(Copyright © 2010)

I posted Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness to set my mind straight before attending the Feb. 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine. I also made up a handout on species utilizing rockweed as habitat one way or another, the different perspectives I thought might be represented at the symposium, and, yes, a list of terms I thought attendees might use in categorizing rockweed from their different perspectives. Forty-five people showed up, representing harvesters and industrial processors, resource managers, teachers and researchers, and interested members of the public.

No one spoke of rockweed as a commodity, but the other 14 terms I expected to hear all came up at one time or another: rockweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, seaweed, seawrack, wrack, marine resource, public-trust resource, marine or estuarine habitat, primary producer, fishery, property, private property, alga or algae, and biomass. The first talk was called “Biomass Assessment,” the second “Ecology and Habitat” (my italics).

The biomass speaker added a few broad terms I hadn’t anticipated: weed, beds, stock. The habitat man made a great many distinctions, including energy production; carbon sequestration; refuge, feeding, foraging, and nursery areas; predation; structural terms including architecture, assemblages, and communities; and specifically pointed to spatial and temporal scales of observation, as well as particular species utilizing rockweed one way or another.

The biomass man effectively lumped all organic matter into one one pot of gunk or goo, ignoring structural and functional considerations entirely. I didn’t hear the word “ecosystem” ever crossing his lips. The habitat man refined that matter into specific regions providing a wide variety of functions within a living estuarine community and the larger ecosystem beyond. He asked “How much habitat loss is too much?” (turning the biomass perspective on its head by seeing it in terms of habitat reduction), raising the issue of habitat restoration after harvesting reduces habitat to so many tons of biomass. 

The two speakers were both educators, one from a marine resource perspective, the other from an ecological perspective. What you learn as a student depends on where you go to school, the classes you take, the teachers you engage. Very likely, it is the attitude you have toward the subject that decides which path you follow. And that attitude goes back to the orthodox perspective you acquired during childhood as connections between nerve cells were either strengthened or weakened in response to the behaviors, speech patterns, and attitudes of your formative caregivers.

The after-lunch talk was on “Effects of Harvesting.” Following a brief detour to ecologyland, we were home again in the realm of biomass. But from a more nuanced perspective that combined aspects of both earlier talks. This was the issue many of us had come to consider—not where the rubber meets the road, but cutting blades meet lively habitats. The harvesting metaphor led to talk of rockweed as a “standing crop,” which was acceptable to many as a variant form of agriculture—sea farming without plowing furrows or planting seeds. Nowhere is consciousness more evident than in categorizing one thing as something else entirely for the sake of effect—to make a new recipe, idea, or practice “palatable” as an acquired taste (or unpalatable, as when Rush Limbaugh characterizes President Obama as a foreign-born, Islamic terrorist).

If compromise is to be reached, the issue must be framed in terms equally acceptable to both sides. In this case, the biomass people and the habitat people have to agree to categorize or conceptualize the issue in such a way that both retain their integrity on a playing field they see as level. The people who perform this service are called educators. They are the ones who train us to direct our expectations in such a way to be mutually agreeable to as large a population as possible by selecting an appropriate level of discourse. That is, society at large is invested in minimizing its internal differences to enable a wide a range of social needs to be met on an everyday basis. Since each person is unique, this can only be done by convincing a majority of people to adopt a common perspective for looking at things in such a way that their differences become invisible.

Framing the rockweed symposium as biomass people vs. habitat people would lead to open conflict. The art of compromise demands the conversation be conducted on a higher level of discourse to avoid concrete disagreements between the parties affected. The more familiar and acceptable the level, the better to restore order. Which is precisely what the harvesting metaphor provides. We all have to make a living, we all have to eat, we all want to go about our business without criticism, undue regulation, and harassment. The farmer and cowman can be friends if they look at each other the right way. Arranged marriages throughout history have turned competing tribes and kingdoms into extended families, transforming warring states into good neighbors through vows of eternal fidelity.

Sports, money, law, and religion are a few common currencies of social compromise, enabling many to live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony. Any Red Sox fan is a friend of mine; My vote goes to the highest bidder; I present the image of a law-abiding citizen; Jihad in the name of God is man’s highest calling. No wonder sports is the most prominent section in the paper; the economy is always newsworthy; law, order, and military might are esteemed virtues; religions offer comfort to all who humble themselves before a supreme being. Social  orthodoxy is a means of compromise that requires individuals to surrender their particular take on events by subscribing to a higher order (or even absolute) level of generality. Toeing the company or party line replaces personal consciousness with a particular brand of cultural consciousness for the sake of taking unified action on an issue.

The rockweed symposium did not end on a wholly orthodox note. Rather, it asked attenders to identify gaps in our scientific grasp of the issue. The idea being to stimulate research aimed at filling those gaps. This is the stage before orthodoxy can be achieved. Science is another currency of social compromise. It is conducted at such a high level of certainty as to be almost divorced from personal experience, statistical-derived concepts wholly substituting for immediate engagement with the world. The very methods of science are methods of high-level, peer-reviewed compromise, enabled by statistical analysis if not immediate personal knowledge.

The current industry standard governing how much weed can be cut in a given bed is a target of 17% of extant rockweed biomass. The idea is that cutting too low on the axis diminishes regrowth, so cutting should be restricted to the upper 50% of the “plant” (really an alga). And cutting too broad a swath also diminishes regrowth, so harvesters allow themselves to cut only a third as much—33% of the upper 50%—or 17% of the “standing crop.”

The question is, what are the ecological implications of that 17% loss of estuarine habitat? As for natural mortality aside from any harvest, to cite a study conducted in Cobscook Bay, Maine,* “The proportion of Ascophyllum standing biomass lost annually and expressed as turnover rates, ranged from 29 to 71%,” with a mean turnover of roughly 51%. This is no standing crop, it is a fleeing crop, its so-called biomass turning over every two years. It strikes me that if the 17% is removed from the 50% likely to survive the normal turnover to detritus, it makes the harvest more like 34% of the surviving crop rather than the guideline of 17% of the standing crop might suggest. This would appear to double the impact on habitat over what the industry now claims is the case. Until we grapple with percentages seemingly plucked from a hat, and come to agreement on whether, say, 5% harvest might be more reasonable from a scientifically-grounded perspective, then natural-resource managers in Maine won’t be able to adopt a statewide (that is, orthodox) standard for allowable cutting of rockweed.

Where else in the blogosphere can you find such practical considerations to emerge from the study of human consciousness? Track these posts for updates on how mind affects the varied facets of the material universe.


* Robert L. Vadas, et al., “Biomass and Productivity of Intertidal Biomass,” in Peter F. Larsen, Ed., Ecosystem Modeling in Cobscook Bay, Maine, (Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 11, Special Issue 2, 2004, page 136).

Seal mother & nursing pup on rockweed



(Copyright © 2010)

In certain situations, each of us acts as if his personal views were absolute truth, not mortal opinion. On such occasions, we pass ourselves off as more certain than our life experiences warrant. But we plunge ahead on the basis of unsupportable enthusiasms nonetheless. What we mean by “I know this for a fact” is “Let me tell you what I think,” as if truth were in the telling itself. Which is exactly the impression we want to give. The more we doubt, the louder we spout our views. If we see no humor in doing so, we fail to recognize our own zealotry.

It is easy to see pride in others, but not ourselves because it is none other than our selves who gauge the earnestness of our assertions. If we didn’t make such judgments, we wouldn’t be able to act. The actor must feel he is standing on bedrock and not a cloud (think of the skywriting pilot whose jottings are wisps of smoke) to assert anything. He must act as if he were right or not act at all. Imagine a president making a State of the Union Address, modestly declaring, “Well, folks, I kinda’, sorta’ think maybe this might be the pickle we’re in.” Congress would not only shout him down, they’d run for the door. The nation would go into cardiac arrest.

Sacred cows are sacred cows because they give us an excuse to insert at least some sense of order in our lives. Tradition is better than . . . well, nothing. Take Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits, for example. In Darwinian circles, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck has been an inside joke for 150 years. Evolution is run at a snail’s pace by selection for the rare mutation that gives a particular genotype a better chance to reproduce, spread, and survive than another. Everyone who is anyone knows that. But the brand-new field of epigenetics recognizes that our genes are influenced by other factors (besides mutations) that affect conditions under which real, live babies are conceived in real time and real places, and subsequently grow to sexual maturity. Factors like diet, for instance, sanitation, maternal anxiety, smoking, or disease. This is hot stuff—making a lot of smart people reevaluate the conditions under which they have any right to claim they are as smart as they claim. It’s back to the drawing board for the staunchest of Darwinians.

Orthodoxy is a plague upon us, like smoking cigarettes or overeating. It chokes the mind, forcing it to suck in the same stale thoughts over and over again, desiccating consciousness, making it dry and listless. Taking shelter behind accepted opinion makes us feel safe, or agreeable to the powers that be who have control of our lives. It puts us on the “right” side of the issues that drive us apart, such as abortion, religious practice and dogma, social conventions, fads or anti-fads, displays of allegiance, and so on. We acquire many of our views before we are old enough to be exposed to alternatives, so they become set in our brains. We miss the point that if we’d been born in a different household or culture, we might be the very person we rail against today. Inconceivable! Impossible! Yet a sure sign we rely on traditional pathways burned into our brains when we were young and naive.

Where there is a divide between peoples, there are orthodoxies on either hand. Rich/poor, old/young/ male/female, red/blue, black/white, straight/gay, them/us, out/in, familiar/strange. Stereotypes are rigid kinds of categorizations—seen one, seen ‘em all. Which help us think we know more than we do, be bigger and wiser than we are—immediately, with very little effort. How sad that we shun, beat up, or kill one another simply because of the categories we carelessly project onto those who differ from ourselves. In the saying, there is safety in numbers, “numbers” suggests like-thinking others, the known world, as it were. Unknown others are expendable. And if you make yourself an agent of that world, you become a hero in its eyes, or even a martyr if you sacrifice yourself for the common cause.

These dramas take place in our minds, our acts only reflecting the state of our ossified brains as education, indoctrination, training, and belief have made them rigid. As we are led to categorize others, so do we follow those who lead us as if in a dream. And for all we can tell, that dream is real. We are overtaken by missionary zeal and self-righteousness. Instead of flub-dubbing around, we know what we are doing at last. All is perfectly clear. There are only true believers and infidels, Catholics and protestants, Aryans and Jews, Jews and Arabs, Pashtuns and Indians, Turks and Greeks, Home and Away, Them and Us. We cling to our schisms in spite of all evidence that things aren’t that simple, that the facts point to each person being unique, and for that reason deserving of respect as a complement to ourselves, who are but seeds blowing in the wind.

In the abstract, we know all this, and claim to believe it. But in practice we invariably excuse our own actions as the only course open to us. I couldn’t help it; she asked for it; he made me do it. Overwhelmed by circumstances, we do what we do. But it isn’t world circumstances, it’s the circumstances in our minds that drive us. It is consciousness that pulls the trigger, thrusts the sword, throws the grenade—because that’s how we’ve been trained. Be a man, not a weakling. Stand up for your beliefs. Show ‘em they can’t mess with us. Throw the rock; give the finger; hit them before they hit you. Shock and awe, that’s the stuff. Catch ‘em off-guard. You’re in the right; if they complain, it’s because they’re prejudiced. Infidels!

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read this week is David Margolick’s piece, “The Return of the Neocons,” in Newsweek (Feb. 1). He points out the differences between them, yet what unites their views is their orthodoxy in being outsiders who have infiltrated the system, so to a man they see themselves as performing heroic service. Eternal underdogs, double agents, they thrive in their culture of orthodoxy in which one side can do no wrong, the other no right. They make defensiveness on behalf of their cause a primal virtue requiring no justification.

As historians note, the impulses the neocons represent—the Manichaean world view, the missionary zeal, the near-jingoistic view of America, the can-do spirit and impatience with nuance—are as old as the country itself. . . . [They hold] that the United States occupies a higher moral plane than any other nation, and should act accordingly. . . . [favoring] a muscular, aggressive foreign policy, anticipating and preempting problems worldwide (by military means if necessary), unencumbered by corrupt or pusillanimous international organizations like the United Nations (pages 34-35).

Margolick paints the neocons as an ad hoc cadre of Israeli sympathesizers within the Republican Party, doing their best to steer American policy abroad without drawing attention to themselves as un-elected officials pushing a stealth agenda of their own. In that sense, they serve as lobbyists without having to bother with credentials—missionaries doing God’s work in the guise of laymen without common cause.

Life is a test to see whether our habitual characterizations—the way we see the world—stand up or not. As the bow is drawn, so flies the arrow; whether it hits the target or not is almost irrelevant. Being true to hardened beliefs takes precedence over getting it right. That is, posturing is all, accomplishment not worth considering. Such is a good portion of consciousness, the timed-release of routines stored from childhood. Come what may, the self stands true to the circumstances that prevailed during its earliest formation. Events are merely the fuels that feed the flames within to keep us moving ahead—that is, familiar to ourselves, no matter what. Orthodoxy allows us to recognize ourselves in changing times because we strike the same pose in each situation as it arises. Self-preservation is the name of that game, the primary business of mental life. Reacting to the strange as if it were perfectly familiar, we see ourselves as masters of every occasion. The world may turn, but we refuse to turn with it. That is the essence of dogma, fundamentalism, and ideology. No thinking is required because every idea is prepackaged for ready consumption.

Here there is a close connection between categorization, the storylines we live out, and the situations we get ourselves into again and again. Michael Gazzaniga finds an interpretive module in the lift side of the brain which makes sense of ongoing events no matter how senseless they seem. Who is this interpreter? None other than our self of old, all the way back to our days of language acquisition. What did we know then? How critical were we in applying our judgment? Not much; not very. Yet we are still the same creature, always a little off base, trying to understand what’s going on. So we hazard a guess in keeping with who we were then. Creativity is painful because it means moving away from who we once were into the uncharted territory of the now. Staying sane in novel situations is best done by remaining the same as we were then. We all mimic the Pope in believing in our personal infallibility. He is the eternal child, young at heart, supposedly wise as the hills of Rome in always coming up with a ready answer. A great gig if you can pull it off with a straight face.

I see signs of this back-tugging force all around me. The old ways were better because we were comfortable then and knew whose child we were, while today’s world is fearsome and dangerous, and we’re not sure how we fit in. Fundamentalists read from that script every day of their lives. We survived childhood; the message is clear: More childhood is better. Long live the child within. What worked then is a good bet for what might work now. Formative episodes of experience at a young age set the course of a lifetime.

In my own case, I am definitely the same kid I was at age ten when I was chiseling trilobites out of the damp, black walls of gullies in Hamilton, New York. The thrill of those discoveries is still with me, translated into the idiom of Taunton Bay, Maine. Tracking horseshoe crabs at the northern edge of their range, as I did from 2003 to 2005, put me on the leading edge of my personal curiosity and wonder. Studying the antics of herons, eagles, loons, harbor seals, and wildlife in general, I reach from the depths of my personal history and project that old, familiar feeling of adventure onto the world of today. What conservationists protect may not be the Earth itself so much as their longing to restore Earth as they knew it.

When I was six or seven, my father got a truckload of pebbles to firm up the driveway. I was in the garage, idly playing with a hammer. I placed one of the smooth pebbles on a cinderblock and gave it a sharp tap. Amid the smell of rock dust, the stone split neatly apart, revealing a fossil shell sharply sculpted in high relief. Not sculpted, molded; it was the creature itself turned to stone. Why I picked just that pebble, and hit it just as I did, I’ll never understand. But there it was, a major discovery of my dawning life. Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

As a kid, I loved the month of March when snow on the hills around Hamilton melted into rivulets rushing for the valleys below. I’ve told this story before, but I’ll replay it again because it shows how orthodox I am at the core of my being. I launched boats made of bark and twigs into the flow, and ran with them as they coursed toward the valley. I built dams by pushing rows of twigs into the mud at various angles to the flood, learning about hydrodynamics experientially, not conceptually. The only notes I took were recorded in the mud on my knees, and the sopping pants I wore home. That early learning is with me today as I row across the salty currents of Taunton Bay on an incoming tide. I can visualize the forces acting on my little boat, and choose my heading accordingly.

