(Copyright © 2009)

 

A year or a hundred years from now, people will still breathe, eat, drink, excrete, have sex, sleep (not necessarily in that order). And still depend on damp soil and photosynthesis in a favorable climate as we do today. Earth will be even more depleted then, but we can’t escape to Mars—the cost would be prohibitive to shoot even two of us to that dreary world. We’re stuck where we are and have to make the best of it. Which means suiting our minds, beliefs, expectations, and actions to our home planet by becoming Earthlings in every thought and deed.

 

Which right now we are not. We distance ourselves from the natural world which provides for us by building an imaginary civilization distinct from the natural order. No other species plays golf, for instance, drugs itself to get through the day, or mistakes DVD films for the real world. We live in a mental space tailored to the habits and beliefs we are used to. Ritualized behaviors keeps us there—as surely as if we were caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Only, it’s not our legs that are caught but our minds.

 

If not Earthlings, what are we? A sort of creature that lives in the space it creates for itself in consciousness. We are creatures of dreams, desires, fears, fantasies, illusions, fairy tales, fiction, and other forms of unreality. We dwell on a planet of make-believe, pretense, as-if, . . . whatever. Sure, technology can solve every problem. Earth can feed and accommodate us, no matter how many we are. There’s no stopping economic progress. What I want right now I deserve. Our ritual behaviors tell us so. If we do the same thing often enough, it’s as good as true, no matter how foolish. Ritual is the repetitive re-enactment of belief. What we do repeatedly is what we become.

 

What we have become is disconnected from the planet that truly supports us in every way. We have slipped from our mooring. Adrift in a fog of our own making, we can’t find our way back. Our compass is broken. We are running out of power. Among treacherous ledges, we are dimly aware of waves crashing ahead.

 

The way back requires synchronizing our ritual behaviors with the rhythmic productivity of the Earth. That is, not insisting ecosystems meet our demands, but living within the natural flow of energy through the ecosystems making up the biosphere. For practical and sustainable purposes, that energy comes from the sun. Life on Earth is run by the solar-powered process of photosynthesis in the cells of algae and green plants. That process combines carbon in the air with water in the soil to produce sugar, the staff of life for plant-eaters, and those who feed on them—including us.

 

Sunlight falling on Earth varies with latitude, weather, and season. Overall, seasonal climate determines food production through the year. We used to know that, but have largely forgotten. Especially those who live in cities where light, heat, and food are plentiful 24/7/52. Shopping in shadowless, fluorescent supermarkets, we forget to set our needs in synchrony with the seasons. No matter when, we want blueberries now. Processed foods know no season, so we fill our carts with them as well. But that is changing.

 

Having to free ourselves from dependence on industrial farms consuming huge amounts of water, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, we have no choice but to rediscover the seasons of the year. And to synch our activities with them as they govern the amount of sunlight and moisture available to plants, determining local food production.

 

Not long ago, most of us would have been agriculturalists, either growing our own food or gathering it locally. In response to over-population, climate change, excessive consumption of food and fuel, and an unworkable economy, many of us are heading that way again. To get there, we will need to develop rituals that will link our activities to the seasons.

 

temb-chart-722

The seasons told by water temperature in Taunton Bay, Maine. Fall is a time of rapid decline, winter of holding steady under saltwater ice, spring of gradual incline, summer of attaining and sustaining the peak of the year. Smoothing out the highs and lows for the sake of human comfort and convenience would change everything at exorbitant expense to functioning ecosystems and all who depend on them.

 

Our word “season” stems from the Latin verb serere meaning to plant. Everything has its season, its appropriate time of planting in accord with the relative positions of Earth and sun during their annual journeys. Planting occurs first in the mind, then in damp soil. That is where rituals begin. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is fit to mark the sun’s apparent turn at its lowest point at the winter solstice, and to welcome it at its height six months later. We can witness those turnings of the year with great accuracy, as we can the midway points when the sun rises and sets due east and west. Those quarter days—two solstices and two equinoxes—divide the annual round into four seasons, and the climate of our consciousness into four moods of anticipation.

 

We celebrate many of our festivals and games in sympathy with the waxing and waning of light, warmth, and plenty through the year. Winter is a time for looking ahead, spring for renewal, summer for fulfillment, fall for hard work. The seasons divide the cultural year into four distinct situations. Summer is for baseball, fall for football, winter for basketball (or skiing), spring for tennis (or golf, or soccer, or skateboarding). No activities are more rewarding in their time than planning a garden, ordering seeds, tilling, planting, tending, harvesting, storing and preserving, putting to bed, and sharing with others. Nothing is more satisfying than living in accord with the seasons of the year.

 

As Earthlings, we are born to celebrate the seasons and the conditions of our lives which resonate with them. Just as flowering and fruition are native to their seasons, so are dearth and deprivation to theirs. Distributed through the year, these situations flow into one another, achieving an overall balance in consciousness that echoes the ups and downs of sunlight, the ecological processes dependent on them, and the dynamics of life situations.

 

It is when we try to smooth out the hills and valleys of the seasons that we get into trouble. Wanting it all, all the time, we let our appetites (rather than sunlight) take control. Instead of being ruled by the seasons, we attempt to rule them. But they cannot keep pace with us any better than ecosystems can, or the flow of edible vegetation through the year. We engineer an ever-growing economy to meet our desires, but Earth cannot maintain it or us at so unnatural a rate, so dwindles and fails as we take second helpings. This is a matter of record. Fish in the sea, forests, topsoil and tillable land, species diversity, and quality of life—all are collapsing as we try to squeeze more from natural systems than they can provide.

