(Copyright © 2010)

I’ve been posting this blog since early October 2008. My original plan was to update my thinking about consciousness, which I’d first explored when writing my dissertation in 1980-1982 at Boston University’s School of Education. In the interim, I had moved to Maine from the Boston area, and revitalized my relationship with the natural world. In the process, I learned a great deal about my natural self, and about natural consciousness as opposed to the more scholarly, culturally-approved variety taught in schools. It has taken me over twenty-five years to strip academic mannerisms and bad habits from my thinking. That done, feeling human again, I took up blogging to gain a fresh perspective on consciousness, not as it is supposed to be, but as it actually reveals itself in my mind.

When I began blogging, I knew very little about how to go about it. I haven’t learned much about blogging along the way because I haven’t really been blogging. I consider myself a terrible blogger because I’m long-winded and far from topical. I don’t pick up on events in Washington so much as in my head—whatever occurs to me. Which is the point of my blog—to serve as a kind of diary for my life reflections. One post leading to another (or not leading anywhere), I follow what comes to my mind—which reveals the irrational connections and associations my mind actually makes when I sit down to write. I blog about things few others see because that is the nature of my mind in particular, and the human mind in general. Each of us abides on her own private planet.

My initial aim in blogging was to update thoughts I’d had in writing my dissertation twenty-eight years ago, but I quickly found I wasn’t in that place any more. I was more interested in discovering what I didn’t know than rehashing what I already did. Nothing is more tiresome than going over the same old ground again and again, trying to find new ways to say the same old thing. Speaking of death watches, that’s a sure sign you’re watching over your own demise. If I’m not making new discoveries every day, what’s the point of my using up Earth’s precious resources just to stay alive so I can play solitaire?

I converted this blog into a voyage of discovery, and posted whatever I found exciting and challenging at the time I sat down to write. I didn’t resort to an outline because that would imply I knew where I was going. Instead, I wanted to get wherever my series of reflections would take me, then look around to find out where I was.

That’s an apt description of how I lead my life. I’ve just finished a 70-slide PowerPoint on the 90% eelgrass dieback in Taunton Bay in 2001. It took me eight years to put it together because I used it as a vehicle of discovery—my personal spaceship headed into the future toward planet Wherever. Well, that’s just where I found myself when I opened the hatch. After reflecting on the various aspects of the dieback, and the details fit a coherent pattern, I knew I was there. Here’s what I wrote about my methodology in the abstract of my presentation at the New England Estuarine Research Society’s upcoming meeting in St. Andrews, New Brunswick:

This is not a scientific study in the traditional sense so much as an experiential exploration relying heavily on human consciousness to match its characterizations and understanding to patterns it perceives in sensory phenomena. When the balance in awareness is judged to be appropriate to the problematic situation, the resulting conclusion about the cause of the dieback is more a product of aesthetic approval of cohesiveness than rigorous statistical analysis.

Some people might say I am talking nonsense, but that’s a good example of my private planet sending signals into space to see if there’s anybody out there. Which is a pretty fair description of how we go about trying to reach people who might understand us so we feel we’re not just talking to ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point of having tongues, teeth, and lips, and making all this noise?

Or of typing away at computers and posting blogs? What is it, exactly, the Internet allows us to do that we couldn’t do in the old days B.C.—before computers? These days we certainly do more of it faster—whatever it is. It’s whatever all those folks walking and driving along are doing with their whole minds devoted to not being where their bodies are because they’re so busy twittering or gabbing on cell phones. They’re doing what I’m doing writing this blog—living in their heads where the action is. We can’t tell the difference between physical and mental reality, so come to think that whatever crosses our minds is as real as it gets. It’s not that we’re crazy, it’s that everybody’s crazy and always has been since the first ape walked upright. We think of our personal planet as terra firma, and all those extraterrestrials from other planets are misguided pretenders, wild beasts, or infidels.

Which is pretty much the message my life has impressed upon me, and I’m trying to deal with in this blog that I’ve made the central focus of my life. I’ve got to have a little talk with myself, just between me and me. Here I am in my 193rd post trying to pull it all together as a coherent project to see what I’ve learned. That’s what life is, an opportunity to learn what’s going on, and the role I play in the process. I am none other than Peter Mark Roget determined to get his thesaurus in order as his contribution to posterity before he dies.

I just now came across a sentence I wrote at the head of a yellow pad while working on Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness: “We characterize situations in such a way that we relate to them by preserving our sense of self.” That way, we stay who we are, no matter what. Consciousness is all about self-preservation, about inventing a future to ensure we stay the same no matter how much our surroundings may change. A Post-it note stuck on the pad says “family, preschool, early childhood education.” That’s where we start. Exploring who I am, I keep coming across who I was as the leading character of my early life. My belly button hints at an even earlier life in the womb. Those formative months in my original matrix was the slow-motion big bang that led not only to my own conscious sense of self, but to the imaginary planet I wrap myself in as the so-called real world.

At the end of last night’s meeting, a frustrated fisherman looked like she was going to cry, then said through taut lips something to the effect, ‘I just realized that I’m the only one here trying to make a living and every one in this room is trying to keep me from doing that.’ Looking into her face, I saw her child self (in me) accusing her elder brothers (in me) of picking on the essential her (in me).

She was sending signals from her planet, which I interpreted in such a way to preserve my self-identity on my own planet. So do we relate one to another.

That’s what this blog is about, interplanetary communication. There’s no escaping it. To be heard, we all must address it—me on my planet, you on yours, Peter Mark Roget on his, Emily Dickinson on hers. The notion of “free speech” makes it sound easy—all we have to do is open our mouths and say whatever comes to mind. But if we want to count ourselves in the same solar system, there’s way more to it than that. I now see that “way more” as the point of our respectively being here with, and reaching out to, one another. Making that extra effort is the topic of this blog.

So that’s why I’m looking for a vocabulary that will allow my consciousness to speak with your consciousness. The words we inherit from our respective cultures are based on the assumption that we live in—and have equal access to—the same physical world. Which I don’t think accurately describes our true situation. If, from the outset, we don’t account for our unique personal identities and outlooks on what is real, then we will never be able to account for or address the true source of the general discord and unhappiness so rampant in what we experience of today’s world. Which makes it far easier to blame everyone other than ourselves for contributing to the problem.

We need new ways of looking at and talking about world situations from inside personal consciousness itself, not as we do now as if they were somehow external to ourselves. John Weir gave us percept language—the “you in me” and the “me in you”—to help us deal with personal relationships. That is, to create a framework for reporting on situations from our disparate perspectives. But we need a complete overhaul of the language we learned at our mother’s breast if we are to deal with people who learned other languages at other breasts. Is such a universal language of consciousness possible? Having come this far in 193 posts, I believe it is. For starters, here are thirty-seven words I have tried (or intended) to use meaningfully in this blog:

  1. Attention—the act of reaching out with full awareness
  2. Arousal—one’s level of biological excitation
  3. Expectancy—the view ahead of what might happen
  4. Action—engaging the world, the upshot of consciousness
  5. Acting in the world—an ongoing sequence of action
  6. Making ourselves happen—inventing the future
  7. Engagement—a flow of behavioral give and sensory take
  8. Loop of Engagement—acting and perceiving in the now
  9. Planning—figuring how to reach a desired goal
  10. Perception—the parade of patterns in sensory awareness
  11. Salience—the quality of being noticeable
  12. Perspective—one’s outlook within a particular situation
  13. Memory—residue of living a life
  14. Conceptual memory—ideas useful in many situations
  15. Episodic memory—mental replay of life-changing events
  16. Categorization—fitting concepts to percepts, & vice versa
  17. Integrity—Consciousness as a functional system
  18. Coherence—All of consciousness working together
  19. Judgment—what seems appropriate in a given situation
  20. Intentionality—habitual categorizations
  21. Meaning—achieving parity of percept with concept
  22. Idiom of being in the world—system of cultural belief
  23. Self—seat of biological values; the basic unit of survival
  24. Values—sex, food, sleep, health, shelter, safety, etc.
  25. Valence—positive, negative, or neutral regard
  26. Reflexive consciousness—introspection
  27. Assumption—unexamined belief
  28. Attitude—bias or emotional coloring of behavior
  29. Dream—consciousness without action or perception
  30. Aesthetic—whole consciousness in all its parts
  31. Emotion—hormonal coloring of awareness
  32. Feeling—self-awareness of attitude
  33. Motivation—driving urge to deliberate action
  34. Project—consciousness dedicated to achieving a goal
  35. Situation—an occasion for active consciousness
  36. Culture—the fitting of individuals to their surroundings
  37. Future-building—the point of consciousness

If there were to be a final exam for this blog, it might consist of identifying instances in which a few such terms are found to be meaningful to or relevant in your own inner life. That would be a test of the usefulness of what I have been blogging about. If they—such terms—are not applicable to your case, then I have been writing more for myself than for you. Leaving you free, as always, to create your own blog and live your own life.

I have had enough of living in a world where Israelis and Palestinians, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor make a display of not being able to talk, work, or live with one another. Which requires me to critique the way we do business as usual in today’s world. I sincerely believe that throwing grenades, stones, or epithets at each other is a sure sign we are not taking responsibility for our own ignorance of how the world really works. My conceit is that I am onto something in writing about consciousness inside-out. Something profoundly important in providing a new perspective for viewing our relationship with a world that is unknowable in and of itself apart from our personal outlook upon it. I want fishermen and eaters of fish to be able to carry on a sensible discussion that is meaningful to both sides in more-or-less the same way. That’s why I am working on this project week by week, post after post. I thought you ought to know. Particularly if you live in somewhat the same world on a planet similar to mine.

We might as well fly as high as we can

 

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Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Projects are ways to wrap a future around ourselves. I put it that way because the future isn’t a world we are moving toward or into, but a world we make happen for ourselves. It isn’t already prefigured, just waiting for us to come along. It’s something we all have to create for ourselves on foundations we’ve already laid. The craft of consciousness is building a future, of extending a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be. Building a future is a lot like riding a bucking bronco—you’re not sure who’s in charge, but you’re having the ride of a lifetime.

Future-building is often discussed in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, personnel, training, supplies, and equipment, making it sound like war games at West Point. Actually, it’s messier than that because your plans have to fit with those around you, and with events no one can anticipate (such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, droughts). As a result, we tend to work on our futures one small project at a time, thinking more on the scale of cooking dinner or making the bed than winning major battles. Most of us, like alcoholics, are concerned with just getting through the day. We’ll deal with tomorrow when we get to it.

Building a future one small project at a time makes sense because that’s the scale consciousness is best suited for. If the goal is too fuzzy or abstract, it’s more like a dream than anything we can attain by taking a sequence of actual steps. If we can’t visualize it in concrete terms, we probably won’t live long enough to realize our plan. Small is beautiful because it’s attainable. Start by preparing the ground for the first seed. If we can’t plan our garden while walking the dog, it might prove a bigger project than we can handle.

Putting a picture puzzle together is a good example of a doable project. We select which puzzle we want to work on—it has to be an image that appeals to us, with the right number of pieces, or we’ll lose interest. We start by spreading the pieces on a flat surface we can spare for the duration, then turn them face up where we can get at them. We sort them by color, texture, or flat edges; then, beginning with the obvious groupings (such as connecting edge pieces to form a frame), work on fitting them together. As we get into it, we start looking for pieces with individual characteristics—with personalities to match their surroundings. We concentrate on one area at a time, then try linking different areas by building bridges between them. There are always a few notorious pieces we can’t find, but eventually we combine subtle clues of shape, color, texture, size—and everything fits. Mission accomplished.

Except it isn’t that much of a mission because the secret of picture puzzles is that they come with everything we need to do the job—including a picture on the box to show what we’re working toward. Some projects come in kit form like picture puzzles, but the ones we are likely to take on in building a future for ourselves don’t come prepackaged, so are more of a challenge to consciousness. It’s up to us to decide what tools and materials we’ll need, how to gather them, how to use them, in what order, and how to get help when we need it because we’re in over our head. There are a lot of adult education courses that will help us develop the skills we’ll need, and self-help books on just about every kind of project we’ll want to try our hand at.

For me, the interesting side of projects is the mental skills we’ve already acquired in the process of living our particular lives. These provide the underlayment of every job we’re likely to undertake. That is, the projects that make sense to us are apt to be extensions of ones we’ve worked on before. Our trajectories through the universe start in earliest childhood, and by the time we’re in high school their general direction is pretty much set. After that, we may refine our course settings by a few degrees, but largely keep on by exploring territories that feel familiar to us, and offer challenges and opportunities that have meaning because they extend sensitivities and abilities we already possess in latent or rudimentary form.

Projects make sense to us if they arise from life situations we’ve already experienced or are currently engaged in. They don’t gel as projects just out of the blue; our whole life points to them as sensible next steps. Our job is to recognize them as further opportunities for refining or expanding who we are. Single mothers with young children still want to get ahead in life, so they can either seek Mr. Right, or set off to develop their personal skills and earning power because they are not likely to trust another man to shelter them from having to care for themselves and their children. Working, developing job skills, having a social life, and childcare become aspects of whatever projects suggest themselves from their earlier experiences. Perhaps further schooling is a possibility if grandparents, social services, friends, a part-time job, and personal determination combine to create a situation where that makes practical sense.

The chief benefit of life situations is how wonderfully they focus attention on practical details in the here and now. Projects are built from just such details because that is the reality they are meant to address. Projects by nature are more concrete than abstract. They may start as conceptual solutions to one of life’s challenges, but they very quickly get down to the nitty-gritty of how they are to be implemented in the real world. That is, personal motivation is essential to the success of any project we are likely to stick with to the end.

The heart of any project is the loop of engagement by which we act in the world to make ourselves happen in a particular way, then learn from the results how we must refine our skills to act more effectively the next time. That ongoing loop is what we need to attend to in both its active and receptive aspects as the project develops in order to assure personal advancement toward the goal we are bent on achieving in the future we are crafting for ourselves. This is where our fingers meet the rawhide in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is doable precisely because it is what consciousness is given each of us to exercise in meeting the unpredictable challenges life can throw at us. Insects are preprogrammed to survive a limited range of life situations; primates are less set in their ways in order to adapt to the variety of situations they are apt to encounter. Humans are the most adaptable of all species because they can take on special projects in meeting challenges unprecedented throughout their evolution.

The essence of any project is its categorization of the situation from which it emerges, its categorization of the goal to be reached, and its categorization of the means for bridging from the situation to that particular goal. Everything depends on how we see the problem, the solution, and the means linking the two. This is where judgment enters the picture to scan both episodic and conceptual memories in relation to sensory patterns defining the situation in an attempt to map an appropriate understanding onto the situation so that a specific project is suggested as a personal way to meet the demands imposed by the situation. In other words, human judgment interprets the current situation as guided by prior experience, which leads to how the project is structured as an answer to the question raised by the nature of the situation itself. This is the true miracle of the human mind—that it can do this through a series of successively approximate matches between memories and existential situations so that a sensible course of action emerges from the life history of the individuals involved.

If no such course of action readily suggests itself to judgment, cultural input can be sought to see what others would do under like circumstances, what conventional wisdom would recommend, how various experts would proceed. This is where education enters into a project to meet a need an individual can’t meet on his own. Perhaps further training is indicated—formal, informal, or on-the-job. Perhaps, in hopes the situation will go away, a course of therapy might be pursued as an alternative, particularly if the seeker places trust in figures of reputed authority.

Too, a change in perspective might be in order if the seeker feels she may have mischaracterized the situation, or is not looking at it on an appropriate level of discernment. “What would you do in my situation?” she might ask; “Am I overlooking something, or making a mountain of a molehill?”

And, to wrap this up, projects require a certain amount of arousal and personal investment to get and stay underway. Think of the arousal of spectators at football, basketball, or hockey games where the situation changes in the moment: the call is three balls and two strikes with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or the score is tied with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Fans hoot and howl, wave their arms, jump up and down because they see so much riding on the play: they are fully aroused, vigilant, and invested, as if life itself hung in the balance. If the seeker feels not a stab of excitement, fright, or anxiety, then perhaps the project doesn’t really answer her professed need to right the situation at issue. Without passion and arousal, nothing in the world would ever get done because nothing, apparently, needs fixing.

I haven’t mentioned personal, biological values (such as sex, food, drink, shelter, rest, health, strength, knowhow, worthy challenge, order, safety, community, etc.) as essential to projects, but of course they are. Everything we do expresses a variety of biological needs. Even collecting stamps or building ships in bottles provide physical and mental challenges based on detailed engagement with the sensory world, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom in an underutilized mind.

As it is, dinners get cooked and put on the table, term papers get written, gardens planted, vacations taken, degrees granted, cars repaired, babies born, cavities filled, candidates elected (or not), and the future arrives as a new beginning for the world. Opening up opportunities for another round of situations going wrong, wheels requiring reinvention, and new projects getting started because no matter what the future brings, no one will be entirely satisfied with how things have developed, and consciousness can always be counted on to suggest new ways personal situations can be improved.

Things can always be improved.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

If the future is all in our minds, that is equally true of distractions which keep us from looking ahead. To write a post I have to clear the decks of litter that will distract me from the topic I want to reflect on. Sounds from a radio or TV coming through the walls of my apartment, for instance, drive me nuts because my mind tries to make sense of what it’s hearing. The same for voices coming from the hallway, or shouts in the street. But most of all the enemy lies within the conflicting thoughts that flit like static electricity through my brain. With so many internal goings-on, I don’t know which channel to turn to, so end up letting them have their way with me, focusing on none, getting nothing done.

The art of countering distractions is to listen to them all, prioritize their urgency, then concentrate on each one in turn. That takes willpower, but somehow it works. The main thing is to acknowledge each item so it doesn’t keep nagging. If I give it a place in the queue, then it waits quietly until its turn comes and I can give it my full attention.

Easy to say, hard to do. For the past month I’ve been working on two PowerPoint presentations, one on what I’ve learned about eelgrass in the past twenty years, the other on granite quarries and quarrying around Taunton Bay. My goal is to have two shows ready for the summer series of talks I’m putting together for Taunton Bay Education Center. I’ve already got four speakers signed up, have yet to hear back from a fifth, and am working on the two talks I plan to give. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep up with my blog. That is, stay ahead of the Monday and Thursday schedule I’ve set for myself in order to get anything done at all. If I don’t plan ahead and work ahead, I find I am always off-balance playing catch-up, doing a poor job of everything because I can’t focus my mind on any one thing.

I’m also involved with the issue of rockweed harvesting in Maine, which I’ve handled by making it the topic of three or four posts to my blog. In a crunch, that strategy sometimes works—putting two things together so I can deal with them as one item. That helps me organize my thoughts so I can actually get something done. But if there isn’t a true connection between disparate items, then it becomes an exercise in frustration trying to force them together.

I have other things on my mind from the senior housing unit where I live, from Quaker Meeting, from the state of the world such as it is, from family, friends, and random acquaintances. All of which leave traces in my mind, requiring me to sort and prioritize them if I am to get anything done at all. They all have the same common denominator in taking up space in my conscious mind. The buck for organizing my concerns stops with me, Organizer-in-Chief of my own thoughts, Head Payer of Attention, Chair of my own Planning Committee, and Works Committee to boot.

I think I blog to stay sane. That is, blogging for me is largely a process for sorting my concerns so I can work on them one at a time. Nothing is more important than getting my act together, and blogging is a way for doing just that. Today is the day for taking up distractions. Yesterday it was the tree that fell in the park, before that Peter Roget’s amazing mental Thesaurus, rockweed harvesting, differences between religious and scientific thinking, and so on, back through the recent history of how I’ve been steering my consciousness and my life through the maze of things as they present themselves (actually, it’s my consciousness steering me). No one can do that job for me, or if they try, then I no longer feel like myself. I’m their employee, their servant, their pawn. Which I have come to see is the normal state for a great many people. Signing a job contract is truly selling a big part of your soul because you pledge to deal with your employer’s concerns, not your own. Or as I’ve mentioned, trying to fit the two concerns together so you can act on them both—getting paid for doing the work your supervisor assigns you. Leaving you hollow in one sense, but well-fed in another.

This post rises out of a list I made of things I’ve been putting off in order to concentrate on blogging on various themes as they occur to me in order to be my own man:

Call Emery about access to Franklin Historical Soc.

Call Debbie about granite used in BH PO

Get back to eelgrass PowerPoint

Plot eelgrass, wasting disease, and salinity on one chart

Read Fred’s two papers on wasting disease

Look up tidal dam story in 1965 Ellsworth American

Find source of 100 hanging name tags

Call Mark about granite sculpting talk

Settle on title for Robin’s talk

Meet with Andy and Jonathan about CSF

Write up summer talks for newsletter

It’s these kinds of things that natter at me from inside my head. Once lodged there, they keep making sure I’m paying attention. But not so much attention that I actually do them and check them off. Just enough to unsettle me as if there’s something I ought to be doing. A whole lot of things. By force of will, I suppress them—most of them—most of the time. But they keep coming back, tugging at my pants leg, reminding me they’re still here, still waiting.

The art of cutting granite is to follow the natural stress lines so it breaks neatly into two pieces. If you go against the grain of the rock, it will shatter. So that’s how I work on my to-do list, by paying attention to the tensions between items, figuring where to make the first cut, second, third. Or as today, to write this post first of all and disregard the entire list. So far, so good. But just thinking about the list gives it a toehold, and I can feel my attention draining away, leaving the distractions high and dry in full sunlight. Am I keeping my metaphors straight? See, I’m losing it; I can’t even tell.

Time to take a break.

This is where projects come up as a means of aligning multiple tasks toward a common end. Which is really what I need to be doing—group related tasks together, figure the sequence, and work on one at a time till it all falls in place. Eight items on the above list are related to the summer talk series, so I’ll make a project of that. Which leaves tidal dam story, name tags, and CSF (community supported fisheries). OK, that simplifies things. Thank you, consciousness, for being there when I need you. I think I’ll try a post on projects next, to see if that leads somewhere interesting.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the mega-distractions I think of as big-ticket items because we all pay for them every day of our lives. I’ll leave such issues as overconsumption; poverty; corporate personhood, free speech, and spending; campaign finance reform; gridlock in Washington and greedlock on Wall Street; global warming and the need for clean energy; the flaws inherent in capitalism; U.S. militarism; and bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan—all on my list of things to attend to—but such distractions will have to wait until I can make a project of them on another day.

Granite pavings cut one at a time.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Memory dwells in the past; perception dotes on the here and now; what do we call that portion of consciousness devoted to the future? Expectancy? Anticipation? Planning? Hope? Dread? Worry? Anxiety? Fear? Confidence? Waiting? Probability? Prediction? Prophecy? Fate? Whatever we call it, this cursory list suggests the human mind’s preoccupation with unknowable yet inevitable times ahead.

When you play a video on YouTube, a little slider on the bottom shows where you are on the timescale of that particular microworld. Think what it would be like to have a similar slider showing your position relative to your lifespan. Birth is well behind you; death is approaching. Whoee! Now’s the time to get moving—or drunk.

