. Rock wall; now where? Go left—blocked. Right—up and around the wall. Up, up winding between trees, making my own route. I could follow my tracks down if I had to. Being lost, I look with new eyes. Flying snow, sloping terrain, dark trees. Beauty all around me. Nature herself in ermine cape.

          After an hour, I top a ridge and see a single bare stone floating on a drift, its coat of snow blown away by the wind. I know what that is—digging down, yes, a three-foot mound of stones, a cairn marking the ridge trail. Beyond that line of spruce over there, I’ll bet the ridge falls abruptly into the Amphitheater. Past that, the western slope of Penobscot. I plunge through the trees, and there, the most awesome sight I have seen in Acadia—a ghostly mountain flank rising from a gulf seen through snow streaking horizontally, misting and mystifying the air, creating a scene of wild magnificence. Where is everybody? I’m the only one here.

          The transition from being lost to being found is so abrupt, the scene, though I’ve never seen anything like it, hits me with a rush of familiarity. I am found, indeed! Not theoretically, but in deed. Without a map, I know exactly where I am. X marks the spot on the chart I carry in my head.

 

Consciousness comes in handy when you are lost in the woods. When you’re turned-around and disoriented. It heightens your senses and helps you turn every sound, sight, and smell into a clue to your situation—what’s happening around you and where you are in the world. No need to panic. You’re having an adventure. That is, if you anticipated getting lost and come prepared (expectancy, judgment, and preparation are major aspects of consciousness).

 

Sense of place also comes into play when you know where you are, but some one (or some thing) else is missing. You can stay there and wait, or go looking for them. You start from their last known location, and, putting yourself in their state of mind, navigate from there. It isn’t easy replicating the consciousness of someone else—or of a member of another species entirely, as I discovered during the two years I spent tracking horseshoe crabs in Egypt Bay.

 

GPS unit and hydrophone in hand, I know exactly where I am in my boat, but where are they—the six male and seven female horseshoe crabs fitted with sonar transmitters last June when they came ashore to mate? I don’t know it yet, but I’m trying to think like one of those crabs—to enter its frame of mind in order to figure out where it might have gone after our last encounter. I go to the coordinates where I located one a few days ago, put hydrophone in the water, rotate it full circle, and listen for a faint series of clicks in my headphones to tell me it’s still in the vicinity. Total silence. Shut off the motor and listen really hard. Nothing. Scan the horizon 360 degrees. If I were a horseshoe crab, which way would I go? Novice tracker that I am, I haven’t a clue. Every heading looks the same. To me, their movements seem random.

After months of playing this game, I begin to develop a sense of horseshoe crab motivation. The first year taught me that the crabs in this bay (at the northern limit of their range) spend late November through mid-April hibernating in the mud among eelgrass beds, clams, sea worms, and mussels. Then they rouse themselves in response to increasing light and/or water temperature, eat a hearty meal, and begin their upslope climb from channel edges to gravelly shores where they gather to mate starting mid-to-late May. After mating, they stay in the warm shallows for a month, probably feeding, then make the return trip to deeper waters. Once I understand that cycle, I try to gauge the topography of the bottom, and pursue my quarry farther up or down slope, depending on the season. Slowly, I develop a sense of the routes horseshoe crabs might take at any particular time of year. Once I see that their travels are not random, finding them gets much easier. It’s no longer me alone in my boat. Now it’s me and the crabs and the wind and the waves and the current and the sun in this particular place.

 

Consciousness synchronizes sensory world-changes and motor self-changes, which, given the complexity of the situations we get ourselves into—like getting lost in the woods, or chasing after horseshoe crabs, or dancing for that matter—is a tall order. The cerebellum, one of the original parts of the vertebrate brain, used to be seen as fine-tuner of muscle control. But, too, it receives sensory input, so, with the prefrontal cortex at the opposite end of the brain, may well be one of the locations in our heads where world-changes and self-changes are distinguished in order that we conduct ourselves sensibly in a world we cannot control. Or put differently, that we conduct ourselves sensibly by acting in harmony with the world, not against it. We jump and catch the speeding ball in our mitt, never thinking we are performing a miracle. Never thinking of muscles and nerves and time and space. We just do it. Our consciousness at that moment is who we are.

 

We take it for granted we can walk through woods without crashing into trees, pursue quarry across almost any kind of terrain without losing it, or cross busy city streets at one rate of speed while cars and trucks bear down upon us at other rates. Yet these are examples of the kinds of extremely difficult feats our survival depends on day after day. More than goodness, we need to thank consciousness for such gifts, for it alone gives us the blessing of time and space which enable us to perform such complex operations again and again.

¦

 

Let us count our blessings. Happy New Year, everyone.

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Reflection 43: A Sense of Space”

  1. 94stranger said

    I bumped you; happy new year and thanks for the above.

    you gave me a sense
    of your land: wiped clean, unfenced,
    silent, deeply still;

    was pre-genocide
    America like this? – swept
    by the Great Spirit

    I wish her first sons,
    denial-free, had called no
    English butchers in.

  2. richard said

    You weren’t lost, you just didn’t recognize where you where…like many of us in our journey through life. Glad your back on the path. Sand Beach suffered another loss in the last storm…
    Happy New Year.

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