 

Men congratulate themselves for emancipating their women, children, and slaves, but do not see that they persist in enslaving other nations and even Earth itself to meet their collective desires—which are truly insatiable. The global economy is based on the enslavement of living resources, both human and natural, to the appetites of powerful for-profit corporations which, though they claim the right of free speech for themselves, would silence all who oppose their stripping Earth of its natural wealth.

 

In defiance of the seasons and common sense, corporations are the perpetrators of the growth economy. The feet of their executives don’t touch the Earth any more than their hearts do. They live in penthouses far above the streets where common folk trade. They are not men for all seasons but for no seasons at all. Increasing wealth and plenty is their goal. To gain which they are killing the planet, its living systems, and the mere mortals among us.

 

I have a problem with that. Recent events bear me out. Congress has been bought by corporate lobbyists, as has the legislation it votes into law. No regulatory superhero has stood between corporations and their goal of showing extravagant profits every quarter of the year. But as the economic crisis demonstrates so clearly, a financial climate driven by insatiable greed is no substitute for the seasonal climate which governs the productivity of the biosphere. So much for corporate consciousness and any supposedly built-in safeguards. Focused solely on making excessive profits for themselves, corporations have no brain cells left to devote to the ecological economy of their host planet which, in the end, is the only thing that matters. If we don’t put the speed bumps back in our yearly consumption of global resources and expectations for profit, then truly Earthlings of every tribe are at risk.

 

¦

 

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 (Copyright © 2009)

 

I am in Portland, Maine, at a conference on eelgrass restoration. The first day’s program is made up of speaker after speaker, delivering PowerPoint after PowerPoint, with occasional moderated panel discussions. Self-appointed warden of consciousness, now and again I let my eyes wander around the room, seeking stimulation, or relief from always peering at a screen showing data tables too small to read. Something about that band of dark wood trim around the walls under a pronounced overhang draws my attention time after time. It just doesn’t look right. A band of dark wood panels—like thin plywood—jutting at an angle out from the wall. Yet I see it the same way every time I find myself studying it.

 

regency-lights-1 Illustration 1. How the band of dark wood paneling looks to my eye on Day 1 of the eelgrass restoration conference at the Regency Hotel in Portland, Maine.

 

From 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., that paneling bothers me. Sticking out like the scales on a dry pinecone, it makes no sense. Who would ever pay good money for an effect that looks like the top of the paneling is peeling away from the wall in separate flakes? Each flake is a trapezoid, narrower on the top than the bottom. My sketch makes the side angles look the same, but actually they are asymmetrical. The shape is all wrong—wrong for my eyes, wrong for the room. I suffer from a bad case of perceptual dissonance.

          Then in late afternoon I get it. Those gaps between separate panels may look like empty wall space, but they are actually opalescent white glass (or plastic) light shades mounted against the band of paneling itself. The shades remind me of lights in art deco movie houses, though there they’d show red or gold, not white. All day I am seeing the panels as the dominant figure, but suddenly the lights leap out against the dark wood—and the whole structural detail makes perfect sense. Dissonance, begone! The lighting is so soft under the overhang that the 3-D lights cast no shadows to reveal their true shape or even their presence. Now that I notice the lights are white while the wall is pale green, I cannot restore my seeing to its former state of error.

 

regency-lights-2 Illustration 2. How the paneling appears on Day 2 of the conference, with lights mounted at equal intervals along the band of dark wood. The wood panels now appear to be back in place, flush against the wall.

 

On the second day of the conference, without the odd paneling to entertain my wandering gaze, I listen to what the speakers are actually saying. Certain words keep coming up again and again: nitrogen, watersheds, management. Attempting to convey maximum information in minimum time, few speakers actually take pains to enunciate clearly. They speak in a kind of code everyone in the room understands because they are already familiar with the vocabulary, so know what to expect. Nitrogen comes out as “ni’jen” or “ni’tjn”; watershed as “wash’d” or (without any vowel at all) “wshd” or even “wshh;” management in eelgrass speak is reduced to a short burst such as “mng’mn.” This manner of speaking conserves both time and energy, and though it’s rough on the English language, it suits the occasion perfectly. Audience expectations compensate for the lack of clear speaking, filling in gaps of consciousness much as families understand one another while speaking in codes honed to a spare minimum.

 

I am not a numbers man, so it strikes me at the conference how much time eelgrass researchers spend in coming up with right numbers for the water clarity threshold required for eelgrass shoots to grow into rich beds, or the total nitrogen concentration threshold to protect established beds from wasting away. Millions and even billions of dollars ride on those numbers—as in paying for secondary or tertiary sewage treatment in coastal towns and cities for the sake of eelgrass protection.

 

Every person at the conference values eelgrass as vital shallow-water habitat for flounder, cod, crab, lobster, and all sorts of estuarine life. When eelgrass goes, many of the species people love to eat go with it. How to prevent that from happening is what the eelgrass restoration conference is all about. When you sit down to dinner in a restaurant, eelgrass is far from your conscious mind. But the choices on the menu may very well be eelgrass-dependent, so it’s good to give thanks that a roomful of folks in Portland, Maine, celebrate eelgrass consciousness by working together on cold winter days to get their numbers right so they stand up in court.

 

My job, aside from presenting a poster on eelgrass variability in Taunton Bay, is, as consciousness warden, to make sure the building holds together until the conference concludes, and that speakers meet minimal standards of diction so the audience can get the gist of what they are trying to say.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I’m on the phone to FairPoint to change my service. For 20 minutes, here’s what I get:

 

Thank you for holding. Your call will be answered in just a moment.

 

Every effort is being made to assure your wait is as short as possible. Thank you for holding.

 

Your call is very important to us. Thank you for waiting during this brief delay.

 

We know your time is important and appreciate your patience while on hold.

 

Thank you for holding. Someone will be right with you.