Fortunately, with life expectancies now seen as a matter of statistical probability, no such little slider exists for any one individual. Which doesn’t get us off the hook. Rather, it puts us in the murky realm of probabilities, where we could be here today, gone tomorrow—or the day after, or ten years from now. The uncertainty of it all is why consciousness spends so much of the brain’s resources trying to get a grasp on the future in so many different ways.

Matthew Arnold paints life as one’s journey on the river of Time, which rises in a snowy mountainous pass as a clear-flowing stream, and draws to the Ocean, ending with:

As the pale waste widens around him,

As the banks fade dimmer away,

As the stars come out, and the night-wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

Here’s how Emily Dickinson puts it in less flowing, more telegraphic terms:

The Future – never spoke –

Nor will He – like the Dumb –

Reveal by sign – a syllable –

Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe –

Presents it – in the Act –

Forestalling Preparation –

Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to Him –

The Dower – as the Doom –

His Office – but to execute

Fate’s – Telegram – to Him –

Peter Mark Roget was no poet. He remained stodgily prosaic to the end. His goal was reasoned and literal clarity, not some ineffable tone or mood. Under heading 124 Futurity: prospective time, he included these adjectives and adjectival phrases:

Adj. future, not in the present, to be, to come; about to be, coming, nearing  289n. approaching; nigh, near in time, close at hand  200adj. near; due, destined, fated, threatening, imminent, overhanging 155adj. impending; in the future, ahead, yet to come, waiting, millennial  154adj. eventual; prospective, designate, earmarked  605adj. chosen; promised, looked for  507adj. expected,  471adj. probable; predicted, predictable, foreseeable, sure  473adj. certain; ready to, rising, getting on for; potential, on, maturing, ripening  469adj. possible; later, ulterior, posterior  120adj. subsequent.

My point being that conscious largely looks ahead to how the current situation might develop in order to figure out what to do next, and then next after that—that is, how to make the self happen in the world in a manner appropriate to the situation as it might evolve or lead to a different situation altogether. All informed by what we’ve done in the past, our current state of being, and the goals we’ve set for the future. Think of the long-term projects we commit ourselves to. Going to school. Getting a job. Getting married. Having a baby. Developing a career. Building a house. Taking a trip or vacation. Writing a book. Going on a diet. Giving up smoking, drugs, or alcohol. Going to prison. Cutting credit-card debt. Learning tai chi, Spanish, to play tennis or the guitar. The mission of consciousness is to enable us to do these things—to learn to be ourselves as we imagine ourselves being in the future on the basis of what we know now. And then to revise the plan as we move through uncharted regions ahead.

What part of consciousness is devoted to the future? I’d say the whole thing, including memory, including perception. As everyone knows, the future is in our heads, always has been, always will be. Right up there with gods, demons, fears, desires, Mr. Right, Dream Girl, the Na’vi, and Jaba the Hutt.

I write this post to my blog because for three years now I’ve been waiting for a mature spruce tree on the shore of Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park to blow down and die. That’s where the idea of a death watch comes from. I knew in 2006 it was going to happen; I didn’t know when. So I’ve been watching that tree, looking to see if it’s still standing every time I drive across Thompson Island in leaving Mount Desert Island where I live. I’ve taken pictures of it from time to time to see if I can catch it listing to port more than it did the last time I looked. After every big storm I’d make a point of checking that tree, which I’m using as a crude gauge to sea-level rise in Hancock County, Maine. When that tree falls, it’s another milestone passed as the sea encroaches on my personal turf.

Over the years, I’ve devoted a fair portion of my mental concentration to that particular tree. I’ve made a project of watching it head into its death. We had a strong wind on the night of February 25, the wind gusting from the northeast at 45 or 50 miles an hour. On the morning of February 26, I looked through my usual gap in the trees for that spruce on the shore—and it wasn’t there. The gate to the picnic area was locked, so I pulled over, took my camera, and walked in. I came back in another storm during daylight on March 1 at high tide—which is when I figured the great tree had fallen at either dusk on February 25th or dawn on the 26th. Here are a few of the photos my consciousness directed me to take showing the final days of that spruce.

(Note: The most dramatic way to illustrate sea-level rise is to take photos of crashing waves at high tide during a storm at full or new moon. The rusty metal rings along the shore are fire rings for barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers.)

Death Watch 1-3-2007

Death Watch 5-12-2008

Death Watch 1-12-2009

Death Watch 2-26-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-1-2010_C

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_D

Death Watch 3-1-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_E

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-12-2010

(Copyright © 2010)

The upshot of consciousness is a course of action appropriate to various life situations as characterized by one individual or another. Put more briefly, the point of consciousness is effective interaction with the world. Which makes it possible to track the workings of consciousness by following the trace it leaves in the works we strew across the landscape of our lives. Dante’s Divine Comedy presents one such landscape. The plays of Shakespeare portray another. The consciousness of Pablo Picasso is clearly evident in his collected paintings, drawings, sculptures, and studies. In the musical idioms of their times, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have annotated their respective streams of consciousness in forms we can still respond to today. Frank Lloyd Wright lives on in his buildings: to visit the Guggenheim Museum in New York is to enter his mind.

I am not speaking in fanciful metaphors here. Just as deer can be tracked by following their prints in the snow, the pellets and stains they deposit, the branches they chew off, the hollows they leave when they sleep—so can the structure and workings of the human mind be pursued by paying close attention to the spoor it leaves in interacting with its world. There for all to see are the doings of consciousness. Whatever form they take, here are traces generated by the human brain as both enabler  and substrate of extended, conscious behavior.

Personal libraries speak volumes of the minds that have collected—and actually read—them. My thirteen bookcases hold a record of my engagement with Hancock County, Maine, since 1986. Photographs, maps, notes, books, magazines—collectively, they tell what I have concerned myself with for the past twenty-four years. If they were put in chronological order (rather than the hodgepodge they are now), there would be a diary of my consciousness. Somewhere in my travels I picked up a copy of Thesaurus of Book Digests: Digests of the World’s Permanent Writings from the Ancient Classics to Current Literature, edited by Hiram Haydn & Edmund Fuller (Crown Publishers, 1949). I have dipped into it only once or twice, but this will be the first time I have put it to use by quoting the following paragraph excerpted from the entry under “WALDEN (1854), by Henry David Thoreau”:

This is the spiritual autobiography of a rebel wearied by the machine age, but too much of a practical Yankee to escape into the fog of mysticism. Thoreau gave up his trade of pencil maker and set up house at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. He hoped to prove to the world that the tyranny of many things is necessary, that man can live with very little and find contentment. At Walden the author lived in elegant simplicity. He was wonderfully able with his hands—an excellent carpenter, mason, surveyor and mechanic. For two years he stayed at his hermitage. His book is a record (in the form of eighteen essays) of his life, his painstaking observations of nature, and his reflections about the world’s troubles.

What strikes me about that capsule description is how little it captures the style of Thoreau’s mind as it makes its rounds through the days he actually lived on the shore of Walden Pond. That is, how little it invites me to engage such a mind by reading this particular text. I don’t generally seek out “painstaking observations of nature” and “reflections about the world’s troubles.” I want personal challenge and adventure told in readable English, and I certainly find them in Walden, but not even hinted at in this categorization of the book. The best parts—the meat of Thoreau—are left out. A direct quote of Thoreau’s own words—say, the paragraph depicting his digging his cellar hole—would make a better advertisement.