I worry a good deal about the state of childhood education as we’ve formalized it today. We’ve taken muddy pants out of the curriculum and replaced them with the concept of muddy pants. That way we stay clean and acceptable to our care givers, who seem not to know that concepts gained through physical experience driven by personal motivation outlast the abstractions foist on us by others. Horseshoe crabs and trilobite fossils are existentially real to me because I have a history of hands-on experience with them. Learning about them through books, they start out as ideas in the mind. That is, as in Monopoly, they go straight to jail (memory) without passing go (the senses), creating a kind of half-baked experience wholly dependent on the cards we draw from the stack, cards telling us what we are to do in the world. If The Cat in the Hat, say, or the Lorax, becomes a stock character in my orthodox beliefs—along with mermaids, angels, and unicorns—I will swear to the collective existence of such creatures based on first-hand experience, not suspecting how fanciful my bookish acquaintance really is. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause. But a Santa in the mind is not the same as the “Santa” who eats cookies left on a plate by the fireplace.

In each instance, behavior justified on the basis of orthodoxy, belief, or ideology is always of questionable authority. Even in John Weir’s percept language, the concept of self is of doubtful origin, so does not necessarily represent the real “me,” if there can be such a thing. That is to say, even the self is a construct or characterization, and as such, is a product of complex mental operations and influences. Because experience comes with a valence either positive or negative, good or bad (for me), the first-person singular “I” is more apt to be the good guy than the bad guy. As George W. Bush—and the male animal in general—amply illustrate, it is often hard to acknowledge errors of personal categorization and judgment. Self-criticism is an oxymoron because the self makes the rules. If we dutifully rock back and forth memorizing the Qur’an as children, then truth is on our lips ever after. We become cocky in our beliefs because all doubt and uncertainty are effectively suppressed. We live out our lives as stock characters in a drama fulfilling the dreams of an author living in another time and another place. Because that author dwells within us, not before us, we do not see it directing our actions ever after.

Consciousness by the book—orthodox consciousness—makes us commit crazy (inappropriate) acts while feeling perfectly sane and rational. On cue, we become that innocent child again, wobbling about and asserting ourselves like so many mechanical toys driven by coiled springs. Which I offer as an apt depiction of the Republican phalanx in Congress lock-stepping the party line, bent on destroying our elected system of government from within. And of the neocon cell in Washington awaiting another golden opportunity such as the felling of the Twin Towers to further its covert agenda for proper deployment of America’s might in securing Israel’s toehold in what used to be called Palestine.

And me, I’m just here doing my thing—digging trilobites from gully walls. Characterizing the world around me in terms I learned through early engagements with my environment. Writing a blog is like looking for fossils—I never know what I’ll find. I have a word or a hunch or an idea to begin with, and see where it leads me. Discovery is the issue, coming up with something to fill the gaps in my understanding. That’s my agenda, more-or-less focused on my personal consciousness, which is the vehicle I use in these serial reflections. I can’t help myself; I am a creature of my own making, clinging to the only childhood I know inside-out because I lived it with my very own brain, which dutifully took note of what was happening along the way, and established the original connections that keep reinforcing themselves through everyday use. In being me, I am fulfilling the dream of the child who set the course of my life without knowing that’s what he was doing at the time.

So, I submit, are we all driven by the fundamentalist within because we have no comparable exemplar to follow. Claiming to be reasonable and rational, yet staunchly orthodox at the core, it is wrenching to discover the child we were still rules the day. The art of the possible, as politics is sometimes characterized, inevitably stands against the art of the ideal, the way things should be if orthodoxy had its way. Like you, I could have been the littlest neocon, jahadi, or zionist, but that wasn’t to be. The circumstances of my birth were otherwise. I was the son of a man whose mother’s giving birth to her first child was her last act on Earth. He was baptized at graveside during her burial. He never knew her, his own mother. Because he was remote and inaccessible, I never knew him, my father. Like him, I am a project-oriented, free-thinking loner, more by social inheritance than by choice. Will my sons ever know me? Perhaps, at a distance, if they follow this blog.



Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.


That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.



(Copyright © 2010)

Great Seal State of MaineSome years ago, Farmer and Sailor met at a bar in Augusta. After downin’ applejack and rum for couple hours, they went separate ways.

Seems to me,” said Farmer as they parted, “if you’d drop some seed in that furrow you plow out to China, you’d have something to show for it on the way back.”

Maybe so,” said Sailor, “and if you’d hoist some canvas on that rig of yours, add helm and rudder, you’d make better headway than plowin’ back and forth in that field every day.”

Our lives—what we do in the world—flow from our biological values mapped onto events, and in turn our categorizations of events flow from the lives we have led up till now. That is, a (sometimes winding) path runs between our values and categorizations (how we see the world), and that path is the life we have led. Or what personal memory draws from walking that path, and consciousness maps onto here-and-now awareness through acts of in-formed categorization.

There is no particular logic that applies to the course of our lives other than the ad hoc logic of salient events we actually witness and participate in. In that sense, we keep casting the same old categories onto the world, and the world keeps making the same old response—giving us back more of what we already have in mind. The world does not so much turn in orderly fashion as that we who turn with it are set in our ways of looking at the world. So when unique events occur before our eyes—such as a new Congress wrestling with what a national health plan might look like—we see it as a variation on a theme and treat it as if we’ve been there and tried that, with no forward motion whatsoever. We are stuck because we hold tight to the same tried-and-true categorizations we’ve always projected onto such situations—even if what’s on offer has never been tried before.

The world keeps moving ahead, and we keep pulling it backwards in conformity with formative events in our lives drawn from yesteryear. Resulting in change without progress. We spend most of our energy spinning our wheels because we are unable to step off our customary route and see the current situation with new eyes. The star at the top of the Maine State Seal is the North Star by which landsmen and seamen steered their way through woods and across dark oceans in the early nineteenth century. Dirigo, the state motto, translates from Latin as “I lead.” That is, the State of Maine depicts itself as leading the nation. Thus do we all see ourselves on the forefront of experience, when in fact we attire ourselves in the traditional garb of farmers and sailors of long ago. We lead by clinging to our traditional image of ourselves, not by freeing our bodies of such baggage and stepping unburdened ahead.

Another example is the granting of “personhood” to corpora-tions as if they had individual rights guaranteed in the Constitution as amended. While it is perfectly evident that, though corporations may be steered by people, in themselves as chartered by the several states they are fictional entities given a certain legal standing to make profits for investors having a monetary stake in their operations. Corporate bodies are invariably collectives made up of individuals; as such, they are never of one mind. One person, one mind, that is the law of consciousness. If a corporation claims to be of one mind, that can only be if one mind—the CEO’s, say, or chairman of the board’s—asserts itself and comes to dominate the thinking of corporate employees as if they were clones—which they aren’t—and worked in single-minded harmony. Granting personhood to corporate bodies empowers those at the top to manipulate events to their liking.

CEO salaries and bonuses in the field of financial services provide all the evidence we need to prove that corporate leaders act and present themselves as unique individuals, not corporate leaders. Corporate consciousness is an oxymoron, as is categorizing corporations in legal jargon as “persons” in their own right. Corporations present themselves collectively as persons when it suits them, as deserving individuals at other times. Corporation law lets them have their cake whole, and to enjoy slicing it into pieces for unequal distribution at the same time. If the top-to-bottom salary ratio within a corporate body is, say, 400 to 1, then the personhood of corporations is clearly a myth.

The law of the land is a fairy story corporate lobbyists and legislators keep telling us to keep us asleep, while they sack the treasury. Corporate personhood is a fundamental category error. Yet the Supreme Court cast it in bronze in a recent 5-4 decision removing restrictions on how the good fairies can insert money into political campaigns on behalf of issues and concerns as seen from very specific points of view. The majority opinion sides with corporations as if they were persons speaking with one voice to express a personal concern arising within a personal mind—magically backed by corporate funding and legal expertise. The funding gives the lie to all claims of personhood.

When I dig into my pockets, I do not dig into yours, and yours, and yours. Each digs for her- or himself. Money is money, not speech, just as language seen as a medium of exchange is not speech. There is confusion in making such claims, confounding the capacity for speech in general with individual speech acts exemplifying such a capacity on a specific occasion within a limited situation involving particular individuals. Corporations do not speak for themselves qua corporations. They make noises soothing to the ears of the powers-that-be behind doors that are shut. Corporate speech is not free, it is crafted to a particular end—the making of profits for a band of investors.

Categorizations are invariably thrust onto the world from a particular standpoint or perspective. They are first-person singular acts, not motions moved, seconded, voted, and enacted by corporate bodies. When farmers and sailors come together in a bar, they think and speak for themselves, guided by personal habits and experience. When boards of directors come together in a board room, they conduct business in a disciplined manner according to Roberts’ Rules of Order. Members can be recognized or not by the chair. The secretary records comments in the minutes—or not—as he so decides. Speaking out in a meeting is a political act. Submitting to majority opinion, members will, if they want to keep their jobs, abandon the right to free speech. Much as members of Congress surrender to the will of their party for the sake of speaking with one voice, thereby stifling their personal take on things to stay in the good graces of those having control over committee appointments and distribution of party funds.

Friction between different ways of looking at things wears us all down in the end. That is the nature of corporate decision- making and governance. Frustration smoothes our rough edges as we seek the lowest common denominator we can all agree to. Alternatively, if nobody speaks up or does anything—like the farmer and sailor standing mute on the Maine seal—we can pretend we are all of one mind. To know my own thoughts in writing this blog, I must keep to myself much of the time in order to preserve the integrity of my personal consciousness and the ideas which flit through it from one instant to the next. On my own authority, I can say anything I want without glancing at faces around me. As a result, I now write words I could not have put together a few months ago because, in remaining true to my conscious thought processes, I essentially pull myself up by my own bootstraps (a figure Gerald M. Edelman keeps using to describe our efforts in achieving consciousness for ourselves).

Detailed communication between unique minds is always a challenge. Initially, our differences excite and draw us together; but on second thought, they compel us to retreat to avoid surrendering more than we bargained for. We thrust our categories back and forth as in a duel, seeing whether the other nods or shakes her head. Thrust together in a marriage, say, or a foxhole, we quickly discover how much work it takes to stick together instead of withdrawing to respective positions of safety. The chief danger is overlooking our differences for the sake of family or community. My own upbringing consisted in large degree to being told, “Don’t be conspicuous!” meaning, don’t draw attention to yourself. That is, don’t be original. Such is the challenge many New Englanders face in growing up in families with deep roots.  Knowing from personal experience that over-concern for what neighbors might say is the kiss of death for honesty, transparency, and integrity, I seem to have turned out otherwise.

More commonly, we cease to be conscious for ourselves and become conscious for the larger group, surrendering individuality for the sake of living in a state of oblivious peace. If Sailor did as Farmer suggests, he would be dead, and vice versa. We must be our own selves, yet cannot admit it out loud. Which is the human dilemma, the corporate dilemma, the Congressional dilemma. Are we to shout with Billy Budd, “Farewell, Rights of Man!” every time we enter the public or corporate arena? Is life without a personal voice worth living? As a people, we seem to have decided in the affirmative. Or might it be that the Supreme Court has made that decision in our name, and we are too stunned to object?

Seeing the moose lying beneath the pine tree on the Great Seal of the State of Maine at the head of this post, I am reminded of Ferdinand retiring from the bull ring to seek a life of content-ment in a flowering meadow. Neither farmer nor fisherman, that moose is what we seem to have become, happy to take the world lying down in the shade of a tree.

Moose and Pine



(Copyright © 2010)

I first encountered rockweed when I was four. Lifted off the bow of a lobster boat onto a rocky shore at low tide, I took one step on the slippery stuff, fell and bumped my knee. The hurt made it a moment I’ve never forgotten. Lesson learned: on rockweed, watch where and how you step.

Rockweeds are brown algae growing on rocky surfaces along the shore. As the tide rises from low to high, it also advances up a sloping shore from “out” to “in.” The space demarked by low and high, out to in, creates a volume known as the intertidal zone, a particularly wild place because conditions are so variable. The sun can be shining with a temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit at high tide; or it could be raining or snowing at low tide, with a temperature somewhere between 70 and minus 20 degrees. One way or another, anything living in the intertidal zone has to be adaptable to such extremes.

Two species of wrack or rockweed common in Maine have such an ability, Ascophyllum nodosum, and Fucus vesiculosis, among  others. Both have holdfasts attaching them to rocks at the lower end, with air bladders along their stems enabling them to float as the tide rises, to settle as it falls. Moved about by currents Rockweeds Ascophyllum (l.l.) & Fucus (u.l.)and winds, rockweed is always in motion up and down, side to side, but never far from the surface of the water, exposed to the sun, its source of energy in making sugar from carbon dioxide and water. In winter, rockweeds can lie frozen in ice for weeks or months at a time. Lacking a vascular system, the cold doesn’t bother them by cutting off circulation of nutrients or removal of waste. They simply thaw in March and up the rate at which they photosynthesize the food they need for growth, reproduction, and repair.

Rockweeds play an essential role in providing both food and habitat areas along rocky or ledgy shores in Maine. Living along both low- and high-stress shores, they take a beating from waves and wind, causing bladders and blades to break from the axis,Least Sandpiper in Wrack eventually to disintegrate, attracting bacteria, which make the resulting detritus (loose organic particles) a rich source of protein for the likes of filter-feeders such as blue mussels, scallops, clams, and oysters, as well as other marine invertebrates and insects, subsequently eaten by birds, fish, and mammals. In Taunton Bay, for instance, rockweeds—along with phytoplankton, eelgrass, kelp, and marsh grass—are primary food producers supporting life throughout the estuary and beyond.

In addition, the twining, waving strands of rockweed provide a complex habitat—both nurturing and protective—for small marine creatures such as shore-hugging fish, periwinkles, amphipods, shrimp, crabs, juvenile lobsters, and in Taunton Rockweed at High Tide Bay, even horseshoe crabs. Many of these wait out low tides beneath a quilt of rockweed preserving the high moisture level they need to survive. Supplying both shelter and food to life in the intertidal zone, rockweeds are providers of essential services in any estuarine community. They are particularly important in enclosed coastal embayments having a high ratio of rocky shores to their relatively small surface areas. Cobscook Bay near Eastport, Lubec, and Campobello Island is one such embayment, as are Taunton Bay, Skillings River, and Bagaduce River in Hancock County, and the St. Georges River near Thomaston. Open bays that are broadly exposed to the Gulf of Maine tend to be more dependent on food sources delivered by ocean currents (such as phytoplankton) than are enclosed bays which export clouds of detritus to nearby waters. 

The issue with rockweed is harvesting it by the ton to be processed as fertilizer, animal feed, packing material for shipping marine worms and lobsters, and a stabilizer in foods and cosmetics, among other human uses. How much is itRockweed, Ledge, Low Marsh, Boulder, Shoreline Trees appropriate to take, from what areas, when, by what method? As is invariably true of living natural resources, the issue is one of categorizing the resource in such a way to emphasize its utility to humans and downplay its function and value in the wild. Which is it to be, protective habitat or food additive?; primary producer or fertilizer? Only purists can hold to making such an either/or distinction. In practice, the art is in finding a balance between wild and industrial functions, values, and uses in the human community—between priceless living habitats in nature’s economy, against so much biomass as a commodity worth two cents a pound in the human economy.

Who would ever imagine that the categorical essence of rockweed could be determined by committees that deny membership to the natural food web depending on rockweed itself and its peers for survival? But that’s how the civilized world works, people making all the decisions from their respective points of view, doing their best to represent the interests of the wild, but never doing a very good job of it. Cutting rockweed is analogous to felling tropical rainforests in that living systems are reduced to biomass while delicate microclimates and habitats are eliminated in the process. The reason, of course, is that humans declare themselves as essential parts of every food web on Earth, so of course they cast their categories onto the natural world to insure it meets their desires. This is specially true now that humans have overrun the Earth, and have staked their claim to it as their personal planet. Which it may effectively have become, by preemption, if not by magical thinking in the theological, mythological, or industrial mind.

To further complicate matters, different groups with interests in rockweed project different categories on it according to their personal interests. Seaweed harvesters (getting paid by the wet ton) say it is biomass, the people of Maine (who are said to own public trust resources) say it is both a marine habitat and a commodity, ecologists see it as the base of the estuarine food pyramid, and resource managers see it as a headache they wish would go away because there is no simple remedy that will make all interested parties happy. As usual, the stakeholders having the most money to provide them with the most aggressive lawyers and publicists are the ones who come out on top in deciding what rockweed, for all practical purposes, really is.

Another issue with rockweed is the matter of ownership. Does it belong to the people as a public-trust resource? or does it belong to the owners of rocky shorelands where it grows? ByRockweed at Low Tide_96 tradition expressed in the Colonial Ordinance, public access to intertidal waters is limited to the express purposes of “fishing, fowling, and navigation.” Moves have been made in the Maine Legislature to legally categorize rockweed as a “fish” for the purpose of including it among harvestable resources, but such moves have been declared unconstitutional; algae, in fact, are not fish by any stretch of the tongue or imagination. Seaweed harvesting licenses granted by the Maine Department of Marine Resources do not grant or affect proprietary rights to the seaweed, including within the intertidal zone. So by what right or principle do harvesters withdraw rockweed from the public trust and privatize it as their own? As far as I can make out, they do so on the strength of their own will, declaring for all practical purposes, “This is mine.” 

The name “rockweed” makes it sound like Ascophyllum nodosum belongs in the same category as burdocks and dandelions, so is not to be missed if reduced from a living organism to a mound of limp and dripping biomass. The Latinate binomial, on the other hand, calls up images of presentable people in white lab coats peering into microscopes in the halls of science and academia, suggesting it may have some ecological interest and value after all. “Knotted” or “bladder wrack” sound quaint and old fashioned, pointing perhaps to the Magna Carta as a reference to King John’s take on such species.

The more I know about rockweed, the less I know what it is. I know it exists; I have seen it frequently with my own eyes. But  how to regard it with those eyes, how to relate to it as one member of one species to another, that is not mine to say.  Rockweed and I both live on the same planet; here is our home in the universe. We both qualify as Earthlings. Which in my eyes makes us equal under the sun. I am not here for its use, and vice versa. We coexist. Yet it lives in the basement of the food pyramid, I live in an apartment at the apex, which looks over all like the eye peering from the top of the pyramid shown on the dollar bill. Does that suggest I have higher powers or knowledge than lowly rockweed? That I am somehow “better” or more “deserving”? The big difference is I possess consciousness and rockweed does not. On the other hand, it can lie frozen in ice for months at a time, which I cannot do. It can tolerate a range of temperature and salinity that would kill me—mighty predator that I am—within a few hours. In a very real sense, my survival depends on rockweed and its ilk—the photosynthesizers of the Earth—whereas its survival is entirely independent of mine. I need it; it doesn’t need me.

So how come people assume responsibility for managing rockweed without giving anything back to compensate rockweed for giving up the right to manage its private affairs? Is that equable? Is it just? I know, I know. . . apples and oranges. Rockweed is rockweed; I am a human being. But what bothers me is that this entire blog is being entertained in a single human mind, and rockweed is excluded from the action. I can have input as to its fate, but it has no say in mine.

The scales of justice are weighted in favor of those having consciousness, a situation I call asymmetrical, unjust, and unfair. This makes it seem that having consciousness is somehow better than not having it. Which might well be true if the haves actually watched over the have-nots. But we don’t watch over trees to protect their interests; we cut them to make toilet paper. We don’t watch over rivers; we dam them to turn them into still waters, and pipe our waste into them. We don’t watch over Earth’s climate; we do our thing and leave it to react how it will. These are moral issues. How we treat rockweed is essentially a moral issue. In categorizing rockweed as a harvestable resource for my personal benefit, I am practicing an ethic as viewed from a particular point of view.

Robins and hermit thrushes regard rockweed from a different perspective: when it snows in April after they have migrated north, their primary forage areas on the forest floor are off-limits; where can they get something to eat? As long as the snow lasts, those on the coast forage in seawrack along the shore for amphipods—not their preferred food, but it’ll do in a pinch. If the rockweed isn’t there at precisely that time, tens of thousands of thrushes can starve. If there is even a trace of carageenin in the ice cream I eat, then I am an accomplice to the perpetrator who treats rockweed as a commodity and commissions its harvest, or cuts it himself.

In the human economy, rockweed is currently worth about two cents a pound, or $40 a wet ton. One harvester can cut about a ton of rockweed a day, making about $4,000 a season. With cutting machines, he can make more. From a human standpoint, the rockweed issue comes down to balancing the reduction of rockweed to an inert commodity-with-a-price against its value as an intertidal habitat and producer of food that sequesters carbon for the good of estuarine, marine, and terrestrial communities. Wanted dead or alive, which is it to be: tubs of industrial-grade ice cream in suburban freezers, or least sandpipers, robins, shrimp, and crabs along the shores of enclosed bays in Maine?

Which leaves me where? Perhaps in denial; perhaps upset; perhaps in some kind of limbo, committed to a life sentence of guilt and confusion. What about my biological values? Do they have anything to say on the matter of harvesting rockweed? What I’m getting at is the ethical dimension to consciousness that crops up in the most surprising places. I see clouds on the horizon, telling me I will soon have to address the coming storm, perhaps after I feel comfortable with the categorizing aspects of consciousness. Then I will be free to face into the wind and deal with the ethical issues I have successfully avoided up till now.

Where I think I’m headed is toward developing a deliberate attitude of stewardship as the going price for diminishing the living Earth in any way. If we use our knives to cut rockweed at all, then we are committed by that act to watching over what’s left to protect it from harm. We live on the same planet; it’s the least we can do.

Ascophyllum with Sea Star



(Copyright © 2010)

After we drove together to a meeting of the Maine Chapter of the Wildlife Society where I presented a talk, Danielle D’Auria, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), asked me to write a post about great blue herons for her blog aimed at 75 wildlife volunteers. Which I did, basing it mostly on experiences I recall from 23 years ago. As such, it was an exercise in consciousness of situations that no longer exist but live in my personal memory. When I die, they will die—unless I write them down. Here’s what I wrote.

Great blue herons maintained a heronry on 30-acre Burying Island in Taunton Bay, Maine, from roughly 1959 to 1999. Every year they’d follow the frost line up the coast, arriving on or about the first of April. Pairs would mate on the outer branches of red and white spruce trees shortly thereafter, build and refurbish nests, and incubate typically five eggs in each nest. Juveniles fledged in mid-August. Much of the colony stayed on the bay until the shoreline began to freeze in late December. Then they’d fly to warmer climes, I never knew where.

I was privileged to live from June 1986 through December 1988 in a one-room cabin I’d built on the island. Three families owned the island in undivided shares, and granted a conservation easement to the MDIFW in 1984. The heronry was in the 15-acre parcel designated a forever-wild sanctuary. Living close by, I had ample opportunity to observe the herons flying, feeding, nesting, loafing, and dealing with hungry bald eagles, classified as fish eagles, but having an acquired taste for herons and ducks.

When pursued by an eagle, flying herons had an emergency maneuver in which they would up-end one wing and drop the other, effectively spilling the air that provided lift so they would abruptly drop 20 or 30 feet, then pull up heading along the back azimuth of the direction they’d been flying—leaving the eagle above them in cold pursuit of a phantom. This was no ad hoc tactic; I saw juveniles practice it several times in succession until they got it right. The only flaw being that if they had to repeat the maneuver, they lost so much altitude they sometimes couldn’t do it one more time.