 

Thank you for calling today. We’ll be with you in just a moment.

 

Nice man, nice lady. You can tell by their voices. So concerned that I not waste my time. So caring. Every 20 seconds, they say the same thing a new way, with distracting music in between—all to keep me from realizing how annoyed I am at being continuously put off.

 

Am I conscious? No, I can’t do anything, so there’s no point in being alert. I’m just sitting here, annoyance turning to anger turning to Richter-scale fury.

 

Why do I let canned voices get under my skin? Because it’s an asymmetrical situation. Garry Kasparov versus IBM’s Deep Blue. They—the nice voices—are in total control. I can’t tell them to go f—k themselves. They just keep jabbing away at my brain. I can’t even defend myself because I have business with them, so have to hang on till I get a live one in India. They’re the phone company, I want to speak to an operator. But there is no operator. Just voices that recite meaningless phrases in my ear.

 

What interests me about this “encounter” is how familiar the situation has become in modern life. When you want to talk to someone, you get a recording—“If you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time during this message.” Yeah, sure, if I knew the extension, if I knew who my party was.

 

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who speak through recorded announcements, and those trapped into listening to them out of necessity.

 

When I turn on my computer, the screen says “Welcome.” Good old Microsoft, so well-bred and friendly. Drop dead, I say, but it never seems to hear. I got a letter today from Joe Biden: “Dear Steve,” it says, “Words can’t describe my gratitude for the friendship that you’ve shown President Obama and myself.” I get the drift—send money! Yep, the box with the lowest figure is for $100. Then there’s a bunch of numbers and letters, which is probably secret code for Dear Steve. Dear Joe, I’m currently low on cash, could you donate a century note to help me through hard times? 57286705    A4CD139

 

I am an ardent environmentalist who actually practices what he preaches. When I lived on $3,000 a year in the 1980s, I gave a third of it to environmental organizations. Ever since, I’ve gotten a lot of mail in the spirit of, Keep it coming, Steve, Buddy. Money makes you a lot of friends. Friends who are good at asking for more. At Christmas, I am always surprised how popular I am. Asymmetry, again. Like all those radio preachers who’d be happy to save your mortal soul (for a considerable donation).

 

Asymmetrically—that’s how society is built. The benefits dribble down as long as the money keeps flowing upward. Royalty at the top, faceless drones in the steerage below.

 

Which means consciousness is asymmetrical as well. There’s the view from the palace, and the view from the street. Those who rule the system build the scenery for each point of view. That is, they govern the media that enforce who gets to see/hear/do what.

 

In essence, this disconnect in consciousness stems from there being two different sets of rules, one for the ups, another for the downs. Emperors can put peasants on hold, but if peasants try that in reverse, they’re dead or in prison.

 

Knowing your station in life means accepting the rules the higher-ups want you to follow. They play by their rules, you play by their rules—what could be fairer than that?

 

As I keep saying, consciousness is situational. That is, your awareness depends on your life situation. Where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re headed, who you’re with, what they’re doing, what you’re doing, and so on. Consciousness arises in context. You’re part of the context for those at the top. They’re part of the context for those in the crowd down below.

 

Whenever you find yourself holding the phone while soothing voices tell you over and over how important you are, you know your consciousness is irrelevant. You don’t really exist for them. The situation is asymmetrical, which is a nice way of saying you’re living a lie.

 

On the Web, the person you’re chatting with may not be what he seems. You know television presents a hokey reality—even the reality shows. Same for movies. Even so-called documentaries are made from the producer’s point of view, the producer being the guy with money who brings it to the screen for his own purposes.

 

The biggest lies come from government. Between elections, the electorate is on hold for the duration. When have you ever gotten a straight answer to a letter you sent to your senator? What you get is meant to appeal to every constituent, so appeals to no flesh-and-blood person. As it is, we elect members of political parties to office, not human beings. Nowhere are such parties mentioned in the Constitution, yet there they are, taking or losing power for years—even decades—at a time. In the meantime, the electorate is on hold: “Your vote is very important to us. Thank you for waiting.”

 

The blogosphere is supposed to be the antidote to all this, at least according to those in the business of blogging. The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging deals with the future of news media and ends on this note:

 

We don’t know how this will all shake out. But we do know that in the blogosphere, as we all add our own critiques and new information,1 something starts to emerge that looks more like the truth.2 We’ve been fascinated to read studies showing that asking more and more people a question (e.g., “How tall is the tower of London?”) and averaging their answers yields something closer to the truth than asking one person alone.3 This is—in a nutshell—how the blogosphere is reshaping the media. In the past, voices were necessarily limited. So the information we received was limited as well. Now, as everyone feels free to contribute, we get a clearer picture of reality.4 If the function of the media is to inform, and to get the real story, then we’d say blogs are shaping the media in a positive way.5 That’s true even if come 2043, we’ll have to use something else to line our birdcages (page 167f, italics and notes added).

 

Little in this paragraph makes sense to anyone but the writer, who surely breathes rarefied air in a penthouse high above the street. Here we have a powerhouse in the blogosphere tooting the virtues of his or her chosen medium. Whoever would do such a thing? A person interested in attracting ad revenues, for one. Or a celebrity blogger boosting his own image, for another.

 

As to the specifics singled out in italics, I say this:

1 That cloud floating around the blogosphere may contain a few particles of information, but most of it is opinion or even disinformation.

2 The arbiters of truth are not bloggers at large but those actually in the know, who make up a small fraction of one percent of all bloggers.

3 Depends who you ask. The average opinion may not be more accurate than the opinion of one person. The sample is likely to be skewed, with truth far to one side or the other. Look at the arguments for creationism, or the existence of God, for example. I’d advise asking the one who had taken the trouble to measure the height of that tower.

4 There is no necessary correlation between the number of bloggers and their access to so-called reality. Concerning consciousness and understanding, most of the people can be fooled much of the time.

5 The blogosphere at large is not an example of the new media. People blog for all sorts of reasons, few bearing on media or the news per se. The writer takes the efforts of a small minority of clear-headed bloggers as emblematic of the mishmash as a whole.

 

¦

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Memory is situational because consciousness is situational. Everything that happens takes place in the particular circumstances that frame our life worlds at the time. Consciousness is a matter of being alive to our current life situation as the mind configures it.

 

Exhibit A. I am at scout camp the second week in August, 1945. It is Sunday, so there’s nothing to do. The sun is shining. I go for a walk with a friend down a dirt road lined with tall trees. Everything is different somehow. Looking into the sky, I picture a bomb falling, falling, falling. Earlier, at breakfast, I’d seen a story in the camp director’s newspaper about an American plane dropping an A-bomb on Hiroshima, a city in Japan. I don’t know what an A-bomb is, but I know it is bad. I am scared.

 

Exhibit B. I am in eighth grade. The war is over. My father is renting a cinderblock house in Sarasota for a year. My mission is to help dismantle Sarasota Army Air Base, soon to close. On Saturdays, wrench and screwdrivers in my pocket, I ride with bus driver Russ Shin (from his name tag), north to the airfield, but get off where he turns west and the railroad tracks continue north through the swamp. I walk along the tracks, cross a trestle, to the dump in the southeast corner of the airfield. Crawling under the fence, I am among the remains of planes, trucks, and all sorts of military gear. My personal stock pile. I pick up smoke grenades and dye packets. Radio equipment. Skipping the tubes of prophylactic ointment, I climb in the cockpit of a wingless plane and unscrew gauges of all kinds. Gyroscopes! Checking the time, I gather my haul—by now including pilot’s seat and dummy bomb—and head back, loaded much heavier than when I came, along the elevated rail bed through the swamp. What’s that noise? Looking ahead—a locomotive heading my way. No sir, I’m not going to ditch any of this stuff. I can’t go back, I’d miss the bus. And I’m not going into that swamp! Which leaves the bank under the trestle. I figure I can just make it. Flapping and rattling, I plod towards it as fast as I can. The train keeps coming. I keep plodding. Just as the train reaches the trestle, so do I. I taste the heat and smell of the steam as I dive under the tracks onto the bank below, my feet in the water. I feel how fast my heart is beating. No time to sit around. I keep going and meet Russ at the corner. Saying nothing, he just looks at me. When I get home, I put the stuff under my bed. Next day, I use a can opener to take the bottom off one of the smoke grenades. I show it to Jack Tisdale who lives across the street. In his living room, we use a lens to focus sunlight streaming in the window onto the cake of white. Wisps of smoke, then billows. We drop the grenade on the rug and run out the door. Jack tells me later everything in the house is coated with white powder. I am surprised how angry some grownups can get.

 

Exhibit C. For reasons unknown, in 2001, 90% of the eelgrass in Taunton Bay died back. Which is an ecological tragedy because eelgrass beds provide habitat for all manner of sea creatures including cod, flounder, crabs, periwinkles, and amphipods. I’ve been worrying that bone for seven years. What I know through personal experience is that no sea lavender appeared that year, periwinkles died by tens of thousands, the water was cloudy, ledges were extremely slippery as if coated with slime, and Maine had the lowest rainfall in 111 years. Looking at photographs from earlier years, I saw that eelgrass reached maximum extent and density in 1973, year of the heaviest snowmelt since records have been kept. Since 1992, I’ve flown aerial overflights to check on eelgrass in the bay. It was down in the 1980s, as it was in the drought years of the 1930s, but making a nice recovery throughout the 1990s. Boaters noticed how thick it was getting because it clogged their propellers. Then in 2001 it crashed. And only now in 2008 and 2009 is slowly coming back in some places but not others.

I’ve been trying to make myself conscious of the circumstances which prevailed in 2001 so I could accurately characterize the situation and figure out what the significant variables might have been that led to the dieback. What I notice from aerial photographs is that eelgrass is recovering in areas fed by both salt- and freshwater. That is, where the bay is brackish, as in stream channels and where melt- and rainwater flow off the land. The dieback, I think now, has something to do with the amount of salt in the water flowing over the eelgrass beds. Salinity is highly variable in Taunton Bay, ranging from pure fresh water on the flats at low tide (when it rains) to the salty flows coming over the reversing falls from Frenchman Bay and the Gulf of Maine beyond.

I now believe the eelgrass dieback was triggered by the drought that reached its peak in 2001, causing slight dilution and unusually high salinities, allowing eelgrass dieback disease to flourish whereas runoff and rainfall usually moderate the salinity, and thus keep the ever-present disease organisms in check. This makes sense because Taunton Bay is a closed bay largely surrounded by land (unlike open bays which are subject to greater flushing by marine waters), so periods of low runoff and rainfall produce pronounced changes in salinity. Too, global warming may have given the disease organism a significant boost in 2001.

By this exercise I have approximated the consciousness I might have had in 2001 if I had kept track of all that was going on in the world of local eelgrass beds at the time. By doing my best to recreate those conditions, I have tried to make myself aware of the prevailing situation that led to the decline. At least I can make an educated guess with more certainty than I could have when I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

 

The larger question remaining is where in the brain does situational consciousness come together as a gateway to both situational memory and informed behavior which is more-or-less appropriate to the circumstances within which it arises? The anterior cingulate cortex (see Reflection 60: Discovery) receives all the appropriate inputs (motivational, emotional, sensory, cognitive, remembered, anticipatory) as well as direct input from peripheral eye fields (what we see out of the corner of our eye), feeding forward to motor planning and execution areas of the frontal lobe. The locus where these various strands of consciousness come together could well serve as the seat of both situational consciousness and—when arousal is sufficient—situational memory (by a perhaps less direct route).