I have another book, though, that is a perfect digest of a man’s living consciousness in being a nineteenth-century site map of his mind at work on a particular project. Peter Mark Roget could be characterized many ways, such as living in England from 1779 to 1869, being a scholar and perennial student, physician, lecturer, founding member of many institutions, and so on. But the work I call a site map of his mind is his masterwork,

Thesaurus of English Words & Phrases

classified and arranged so as to

facilitate the expression of Ideas and

assist in Literary Composition

issued in 1852 when he was 73 years old, and, updated, is still in print 158 years later in 2010. In his twenties, Roget had worked out a system of verbal classification to aid his own speaking and writing. Well into his retirement, he expanded that system for broader use by the public.

The system is based on the classification of ideas divided into or embedded within four distinct levels of analysis. The broadest level is that of six classes somewhat similar to Aristotle’s categories (in two cases split into divisions):

I—ABSTRACT RELATIONS

II—SPACE

III—MATTER

IV—INTELLECT, including Division (I) Formation of Ideas, and Division (II) Communication of Ideas

V—VOLITION, including Division (I) Individual Volition, and Division (II) Intersocial Volition, and

VI—AFFECTIONS.

Each class is further divided into sections, and each section into headings which include the individual words and phrases Roget intends us to distinguish between and choose among to suit our individual projects.

To take one example, Class III MATTER is broken into three sections: 1) Matter in General, 2) Inorganic Matter, and 3) Organic Matter. Section 3) Organic Matter is further subdivided into 1—Vitality, and 2—Sensation. Subsection 1—Vitality contains 16 headings:

358 Organization

359 Mineral

360 Life

361 Death

362 Killing

363 Corpse

364 Interment

365 Animality

366 Vegetability

367 Zoology

368 Botany

369 Animal Husbandry

370 Agriculture

371 Mankind

372 Male

373 Female

Here we begin to see Roget’s genius in distinguishing polar, intermediate, and related aspects of meaning (life-death-killing-corpse-interment-animality) as reflected in his systematized associations between concepts and words. Heading 371 Mankind includes, among 155 other terms under six other subheadings:

person, individual, human being, everyman, everywoman; creature, fellow creature, mortal, body; a being, soul, living soul; God’s image; one, somebody, someone, so and so, such a one; party, customer, character, type, element; chap, guy, bloke, fellow, cove, johnny 372n. male; personage, figure, person of note, VIP 638n. bigwig; star  890n. favorite; dramatis personae, all those concerned  686n. personnel; unit, head, hand, nose.

And that is only a small part of one heading out of the 990 in my edition. In keeping with the then current rage for reason, Roget’s original scheme contained an even 1000 headings. Clearly, Peter Mark Roget was a systematic thinker, a quality of mind credited to his mother (his father died when he was a child). At over 770 pages, the index of words and phrases in my 1966 Dell edition takes up over half the entire book (I can’t tell the exact length of the index because the back cover came off years ago, and with it an unknown number of pages).

In his introduction to the original 1852 edition, Roget wrote:

The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, . . . a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express. The purpose of an ordinary dictionary is simply to explain the meaning of the words; and the problem of which it professes to furnish the solution may be stated thus:—The word being given, to find its signification, or the idea it is intended to convey. The object aimed at in the present undertaking is exactly the converse of this: namely,—The idea being given, to find the word, or words, by which that idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed. For this purpose, the words and phrases of the language are here classed, not according to their sound or their orthography [spelling], but strictly according to their signification.

Imagine having the mind and discipline to create such a work. Roget’s Thesaurus is aimed at improving expressive language, not language as received by eye or ear. It facilitates converting concepts and feelings into meaningful sounds—one of the basic requirements of speaking or writing in English. When the right word for a particular audience does not spring readily to mind, the word search becomes conscious, and one word or phrase from a number of options must be chosen as the most appropriate. The Thesaurus, then, is a tool for converting conscious intentions into overt speech acts suitable to the writer-speaker’s specific situation at the time.

The challenge of such situations is to achieve order among the many elements that bear on a speaker in a given situation so that her vocabulary, categorizations, meanings, and intended emphases are fulfilled by an utterance whose word choice, syntax, and intonation are all of a piece in keeping with the situation she is engaged with insofar as she can anticipate the role she is about to play in the lives of her audience. Which is a tall order because the only way to learn to do that is through trial and error, alternating with self-correction, study, and further rehearsal.

After taking a writing workshop in 2001, I was consumed by the question, Where do words come from? They seem to be just there on the tip of our tongues when we need them, but how do they get there? It is now clear to me that meanings and categorizations are primary, and the words used to express them arise from a sense of the situation and the urge to make a fitting verbal response. I see that now as being essentially an aesthetic (rather than a strictly rational) problem. In getting our speech acts together, we have to be clear which valence we mean to express—positive, negative, or neutral—and where on the gradients of emphasis, clarity, and detail we wish to position ourselves. Will easy, broad, general terms suffice, or do we have to exert ourselves to become more discriminating than that? How specific must we be? How experientially detailed or conceptually inclusive? These complex decisions are rooted in the sense we have of our own experience in relation to the situation we are engaged with—that is, with what we are asking of ourselves on that occasion under those particular circumstances as we construe them.

This is essentially the problem Peter Roget faced when he compiled his original system for putting meanings into words. And that compels us today to take his Thesaurus off the shelf when we’re not sure what to say because the words aren’t there on our tongues where we need them to be. I would hazard that Roget’s drive to systematic thinking originated from just such uncertainty during his formative years as a speaker of English (his father was born in Geneva and was not a native speaker). Fortunately for us, young Roget faced into the problem and produced a masterly system for turning incipient categorizations into speech acts through word choices appropriate to various situations as he understood them. He was exceptionally well-schooled by his mother and early teachers.

Having a site map of Roget’s mind at our elbows, we are direct beneficiaries of his nineteenth-century consciousness. Bloggers and twitterers probably don’t devote that much time to diagnosing their situations or choices of words—which is why they are bloggers and twitterers. They prefer to speak from the hip, as it were. But spontaneity isn’t everything, particularly in touchy situations or when dealing with complex issues. Which is when having wide ranges of both meanings and terms to select from is a definite advantage in achieving an appropriate subtlety of expression. If the world is seen in black and white, then perhaps bold or brazen speech might be deemed appropriate—as in war or clashes between street gangs. But there’s usually more to a situation than is readily apparent, and a simplistic approach is apt to stir up more trouble than it can deal with. I truly believe that suiting our behavior to the various situations we find or place ourselves in calls for aesthetic judgments unimagined in the OK Corral. Aesthetics is a matter of putting every aspect of consciousness into play, attending to the subtleties as well as the overall landscape, acknowledging the role of every part in creating the whole, the integrity and dignity of the whole in relation to every part—and acting only when the full dynamic richness and complexity of the experience have been savored. Then the appropriate words appear on the tongue as called up by the fullness of the experience, and the speaker effectively matches outward words to the inner occasion.

Roget's Thesaurus

 

(Copyright © 2010)

When I drive my car, I watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians.

When I bike, I fear I am invisible to drivers and walkers alike.

When I walk, both cars and bikes are spawn of the devil.

I am one person with, in these examples, three different outlooks, depending on my mode of travel. I feel like the same person, only different somehow. My perspective changes, my expectancy changes, my sense of danger changes. Who I curse under my breath and yell at out loud changes. It’s as if I had three different personalities that shift in and out according to how I get around. In a very real sense, I seem to sort other travelers into social bins according to which bin I place myself in at the time.

Perspectives govern how we categorize our worlds of experience, depending on how we perceive our current situation in the world. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was a friend of the U.S. When, confident of our friendship, he subsequently invaded and occupied Kuwait, he became our enemy, so in the 1991 Gulf War we drove him back into his cage. Then in 2003, bent on regime change, we invaded Iraq, captured Saddam, tried him, and put him to death. All according to how we saw and categorized him at the time. He was still the same man; we kept revising how we looked at and categorized him.

Closer to home, at the recent Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium (see Reflection 184: Consciousness Speaks), I handed around a table outlining nine different perspectives on the harvesting of rockweed. Here is a list of assumptions and goals I associated with the several perspectives:

Perspective

Assumptions

Goals

Economic Everyone has a right to make a living. Sustainable harvests, income, and sales are a must.
Managerial

Regulation and enforcement are necessary to main-tain the resource.

The aim is sustainable productivity, habitats, and harvests over the long term.
Political Strike a balance between jobs & the environment. My vote is for equal opportunity, fairness, sustainability.
Historical Today is rooted in yesterday; tomorrow will be rooted in today. We know more than we did, but not enough to guarantee we do no harm.
Legal Harvesting in the intertidal zone is based on Colonial Ordinances of 1641-1643 in Mass. Bay. Private property, as well as public interest, safety, rights, & wellbeing, are to be preserved.
Cultural Different groups see and do things from different perspec-tives, and speak different languages. Common concerns help different groups work together toward shared goals. A sense of humor also helps.
Scientific Statistical analyses based on adequate data speak louder than words. Sustainable harvest practices are best based on sound science.
Ethical No special interest is to have unfair advantage. Stewardship by all parties is key to a workable mgt. plan.
Aesthetic If it looks good, it is good. Natural beauty is to be preserved at all costs.
All of the Above Be clear, listen well. Stewardship promotes sustainable habitats & harvests alike.

The common denominator allowing all perspectives to work together combines sustainability of habitats and food production with sustainable rockweed harvests in a given location. That is, achieving a fair balance between harvest goals and ecological understanding offers hope that all perspectives can contribute to and agree on a workable and enforceable resource management plan. The aim then becomes to set a level of harvest that would sustain both rockweed production and habitats through a regime of stewardship by all parties.

Which does not solve the problem inherent in each perspective using a variety of terms to characterize rockweed from its particular point of view. “Biomass,” “standing crop,” “marine resource,” “primary producer,” and “public-trust resource” have different meanings to different people in different contexts. A common terminology does not yet exist to enable all perspectives to share a universal view of reality. Common understanding is based on common experiences interpreted in similar ways. Adherents to the separate perspectives seldom share anything close to a common interpretation of the facts. The terms they employ may sound familiar, but the underlying attitudes and experiences are bound to differ in minds trained along different lines of experience.

So perspectives entail personal attitudes, assumptions, interpretations, training, experience, language, and judgments—some conscious, others unconscious. All shaped by, and relevant to, a particular issue or situation as colored by the goals and interests of the parties involved. In the driving-biking-walking example I started with, my common interests include staying safe while inflicting no harm on others. Which translate as different behaviors depending on the horsepower under my control, relative speeds of those involved, spatial relationships, margins of error and safety, reaction times, and level of vigilance—as well as weather and time of day. All subservient to the errand I am intent on accomplishing in good order.

Perspectives, then, are not simple placements in the scheme of things such as the term “viewpoint” might suggest, but are highly complex resolutions of a great many mental factors bearing on a given situation as personally understood or interpreted at the time. Such understanding or interpretation is the basis for how the evolving scene is categorized respectively by the different parties involved. There’s my take, your take, his take, and her take—all on what appears to be the same set of circumstances—but as seen differently by every one of us.

Which dramatizes the fact that we all live in different worlds all the time, depending on how we invest ourselves according to our personal experience, motivation, and level of discernment. Put that way, it is a wonder how any two people might agree on anything. A sense of humor surely helps. Which requires we look down on ourselves dispassionately from above as we struggle to make sense of a particular situation—seeing how everyone is playing the one game by different rules. Getting a detached sense of perspective on ourselves, we can appreciate the humor in our coming at a common issue from different directions. Laughter eases the tension, helping us see ourselves in the heat of engagement, allowing us to ease off and compare notes about why we characterize what’s happening as we do. Getting a fresh perspective on our perspectives, we see where the problem lies, allowing us to back off and make a new start.

Night-before-last I woke at 4:00 in the morning, got up, and wrote down the following:

Perspectives are projections or characterizations reflecting an attitude of expectancy that events in the world will answer to our personal needs and desires. We seem to be engaging situations in that world in the here and now, but are more likely coming from the there and then of our formative years when those attitudes of expectancy were laid down as electro-chemical connections in our brains.

Where we’re coming from, then, is not necessarily where we are now, but where we were in a largely-forgotten former life having nothing to do with our current situation—but everything to do with how we view and engage it.

Despite our credentials, resumes, and experience, we are often not who we seem in making ourselves happen on the world stage. We are that naive and confused kid blindly making his way in light of overwhelming ignorance combined with an understanding based on memorable events during her formative years. In truth, we are winging it more often than not on what we loosely call intuition.

Having written those words, I am transported to the summer day Everett Baldwin and I were tooling around Hamilton on our bikes—which in those days had only one speed—and found ourselves peddling up hill and down to Syracuse some 20 or 25 miles away. I remember being disappointed in Syracuse, expecting more the Emerald City. We stopped at a dingy lunch counter under some railroad tracks, where I asked for a glass of water because I was thirsty. Seeing a clock, I suddenly realized how late it was, and how far we had to go. We got on our bikes and rode home, late for supper again.

That is how perspectives are formed, by randomly defining our home territories, as Thoreau spent a lifetime exploring Concord within ten-mile walking distance of his doorway. That way we find out who we are in the world, and set our expectations accordingly. Literally, by mapping our homeland onto our brains to serve as a reference ever after. When, later, we categorize situations, it is that reference we fall back on—and those early hikes and bicycle trips that made us then who we still are at heart. When we assimilate new experience, those early maps provide the schemas that we assimilate to. And if we experience dissonance in trying to do that, we can either reject the new experience as invalid, or stretch our maps to fit an expanded territory, creating an atlas with separate pages based on different locales. Education, too, and job training get their own pages in that atlas, as do the hard knocks of living a life.

Where we’re coming from is none other than the life we have led up till now. The message is clear: since we’ve survived this far, more of the same is all we need to get ahead of where we are. That is the practical wisdom of perspectives. If more of the same doesn’t work, then retreat, expand your horizons, or try something new. It’s that simple and, upon realizing all that’s involved, that difficult. Our looping engagements with world situations—from biological values laid upon maps in our brains to help us decide how to plan and act on a particular occasion, informed by feedback from what actually happens—are primarily governed by the perspectives we have acquired over years of planning and doing. We each have a repertoire of perspectives appropriate to different sorts of situations, and judgment enabling us to choose which to try first, and which to fall back on when that fails to get us where we want to go.

Overall, conceptual (abstract) and episodic (concrete) memories serve as our personal guides to the future by recommending what to do now in sizing up a situation as an opportunity for getting ahead. The now is a pattern made meaningful by mapping relevant aspects of memory onto it in the most economical way. If that doesn’t work, then we have to do our homework in coming up with a more effortful plan to find meaning in preparing ourselves for effective action. All influenced by cultural norms of what people are likely to do in such situations. And what our mother says we should do, as well as word from our spouses, children, colleagues, and daily horoscope. In general, we achieve clarity by applying tried-and-true perspectives to familiar situations, leading to easy categorizations depicting the nature of reality as we can safely assume it is. Or not, as the case may be.

I often try to diagram these various aspects of perspectivity in relation one to another, and quickly get in over my head because there isn’t room enough on the page to fit all the relevant details. The result is pretty much of a clutter. But that does at least provide some sense of how complex perspectives are—and how miraculous it is that—for good or ill—they inform everything we do. Here is what I’ve come up with for this post.

Where I'm Coming From

We all wear many hats, and change them as often as our situation changes and a new outlook is called for. Everybody in Boston wears a Red Sox cap. Moving to San Diego, they’d have to buy a new hat—that is, learn to love a new team by learning its history and attending a lot of games. Such a radical change in perspective may not be humanly possible. It takes a huge effort even to try to adjust to a new setting with strange cultural norms. No wonder we get stuck in our ways. But just to keep up with changing events, we have to keep trying to avoid falling behind the times. Which catches us in a time lag, like just every pundit who’s trying to go back to the old days when he knew who he was and what was happening.

A lot of people these days are out of sorts because their perspectives are obsolete and they won’t admit it. They’d rather go back than move ahead. But in truth the secret of success in life is not to be found in the Qur’an, the sayings of Ronald Reagan or Confucius. Rather, it is in staying abreast with the times as they are, not as we would have them be. Nothing dates faster than a childhood take on events. Putting our trust in how things used to be may have worked once when the pace of change was slow, but in the twenty-first century, we have no alternative but to try to keep up. If we are not perpetual learners, our destiny is to become obsolete. No one knows when the next earthquake will change everything we now take for granted.

Red Sox Perspective

(Copyright © 2010)

There is more to rockweed than meets the eye. This is because we regard it, for the sake of clarity, from highly selective perspectives. To see anything at all clearly, we screen out much of everything else that gets in the way of what we’re trying to see from our point of view.

In the case of rockweed harvesting along the Maine coast, the two chief perspectives look at rockweed from opposite directions, from the economic-industrial side, and the research-ecological side. From a management perspective, the challenge is to find a sustainable balance between the two sides.

You can tell immediately which side people are on by the terms they use to discuss rockweed. If you hear “biomass,” “wet tons,” “weed,” “standing crop,” or “jobs,” you know you are listening to the industrial side of the discussion. On the other hand, words such as “habitat,” “primary producer,” “refuge,” “ecosystem,” or Ascophyllum nodosum (the Latin binomial by which the desirable species of rockweed is known), you are hearing the ecological side.

Rockweed harvesters dwell in the space where the two perspectives meet. Their motive for being there is primarily economic—to make a living—but to do so in that particular way they also must develop a professional understanding of what it is they are converting from a nurturing and protective habitat (as seen by one side) to so many wet tons of biomass (as seen by the other). Generally not scientists themselves, they pick up enough ecosystem talk to carry on a conversation with landowners and anyone else who engages them. But they fall short of acquiring an informed ecological perspective; their allegiance is to the industry, not the ecosystem. By way of compromise, they develop a rationale for taking so much from a given bed of rockweed—often cited as 17% of the “standing crop,” deliberately leaving the rest to carry on its ecological function. Their ultimate goal, however, is to deliver so many wet tons of biomass to a dealer at dockside.

The lobster industry in Maine is a notable example of harvesters regulating themselves to assure the sustainability of their fishery. They gave up dragging for lobsters in the 1940s, and now V-notch egg-bearing females, impose upper and lower size limits on the allowable catch, put escape vents in their parlors for undersize lobsters, limit their strings of traps, set up an apprenticeship system for those wanting to learn the craft, and generally conduct themselves in a responsible and professional manner for the sake of long-term job security. That is, beyond being harvesters, they have trained themselves to be stewards as well. Even to the point of feeding their catch by reliably filling their bait bags, which brings the wild fishery to the verge of an aquaculture operation.

The questions faced by the rockweed industry and ecologists alike include: 1) How much rockweed can be taken without disrupting the long-term structure and productivity of the ecosystems within which it function?; 2) Where can it be so taken?; 3) By what methods?; 4) At what intervals?; and 5) By harvesters with what experience and training? The challenge I see in such questions is that of asking rockweed harvesters to act as good stewards of the resource they depend on for a living. Which comes down to the issue of whose standards are they to meet—those set by the industry, or by impartial ecologists?

Harvest standards set by ecologists consider not only the biomass of the rockweed taken, but the function of that biomass if left in place. As a primary food producer—along with kelp, eelgrass, low marsh grass, and phytoplankton, among others—on which marine ecosystems depend, rockweed supports the survival of the living coast that complements upland forests in giving Maine its character and identity as a human habitat.

How does that work? Rockweed constantly feeds energy derived from photosynthesis into coastal waters from branches breaking off through wear and tear from constant motion imparted by tides and waves. As free-floating wrack, that organic material rides up and down on local currents, providing a surface habitat for amphipods and other life forms, which in turn attract birds like Bonaparte’s gulls and various species of terns—direct beneficiaries of the energy stored in bits and pieces of rockweed. That wrack either exits the bay to feed a variety of species farther along the coast or out in the Gulf of Maine. Or is perhaps deposited at the high tide line along the shore, where it provides habitat and food for shoreline scavengers—sandpipers, song sparrows, thrushes, gulls, crows, schools of small fish, among other wildlife species.

Broken into ever-finer particles, rockweed eventually decays, becomes colonized by protein-rich bacteria, and assumes a new identity as energy-rich detritus, food for filter-feeding mussels, scallops, oysters, barnacles, juvenile lobsters, and early life stages of a great many marine creatures both vertebrate and invertebrate. Because of the nutritional boost from nitrogen-rich bacteria, detritus is a value-added form of the rockweed and other primary food producers from which it derives. In supporting entire marine and estuarine ecosystems, a ton of rockweed in the form of detritus is worth far more than the $40 the rockweed harvester gets paid by the ton. In fact its value is inestimable. What is the going price of a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of sunlight, or a raindrop falling from the sky? Coastal Maine and its gulf run largely on detritus. What is that worth to a fox, eagle, harbor seal, or to you? What is the value of Cobscook Bay, Taunton Bay, or the Gulf of Maine?

The history of Maine fisheries is a tale of descent lower and lower on the food web, until now even primary producers such as rockweed and kelp have a certain market price—not as value-added detritus, but as materials in the raw. Which is the highest and best use of rockweed?—detritus to feed the entire coast, or a commodity sold as fertilizer or an additive for commercial foods and cosmetics. Perspectives have implications and ramifications which, like by-catch, often go unrecognized.

To end up, I will shift from the food-web to the habitat aspect of rockweed. Whether providing shelter; opportunity for grazing, foraging, reproducing, refuge from predation; or otherwise essential habitat, rockweed invites life to the intertidal zone, a hardscrabble habitat of extremes if ever there was one. Yet by expanding and collapsing as driven by its highly variable circumstances, rockweed offers its services to all comers with great efficiency, tide after tide, season after season, year after year. Again, what are those services worth to alewives, eels, periwinkles, crabs, copepods, amphipods, crangon shrimp, eiders, black ducks, loons, herons, kingfishers, and the likes whose lives depend on them? What are they worth to you in comparison to having a tub of industrial-grade ice cream in the freezer, or a creamy cosmetic on your lips?

The essential question is: At what harvest level do the ecological and industrial values of rockweed come into conflict so that opting for one penalizes the other? The rockweed industry aims to convert 17% of select beds of rockweed to biomass. That figure assumes a great deal about the continued functioning of local ecosystems after those beds are cut, their structure radically altered, their biomass removed.

Since the energy stored in rockweed fuels much of the Maine coast, it strikes me that removal of even 17% of select areas is excessive. Given that 100% of rockweed energy turns over every two years, distributing its wealth as wrack and detritus among species such as I have mentioned, a 17% cut on top of 50% annual turnover sounds to me more like a 34% reduction of the “standing crop” on which that natural distribution of food energy depends in the following year. In light of the habitat and energy reductions implied by that level of rockweed harvest, I propose that a 5% cut seems eminently more reasonable.

At the February 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine in Orono, Sea Grant joined with the Department of Marine Resources in initiating a process of discovery to find out what gaps still exist in our understanding of the ecological consequences of rockweed harvesting. On February 17, current findings were relayed to the Joint Legislative Committee on Marine Resources, which considers last year’s legislation regarding the harvest level in Cobscook Bay a done deal. That is, the state sides with industry recommendations. Which makes it all the more likely that the 17% level of harvest will spread to the rest of the coast.

