(Copyright © 2009)

Row, row, row your boat

    gently down the stream;

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

    life is but a dream.

My consciousness tells me it is time to go back over what I have posted since last October to get a sense of what I have covered, all with an eye to producing a summary of my findings. That will take some time. Since I can focus on only one task at a time, I plan not to post to this blog until I am able to produce a summary of where I’ve been in order to chart a course for where I want to head in the future. Too, I have a pile of seven books by Gerald Edelman on the topic of  consciousness which I want to read. So as of today I hang a sign on the door, GONE ROWING.

In the meantime, I encourage you to use the Postlinks page at the head of this blog to look for posts on topics which might be of interest to you. (Note that posts in 2008 are listed following those for 2009.) My plan is to resume posting in October or November.

I want to thank you for checking out this blog on introspection. There’s a big drive on to uncover the workings of the brain (neural substrates, so-called) that make consciousness possible, and my intent here is to offer a serial description of some of the kinds of mental activities that need to be accounted for. For example, this morning I woke up at 5:15 a.m. and lay a’bed thinking about what I might say in this post. I didn’t open my eyes until, abruptly, I realized the balance in my checking account was getting low, and the first thing I had to do was deduct two debit card payments I had made yesterday. My eyes popped open and I immediately got up. The moral being, consciousness gears us for action by prioritizing what we are to do and how we are to do it. One suggestion for the substrate seekers might be to start with motor sequence planning areas of the brain and follow their various inputs back  to their relevant sources of motivation.

Gone Rowing

 

(Copyright © 2009)

I taught at Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1969 until the school folded in 1973. Or was folded.  Those were the days when single-sex schools were judged to have outlived their time, and were fast disappearing from the landscape. Abbott, a school for girls, was folded into Phillips Academy, the boys school up the hill. That last school year 1972-1973 was stressful because I had no idea where I would go from there. I couldn’t get my mind to focus on any kind of future, either practical or fanciful. What did I want to be when I grew up? I had no idea.

Not one to sit around being anxious, I put all my spare time  into my typewriter, not turning out words so much as animalCAMEL shapes built from words. I needed a new discipline, so I invented one to suit myself, combining my interest in wildlife with my visual nature, turning out monoprints typed one letter at a time, creating a kind of bestiary that gave me particular pleasure during an era in my life when anxiety spoiled the view out every window, so I retreated into my head.

As things worked out, Bart Hayes, Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, conducted a summer program at theELEPHANT   Landmark School aimed at developing the visual comprehension and hand-eye coordination of students with learning disabilities, and I applied my photographic skills to that program during the summer following Abbott’s demise. Which led to my learning to tutor learning-disabled students, and a job at Landmark teaching visual comprehension that lasted the six years until I went for my master’s degree at Boston University. In the meantime, I had a show of my typed animal monoprints at the Addison Gallery, a catalogue from the show, and a brief career as a concrete poet in residence in a number of public schools in Massachusetts.

None of which happened by the conventional route of applying for a job, submitting a resume, going for an interview, and all  OCTOPUS that. It just came together in an unimaginably complex fashion as a result of my inability to cope with the threatening loss of my job teaching English and humanities at Abbott Academy. Strange business, to drop the phrase I picked up from Robert Graves’ essay on Chinese humor—a phrase that so aptly describes so much of what has happened in my life.

I had no way to justify making typewriter animals—I just typed them out in spite of myself. I had no choice: to be me, I had to do it. Feeling guilty and elated at the same time. LION Forbidden games! I knew I was wasting time, except as it turned out, I wasn’t. I got a show, I got a catalog, I got a job. Except I didn’t go out and get them, they came to me sitting in my chair, concentrating on where the type hit the platen. That’s where I lived for almost a year, in that tiny space. The font I lived in was called Prestige Pica 72.  The world spun around me while I sat with eyes focused just there, not really doing anything but imagining grids of letters, offsetting them one way or the other as I moved down the page, starting upper left, ending lower right, one keystroke at a time. For sure I was abusing my fancy IBMTIGER Selectric typewriter, using it for something it wasn’t made to do. Doing something I certainly wasn’t made to do. There I was, leading edge of natural and cultural evolution, turning out images of animals on a machine. Deliberately, patiently, carefully, as if following some plan written in my genes. Putting my conscious mind down on paper—as if that was my job.

Much of what we call rational behavior probably isn’t all that rational. It is simply what we’re used to doing, or to seeing others do, so it makes sense to us. But I couldn’t blame what I was doing on anyone but me. I just invented myself in that particular way at that time in my life. Out of some kind of need to type words in animal shapes one letter at a time. Now where did that come from? Obviously, my mind—and behind it, my brain. My brain made me do it. I was just the medium it used to get the job done. Out of a thousand monkeys typing for a billion years, one might have done the same. The thousandth monkey, that was me.

I couldn’t make sense of it then; I barely can now some 36 years later. But I do know it must have made sense to my LOCOMOTIVE unconscious brain, which turned the urge into action, reducing me to a spectator of my own body doing its thing, sitting there typing. Who was living my life if not me? I certainly wasn’t in control. Dissociation that’s called, the opposite of integration. And I can’t blame an angel or devil for whispering in my ear. As a kind of automatic writing, what I was doing was whatever the universe told me to do in furthering its grand design. That’s how it seemed. But of course it wasn’t that. My brain cells made the whole thing up because it suited them. I lacked order in my life so, craving meaningful order, my mind fulfilled itself using my typewriter. I stayed busy and out of trouble. I got through a rough time.

This just in from insight central: As a kid, I knew my father primarily by the sound of his typewriter coming through the HE-SHE study door. His job involved paperclips, pencils, a stapler, a zinc clipboard without the clip—and that upright typewriter banging away night after night. That’s where I was, in that kind of kid space, not understanding—just being there. I had no idea what he was doing, and I didn’t expect to know. Life just happened like that, you weren’t expected to ask what it meant or why it took that particular form. Only later do you wonder about such things. At the time, not making sense made perfect sense. How else could it have been? It was what it was.

That feels right. Under stress, I was doing what I thought my father would have done. Type away. And the animal shapes? I’ve always been taken with animals. They were probably safer than people. I could always relate to animals—project myself into their skins. Eagles, ospreys, squirrels, muskrats—they lived in my world. They were what they were and did what they did; I didn’t ask questions.

I had the typewriter; I had the paper, I had a motive to get out of my head, I had the anxiety—so I made the time to revert to my child self, following the example my father set, which he had no idea he was setting while doing whatever it was that he did behind the door to his study.

Now my older brother types out plays on an upright typewriter, my younger brother poetry on a computer, and me, I blog my life into existence. Strange business, this having a mind that won’t tell you what it’s up to, but does it anyway.

UNIFORM

(Copyright © 2009)

Emily Dickinson gets my vote for poet laureate of introspectionists. She excels at conveying her world of inner experience through the medium of metaphor. But she is not unusual in being a poet of such inward landscapes. Poetry is the language of consciousness, not of the material world or any of its inhabitants. Long before neuroscientists took on the brain, poets were inwardly probing its most intimate folds and relationships. There, they were close to the origin of words, and so understood them in a personal rather than a social sense. Prose is social and grammatical, poetry personal and idiosyncratic. To understand the poem, you must understand the experience of the poet who, in conveying it, invents her own special language.