 

This is conjecture on my part. Maybe it has some heuristic value. My contribution is the details I glean through introspection, which animal and clinical studies generally do not provide. I offer it in this blog to give the world a chance to judge what it is worth. For me the reward is in the pursuit of understanding while I still have a mind to keep me entertained.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

While mounting my photovoltaic panel, I notice wasps hovering around the end of a bough on a nearby spruce, apparently attracted by gleaming drops exuded from its tip. In the grass eight feet below, a smooth green snake eyes the wasps, taking in the scene. I go about my business, but look up ten minutes later to see the snake sliding along that same branch. Stealthily, inch-by-inch, toward the tip and the hovering wasps. Slowly, almost not moving, it extends its body beyond the end into the air, drooping slightly as if part of the bough, as if its nose—its mouth—were the tip. There it waits. And waits. But the wasps have gone elsewhere. I run and get my camera to document what I have seen with my own eyes.

 

Smooth Green Snake 

 

Can I ascribe consciousness, planning, even intelligence to a snake on the basis of such an anecdote? Watching from below, seeing the wasps, climbing the trunk, venturing onto a limb, sliding its length to the end, hanging beyond the tip—this is not random activity. It is clearly deliberate. Each move made in proper sequence. At some point the snake must have put it all together as a plan of action. It had motivation and a clear goal: the wasps were there and it wanted to eat them. It had the smarts to figure out the route to take and what it had to do in order to bring that about. I am sorely tempted to say this is conscious behavior. The only flaw was that the wasps were too wary for the snake.

 

Snake consciousness? Wasp consciousness? Or can such behaviors be fully accounted for by hard-wired, unconscious reflexes? In the case of the wasp, perhaps, but the snake fully grasped the situation before it acted. It had the imagination to draft a plan extending the now into the future, and the follow-through to execute it. Which took time. Memory must have been involved. Situational memory encompassing goal, motive, participants, route, complex course of action, all unified by seeing the world from its point of view.

 

I have seen similar performances in raspberry bushes where insects were drawn by ripe fruit, the snake waiting in the shadows of leaves farther back. Is that necessarily conscious behavior? Does the predator have a sense of what it must do to capture its prey? Or does it simply rely on the equipment it is given to do its thing? Is the frog aware of turning its head toward the fly, of lashing out with its tongue? Frogs and snakes survive only in the presence of suitable prey. The habitat may be the message, all else following as a matter of course.

 

That may be true in the case of the frog, but the case of the wasp-seeking snake is more complicated. If the wasps wouldn’t come to the snake, the snake figured out it would have to go to the wasps. Was the process of “figuring out” similar to what we would call consciousness? It was certainly situational from the snake’s point of view, which took into account its size, capabilities, motives, habitat, and goal. Consciously or not, all that figured in the snake’s behavior, which appears to have been visualized and planned beforehand while it watched from its vantage point in the grass. And then retained as it executed its moves in proper sequence.

 

The first move was to turn away from the wasps toward the base of the tree. Then to climb up the stem of the tree. Only when it turned onto the particular branch leading to where the wasps were when seen from the ground did it face toward its prey. Reflexes are instantaneous; they cannot account for these complex, time-consuming maneuvers. The snake apparently operated within a three-dimensional model in its head, and monitored its position within that space, which became ever more charged with meaning as it neared the end of the bough.

 

Many people accept that (like apes, monkeys, and humans) birds, deer, dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, bears, and other animals have a mental sense of the territory which provides for and sustains them. But snakes? I am here to extend such a sense to them. I see the workings of the vertebrate hippocampus in their case as well. I see no compelling reason to believe that the wasp-seeking snake I witnessed was not conscious of its surroundings or its own actions. Until proven wrong, I will count snakes among the ranks of conscious beings, entitled to all the privileges such membership implies.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Haiku and metaphor originate in situations that bring two aspects of consciousness together simultaneously as a comparison or more basic juxtaposition. One aspect is a sensory image, the other is a series of images that has mellowed into a concept or an idea stored in memory. The conscious mind addresses both aspects as a unified situation having a concrete sensory and an abstract cognitive part, the two parts binding in a moment of emotional comprehension which joins them, perhaps for the first time.

 

Too, haiku and metaphor have an additional dimension involving words and phrases representing the experiential situation as a disciplined language event. The experience of emotional understanding is given linguistic form, and the entire ensemble of sensory image, idea, emotional insight, and specific language is referred to as a haiku or metaphor.

 

It is the creator’s job to translate conscious experience into words which carry the burden of the event without distortion, deletion, or unnecessary addition. It is the reader’s job to rekindle the emotional understanding from exposure to the raw words. Both jobs require full conscious participation and an attitude supporting an undertaking requiring full awareness, concentration, emotional sensitivity, and linguistic skill.

 

It is no wonder that the true poets of our species are few and far between. But by a lesser standard, all of us are poets in everyday life when we achieve a grasp of a conscious situation involving sensory and cognitive input, emotional insight, understanding, and speech skills at our personal level of mastery—which we do every day.

 

Language is not the whole of consciousness by any means, but it is one door opening into the many aspects of consciousness underwriting every episode of human behavior. This adds a qualitative avenue to the understanding of the mind as a supplement to the quantitative route so favored by laboratory scientists. Artists and humanists have access to consciousness in ways those trained in scientific disciplines avoid, and therefore fail to fully appreciate, understand, or explore.

