Reflection 137: Project Consciousness

August 3, 2009

(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

 

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