Four or five to a clutch, nestlings were more vulnerable. I saw one eagle on a branch near a nest with two immature herons fending it off, repeatedly stabbing with their bills by thrusting their necks forward again and again for half an hour, the eagle staying just beyond reach, the pair exhausting themselves, eagle then swooping in and grabbing each bird by the neck in its talons. No sound is more pitiful than the outraged klaxon a heron sounds in the clutches of an eagle.

In the early years, I estimate the heronry contained well over 200 nests, producing an average of three or four young in each. By 1993 it was down to 96 nests by actual count (after the herons had flown). In 1999, I saw 50 herons (25 pairs) abandon the heronry when attacked by one eagle. In early April I was out in my peapod and saw the whole thing. The herons had arrived from the southland the day before, looking exhausted by their trip. Apparently, the eagle saw them too. Having built two nests on the island, it was waiting for them. When it arrived for lunch the next day, the entire colony took to the air, milled just above the trees, squawked loudly, and abruptly struck farther east in search of safer quarters elsewhere. I never found out where they went. Their guano killed the trees they nested in, which eventually blew down, and have yet to grow back. When they do, perhaps the herons will try again, which would be unlikely if the eagle is still around.

The herons seemed to rely on their numbers for protection. Each day, adults would fly off in every direction to find food, sometimes being gone for several hours, leaving their young largely unprotected except in a statistical sense by the occasional bird returning to feed the young in one nest or another. When a parent would near the heronry with a full gullet, it would emit a solitary “grawk,” which its own nestlings would always identify (I could tell by their sudden signs of alertness and anticipation) and all others ignore.

But adults didn’t simply put dinner on the table. They made their young earn it. In fact, they made it as difficult as possible by perching on the edge of the nest, raising their bill skyward, then waiting for one or another of the young to force their neck downward so food would spill into the bottom of the nest. The most aggressive of the clutch would perform this service by grabbing the adult’s bill in its own, then dragging and twisting it against a show of resistance until the adult’s bill pointed down, releasing a morsel of fish, frog, eel . . . whatever. At which point the adult would lift its bill and restart the whole exercise, ceasing only when other nestlings had had a try and its gullet was empty. Nestlings in adjacent nests (sometimes only two or three feet away) staring into the middle distance all the while as if food meant nothing to them.

My favorite time of year was mid-August when hundreds of fledglings would fly to nearby ledges, gracefully pose for my photographs, then fly back to the nest to get fed. At first they hadn’t a clue what they were supposed to do once out of the nest, much less how to feed themselves. But in a few days they caught on and began wading in the shallows, feinting, then thrusting their bills toward small fish. Their maiden flights and landings tended to be awkward, but they learned by doing and quickly refined their skills, coordinating feet-wings-necks like their role models.

Everyone loved watching the herons. Binoculars lay on every windowsill facing the bay. But even when the colony left, there were still harbor seals, loons, mergansers, scaup, goldeneyes, hawks, and yes, eagles, hungrier perhaps, but magnificent nonetheless. I still see the occasional heron, particularly feeding on the flats at low tide. Retrieving a benthic thermometer last year, I was surrounded by five herons fishing in nearby eelgrass meadows, like old times.

2 Heron Nests


Reflection 178: Mind Sets

February 4, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Never underestimate the power of is.

One and one is two.

Abbas is yesterday’s man.

God is love.

The cat is on the mat.

That giraffe is one sick animal.

In each case, one part of the human mind (conceptual memory from the past) reaches out to another part (sensory perception in the now) in such a way to categorize or characterize (lend character to) it, using language to create a meaningful moment of experience. The is bestows not only attention, recognition, or existence on the perception by naming it, but gives it definite qualities or character as we see it in our mind’s eye.

One and one is two. Two distinct things make one unified thing—a pair, couple, item, entity. If that isn’t mental magic, I don’t know what is. The only way that can happen is for all particularity to be stripped away, making the entities identical for our present purposes. One apple and one orange make two pieces of fruit. One boy and one girl make a pair or an item. They may be separate, but we come to think of them together, even to see them together. Different sexes perhaps, different blood types, different genomes—but in our minds we bind them as one. Jack and Jill, Antony and Cleopatra, Rogers and Astaire, Laurel and Hardy. Separate but equal contributors to a whole. If not in reality, then in our minds. That’s where the magic is performed.

Abbas is yesterday’s man. Let me give you the whole sentence as Fawaz A. Gerges wrote it (“The Transformation of Hamas,” in The Nation (January 25, 2010):

P[alestinian] A[uthority] President Mahmoud Abbas has been weakened by a series of blunders of his own making, and with his moral authority compromised in the eyes of a sizable Palestinian constituency, Abbas is yesterday’s man—no matter how long he remains in power as a lame duck, and whether or not he competes in the upcoming presidential elections (page 22).

Presenting Abbas as a man who has outlived his time, how powerful is that? Mind magic, again, categorizing a person from a particular point of view—as seen through another man’s eyes. Here the author’s attitude toward his subject colors what he finds, or places him in a box wholly different  from the conventional form of “PA President.”

God is love. The ultimate abstraction is painted in terms of a feeling we have all known at one time or another, as if the abstraction generated the feeling: Where love is, there is God—confounding a concept with a biological state of mind. This is not just mixing metaphors, it is smashing them together in a particle collider. The phrase rolls off the tongue, and is much cited, but it doesn’t mean anything because it treats two different categories of life experience—one essentially mythical and literary, the other experiential—as if they were the same.

The cat is on the mat. You wouldn’t believe how many linguists have analyzed this sentence to find out where it came from. It categorizes the cat by giving it a place, answering the eternal questions, “Where’s the cat?” or “What’s that thing on the mat?” or “What’s under the cat?” etc. The whole sentence betrays a scientific attitude toward syntax and the spontaneous generation of language. As such, it is a conceptual horror, an artifact, a research tool never imagined by real children. Teacher says, “Give me a sentence of one syllable words containing a prepositional phrase and a word rhyming with cat.” It may look like language, but it died in the making.

That giraffe is one sick animal. Here the abstract concept “giraffe” is qualified by unmentioned symptoms of illness, so is categorized very loosely as “sick” without telling us why. This is an intuitive, folk diagnosis, on a par with “Tell me what’s wrong, Doc,” betraying a certain wariness, which is the true subject of the sentence. The squeamish attitude of the speaker or writer is the unstated issue (subject), not the giraffe—and it doesn’t even appear in the sentence in so many words. If you diagram it correctly, you miss the point.

The point I’m trying to bring out is that categorizations, which each of us perform a thousand times a day, are trickier than at first they seem. Only rarely can we get away with calling a spade a spade. Or stripping all qualities away and dealing solely with quantities, as if 1 + 1 = 2 were actually true and not code for a multitude, depending on how you look at it. I call individual posts to this blog “reflections,” trying to draw attention to our personal responsibility for seeing the world as we do, which is invariably other than it is. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about finding “an echo of thought in sight,” which sums up my whole point. Yet we unwittingly cast those echoes into the world without seeing them for the projections they really are. We are the magicians who create meaningful episodes of experience, and yet take no credit for our skill.

The recognition of a pear as a pear, a road as a road, a cloud as a cloud—is in us, not any pear, road, cloud, all coming to us unlabeled and uncategorized. We cast pearhood upon this one, roadhood on that one, cloudhood on the one up above—transferring a handy item in memory to the scene before us, as if our experience were a property of the scene itself and not of personal consciousness—as if everyone else sees it exactly as we do. But meaningful couplings of concepts and percepts, memories and phenomena, are demonstrably features of the mind, not the world. In truth, nothing can be as it appears without a mind making that judgment. In calling a spade a spade, it is the calling that matters, not the spade or the idea of a spade. It is the act of categorizing, recognizing, projecting, transferring that matters, the bodily casting of an idea upon the waters of the world. Which we all do all the time without realizing it, turning the world outside-in, ourselves inside-out—all as a matter of course, not appreciating the magic in what we do every day.

Our minds are full of sets of things. Categories, types, sorts—in a word, concepts. Which we have interpolated from similarities between a string of earlier sensory experiences, laying down networks of linked pathways in our brains, ready to cast upon the world whenever sensory phenomena assume a familiar pattern—itself generated by the networks that perform the recognizing each time. We see what we are familiar with because becoming familiar with the patterns we encounter in our minds is what we do best. Allowing us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, as if we invented the whole process, which we did! As we look upon the world, so do we see. If we fear terrorist attacks, we suspect them everywhere. Wheat makes me sick, so I even imagine it blowing on the wind. Real or imagined, the world is as we categorize the patterns we look for—and inevitably find. Each in her own way because her life experience and her physical development and her genome are unique. So each of our worlds is unique; it has to be, it is our own doing.

On playing fields, umpires categorize as a profession, telling balls from strikes, safe from out. Judges in their courtrooms do much the same, distinguishing falsehood from truth, guilt from innocence. Careers are at stake here, reputations on the line; which is it to be, personal freedom or incarceration, or even capital punishment? Categorizations matter. They are often mistaken or plainly wrong because we are all creatures of strong views and prejudices. Politicians distinguish very broadly between party beliefs and affiliation, party members seeming to inhabit separate universes whose laws are mutually exclusive. In the 1950s and 60s, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to be an expert at recognizing Communist sympathizers on sight. Whatever the facts, he would sniff them out, as long as they fit the pattern in his head, or the scent that so famously stopped up his nose.

Speaking of noses, the molecules our bodies are made of—together with the atoms making them up—are loaned to us by the universe to see what we can make of them and do with them. The animalcules on our skin and in our gut—ten times more numerous than the cells making up our bodies—are also loaned to us to see what, together, we can do. What we can make happen in this crazy paradise we call Earth. Plants arrange their molecules into cells conducting sap from soil to leaves. At the heart of the stem, cells die, forming a structure that is flexible and holds the tree up, swaying in strong winds. Near the outside just under the bark, living cells conduct sap upward, nutrients downward, promoting growth and life’s continuance. Other beings come from outside the tree to drill holes in the bark, allowing sap to ooze out, so bacteria have access to it, then the other beings—yellow-bellied sapsuckers, say—come back to check on what is happening in the holes it drilled earlier, eat the sap and bacteria to replenish their bodies in order to see what they, in turn, can make happen on Earth. Each being is a unique agent of the universe, all collectively striving to see what this generation of Earthlings can make happen.

My personal categorizations flows like sap from my body and from the experience of its molecules and atoms, its cells, organs, and organ systems. This enables my brain and my body to make collective sense of what I can know of the Earth, to organize an understanding of how Earth works for the purpose of working with similar systems or enhancing those that constitute my tribe and my kind of people. All this came to me in a dream as I was waking up this morning. A crazy dream, but no crazier than the life system that makes it possible, no crazier than the categories I project onto other dreamers so they will fit my understanding of my time and my place and what I am here to make happen while my particular mix of molecules gives me and my animalcules the structure we share together to make events happen in the universe. Thank you atoms and molecules, animalcules, thank you universe. I’ll see what I can do. When I die, I will donate my atoms and molecules to those who come after me; perhaps they will make better use of them than I have been able to do.

Speaking of craziness, I once sat through a lecture feeling uncomfortable the whole time because the speaker looked straight at me and no one else in the audience. Afterwards, I asked her why she had singled me out and she said I looked just liker her son. She was talking to him, not to me; I was just a dummy sitting in a chair. In certain circles, that is called transference, but at root it is miscategorization—treating a spade as if it were an eggplant. One thing leading to another, as it so often does in this life, I later (1970s) found myself in a graduate student professional development program studying how to use such projections or transferences to raise self-awareness. That led me to a brief acquaintance with the percept language developed by John Weir. I realize now the broader implication of percept language as a tool for mastering categorization by helping us see how we do violence to the world by shaping our worlds to conform to our personal experiences, as that speaker so long ago did—as I sat quietly in my chair—violence to me. It felt like rape at a distance, she using me for her own purposes while I was defenseless to do anything about it.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in revenge for the leveling of the Twin Towers fits the same pattern, transferring our hurt and anger to an innocent nation we didn’t particularly like, even though we had used it in the 1980s as a pawn on our side in the Cold War. Just as the nation of Israel now vents its spleen on the current generation of Palestinians whose parents it displaced in invading Palestine in 1948, deflecting its own collective guilt onto innocent parties, blaming the victims, not seeing that its own hostility is a projection, transference, or miscategorization aimed at the wrong target employed precisely to get itself off the hook so it can sleep comfortably in its bed at night.

Such is consciousness, and the life conducted in its name. I call it crazy and shameful, unless we all assume an attitude of curiosity about why we do the things we do, and take personal responsibility for the chaotic scripts we enact in doing the terrible things we inflict on others. Heightened self-awareness is the less-traveled road we could take if such a course fit our itinerary. Instead, we insist on plummeting toward Armageddon as if that were our destined endpoint. Which is where Weir’s percept language comes in, designed for those who catch themselves in the act of using other beings for their purposes. The language is so powerful, it makes you take responsibility for your own actions instead of blaming others, abusing them as if they deserved it through repeated acts of aggressive self-justification. I don’t think John Weir understood the greatness of his contribution. Since the early 1980s, I have never met anyone who has even heard of him.

To set the record straight, I will end this post with two paragraphs from his chapter on “The Personal Growth Laboratory” in Benne, K., et al., The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application (Science and Behavior Books, 1975; available at GreenPsychology.net on January 25, 2010, when I downloaded it):

The first morning session is devoted to reporting the previous night’s dreams. At this time, we introduce a special point of view which we will emphasize throughout the lab. We start with the centuries-old philosophical theory of solipsism which states that only the self exists, or can be proven to exist. In our application, we take the position that, as far as I, the perceiver, am concerned, the external world “exists” only inside me as sensations and images. Objects as experienced are solely the consequence of my perceptual processes. . . . All my experience takes place solely within me, within the confines of my body. It occurs continuously, from moment to moment. I live only in the here and now. . . .

Our frame of reference for the lab, then, is that each of us is continually perceiving and organizing his world in his unique way, never precisely the same as anyone else. I am “doing” myself and you are “doing” yourself. Your “existence” is for me always my perception of you, the “you-in-me,” and I “exist” for you only as the “me-in-you.” You are there, you act, you may even physically influence me. This has the consequence of changing the “you-in-me” and the “me-in-you.” How I “do” the “you-in-me” is determined by my deeds, my perceptions, and my past experiences. It is, I am, always my own responsibility. This is true both for how I do myself and how you do yourself. We conclude that the perceptual elements of our interpersonal interactions consist of a “you,” a “me,” a “you-in-me,” and a “me-in-you.”

Like the umpire or referee, our behavior is invariably a matter of judgment calls. To make this line of thinking more accessible to ourselves, we can think of all behavior as being, at base, metaphorical in nature. Metaphors are miscategorizations to a purpose, which is to emphasize a particular aspect of an event, thing, situation, or phenomenon in awareness. They are deliberate cartoons, distortions, exaggerations, or misrepresentations drawing attention to something as seen from one point of view or another. We take responsibility for the metaphors we cast on the world. When we take them at face value and don’t see them as intentional distortions, is when we get into (and cause) so much trouble. Then we label our intent as God’s truth, which others may experience as Satan’s outright lies. Thus our respective worlds turn about an axis provided by the unique set of our own minds.

As we look, so do we see.

(Copyright © 2010)

When I made a cribbage board as a present for my partner some years ago, I used the hand drill I bought at The Tool Barn in Hulls Cove, a place that sells recycled tools. I know the feel of that drill, its weight in my hand, its balance, the snug mesh of the gears. I’ve made it my drill now, an extension of my hands when I use it to engage the world by drilling a hole in a piece of driftwood (such as I used for the cribbage board). Tools are specific, precise, useful—in several senses, handy. As a kid I liked tools a lot. I still do. I remember my grandfather teaching me tools are not toys. I even sensed some of the difference before he firmly taught me that lesson when he caught me at his workbench in his shop in the barn.

I also have a hammer from The Tool Barn, hand brace, two sorts of pliers, and different sized clamps. I get a kick out of just citing those names as I did in that sentence. Familiar tools are parts of my body I keep ready for special projects. It is their feel and their use that makes them distinctive. Tools are sensory objects with, beyond heft, size, and utility, a certain intimate acquaintance. I know their curves and angles, the sounds they make, the smells they give off, the materials they are made of—and what they will do for me when I need them. Tools extend my consciousness beyond what I can do on my own. They solve problems, each in its particular way. They have character and temperaments, like some people I know.

The mailbox I wrote about in Reflection 174 is just a place where a very limited range of things can occur. I don’t much care about my mailbox, it’s more the contents that interest me. Hand tools affect me more strongly. When I grasp them, for instance, they grasp me right back. Working together, we make a good team. I’m talking hand tools, not power tools. Physical, personal engagement, not a bunch of hired electrons doing my work for me. My tools are friends and companions, colleagues and helpmeets, not robots.

As I’ve said, the point of consciousness is effective action in the world. That’s what evolution has tailored our Paleolithic minds and bodies to accomplish in the cause of survival. Artificial intelligence can’t do that job in our stead; it is still up to us. And hand tools can help. Spears, boomerangs, axes, pencils, chopsticks, even paperclips. They help shape us to a world that was built without people, primates, or even tree shrews in mind. The energy behind them has to come from us—from our physical bodies—as directed by consciousness with aid from careful attention and skilled physical effort. Nothing is more satisfying than doing the job right. It involves every part of our bodies and minds, our hearts and our souls. Because in making things, what we do matters in relation to our biological values. Old men sitting around whittling totems—deer, ducks, and chickadees—are doing what matters to them, as making hamburgers and cookies matters to boys and girls learning to feed themselves. Oh, I forget, these are things of the past. You can always eat out. And buy plastic toys made in China.

As tools, computers and cell phones are a different story in that we haven’t a clue how they work; just click or push a button and they do their thing, not ours. The same for computer games, CDs, and videos. Slight skill is involved, which meets no innate survival need. Everything now is cut and paste, which any preschooler can do. You can learn to use electronic gadgets in a few minutes, not months of patient practice spent schooling your body to work with and across the grain. And if these electronic wonders break, you can’t fix them. When the last battery runs down, or the power goes out, you are sunk.

Everything now is pre-packaged, even gift platters and salads at the supermarket. No preparation required, all you have to do is rip open the package and eat. No wonder we’re restless; we don’t know how to do anything with our hands guided by consciousness anymore. That is, our consciousness is on cruise-control pretty much all the time. We just keep whizzing ahead with no need to pay attention to how we whiz. With the result Google does it all for us—flicking insistent ads in front of our eyes so we’ll know what to buy. I went through that bit in my last post (Reflection 176: Heart Rot). We used to know how to make model airplanes out of tissue and balsawood, and build ships in bottles. Those days are gone. But they’ll be back; wait till the grid fails and the power goes out.

In the mailbox story, I started from the abstract end and worked toward the concrete, like boring a tunnel from one side of a mountain. Now I’m working my way around to the concrete, sensory side, boring in the other direction, hoping both tunnels will connect in the middle. Today it’s tools as hands-on aids to existential, sensory experience, not mailboxes as empty placeholders or containers. OK, I’m mixing my metaphors. Never the twain shall meet in the middle. But say I ordered a wood plane or set of carving chisels from The Tool Barn and they sent them by mail. Now my expectancy can picture both mailbox and tools in the same image, mailbox as placeholder being fulfilled in this instance by a box containing tools so sharp you can cut your finger and draw blood if not careful. I intend that sort of image to illustrate what happens when concepts and percepts come together in mutual fulfillment, memory reaching from one side of the mountain, perception from the other, the two coming together in the middle of the mountain, uniting, forming a single item in consciousness—a coupling of both sensory and conceptual aspects of meaning. Ta-da, lived experience as we know and love it every day of our lives!

I know what I mean, even though I can’t say it without resorting to imagery and metaphor. You know what I mean, too, because the two aspects of consciousness come together in mutual fulfillment in your mind as surely as mine. I didn’t make this up, I merely take pains to keep track of the workings of my own mind. Here is categorization in action, recognizing things as what we know them to be, even though they are no such thing in and of themselves—it’s just that for us they go together so naturally we think of them as one. Think of an animal—say, sheep. A sheep is an animal; an animal can be a sheep, an ostrich, or a kangaroo. We know which one when we see it, even though it doesn’t bear a label. The label is in our conceptual memory, tied to an empty (uninstantiated) placeholder, both ready to leap out when perception presents us with a suitable pattern. We put the two together so naturally, we don’t even appreciate the wonder of it all. Or that we are responsible for making it happen. Where we see a flock of sheep, others might recognize die Schafen (Germany), les moutons (France), le pecore (Italy), or las ovejas (Spain). Different category labels, same animals. In childhood, we learn to put them together by imitating what others in our language group do.

So are sheep the same as die Schafen and les moutons? Yes, and no. The same, but different. It all depends on who is putting percept and concept together in a particular instance of categorization. In each case, the concept with the best fit might differ a little, or a lot. Even if we use the same term, that does not necessarily mean our concepts are identical. That depends on our cumulative life experience with sheep, whether we know them only from books, saw a movie about them once, or perhaps grew up on a sheep ranch and herded them with our father in the mountains. But I stray from the tools I began with. That’s easy to do with concepts, one keeps leading on to others. I don’t know how sheep got into the picture, but there they are—purebred conceptual sheep out of nowhere. That is, out of my conceptual memory. No, not nowhere. In North Blue Hill, Maine. The last animals I took pictures of were sheep on a farm that had a lot of farm tools and machinery lying around. Which reminded me of my grandfather’s farm in Vermont. Not farm, really, but house in farm country where he had an old barn. That, I believe, is the connecting link between tools and sheep in my mind. You had to have been there, to have lived my little life.

Tricky, this mind of ours. Hard to keep up with. But easy, once you put in your ten-thousand hours of self-study. If, every time we put a sentence together, we are balancing concepts with percepts, percepts with concepts, you’d think after a time we’d get a sense of what we were doing and develop a sense of responsibility so we could do the job better, that is, more truthfully. Not so with the mind. It likes to keep us dumb and happy. Or, more accurately, we like to keep ourselves dumb and happy precisely so we can avoid being responsible for what we say and do. With results such as that politicians, say, along with economists, lawyers, and priests are all irrepressible liars. To be a pro is to lie the party line. That is, to commit category errors as a matter of principle. Because talking nonsense is safe: you can say anything to anybody at all, and they will hear your words and almost believe you if you keep a straight face. Words, too, are tools, mouth tools if not hand tools.

I will end this post by quoting the letter I wrote today to the editor of Newsweek in response to the January 25 issue on the earthquake in Haiti. I never saw so much categorical gibberish as is packed between the covers of that issue. Here Haiti lies in ruins after a devastating earthquake, and the media—together with the president himself—fumble for a conceptual or rhetorical framework within which to make it all seem fitting that so many people lie concretely and demonstrably dead or dying in the streets. This underscores the importance of categorization—giving character to a given situation—in deciding how to make an appropriate response:

Is it me, or these times? Newsweek, your cloying smugness astounds me. First I read Jon Meacham cynically reducing Haiti to a character in a historical novel. Then Lisa Miller resorts to the will of a stock God in attempting to explain a natural disaster. And Obama himself gets up on his high horse to proclaim the greatness of a country that for years supported a series of dictators in Haiti, as if we were caring beyond any other nation. “Life can be unimaginably cruel,” he intones, as if life, like Miller’s God, were a bad actor. When I got to David Rothkopf’s “I told you this was going to happen” piece, I wanted to throw my shoe at you. As Gertrude said to Polonius, “More matter, less art.” And if it isn’t matter but personal opinion, then chuck it, get the facts, and start over.

 Sheep, pecora, mouton?