 

I base today’s post on rough translations of three haiku by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa ( 1763-1828 ) and one by Yosa Buson ( 1716-1783 ).

 

Example E.          a tethered horse

                             snow

                             in both stirrups

 

Buson’s horse is an idea, a compilation from all of the black-and-white westerns we have ever seen. Whoa! What’s that snow doing here? Not on the ground but in both stirrups! What’s the situation here? The rider has dismounted and is not minding his steed, staying overlong at the tavern, perhaps, or the whorehouse. He is inferred but not even mentioned, so we enter the consciousness of the horse. How does it feel to be left out in the cold? Terrible! Lonely. Hungry. Neglected. Of no use. Forgotten. It’s those snow-filled stirrups that so shock us. We’ve never considered such an image before. So it speaks clearly to us, rousing us, waking us up. Buson must actually have seen it, so he successfully conveys his compassion for the horse across all those miles and years which separate us. In the most economical way possible—that is the genius of haiku.

 

Example F.          mother I never knew

                             every time I see the ocean

                             every time

 

If you don’t know your mother, she is little more than an abstract idea. But the ocean is concrete—all those waves rolling, rolling against the shore. The sky has to be overcast, the waves glowing restless green. That feeling comes again, that empty yearning, that sadness, that self-blame for having no home to go to. It’s my fault. I must’ve really screwed up. So this is the home I keep coming back to. It is the same every time, yet not the home I was looking for. The home where she would be—if she were anywhere I could visit. Portraying ocean as unknown mother, Issa has done it again. Taken us into his conscious mind where we can glimpse how it must feel to be him.

 

Example G.         the man pulling radishes

                             points my way

                             with a radish

 

Like the stirrups and the ocean, that radish makes me see with fresh eyes. Makes me appreciate the situation. I’m on a journey and can’t find my way. Who can I ask for directions? Ah, in that field, the man pulling something up—radishes. He’s a stranger, so I don’t know him at all. He’s just another farmer to me. How else would he answer than by pointing with the radish in his hand? It all comes together: me the lone wanderer, the farmer, the radish. Now I know exactly where I am. And take delight in the image before me as I failed to appreciate it before. We are what we are. How could we be anything else? The trick now is to get that carrot gesture down on paper without burying the spontaneity of it under too many words. Issa makes it easy for me to put myself in his place as if his and my consciousness were the same.

 

Example H.         visiting the graves

                             the old dog

                             leads the way

 

Whose graves? The fallen, the famous, the ancients? This poem starts with graves as an idea, which doesn’t tell us much. Ah, the old dog. Not just any old dog, the one, specific old dog. We can see him there up ahead of us. The one in the lead that we follow as we visit the graves. We leap from our mind and our relationship with the dead to the dog’s mind and its relationship with the dead. That’s no mean leap—from human consciousness to dog consciousness. And we get the point. The dog had—and still has—a relationship with the dead. And we have come to rely on that relationship when we visit the graves ourselves. We love this particular guide because we respect his feelings and he respects ours. The dog is old, which suggests he had a relationship with the dead when they were alive. But, too, it warns us that soon we will have to visit the graves without our faithful guide. Which is not only a saddening thought but a scary one. We will be on our own. And we’re not getting any younger ourselves. Who will lead others to our graves when we are gone?

 

So here I have turned 38 of Issa’s and Buson’s words (in translation) into 1,087 words from my own consciousness. It took me 29 times as many words to say a part of what they said. Which is why some are poets and some are not. Haiku and metaphors are efficient means of conveying the sense of personal consciousness in the fewest possible words. The effort it takes to do that, however, can be immense. Poets are those who put in their ten-thousand hours of living, self-study, and preparation. Just ask Issa and Buson, they’ll tell you.

 

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For additional haiku, see:

Haiku Society of America Online Haiku Collections

 

Modern Haiku online issue samples

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

One way to study consciousness is to study activities people throw themselves into and are good at. As a species, we are good at making and doing things. Toys, furniture, weapons, art, and poetry are products of human consciousness, of the body and brain working together to reach a goal or produce a desired result. Every artifact is a reflection of human consciousness at work—planning, judging, choosing, doing.

 

I read a blog the other day that claimed Japanese haiku to be the simplest form of poetry, and therefore the easiest to create. I don’t believe that’s true—that haiku are either simple or easy—but they are relatively brief. And are certainly products of disciplined conscious endeavor. So what can haiku as a creative artifact tell us about consciousness?

 

Let’s take a look at four sample haiku. Right away, some will complain that these poems don’t satisfy the required syllable count. As we are taught in school, the 5-7-5 syllable sequence accords with a sacred formula that defines a haiku. Except that emphasis in Japanese haiku is indicated by words, not punctuation marks, and those words are written and read as part of the poem, whereas in English question and exclamation marks don’t add to the syllable count. Haiku in Japanese are written in one vertical line, not three horizontal lines. And most Japanese words end in vowel sounds, so Japanese haikus are flush with internal rhymes, but when translated, many of those words end in consonants, so there is no way to translate Japanese rhymes into English. Some teachers may like to teach rules for convenience, but when they distort the object of study, it is best to see through them to the true nature of the original form.

 

In this post I offer rough English translations of four haiku by the Japanese master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) as examples of consciousness reflected in a small number of words.

 

Example A.          on a bare branch

a crow is perched—

autumn evening

 

In this first example we are given the sensory image of a crow on a bare branch, and the idea (concept) that it is late in the year and late in the day. Images and ideas are integral parts of consciousness, but they arise in two different parts of the mind—the senses and conceptual memory. What Basho is doing in this poem is putting two aspects of consciousness together so they play off against each other, the experiential whole adding to more than the sum of its parts. This gets closer to the essence of haiku than counting syllables on our fingers or listening for rhymes.

