Reflection 82: Eelgrass Consciousness

March 27, 2009

 (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.




3 Responses to “Reflection 82: Eelgrass Consciousness”

  1. […] You can read the full story here. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  2. epiphileon said

    quote “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.”
    Hmmm, possibly,(as in could be other explanation) but I have another question for you, ever try to get behind words?

  3. Steve Perrin said

    Constantly. Where do words come from? We speak without fully knowing what we’re going to say until we say it. I am aware of thought kernels lodged just under surface, fully meaningful, but unexpressed until the words form and lips move. I believe language is connected to music in that the forward dimension is crucial within the context of what has passed. I see this as left brain stuff, a kind of logic in progress. –Steve fr. Planet Earth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: