Reflection 158: Natural Mind, Cultural Mind

November 16, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Pen in hand, yellow pad in lap, I sit in my rocking chair at 2:35 a.m., waiting to discover what is on my mind. One at a time, concerns declare themselves, retreat, to be replaced by others. A very orderly process: nothing, then something, then nothing, then something else. Slow and easy. A kind of unthinking. As a mere spectator, I take sketchy notes. This goes on for twenty minutes.

1) Bonnie is gone. She died Friday afternoon. Hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for most of the week. Dear Bonnie, so loving, kind, fervent in her gentle way.

2) Overtaken by events, the plan to honor Ed (Bonnie’s husband of 59 years) on Sunday was put aside. I gave him the cards I had received, and announced that donations in his name came to $4,820. Most of the occasion was focused on remembering Bonnie.

3) Sent checks to FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation) in Washington in Ed’s honor. I wanted the donations to be a done deed by the time he heard about them, I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel comfortable delivering a promissory note.

4) Now on to forming an LLC that will own the island, keeping members’ shares undivided so no fences will ever be put up or lots partitioned off. Only communal ownership will preserve the integrity of the place. Once subdivided, the island might as well be part of the mainland.

5) Chef Jesse, my youngest son, has moved somewhere near Boston. The job didn’t work out as he’d hoped, but he wrote that that was more or less a ruse for making the break. He’s looking for work. Hope he’s OK.

6) Son Ken and his wife Linda’s Wednesday night suppers are their way of sharing with friends. I’m such a stick-in-the-mud about food, I feel like an outsider because, bringing my own little thermos of pea soup, I don’t share in the feast. Damn celiac disease!

7) Friends of Taunton Bay seems to be on the right track, switching from an emphasis on monitoring and research to public outreach. Me, I’m a research kind of guy. I’ll still have enough to do monitoring eelgrass, oysters, bottom temperatures, erosion, sea-level rise.

8) Taunton Bay Advisory Group is hit by low energy these days. Difficult transition to new leadership. Are we on the skids? Local bay management is too good an idea to let go. Spread stewardship around so users all take part in the process. How else can we achieve sustainability?

9) Having gone 186,000 miles so far, the old Geo’s got to keep going. Get that exhaust line patched up so I can get it inspected.

10) I’ve lost momentum in reading Gerald Edelman. Too much happening. Get back in the swing. Six down, only the last two books to go. I’ve followed along as he got his legs under him; now on to his taking full strides on the topic of consciousness.

11) November is car registration month. Pay off the balance due on insurance. Find the $300.

12) Eelgrass (and sea lavender) thrive when there’s plenty of snowmelt and rain; blue mussels thrive when salinity is high from lack of rain. Eelgrass died back in 2001, year of the drought. In this year of the deluge, it’s coming back—and mussels have gone missing. Eelgrass and mussels compete for the same patch of bottom, trading off as salinity rises and falls. I’m beginning to see the big picture. What do I do with it?

13) I retrieved my two water-temperature loggers this fall, read off a year’s worth of data (24 temperature readings every day) from each, and redeployed them one last time before their batteries run out. I see future climate instability reflected in the data, sea-level rise behind that. Extrapolating from the data in hand, any prophet worth his salt can peer into the future.

14) Consciousness is driven by both internal and external awareness. Whatever words and phrases we hear spoken around us when we are young serve to label concepts we form as we grow older. We pick up the customs and habits of our elders, and the terms they use to explain their worlds to themselves. That’s where the notion of god comes from—in the beginning was the word. First the sound of the word from the mouths of others as a label for something unknown, then the evolving concept of what we think it might refer to. Sounds like there’s a blog in there some place.

Then nothing. After sitting for 20 minutes tracking my own mind, I go to bed.

Indeed, there is a blog in those rocking chair thoughts. I woke up this morning wondering how much of my consciousness is due to the culture I am embedded in, how much flows from my own inner workings. Is there any way to tell the difference? I seem to be a creature of my time and place on Earth, and, simultaneously, to be wholly my natural self. The art of living may well be in finding a balance between that pair of loyalties.

One thing for certain: consciousness mediates our looping engagement with our surroundings, directing motor signals outward into the unknown, receiving incoming signals through our senses, picking and choosing which to attend to, which to ignore. Round and round we go, ingesting the culture we are immersed in, responding though acts shaped by and expressing values uniquely our own.

Every one of the 14 night thoughts I had early this morning presents an issue or concern selected from my ongoing engagement with the world. There is a tension between my personal values and events in that world, a tension that arouses thoughts in the middle of the night. Which makes it seem that consciousness is a kind of spark bridging the gap between my current situation and how I plan to deal with it. Have I done everything I can do? Can I do better? The result is a cross-section of my being in the world from my point of view.

Our early education calibrates our animal selves according to the lore and ways of our culture. Still today I find myself counting out the strokes of my hammer, one, two, three, . . . not eins, zwei, drei, or un, deux, trois. One process, different labels. I “know” that seven times eight is fifty-six because I memorized that formula from flip-cards in grade school. I can even prove it by constructing a box with seven units on one side and eight on another, then counting all the units in the box—see, fifty-six like I told you! I also know that houses are built on rectangular foundations and have rectangular windows and doors. On the other hand, those living in rural Mongolia or Guinea in West Africa know that houses are circular with arched openings, or have flaps made of overlapping yak skins. I know what a hat is . . . and that people in other parts of the world wear headgear I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I seem to be part natural and organic, part cultural and manmade. Reviewing those night thoughts again from that perspective:

1) Bonnie’s death is wholly natural; sitting in a circle, remembering how her life has affected ours, is largely cultural.