 

What is the dynamic between image and concept in this poem? Do they support each other or are they in conflict? We sense the bare branch silhouetted against the dusk, the black crow not flying but clutching the branch. All the while knowing that days are getting colder and darker. The fall setting provides a conceptual frame for the specific image Basho gives us, frame and figure combining to fill us with a kind of bleak chill and emptiness. The time has come to get scarves and mittens out; it will get colder and darker before spring revives us again—if spring ever comes.

 

As I have written (see Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain), metaphor is also composed of two parts, the subject or tenor and the predicate or vehicle. The vehicle qualifies the tenor so we see it in a way that expresses our feeling toward a particular event. Haiku set up similar mutual interactions between their major parts, but not through equivalency or comparison. In this case, the image of branch and crow gives substance to the conceptual frame provided by knowing it is not only autumn but also late in the day. Yes, the two parts complement each other, reinforcing our understanding through reference to what we can see with our own eyes. The result is a feeling that is not actually conveyed by the language of the poem. Nowhere do words like sadness or gloom and doom appear to suggest foreboding at the approach of death—but we feel their chill nonetheless. Basho has taken us straight inside his conscious mind, without telling us in so many words what he wants us to feel.

 

Example B.          June rain

hollyhocks stare

where the sun should be

 

Phototropic hollyhocks turn with the sun. Even in the rain, they still follow the brightest part of the sky. Hollyhocks in the rain serve as the vehicle of this poem, the concrete image pointing to the subject or tenor, which can’t be shown at all because the sky is overcast. “Where the sun should be” is an idea, not a sensory image. Putting the image together with that idea, consciousness creates a sense of yearning for, or being faithful to, a desired presence that, in this case, is denied. This haiku is not about beautiful flowers but behavior dedicated to one who is absent, as the mind of the beloved is filled with thoughts of her lover so that she carries on in fond and familiar ways while he is away.

 

Example C.          old pond—

a frog leaps in

water sound

 

This is probably the most famous poem in the world, and also the most underappreciated to the extent of seeming trivial. An old pond is a venerable aspect of nature. A frog is best known by its croak in the night. Here “water sound” is ambiguous, but certainly results from the frog leaping into the pond, which swallows it in one gulp. The tenor of this haiku is not the pond itself but the frog leaping into it. The concrete vehicle is the sound emanating from that unremarkable event—not a rude croak as expected but the subtle slip of a lithe body merging with its element. The surprise of that sound unifies the poem in a wholly suitable manner that the reader does not anticipate. Like the punch line of a joke, it shocks while at the same time fulfilling the expectations aroused by the situation—a frog by a pond.

 

Example D.          coolness

the clean lines

of the wild pine

 

Here again, image and idea combine in arousing a feeling within us. In this case an appreciation for the spare but elegant simplicity of the wild pine (as opposed to the domesticated form of a stunted pine in a pot) as viewed at a particular time of year when it stands apart from more complex deciduous trees that have lost their leaves. The tenor-subject is the concept of coolness in the fall; the vehicle-predicate the sensory image of a free-growing pine sharpened by consciousness to emphasize the uncluttered outlines of branches and stem. The surprise comes from applying a visual image as the avatar or physical incarnation of a season noted for declining temperatures. It’s not winter—yet, but rapid changes are taking place in the landscape of conscious expectations. The pine comes into its own as temperatures fall. Which comes as an abrupt revelation to the poet passing along the road through the forest.

 

Haiku use figurative language to convey aspects of consciousness that cannot be told in conventional terms. Their meaning is more to be sensed or felt than declared in so many words. Like metaphors, haiku thrive on the relationship between sensory images and conceptual memory, combining the two to convey the power of the ineffable. Where metaphors achieve coherence through implied similarities, haiku rely on simple juxtaposition to bring images and ideas into unity.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is human achievement due to innate ability (talent) or training and practice (hard work)? Daniel J. Levitin reports findings from research on that question in his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006; see Reflection 54: Books About Consciousness):

 

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. . . . [N]o one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery (page 197).

 

So practice does make perfect—deliberate, attentive, conscious repetition of routines until they belong not only to the likes of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Einstein, but to the rest of us as well. It’s not just a matter of putting in the time. The quality of that time is crucial to success. We must turn our passions into disciplined behaviors through strict concentration. That’s what it takes to build strong neural connections in our brains sufficient to turn the off-the-shelf model we start with into a customized brain suited to the challenges of today’s world. To realize our personal dreams, there is no substitute for concentration and hard work.

 

The secret to becoming an expert is motivation. To do better than we have done in the past, we’ve got to devote a good part of our conscious life to achieving our goals—whatever they might be. We can’t buy or rent success, or leave it to others to acquire for us. Life is a meaningless abstraction until we decide what we want our life to be. That is the first issue, which sets us off in a particular direction. Then the question arises, are we willing to do the work? We can’t know until we try. We’ve got to push ahead from where we are to see where we end up. It may not be the achievement we planned, but if we put in our ten thousand hours, we will be somewhere at least, far beyond where we started out.

 

Which sounds like the standard pep talk you’ve heard a thousand times. Hang tough, you can do it! But now we are beginning to understand how dedicated passion and conscious attention can, in changing our brains, change our lives—and change the world. To develop skills, timing, judgment, and knowledge, we have to do whatever is required to build specific patterns of nerve connections in our brains. Whatever we do to our brains, they will do for us on demand. That is the amazing secret of human experience. Treat our brains in humdrum fashion, our brains will see to it we lead humdrum lives. Challenge our brains to do all they can, they have no choice but to return the favor in kind.

 

It’s not how we treat others, it’s how we treat ourselves that is the key to success. Expect little—that’s exactly what we will get. If we ask for the moon, we must build that moon crater-by-crater over time into our brains; then when we ask, there it will be.

 

When we meet someone and ask what they “do” we generally imply “for a living.” But in getting acquainted, what we really want to know is, have they put in the necessary ten thousand hours of exercising their body and brain? If they’re young, what are they working on? What is their bliss, their passion? Apprenticeships and grad school take ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours flipping burgers leads to a burger-flipping life, perhaps eventually as a store manager or franchise owner if they dedicate their hearts and brains to getting ahead.

 

In my life, I have put in my ten thousand hours three times over: as a photographer, a teacher, and now a writer. I have reinvented myself each time to move into a more direct relationship with the world I wanted to live in. Each time I went back to Go and started over. I never got $200 for the effort, but went to the bottom and worked my way up. My first job in each field paid $5,000 a year in the currency of the day. Which sounds self-defeating, but I was changing with the times, so explored unknown dimensions of myself as they emerged in my awareness.

 

I have often claimed that consciousness has been selected for to give us a tool for working our way out of those tough, unanticipated situations we get ourselves into. In the old days, growing up to reproductive age used to be the problem, and then surviving long enough to help our children reach that age.

 

Now that we in the developed world are born with a cultural quilt around our shoulders, we are likely to take raising families and having grandchildren for granted as if they would be ours as a matter of course. Our life challenge then becomes, what are we going to be when we grow up so we can have the wherewithal to support the comfortable lifestyles we aspire to?

 

Fireman? Astronaut? Rock star? NASCAR driver? Consciousness has evolved to enable us to set goals such as these. And beyond that, to work our way through the arduous training sessions and hours of practice that will modify our bodies and brains accordingly, putting our goals within reach. Once appropriately stimulated, our brains will give us the skills to match our performance to our desires, enabling us to get close to what we hoped we might become.

 

Day by day, consciousness enables us to grow up. To survive in this world. Which is no mean accomplishment, given the hazards surrounding us on all sides. Consciousness would be our most prized possession, if only we didn’t take it for granted—as if growing up is ours by right and not something we have to make happen.

 

The world is full of people who have every sort of advantage—and waste them all by not doing the work of learning how to turn them to good use. They don’t put in their ten thousand hours. Or if they do, it is on high living, recreation, and entertainment. Or on sticking to outmoded ways. They shape their brains to their inheritance, not the promise of the future, so rely on the generic brain model they were given, which is more adapted to the world of 50,000 years ago than the challenges of today. Ice-age brains are good for dealing with ice ages. The W model might be good for highly privileged cave dwellers, but as we have seen over the past eight years, our basic equipment is no longer adequate to the life situations we encounter in today’s modern world.

 

Our skills and brains require updating. Which is where consciousness must be put to good use. Global warming, sea level rise, economic collapse, eternal warfare, overpopulation, overconsumption, wastefulness, militarization, power reserved to the wealthy for their own benefit—there’s got to be a better way. A spectrum of better ways.

 

The global situation requires each of us to put in a minimum of ten thousand hours in bringing our personal consciousness and skills up to the standards required if we are to contribute to the world we actually live in, not the fictionalized world featured in mythology, many schoolbooks, and the entertainment media.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

I am in the second day of a workshop on dealing with death, a workshop I am drawn to attend. The leader asks us to tell about a funeral or memorial service that moved us particularly. A woman across the room says something in a small voice I cannot hear. Then I raise my hand as the leader turns toward me. I tell of my father’s funeral in Seattle 45 years ago. Colleagues read poems they said my father liked. One of them read Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. I’d never heard it before or heard of it. It came as a revelation to me, as if I were looking through . . . at which point I choke up. Through . . . I gather myself and continue in quavering voice . . . my father’s eyes. Caught off-guard and completely undone by welling emotion, I can say no more. I sit listening to but not hearing the stories that follow. I am back in Seattle, as moved now as I was then when I was 30 years old. I see that, though I have processed his death many times, I never let him die. I can’t let him die. Much of what I do in the world today denies his death. Half his genes are in me. I am half-alive for him.

 

Later, I recall this dream:

 

I am in Cambridge, working at the observatory. There’s a small shopping center nearby on Huron Avenue where I am carrying my father’s head around the block to look in the windows. Crooked in my right arm, my father’s head is fully conscious, asking me about what he sees in the store windows. I tell him about each shop, then move to the next. I take the situation as entirely normal.

 

Later still, I  remember Clemens Benda telling me it is a classic Oedipal dream, one I am entirely comfortable with. I may have killed him off in that dream, but now I see he lives on in me (and my two brothers). Here we are, elder brother writing plays, younger poetry, while I am blogging away about consciousness of all things—as if it mattered. In our family, it does matter. Our father stood for the idea that language is not ruled by grammar but by the way people use it. We cannot help ourselves; we are his sons. No, it’s stronger than that. It is our filial duty to see the world through his eyes. As if we had any choice. We can’t help ourselves. His genes make us do it. His life. And his death.

 

Ah, consciousness, how it fooled me. I thought he was dead. I’ve always said he was. Until I choked at the thought of looking through his eyes. Suddenly the truth bursts out. I come home and read Dover Beach—that legacy, those funereal lines—to Carole. Yes, the dark vision. The eternal note of sadness. Turbid ebb and flow of human misery. The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of pebbles drawn back, then flung up the shore. Again, and again:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

          To one another! for the world, which seems

          To lie before us like a land of dreams,

          So various, so beautiful, so new,

          Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

          Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

          And we are here as on a darkling plain

          Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

          Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

So much for seeming consciousness. At best it’s a dream; at worst, a lie. What else could a man whose mother died giving birth to him believe? What else would his sons believe, seeing through his eyes?

 

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