It strikes me that if we study rats and victims of trauma to learn about the brain, we ought now and then to study artworks that spring directly from individual brains to gain a sense of what they make possible through the medium of personal consciousness. Any model of the workings of the brain must account for poetry, long in existence in every culture well before neuroscience was invented.

Dickinson’s resume is captured in the following four poems, which I offer here without comment. The essence of poetry is in working with what your are given of the poet’s world and weaving coherent sense from the richness of detail. Please help yourself.

DDD

DDD

The Brain, within its Groove

Runs evenly—and true—

But let a Splinter swerve—

Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—

When Floods have slit the Hills—

And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—

And trodden out the Mills—

DDD

DDD

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

DDD

DDD

The Heart is the Capital of the Mind—

The Mind is a single State—

The Heart and the Mind together make

A single Continent—

One—is the Population—

Numerous enough—

This ecstatic Nation

Seek—it is Yourself.

DDD

DDD

The Mind lives on the Heart

Like any Parasite—

If that is full of Meat

The Mind is fat.

But if the Heart omit

Emaciate the Wit—

The Aliment of it

So absolute.

DDD

DDD

Squash Blossom-2-72

(Copyright © 2009)

For her birthday, I gave Carole an all-expenses-paid trip to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, about 25 miles northwest of Portland. That is, we went in her car, both brought our lunches, and I paid for gas, tour and museum tickets. From Bar Harbor, it was about a three-and-a-half-hour drive; I drove down, she back. Neither of us had ever been to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village—now down to three members after peaking at some 180 in the 1840s—sole surviving Shaker community in the U.S. of the 19 main villages that once thrived from Maine to Florida. We visited the museum, took a guided tour of the village, ate lunch, and purchased seven books about the Shaker experience.

I have never spent a more profoundly moving four hours than those that passed so quickly in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. I had no idea what to expect, but intuition told me it was time to find out. What we discovered was a working model of what a human community could be if it set its collective mind to living sustainably and cooperatively on the land with dignity and spirit made possible by skilled craftsmanship and hard work. Patterning their lives on Jesus’ example, Shakers knew how to live sustainably on the land with a modest carbon footprint long before peak oil and global climate change were conceived in the human mind. Sustainably, that is, except for one thing: Jesus was celibate and so were they. Going forth and multiplying was never their way. They relied on personal convincement to bring in new blood, which worked from 1776 until before the Civil War, but failed to replenish their numbers after that. They took in orphans and children placed with them, giving young people a choice upon turning 18 to rejoin the world or become Shakers. If they stayed on, then they largely retired from the world to embrace a life of celibacy, confession of sin, pacifism, communal activity and ownership, and handiwork without end. 

Which by modern standards would add up to an extreme way of life. But through strict communal discipline, Shakers created joyous and highly productive lives for themselves. Their priorities were clear, their efforts devoted to expressing peace and love in everything they did. One Shaker catch phrase says it all: Hands to Work and Hearts to God.

Shakers were renown for their handicrafts, well-tended farms—and the enthusiasm of their worship. Like every other aspect of their life, they put themselves into it. Apparently it was something to see; Sunday mornings, people came from miles around to witness Shakers singing-dancing-marching in praise of the Lord. But what got to me in the four hours I spent at Sabbathday Lake was the undeniable evidence of Shaker consciousness. Most of what they accomplished required elaborate hand-eye coordination, a sure outward sign of deliberate consciousness and attention to detail. The tour, for instance, covers:

  • bonnet making
  • dressmaking and tailoring
  • shoemaking
  • basket weaving
  • woodcarving
  • chair making and caning
  • broom making
  • spinning
  • weaving
  • rug-hooking
  • needlework
  • quilting
  • herb gardening and drying
  • pickle and catsup making
  • beekeeping
  • apple harvesting and pressing
  • painting and drawing
  • photography
  • candy making
  • not to mention agriculture and animal husbandry, and  other activities I have forgotten.

It was not the various craftsmedia themselves that got my attention so much as the design and overall simplicity of individual pieces turned out day after day. Consciousness cannot be random or chaotic and turn out Shaker furniture, gift drawings, rugs, tins of herb teas, or even fudge for that matter. It was how individual details fit together that mattered in almost everything they did. The simple elegance of Shaker tables, desks, chairs, cupboards, and boxes speaks of the minds that designed, cut, and put them together. Collectively and individually, Shakers give the impression of being a together people. Which I see reflecting the internal discipline required of them in becoming Sisters and Brothers. Each was valued as a decided individual, and the ways they found of respecting and valuing one another bound them together—like the separate straws making up the business end of a Shaker broom.

I felt a strong rapport with this tradition with its people being wholly who they were under what must have been stressful conditions. Survival takes full concentration, particularly in rural Maine in days when there were no big boxes to mar the landscape, no imports from China. Everything had to be done locally by hand. Most of us in the U.S. today wouldn’t last a week if we had to produce what we ate and used from scratch by hand labor. When life depends on conscious activity, a certain gladness shines through every task completed, every new beginning, every tool, every mending job. Evolution did not create Shaker furniture, but it did create human consciousness, which created cultural evolution, which created Shakers, who did create furniture by putting their minds to work on the challenge of day-to-day survival. The whole saga is on view at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, and at other Shaker villages as preserved because we can’t stand to lose them as examples of what human consciousness can achieve.

For myself, I choose to find a message in the behavioral idiom Shakers created for themselves. I see that idiom addressing many of the challenges we face in the 21st century. Evolution equipped humans with strong appetites for sex, food, personal possessions, wealth, and social status. But it did not have the foresight to equip us with an off-switch so when appropriate, we could squelch our drives and coast along with what we had. The Shakers took it upon themselves to manage their drives by adopting a code of celibacy, communal living, moderate (but healthy) diet, few personal possessions, no personal wealth, and invention of a new kind of social security—all labor intensive—all extremely rewarding because of the skill and discipline required. Without genetic engineering, the Internet, cellphones, pesticides, superhighways, international trade, or big government. What did the Shakers know that we don’t? That hard work and imagination can solve problems if you really put your mind to it. Shakerism is a lesson in locally applied consciousness based on personal initiative and cooperative living, not massive infusions of cash.

OK, so they sacrificed sex to get there, but if the human population is a problem in itself, that could be seen as a good thing. Sustaining bad ideas and sorry institutions is not necessarily a good thing if they are in fact the source of the problem. There is deep wisdom in Shaker madness, wisdom I think we should emulate insofar as it is appropriate to our current situation—which I maintain is a fairly close match to that of their day. Hardship unto the threat of death was always at the gate of a Shaker Village. Yet they persisted by making the most of what they had in the time available to them. We, on the other hand, are more profligate, doing precious little with our vast stores of wealth, wasting much of it on gadgetry, glitzy trinkets, and empty entertainment—as if spending money gauged the meaning of life.

Where Shakers made the most of their conscious hours, we seem to pride ourselves in taking as much time as we can to do as little as possible. Worker productivity is said to be up, but productivity of what? Most of it turns out to be nonsense rebundled in tinsel to bilk investors of their retirement funds. Our consciousness is spinning its wheels, seeing if there’s anything good on the tube or the Web when, all the time, what counts is what’s in us already: consciousness, evolution’s gift to us all, which we can’t seem to get the hang of.

Removing themselves from the vanities of the civilized world, Shakers staked their lives to the soil, not to fashion. We have chosen the other road, preferring vanity over nature—to sorry effect. Our world runs on image and influence, not energy coursing through the seasons, which Shakers knew how to harness. Yet we thrive and Shakers shrivel. Our world is surely powered by irony, that of the Shakers by simple self-knowledge. Which seen in the right light is our failure, not theirs.

Shaker barns, Sabbathday Lake

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

My personal brand of consciousness is the ongoing engagement between me and whatever phenomena serve as objects of my attention. My consciousness belongs to me and no other; it is of something else, what I call images or phenomena. Phenomena are not likenesses or representations of the world so much as they are products of the interaction between my brain and the world. The world I live in—my proprietary world of consciousness—is made up of me as subject and various phenomena as objects of current attention. So right from the start my world appears divided into two realms, subject and object, attender and the attended to, what William James called “the me” and “the not-me.”

Yet I would say that both subject and object are products of one and the same consciousness, so there’s only my view of me and my view of the world, which are not at all the same as myself and the world considered objectively. Objective self and objective world are constructs I build in my mind on the basis of the cumulative experience of phenomena available to me over a lifetime. So I live—as each one of us lives—in a unified world of personal consciousness without borders or divisions—the one and only world of our personal consciousness. That other world, the supposedly “real” or outside world, can only be a matter of inference and fleeting conjecture. Without doubt it is there, but what we can know of it is restricted to what the phenomenal versions in our minds say it is, which is a very intimate kind of hearsay, so not wholly reliable to say the least. James, for instance, says this in his chapter on Attention in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word. (Page 402.)

Unedited by consciousness, the “utter chaos” of the outer world would overwhelm us. So in reducing that world to phenomena, consciousness saves the day.

Every one knows [James goes on] what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. (Page 403-404.)

But phenomena, I would say, are more drastically altered than merely being selected by our faculty of attention seems to suggest. Perception guided by personal interest and selective attention performs a major overhaul and rebuilding job in cutting the world down to a size we can deal with. Nothing about a phenomenon is as it might be in the world. Energy in the visible spectrum is reduced to a restricted palette of colors, wholly dismissing ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, along with X-rays, gamma rays, radio waves, and the many other orders of energetic radiation impinging on us wholly undetected and unappreciated. By the time phenomena emerge in consciousness, the larger portion of energy in the universe has gone missing. What little makes it through our perceptual apparatus to become a phenomenon in the language of consciousness is transmogrified into something other than what it is on its own. The upshot being, in James’ words:

Suffice it meanwhile that each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit. (Page 424.)

Which opens the way for me now to stride up to the mike and make my point. Living in worlds of our own making as we do, we typically direct our attention as if upon the mysterious world itself while, in truth, all we have to go on are the very phenomena we create for our personal use. I mean to suggest in this post—and in my blog as a whole—that a wholly different understanding of the lives we lead results from taking responsibility for our own seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting as represented in personal consciousness in order to, 1) better understand ourselves as makers of our own worlds, and 2) relate more effectively to others who devote their lives to doing exactly the same thing on the basis of their unique take on the world they actually inhabit in personal consciousness.

That is, as long as we give all credit (and blame) to the world for the lives we lead, we are trapped in the illusion that we can know the real world as it is in-and-of itself, when that world is a complete mystery to us. We make better use of our lives, and the lives of those around us, by living life as the great artwork we make of it—the work we are creating for ourselves at this instant in a universe we can only dimly comprehend. The miracle of consciousness—directed at its own foibles and achievements as it is—is that it is wholly self-reflexive. It is turned on itself, not the world. All we have to work with is the phenomena in our own minds. These phenomena are precisely what we should try to grasp in meaningful terms in order to live our lives with as much compassion and understanding as we are able. 

I have gotten to the point where I can say such things with a straight face after confronting my consciousness on a daily basis for thirty years now, and posting ten-months’ findings to this blog. These ideas are not sold in stores or written in books. Trouble is, we are living out ideas formulated by Aristotle and furthered by the church and academia for over 2,000 years. It is next to impossible to question the basic assumptions on which our schooling is founded, the same assumptions suporting the natural attitude by which we gaze on the world and believe we are seeing what is actually there without intervention from any sensory apparatus coming between ourselves and the scene we think of as before us when it is actually in us the whole time.

In the 20th century, behavioral psychologists, wanting to believe we were all automatons controlled by our environments, made an enemy of consciousness and denied it had any influence on behavior. Now cognitive neuroscientists are saying our brains work like computers, and information processing is the key to the mind. Others have viewed the mind as a clockwork, steam engine, hologram—whatever the going metaphor. And generations of students believe what they are currently being told in class, and dedicate their lives to spreading their views, just as theologians spread theirs as higher capital-T Truth accessible solely to prophets and holy men.

The revolution in how we view consciousness is upon us, just as the Reformation in religious thinking was made possible by invention of the printing press that made possible distribution of sacred texts translated into the language people could interpret for themselves without aid from any intervening priesthood. Subsequent invention of paper, pencil, typewriter, and computer continued the advance of informed interpretation of phenomena. Now the Internet has the potential of ushering in a new revolution in the understanding of consciousness itself by enabling people to get their minds together so they can compare experiences without interference from established institutions having to approve the interaction beforehand. In its current stage of development, FaceBook tends to be light and breezy because people are striving to make good impressions instead of using it as a tool for greater understanding of themselves and their friends. Blogosphere, ditto, everyone out to show how insightful their commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries really are. I’m a blogger, I should know.

Except, my whole thrust is to be true to my personal consciousness as one sample of what consciousness can be about. In posting to my blog 142 times, I have come to see that intentionality—the consciousness of objects—can be broken down into consciousness of situations, projects, goals, judgments, problems, priorities, issues, novel experiences, anxieties, interpretations, and so on. These are samples of what makes consciousness sit up and pay attention—what evolution has made us as subjects concerned about in order to act as meaningfully and effectively as we can. Which is no different from what human life is largely about.

It struck me this morning that relationships based on what actually occupies our attention rather than what we claim in order to make a good impression is the way to build compassionate relationships based on truth and reality, not personal mythology.

We don’t need to prove our merit or our worth by buying stuff, impressing others, going to fancy schools, sprinkling certain in-words throughout our conversations—that is, by pretending we are something that, under our clothing and our skins, we inherently are not. Good-by UPS trucks, big box stores, advertising, publicity, investments, banks—all those good things we rely on to create the illusion we are something other than what we are. So much for the economy devoted to shoring up pretense and illusion. So much for politicians pandering to their constituencies on the basis of identities they assume for the sake of making a good impression. The Internet has the potential of bypassing all this superstructure created by so-called civilized institutions. Of enabling people to get together on the basis of the searches they conduct to find out who they are and what they can do in this life—the one life they have to enjoy, or not.

What many cultures have found and we often overlook is that human happiness depends on relating to others in order that we do things together, cooperatively, not in competition. I am not talking altruism here, or self-righteousness. I am talking about me being me and you being you—providing a strong basis for getting together on a workable basis, not using each other to advance our respective unspoken agendas.

There are too many problems in the world to waste time in hot pursuit of illusions. That is what got us where we are today. We need to cut through all that and finally get to the point—which consciousness itself will reveal if we attend to it. Self-reflexive consciousness is not the same thing as staring at your navel. Consciousness, it turns out, is the source of all we can learn in this life and all wisdom. Your navel is just a scar to confirm you got your start inside another person who shared joint responsibility for your conception and birth. Got it. Move on. Inside, not outside. To the font of all experience, our personal consciousness, controlled by personal attention, controlled by personal passions and interests, controlled by the will to live as only we are able—by being fully ourselves. Believe me, consciousness-watching is a learned skill that takes well over ten-thousand hours to get good at. I am not suggesting we quit the race and party; I am suggestion we get down to work appropriate to our gifts.

Let’s agree to attend to life as it is given to us, not to the illusion of life presented to us by others. Let’s make use of our primary asset in living a life—personal consciousness. Accepting that as wholly our doing will tell us who we are, warts and all. Knowing who we are, we can relate on the solid ground of being ourselves without pretending to be anyone else. True learning and discovery await us inside, not outside. Especially not in any institution dedicated to selling illusions for profit. Consciousness is ours to use (or not) in understanding ourselves; the choice is ours. And the same for those around us understanding themselves. Relationships based on shared understanding are the way of the future. In the past we have dedicated ourselves to tearing down the Earth for the sake of fictitious benefits. Now we can build ourselves up to be worthy of the Earth that has provided for us all along.

Two Skiers

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Mankind is beginning to realize that “under-standing” is only an illusion, that life and action are based upon illusions and lead to illusions.   Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of ‘As If,’ 1924, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method.

Cigarette smoking is a habit often acquired during adolescence as a means of coping with anxiety experienced in stressful social situations. It provides a ready ritual to create the illusion of being as calm and collected as Humphrey Bogart or the Marlboro Man. Too bad it’s addictive and can lead to lung cancer. In that sense, cigarettes are a kind of placebo, something to calm the waters of the soul when they are agitated or internally threatening.

Our word “placebo” stems from Latin placere, to please, and like “pleasant,” “placate,” and “placid,” from a more ancient root meaning to be flat—as a windless sea can be flat calm. Placebo literally means I shall please, taken from the first word of the first antiphon of the Roman Catholic Vespers for the Dead. We use the word today in referring to a sugar pill or some other ruse to make us think we are receiving effective medication when in fact we are not. The mind seizes on the pill as justification for feeling better solely on the basis of wishful thinking. Ineffective in itself, a placebo gives the mind an excuse for no longer feeling sick, leading to the illusion of effective treatment and recovery based on a very real reduction of self-induced stress. Placeboes give us a chance to demonstrate the truth of the old adage, “mind over matter,” or as Luigi Pirandello said, “It’s true if you think so.”

Doesn’t apply to you? Think again. We say the sun rises and sets—which is how we see it—but it is actually the Earth rotating on its axis that creates the illusion. Our word “universe” means one turning, but it isn’t the cosmos that turns but, again, our rotating Earth that is responsible. We don’t feel ourselves on the skin of a top spinning through space, but that’s where we live nonetheless. For myself, I was racing 15 mph over the speed limit today to make an appointment, which I excused with the handy placebo, I didn’t want to be late. The obvious retort to that would be, well, don’t wait till the last minute. We excuse ourselves as a matter of habit, always defending our self-image if not our actual behavior. “Not guilty, your honor,” we plead with a straight face, when we well know we’re guilty as hell. All for the innocent pleasure of being more self-righteous than the next person.

As I am so fond of saying in regard to consciousness, strange business, indeed. Just putting on a new hat can make us feel our social image is more attractive, like putting on make-up or getting our hair “done.” There’s a new bounce in our step and we feel younger and less drab. Donning a dark, pin-stripe suit lends politicians an air of authority, much as Superman takes on superhuman powers by changing his clothes in a phone booth. We defer to people in uniforms as if underneath they weren’t people who eat junk food on the run, argue with their spouses, and yell at their kids. Owning a late-model car lifts our spirits, even though it’s no better than the trade-in we got rid of. Much of what we do depends on the trade in illusions, which every marketer knows and uses in manipulating us to his profit and advantage, along with every minister who calms the waters of his flock by making reassuring noises, and every celebrity who performs the outrageous acts his fans demand as the price of their loyalty to someone they can identify with.

When we reach above the social plane to the theological or cosmological, we outdo ourselves in grasping at illusory placeboes to make us feel good about matters far exceeding human understanding. Vaihinger quotes Immanuel Kant:

I can make possible . . . systematic unity of the manifold of the cosmic whole, by looking upon all interconnection as if they were the orderings of a supreme reason. . . . This rational entity is, of course, a mere Idea, and is not simply and in itself to be accepted as anything real but is only problematically assumed . . . in order that all the connections in the world of sense may be regarded as if they had their basis in this entity, simply and solely however with the object of building thereon a systematic unit . . . which may be indispensable to the reason and is in every way helpful to the empirical understanding. (Page 281.)

So usefulness is Kant’s criterion for calling up the idea of God as the unifying principle which human reason takes as its base. The idea of God is useful in much the same sense placeboes are useful—both reduce stress by invoking illusions that have no merit in themselves. Yet if we take them as true, then in our minds they become true for us. Creating gods of convenience because it pleases us, we are the true creators of the world we choose to inhabit. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine follows much the same procedure in establishing the idea of God as the ultimate source of the rights of man. I quote at some length from Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, (Classic House Books, 2009) to preserve the gist of Paine’s argument:

Before anything can be reasoned upon to a conclusion, certain facts, principles, or data, to reason from, must be established, admitted, or denied. . . . If . . . man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally? (Page 89.)

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity, respecting the rights of man, is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way. . . . If we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man. Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him. (Pages 89-90, italics added.)

The fact is, that portions of antiquity, by proving everything, establish nothing. It is authority against authority all the way, till we come to the divine origin of the rights of man at the creation. Here our enquiries find a resting-place, and our reason finds a home. If a dispute about the rights of man had arisen at the distance of an hundred years from the creation, it is to this source of authority they must have referred, and is to this same source of authority that we must now refer. (Page 90, italics added.)

Though I mean not to touch upon any sectarian principle of religion, yet it may be worth observing, that the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man? (Page 90, italics added.)

I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right. . . . Consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind. (Page 91.)

The Mosaic account of the creation, whether taken as divine authority or merely historical, is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expression admits of no controversy. “And God said, Let us make man in our own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied. If this be not divine authority, it is at least historical authority, and shows that the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record. (Page 91, italics added.)

Paine, rational man that he is, bases his argument on assumptions neither theological nor historical but mythological through and through. Make-believe is his ultimate authority for determining the origin of the rights of man. Take away God and his creation, Paine’s words fall in a meaningless heap. Yet he is so sure of himself, so relentlessly logical, so self-congratulatory, so much a victim of his prior assumptions that he is clearly peddling placeboes he earnestly feels good about and wants to pass on to us as fundamental truths. Times have not changed all that much due to human consciousness being in charge from Paine’s day to ours. Mind over matter is still our motto; if we believe something to be true, then surely it is. As long as it eases our minds and reduces stress, anxiety goes away and we feel our trusting, childhood selves once again.

Placeboes work because taking them pleases us, putting us in a different—more positive—frame of mind. We’ll settle for that over being right every time, because that’s how consciousness works. Consciousness doesn’t know anything for sure, it only claims to know. There can be no absolutes when it comes to telling truth from untruth, right from wrong. These are invariably matters of opinion and interpretation. The only way to check our beliefs is to adopt an attitude of skepticism, humility, and doubt toward every one of them, asking the ancient question: How can we know that we know what we think we know? And even that is no guarantee we’ll get it right. We must put in our ten-thousand hours if we want to come anywhere near the truth. Deep thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine didn’t reach far enough in seeking to justify their most fundamental assumptions. They merely discovered exactly what was present at the start of their respective trains of thought, and progressed not one inch beyond.

The fact is, there can be no true and fundamental basis for what we believe because the brain has no power to recognize such a basis if it ever came across it. We go with what the crowd believes, or higher authority, or our shelf of great books, or our mothers told us when bouncing us upon her knee. Much of what we earnestly take to be fundamental truth is a placebo we choose to put our faith in on no basis other than that is what suits us at the time. To a man and woman, we are self-made because each of our minds is unique in entertaining whatever enters our heads. Immanuel Kant is right for himself and wrong for everyone else, which is equally true for Thomas Paine, myself, and even the most respected authority. We choose to believe what we do because it accords with our nature and gives us pleasure.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. Which is why we so often resort to sugar pills because they reduce stress and make us feel better right away.

We make ourselves happen to please ourselves. To do it any other way would displease us, which seems senseless. Our only real choice is to press on as far as we can, always paying attention to inconsistencies that might give us pause—and a chance to reconsider the course we are taking in life.

Fluke-72

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Hey, it’s August; I’ll try to make this short.

I’m not talking months of the year here but old guys getting together with young sweeties. Rich, horny old guys with sexy young things looking out for their futures. When I was younger I thought it was gross, but now I see evolution’s point. The geezer is a proven survivor, and probably with enough money in the bank to give sweetie what she wants. For her part, Sweetie wants to bankroll her future, and getting in bed with Uncle Scrooge is one way to do that if you are a looker with not a lot of skills to fall back on. Young guys can be fun and energetic, but they lack the wherewithal to provide Sweetie the lifestyle she wants or thinks she deserves. Old sweeties that are Scrooge’s own age would be past menopause, so not be able to provide the children that is the larger point of the union as proof that Scrooge still has what it takes to be a man at his age.

Crazy, yes, but not as crazy as it might seem. Skewing the age relationship between sexual partners in this direction connects the sperm of proven male survivors with the eggs of women having the brightest prospects for living long enough, well enough to raise their children to sexual maturity, and as well-funded matriarchs, their grand and great-grandchildren. We think of women as losing their “looks” as they age, while men acquire a dignity of demeanor that makes them seem ageless. So evolution tilts the scales toward younger women getting together with older men for the sake of the probable survival of their children and furtherance of their respective genetic lines. In other words, what works works. Evolution is ever practical, rating performance higher than ideals and good intentions. If the past belongs to these old geezers, then the future belongs to their young partners. It’s as simple as that.

It is on this level of thinking that the true difference between Republicans and Democrats becomes clear. One party is for Everyman and the downtrodden poor, the other for the Haves who can afford to provide their kids with the best of everything. Republicans take care of their own, Democrats want to give everyone a chance to get ahead of where they are now. Politics is no more rational than sports, organized religion, or economics. These are gut-level, emotional activities people engage in for personal benefit as they see it. If there’s an abundance stockpiled at the top, then let a few crumbs trickle down; or, by a different view, Everyman deserves equal treatment and to share in a redistribution of wealth that was taken from them in the first place.

Under this way of thinking lurks the pecking order that establishes a social hierarchy from the powerful all the way down to the weak and infirm. That way, everybody knows her place in society and doesn’t get uppity or go after more than he deserves. It’s as if Republicans speak for the leading half of the social order, Democrats for the trailing half. Alpha and his mate deserve the best of everything, Omega and his mate get whatever’s left over. I know a thing or two about pecking orders from personal experience:

It is mid-March and the ice in the bay is starting to go out on the tide. The upper shallows are still frozen, but the seaward ice has already gone, leaving a serrated edge separating the ice shelf from open water almost as a sign of the division between winter and spring—or at least of warmer days ahead. I am watching 700 greater scaups (ducks that feed on mussels) have their seasonal fling. First a banquet in which for an hour they dive to the bottom and bob up with mouths stuffed with green and red algae; then an hour-long nap with heads tucked neatly under wing; and now this final procession in which they line up along the edge of the ice as sunset approaches and cruise along a foot or two away from the ice, males and females mixed together, forming a great line of ducks processing in orderly fashion as if to mark the end of winter and the beginning of the mating season.

I witnessed these festivities in 1987, and didn’t know what to make of them. Thinking about it, I now believe the ducks were pairing off according to their standing in the population, literally mapping out the pecking order, each duck taking the position in line appropriate to its rank. I’ve seen scaups fly in a line, and take off one at a time when threatened by an approaching eagle, each waiting for its neighbor to clear before leaping out of the water and flying around the point, making way for the next, next, and next after that. 

I think Republicans believe in a pecking order for humans, and Democrats don’t. Or put differently, Republicans see themselves at the head of the social order, Democrats themselves at the rear. Trickle-down works for Republicans, upward mobility for Democrats. The odd thing is, Republicans are happy to keep Democrats where they are while Democrats put all their energy into moving ahead and getting a fair share of the public purse. The two ends of the line will never conga together, so with both clinging to their respective views of social order, disorder and conflict are sure to ensue. Without doubt, Cheney-Bush placed themselves and their ilk high in the sky, and instigated a regime that would keep them and their pals aloft, while Obama-Biden are now clawing their way out of the hole their predecessors dug for them, hoping for a glimpse of the sun.

Does that mean the old geezers are apt to be Republicans, sweet young things Democrats? Hardly. Each sticks to its own kind at its own end of the line, and revels in complaining about its opposite numbers. But the rules you play by differ according to where you place yourself in the social order strung out in your head. If you don’t vie with Alpha, you go by the one who sets the standard and tone for your neighborhood and define your place in relation to him or her.

In truth, there are multiple pecking orders, depending on the criteria for success in one social idiom or another. If age, wealth, and power put you at the top of one social order, youth, beauty, and agility put you at the top of another. So Sweetie is an Alpha in her idiom as Scrooge is in his. The strong, the fast, the knowing, and the clever are all Alphas in their respective spheres of consciousness. Crime bosses and drug lords are Alphas outside the law. Sweetie herself may even be a Democrat, pulling for social justice, fairness, and equality, and Scrooge is happy to humor her because she brings him so much pleasure and happiness.

Consciousness is the place where all this plays out, each person evaluating her gifts and accomplishments by her own lights in relation to those around her. One of the joys of being alive is watching each one’s self-opinion play out in the surrounding arena of striving humanity. If you can’t be at the head of the line, you can claim to be the head of your segment of the line, and that’s just as good. May-December matches are given us to celebrate and enjoy along with every other mixed metaphor. In nature, cross-pollination keeps genetic strains mixed up and healthy so species don’t get too fixed and revert to outmoded ways. Even Democrats battling with Republicans might be a good thing to keep each side on its toes. It is sometimes painful to watch, but it seems to have become one of our most popular entertainments.

Scaup Procession 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

By June, 2005, I got pretty good at thinking like a horseshoe crab. I’d been tracking 26 of them in Taunton Bay for two years, and was finally able to anticipate their movements with some success. In doing his biological assessment of the bay, biologist Slade Moore had suggested a cooperative hoSonar Transmitter on Female HSCrseshoe crab tracking program with Friends of Taunton Bay. Slade worked out of the West Boothbay offices of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and I was to do most of the tracking. In June of 2003, we epoxied miniature sonar transmitters on 26 crabs, 13 in Hog Bay, 13 in Egypt Bay. My job was to track the movements of each transmitter with a sonar receiver and hydrophone from a small boat. If the epoxy held and the transmitter stayed in place, the location of a transmitter would indicate the location of the crab we’d attached it to.

We tested the range at which we could detect a sonar signal, and based on the assumption the bottom of the bay was flat, Slade worked out a grid of listening stations where we would turn the hydrophone 360 degrees, and record the direction in which we heard any signals. That way, we could triangulate a crab’s location if we picked up its signal at two or more stations. Which seemed like a reasonable plan, until we got a great many signals bouncing off underwater boulders and ledges, and determined the bottom was full of ridges and depressions that effectively blocked reception of even nearby signals. Our backup plan was to steer the boat as close as we could come to being directly on top of a signal—when it would be loudest in our headphones, and use a GIS receiver to log the boat’s—and presumably the crab’s—position. It took a while to work the bugs out of the tracking program, but on good days, both Slade and I were able to pinpoint the location of most transmitters in both bays. On other days, we might find only half of them.

What does this have to do with consciousness? For starters, we were engaged in a project never attempted in Taunton Bay, so we were relying on on-the-job experience to train ourselves in the use of a new language we invented as we went, somewhat as a child creates language by observing the sounds people make on certain occasions, and then mimics them. Too, we were not only interested in where a given crab was, but wanted to know what it was doing and why it was there. Ultimately, we wanted to know what factors governed horseshoe crab movements at different times of year. Factors like water temperature, water depth, habitat type, hormone levels and mating urges, food availability (such as small clams, worms, mussels), presence of predators, and so on. The big questions were where and when did the range of local horseshoe crabs overlap with beds of blue mussels, so that dragging for mussels might put them at risk?

Like every other small embayment, Taunton Bay exhibits a range of features that make it unique. Because of its extensive Mating Horseshoe Crabs and Striiped Killifish system of mudflats, it has more mussels, clams, and marine worms than many other bays. Which attracts predators of mussels, clams, and worms—such as horseshoe crabs, flounders, ring-billed gulls, several duck species, and predators of predators such as harbor seals, striped killifish (which prey on horseshoe crab eggs), ospreys, and eagles. And human harvesters who go after any one of them by dragging, digging, pulling, fishing, or hunting.

Too, the upper reaches of Taunton Bay are extremely shallow, making them warmer in summer and colder in winter than many other bays in Maine. Every creature that lives on the flats has to adapt one way or another to a wide range of seasonal temperatures. Harbor seals, for instance, exit the bay in December when ice begins to form, leaving only the alpha male to defend his territory against rivals. A big question for the horseshoe crab tracking program was where do members of the two local sub-populations spend the winter? When we started the program, we fully expected local crabs to seek deeper, warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine during the winter, and to return to mate in warm shallows in late spring. We were planning to install a fixed hydrophone aimed across Taunton River to record their departure and return. We never deployed that second hydrophone because, as we found in November 2003, the horseshoe crabs of Taunton Bay retire from shallow flats to the upper slopes of deeper channels, where they bury themselves in the mud and wait out the winter by suppressing their food intake, breathing, and blood flow, becoming as close to inanimate as creatures can get while still retaining the ability to reanimate themselves when conditions improve six months later.

That was big learning for us because by rights, horseshoe crabs have no place in a northern bay that freezes-over in winter. Throughout most of their global range—including the Indian Ocean, southwestern Pacific, and Atlantic as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula—they move to deeper waters in winter and remain active for the duration. Now it appears that in several bays in Maine and New Hampshire, they hibernate, slowing their metabolisms to the survivable limit for six months of the year. In our study at the northern limit of their global range in Taunton Bay, we found them hunkering down and not moving again until the third Mating Horseshoe Crabsweek in April, when they’d take a month to feed and work their way upslope to their breeding shores, where females would lay their eggs and males fertilize them in the shallow sand and gravel nests where they were deposited. In the narrow confines of horseshoe crab research, that was a breakthrough—a mind-expanding discovery.

Imagine sleeping for half a year, waking up, eating a big breakfast, then looking to have a year’s worth of sex in the two weeks you’ve got before having to store up enough calories to get you through the following winter! Horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay live like that, not day-by-day or month-by-month but year-by-year.

Another thing we found was that horseshoe crabs do not adopt routine ways of meeting their needs but reinvent themselves almost constantly to see if, hit or miss, they can’t find a way to adapt to their surroundings wherever they are. No wonder they’ve been around for more than four-hundred million years. There are only a few shores around the bay suitable for digging nests in sand or small gravel. The bay is largely ringed by outcrops of bedrock, with a few stony beaches interspersed here and there. Of Digging a Nest those beaches, many are armored with cobbles and boulders left by the Laurentian Ice Sheet that retreated 12,000 years ago. Most shores provide only a few patches here and there of substrates suitable for digging nests and laying eggs. Horseshoe crabs seem to find breeding sites almost at random, females constantly testing the bottom in their travels, digging down when they hit the occasional soft spot. If it’s too rocky or rooty, they are thwarted and move on, always testing as they go, scratching, scratching, scratching.

Which is pretty much how they select a mate. A male horseshoe crab will try any stone, log, or available boot in searching for a mate. If female hormones are in the water, that Horseshoe Crabs and Boot doesn’t mean your average male knows what secreted them. Males apparently can tell how close they are to the source by the concentration of the scent, but any smooth rounded shape is worth a try until they find something they can clasp onto. Then they hold tight and won’t let go, unless perhaps flipped upside down by a wave, or trapped in a too-narrow passage between adjacent rocks—and even then they tend to cling to the death.

Taunton Bay crabs seem to find suitable places to hibernate almost at random, with no fidelity to that nice little B&B they found last year. They live out their lives within less than a mile of suitable breeding shores, but during winter settle in on the upper margin of any channel within that range. Usually among mussels or eelgrass. They can crush small shellfish and eat them, so they seem to hibernate in areas where mussels are plentiful. Mussels thrive near eelgrass beds on the upper slopes of channels where tidal currents provide phytoplankton through the seasons. Horseshoe crabs wander around in search of food until they stumble across a bed of mussels, which makes their decision for them. In trying to think like a horseshoe crab, I found myself thinking like a mussel as well, or the rare patch of sandy gravel—both of which the local horseshoe crab life cycle depends on.

The big challenge was locating horseshoe crabs I couldn’t see solely by the sonar signals their affixed transmitters emitted. The bottom is nowhere near level, it turns out—even where flats looks level at low tide. I’d consult my GPS unit and go back to where I found one the day before, put down the hydrophone, and hear nothing but white noise. Each signal was coded with an identifying frequency and sequence of sounds, so if we heard any signal at all we could tell which transmitter was the source. But silence told us nothing but that nobody was home. The challenge was always: which way did they go? As I grew more familiar with horseshoe crab ways, and the bottom terrain in their respective sub-embayments, I began to grasp more of how they might relate to a given site. And then imagine which way they would head from there. Following crude hunches upslope or down, along the edges of channels one way or another, I found I could recover signals far more readily than simply heading off on any random heading as I had done as a novice tracker. I didn’t really think like a horseshoe crab because I don’t have any idea what a horseshoe crab would think even if it could. But I developed a sense of where they would be heading at that time of year, and I let that sense steer my boat, often to a successful encounter.

When they’d rouse from their winter sleep in late April, horseshoe crabs would head for the nearest food supply in the vicinity. I got pretty good at predicting where that would be. Then they’d head upslope to breeding shores, and I got so I could follow along. In late May and June, I’d start out near known nesting shores. In July and August, they could be almost anywhere, but usually in shallower water. In September and October, they’d head downslope toward the network of channels, usually where eelgrass or mussels were concentrated. And in November they’d select their hibernation site, usually in the middle of a plentiful food supply. Several things could go wrong with that simple scheme. Transmitters could stop sending signals, or become detached and send false signals. Horseshoe crabs aren’t supposed to shed their shells after reaching sexual maturity at age 10—but maybe they do now and then. I got several signals that never moved from week to week, even in mid-summer. Slade managed to retrieve one transmitter from the mud and re-epoxy it to another crab. In any project things are going to go wrong, and you just have to roll with the punches.

Tracking horseshoe crabs changed my consciousness for life, much as living with a pet will expand your awareness to include other ways of looking at the world. It isn’t the owner who walks the favored pet so much as the pet who takes its “owner” on daily walks. I certainly was led on many a boat trip by horseshoe crabs, and I know the underwater terrain of Taunton Bay much better as a result. I hold mussels, clams, eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, and striped killifish in mind as living beings, not objects of casual curiosity. To know about a species in a general sense, you have to befriend it and meet its members up-close and personal in the most particular and detailed way possible. Knowledge obtained from books or the Internet cannot affect you as deeply as knowledge gained through firsthand experience.

Thinking like a horseshoe crab requires reading backwards from observable behaviors to recreating the “mind” responsible for those behaviors. A module of my brain is now dedicated to doing just that with horseshoe crabs at the northern limit of their range on Earth. Other modules are devoted to eelgrass, ring-billed gulls, bald eagles, even slime molds. As my friend Anette Axtmann once said, “We have much to learn from wood lilies.” To be as truly knowledgeable as we need to be in this time of estrangement from life on Earth, we have much to learn from the plants and animals who share our native habitat. Which requires us to take the initiative in giving our minds to them so that we pay attention to what matters on Earth and not solely what concerns us at the moment. The future depends on us expanding our consciousness to include other such beings in order to live with them on equal terms, not on our forcing them to adapt to our ways as if we were in charge.

To care for the Earth, we must first become mindful of its creatures and their ways, making room for them in our consciousness so that we can incorporate them into our thinking, and more importantly, our acting on the world stage. It is no accident that mussel draggers keep away from horseshoe crab habitats in Taunton Bay. The Taunton Bay Advisory Group incorporated horseshoe crabs in its thinking, and then into its recommendations for regulating local fisheries. When horseshoe crabs speak, we do our best to get their message—and act accordingly.

Horseshoe Crab-72

(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

Eagle-72

(Copyright © 2009)

On the evening of July 9, 2009, I handed a CD containing a PowerPoint presentation to a colleague from Taunton Bay Education Center in Hancock, Maine. The simple act of passing a compact disc from one hand to another ended one phase of a project, and opened way for using the contents to further understand the vagaries of eelgrass growth in Taunton Bay. The CD had been more than a month in the planning stage, based on a framework laid down 18 years earlier when local eelgrass monitoring was begun. The nature and significance of the small plastic disc was not evident in its physical form; it existed solely in the mind of one conscious being, namely me, the one who had made the PowerPoint based on 128 digital photographs taken that morning on an overflight of Taunton Bay. Phase one of the eelgrass monitoring project for 2009 was concluded; now on to phase two and beyond.

Which sounds like pretty dry stuff until you realize how powerful human consciousness is in freeing evolution from reliance on what worked in the past to enabling ideas in the mind to come to fruition in the future through projects based not solely on past success but on anticipation of what future success might look like. Evolution is based on the profound truth that what worked once is likely to work again—that successful adaptation breeds more of the same. But in a rapidly changing world, that truth is merely a possibility, not a guarantee. Once a genome is in place, that’s it for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Consciousness, on the other hand, is more adaptive to changes within a lifetime, so can can alter its prospects by planning ahead. That way, it extends the reach of evolution by taking current and projected states of local variables into account—that is, by knowing what evolution cannot predict on the basis of past success.

Compared to lean and agile consciousness, evolution is slow-footed and cumbersome. It can’t anticipate events; it can only react after-the-fact. Consciousness possesses imagination where evolution has none. Evolution is stuck in the past; consciousness can think ahead and bring about a future that does not yet exist. For evolution, what works works; for consciousness, anything is possible.

A project is a throwing ahead of the mind (Latin pro- forth, ahead; iacere to throw). No feature of consciousness is more powerful than thinking ahead. Planning. Working towards a goal. Heading out. Designing. Implementing. The whole concept of work is based on directing energy toward making something happen. Where evolution cranks out more of the same old pattern, consciousness strives for improvement—something better. One is evolutionary, the other revolutionary.

Evolution came up with consciousness through physical adaptation, but consciousness transcends the physical and biological by enabling states of mind: dissatisfaction, doubt, questioning, imagination, planning, design, implementation, and follow-through. Unifying them behind a common purpose, the mind proposes projects. Leading on to execution by a series of stages to achieve the desired result. Shazam, the world is changed!

Camera in hand, I am in a small plane flying from Bar Harbor Airport toward Taunton Bay, on the lookout for eelgrass. We took off at 8:40 a.m. to be over the bay at low tide. The pilot’s name is Eric. We both have headsets and mikes so we can talk over the noise of engine and wind. I’ll tell him when to make a loop. Flight time costs $289 an hour; I want to keep this short. I know where eelgrass meadows have grown in the past, so we’ll fly loops around those flats, keeping me on the inside of the turn, lens pointing down. Starting at Tidal Falls, we head up Taunton River, loop around the basin between Route One bridge and the falls. I unlatch the window on my side and let the wind hold it open. I’m also looking for kelp beds, so get shots of those along the Sullivan shore. On to Cedar and Evergreen Points where the bay opens up. Cross Havey Point, then swing a big loop around Burying Island Ledge. Not much eelgrass here, though it used to be thick. Along the west shore of Egypt Bay—where it’s really coming back since the 2001 dieback. Loop around Egypt Bay, getting a good shot of horseshoe crab beach and the eelgrass both sides of Egypt Stream channel. Cross Butler Point to West Brook Cove, get three shots of spreading eelgrass. Loop Creasy Cove to get shots of the three groups of boulders called Seal Rocks. Then on up the shore to Round Island and Shipyard Point, making a loop at the entrance to Hog Bay. Along Saltmarsh, Hog Bay the north shore to get shots of the salt marsh (bright green from weeks of rain) and do a loop around Hog Bay to show eelgrass coming in where the channel is cutting a new course through the mud. Down mid-channel to Hatch Point and the land-based aquaculture operation, then loop the flats there, and on further to Evergreen Point with its mussel bar and eelgrass bed. Turn down Taunton River to the bridge, then head for the airport. Touching down, we’ve been in the air exactly half an hour—$125 worth of flight time.

I never imagined on my first flight in 1992 I’d still be doing the same thing in 2009. But eelgrass growth is different every year, depending on seasonal conditions of sun, rain, salinity, Eelgrass in Egypt Bay_2009 temperature, disease organisms, and so on. With eelgrass you never know. It died back in the 1930s, made a comeback in the 1950s, peaked in 1973, eased off in the 1980s, came back throughout the 1990s, almost disappeared in 2001, and is now making a gradual comeback. One large meadow at the base of Butler Point thrived in 1955, was half gone by 1985, and went missing in 1993. That’s a worst-case scenario. Eelgrass is habitat for fish nurseries, crabs, and all sorts of estuarine life. An underwater flowering plant, it is one of the primary producers—including rockweed, marsh grass, kelp, other algae, and phytoplankton—on which all life in Taunton Bay depends, including predators such as kingfishers, ducks and geese, ospreys, and eagles. Without eelgrass, Taunton Bay wouldn’t be Taunton Bay. So Friends of Taunton Bay (one of which I am) pays close attention to eelgrass. Which explains the eight overflights I have made through the years.

Watching over eelgrass has turned into a real project. This most recent flight, for instance was in the planning stages for six weeks. The weather in June and early July simply didn’t conform to my wishes. My garden is slug city from all of the rain. I’d consult my tide chart to see when the tide would be low (exposing the eelgrass) during early morning with slight wind, add two hours to compensate for the lag between Bar Harbor tides and Taunton Bay, and call Maine Coastal Flight Center to give them a heads-up. And call back later when the rain didn’t let up or the ceiling reach the minimum 1,000 feet required for takeoff. I tried the weeks of June 8, 22, July 6—and finally had got a go-ahead on July 9, a day with blue skies and no wind. I put a lot of thought into all those weeks of doing nothing. I checked my flight plan, and kept thinking of simpler ways of getting in the loops I wanted to make. In the end I let my loopy map sit in my lap and decided to rely on intuition in telling Eric where and when to make a loop. That way—and by making every shot count—I cut five minutes off last year’s flight time.

I left the airport by car about 9:15 and got back to my apartment at 9:35. I loaded the photos into my computer, and began PhotoShopping each frame about 10:00 a.m. I changed the resolution of each image from 72 to 160 pixels per inch, the size of the long dimension from 22 to 10 inches (to fit the PowerPoint screen), adjusting brightness and contrast as appropriate. At noon-thirty I heated lunch, then transferred the photos to my PowerPoint-blogging laptop and got to work on the presentation. I finished labeling each slide with its location in the bay at 5:00 p.m., having spent an entire day on this installment of the project. I made a CD, ate dinner, then went to a meeting of Friends of Taunton Bay where I handed over the CD. I stress the minor details because that’s what a project is made of. If you attend to every detail, all will be well. There are no substitutes for loving what you do and getting good at it.

A day in the life, made possible by personal consciousness. Just like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Emily Dickinson turning her life’s energy into poetry, Hillary Clinton devoting her life to public service, or Beethoven putting sonatas from his head into music notation, here I am giving my all for eelgrass. At least for several days out of the year. The payoff of my paying close attention to eelgrass has been the emerging sense of understanding why the beds in Taunton Bay suffered such a sharp decline in 2001. Making a PowerPoint of photos from my 2007 overflight, I saw image after image pointing to dilution of the bay by fresh water as the key to the dieback in 2001. Or lack thereof, 2001 being the year of least rainfall in Maine in 111 years of keeping records. The year with the greatest amount of runoff from snowmelt was 1973—when eelgrass peaked in the bay. Photos revealed eelgrass recovering first in small stream channels draining freshwater across the mud flats. Maine’s eelgrass expert, Hilary Neckles with the USGS, told me that the dieback disease organism thrives under conditions of maximum salinity, and is held in check by brackish (less saline) waters typical of most estuaries. With only 20-some inches of rain in 2001, salinity rose in Taunton Bay, giving an edge to the disease organism, which attacked the eelgrass, causing the dieback. Putting the evidence together, my consciousness reached a new level of understanding of events in one little bay in Maine. I’ve long maintained that, as goes the watershed, so goes Taunton Bay. Eelgrass, being dependent on its watershed to an extreme degree for the desirable dilution of full-strength salt water, was done-in by the drought. In wet years such as we’ve had recently, it’s making a comeback.

Which is a long way of saying that projects not only get us organized, but can lead to new ways of understanding the specific situations within which we live. By focusing the mind, projects enable us to surpass ourselves.

If we would apply that logic to the many crises of under-standing we face today, I think we wouldn’t keep repeating the same old mistakes that, evolution-like, keep us tied to outmoded ways instead of reaching ahead to keep up with changing times. Did Michelangelo settle for what he did yesterday? Did Emily Dickinson, Hillary Clinton, or Ludwig van Beethoven? Is writing one string quartet the same as writing 35 of them? Not on your life! Through channeling our energies into specific projects, we sharpen our skills and comprehension both. The ultimate project of saving the world by making humankind safe for the Earth deserves the maximum talents we can develop in ourselves. Anything less under current conditions is an absolute copout. Let’s hear it for eelgrass, for projects, for consciousness raising in hard times! Let’s get our heads together and do the necessary work. If evolution can’t guarantee success, then the heavy lifting is now up to us. All it will take is directing our attention into projects that will make us as good at solving problems as, unthinking, we are at creating them.

My Wings