2-3) Honoring Ed for his initiative, leadership, clear-headedness, and exemplary actions feels personal, spontaneous, and wholly natural; making donations in his name to the organization he used to work for is a gesture of cultural recognition. To honor means to bestow high respect or esteem.

4) It seems a natural urge to want to protect an island on the Maine coast as habitat for humans and wildlife alike; opting out of the commercial real estate market by forming a limited liability company to own the island in undivided shares on its members’ behalf is a cultural solution to the threat of individual owners going bankrupt, forcing partition and sale of separate parcels, thereby destroying the island’s natural integrity.

5) It strikes me as natural that Jesse’s pursuit of happiness has taken him to the Boston area where year-round work is more likely available than in Maine’s seasonal (vacationland) economy; the loss I feel at his moving away also feels natural; that he makes a living as a chef and not a carpenter or exterminator is more a cultural expression of his making his own way in the world. The issue being, I want to send him a check for his birthday, and he has yet to tell me his new address. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time now that he hasn’t responded to my email inquiry; time to follow up on that, my unconscious mind takes pains to remind me.

6) Ken and Linda celebrate their circle of friends by preparing meals for them Wednesday evenings in November, thereby taking steps to create and maintain their own culture; nothing is more essentially natural than feeding one’s own metabolism. Celiac disease is a natural response to our culture’s breeding enormous amounts of gluten into wheat, overburdening the immune systems of those unfortunate enough not to tolerate massive doses of gluten. It’s partly a matter of genetics, which is as natural as can be, and partly a matter of diet, which is largely cultural and traditional.

7) Friends of Taunton Bay is a cultural—501(c)(3)—organization set up to protect a particular Maine estuary, and through revision of its by-laws, now dedicated to informing the public about the state and workings of that bay. As a founding member of that organization, however, I have fulfilled my inherently natural interests and concerns through trying to understand the processes that give this particular coastal embayment its essential character. As my native habitat, the bay and I have an ongoing mutual interaction of long standing.

8) The Taunton Bay Advisory Group, on the other hand, is a more recent cultural creation established in 2007 to advise the Commissioner of Marine Resources on how best to implement the Comprehensive Resource Management Plan for Taunton Bay. My role is to make sure conservation concerns are voiced and considered in group discussions, a role that comes to me naturally in light of my personal values and life experience.

9) Getting around may be a natural act, but automobiles are artifacts of the culture we live in. Without wheels, I could not participate in the culture I was born to. Taking care of those wheels seems only prudent, so repairing a leaking exhaust system is as natural and vital as eating and sleeping.

10) Reading eight of the books Gerald Edelman has written on consciousness is one of my chief educational projects at this stage of my life. Not that it is either easy or fun. But I do think it is important to look at consciousness from a variety of perspectives, and Edelman has more to say about the workings of consciousness than almost anyone else. So I read him and take what I can. Which I find very exciting because he sheds light on his topic from a novel point of view—that of a man trained in molecular biology of the immune system. He is his own man; I am my own man; we get along just fine. If consciousness is natural, then trying to figure out what it is and how it works must be natural. The mental frameworks in which such understanding can arise are products of years of intense speculation and research, thereby reflecting cultural traditions as old as human curiosity and thought.

11) Oops, it’s November: time to register my car. That thought seems to come out of the blue, yet clearly surfaces now because it is alive and well in the unconscious workings of my mind. Car registration is a cultural obstacle to inner peace; recognizing that obstacle as something that needs to be dealt with is a natural aspect of living in today’s world. Cultures are shaped by rules and procedures; if survival depends on mastering such, then abiding by cultural requirements rises to the level of a natural value, and obeying legal requirements becomes yet another challenge for those attempting to live a long, happy, and hassle-free life.

12) I am happy to have lived long enough after the great eelgrass dieback of 2001 in Taunton Bay to have some inkling as to why it happened. This fall another piece of the puzzle fell into place. 2009 is the year of the deluge, the opposite of 2001, year of the drought. Eelgrass and blue mussels are often found in the same habitat areas, sometimes together, other times one replacing the other. In some way, their habitat requirements are complementary. This fall while monitoring oyster set, I got a glimpse of how that works during a search for signs that salt-water farmed oysters were reproducing in the bay. No oysters, but equally interesting, no blue mussels either—attached to boulders we’ve inspected annually since 2005 and up to this year found blue mussels. Eelgrass dieback in the year of the drought; mussel dieback in the year of the deluge. Ah ha, it must be the salinity! Eelgrass likes it low, mussels like it high. I feel I begin to understand something about the bay when pieces fit together like that. Oyster aquaculture is a cultural activity (it is daunting to realize how much human effort it takes to farm oysters); understanding has been a natural activity of the human mind since the first child pounded the first precision timekeeper with the first blunt instrument.

13) Recording temperature data is one thing, interpreting that data is something else, and convincing a stranger that the interpretation is correct is something else again. Research is a cultural enterprise; otherwise we’d just thrust our arm in the air and pronounce whether it feels warm or cold. But the imperative of wanting to know and understand is both personal and natural. We pay attention to what matters. If temperature matters, we examine it closely. In a world that runs on energy, temperature as a measure of heat energy is highly significant, and a change of a degree or two Celsius is a big deal in natural systems because it affects how life-forms in such systems cope with increasing or decreasing heat energy.

14) Cultural rules and customs shape our life situations; native drives and inclinations guide our actions. Round and round we go, our biological values urging us on, the many facets of our culture making it clear just how appropriate our actions really are. Informed and calibrated by culture, consciousness is as consciousness does in the world; affirmed or offended by our actions, culture is as culture does right back at us. If the fittest are to survive, their fitness to the prevailing culture is a big issue. But start to finish, consciousness plays by nature’s rules: culture is a product of human beings doing what comes naturally. Clearly, I am of two minds about almost everything.

Black-and-Yellow Argiope

 

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