It is up to resource managers in Maine to decide whether to take a short-term view for the sake of feeding biomass to the industry, or a long-term view including habitat considerations and the gradual distribution of rockweed energy as viewed from an ecological perspective. Stakes are high: Nothing less than the continued productivity and viability of the Maine coast is at issue. I have testified before the Marine Resources Committee that I consider a 17% rockweed cut to be unsustainable. From my perspective, a less risky harvest might be as high as 5% every third year in the same bed if closely monitored.

Seal Pup Amid Rockweed

(Copyright © 2010)

What I was getting at in my last post was the common origin of two different urges, the urge to belief and the urge to discovery. If, then, religion and science are both born of awe before the wondrous order of the universe, how is it they so completely diverge? Indeed, one treads the path of convinced opinion and absolute authority, the other the path of doubt and experimentation. Each characterizes the same impetus from a point of view diametrically opposite the other, leading to disparate approaches to experience, incommensurate methods, and incompatible conclusions concerning the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Yet both claim to be driven by the same urge—the urge to truth.

How can this be? What is it about the conscious mind that allows two grand institutions to pursue identical goals by such different—and mutually exclusive—routes, the route of faith-based conviction and the route of experimentation?

By singling out these two I do not mean to imply there are no other routes to truth. There is also the legal route, the political, the economic, the historical, the ethical, or the aesthetic, to name a few that spring to mind. But here I will focus on the religious and scientific aspects of consciousness as examples to suggest how differences between those other aspects might arise. In each mental system or discipline, we must look to the assumptions, methods, languages, great thinkers and practitioners, persistent issues, tools, accomplishments, among other factors bearing on it as a pathway to truth. That is more than I can take on in this post, so I will limit myself to a brief look at a few select aspects of mind in the instance of religion and science.

Overall, I would say that religion works deductively in applying general principles to specific instances, whereas science works the other way round inductively, proceeding from specific instances to whatever principles may apply. That is, religion looks upon the world with answers or foregone conclusions in mind, seeking questions to exemplify what is already known. Science on the other hand looks upon the world with true curiosity about how the world works, and attempts to derive theories that answer to commonalities detected in various concrete phenomena. Religion is instructional or doctrinal in applying prior belief to here-and-now experience; science experimental in deriving theories from actual events.

Religion looks from the familiar or recorded past to the unknown future, relying extensively on conceptual memory and sacred texts to provide a basis for prophecy. Science also looks toward the future, but from the here and now, venturing predictions, paying careful attention to whether they are borne out or not. Prophecy is used to justify prior belief; prediction is used to discover whether or not belief is justified.

Thinking is listening to yourself before you say anything out loud. Religious thought broadcasts prior conclusions onto world events as they unfold; scientific thought casts questions onto the world, then attends to the world’s response. Religion’s goal is the spread of true belief and conformity; science’s goal is independent discovery of truth to expand what is known. Religion suppresses or avoids surprises; science welcomes them. That is, the religious approach is to assimilate new experience to preexisting mental structures; the scientific approach is to expand or alter mental structures in order to accommodate new information.

I offer this heavy-handed cartoon of some of the essential differences between religion and science to illustrate two wholly divergent strategies derived from the same compelling experience of the unknown as exemplified by early peoples’ awe and wonder upon observing the pageant of wheeling stars and wandering planets in times when night skies were clearer and darker than they are in modern experience. I am saying that the urges to both science and religion stem from similar experiences of the universe, but via two different routes or strategies for dealing with the awesome and unknown. The urge to religion relies heavily on explaining or categorizing the universe as the work of one or more superhuman(s) of fearsome power and authority as projected outward from the human mind; the urge to science starts with humility before the unknown, relying more on curiosity, experiment, and  discovery in describing aspects of the universe in terms humans can grasp.

Think of Isaac Newton in his garden (as the story goes) at dusk, perhaps looking upon both an apple on a bough and the full moon rising above the horizon in the distance, apple and moon appearing roughly the same size from his point of view. Abruptly, the apple falls straight to the ground below. Which raises the thought in Newton’s mind, “Why doesn’t the moon likewise fall out of the sky?” And then the realization, “Indeed, the moon is falling! But because it is orbiting the Earth, it is propelled not in a straight line into space, but along its orbital path at the same time Earth draws it to itself, with the result that it perpetually falls both toward us and around us, thus keeping the same distance from us as it does fall.” In some such way did the theory of gravitation emerge in the human mind as a result of an inquiring attitude toward personal experience. No phenomenon was safe from such an approach as would project questions instead of answers onto the universe, in hopes the universe would reveal its secrets directly through its own lawful acts.

Or some such scenario. In contrast, consider Paul of Tarsus writing an epistle to the Romans in which, in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong:

After arguing that the righteous live by faith, Paul develops a strange line of reasoning designed to show that God has revealed himself to all people through the creation. Then he goes on to say that those who do not discern the truth of God through creation and thus do not worship God properly are, as their punishment, given over to lust, iniquity and the misuse of their bodies among themselves (Preface, The Letters of Paul, Penguin Putnam, Riverhead Books, 1998, my italics).

Here we are not in any such place as Newton’s garden, but are in the mind of Paul as he writes to the faithful in Rome, a city  he never had visited, concerning the gospel of Christ:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written. The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. . . . Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: . . . For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who, knowing the judgment of god, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Romans 1: 17-20, 24, 26-32, original italics).

 Thus it is written. As others have maintained that Haiti and New Orleans have been punished by God for their evil ways, or that destroying infidels by blowing themselves up in their midst will earn Jihadis a secure place in heaven. Picture children—boys—rocking back and forth over the Qur’an in a Wahhabi school in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, memorizing the text as the ultimate authority by which they are to live—and to die. Picture children in American schools, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to a piece of striped cloth, emblem of a nation exporting chaos, greed, and death to those who do not share its worldview.

Looking to the past is not all bad, nor to the future all good. Religions pay great attention to ethics and how life is to be lived; scientists develop ever more sinister weapons of mass destruction in the name of national defense. Fear is not rational. It seems easier to ring ourselves with missiles than calm the fears of our neighbors and ourselves. Anxiety, suspicion, fear, and anger lead both theologians and scientists to think terrible thoughts and do frightful things. A latent terrorist lurks in the shadows within every human mind.

And cultural influences can so alter the realities of our lives that the individual will to survive can be overwhelmed by the will to die for any common cause perceived to be just. Over 55 million people were killed during the Second World War—each and every one of them for a cause thought at one time by one side or another to be self-evidently righteous. The siege of Stalingrad, firebombing of Dresden, gassing of Jews, nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all made tactical sense to those with power and authority to carry them out.

So I do not intend to paint every one of the faithful as a reactionary incapable of creative thought, or of the curious as a selfless servant of reason. Being human, all are driven by biological values that color every situation according to their personal palette, as well as by the artistic taste of the culture which informs their every act.

But I do intend to give the impression that religion and science create different worlds for their followers, and if those worlds complement each other to a degree, they also serve to under-mine each other more than create an atmosphere of mutual respect. We need look no farther than to the partisan roilings in Washington for a blatant example of self-righteous creationists in deadlock with curious and experimental evolutionists over who is to control the destiny of America and the world. In the Islamic sphere, the same split is evident, as it is in China, and everywhere else.

How we train our children to employ their minds is crucial to human survival on planet Earth. Whether of a religious or scientific bent, as adults every one of us needs to find eternal truths to believe in, while at the same time remaining open to new insights and discoveries as the world changes before our eyes. That is, we can’t develop one faculty for revealed truths to the exclusion of open experimentation, or vice versa. We need to explore both capacities to their fullest extent in every person. As it is now, we become caricatures of ourselves by siding with one mindset or the other, not celebrating the fact that of the nearly seven billion people on Earth, each is unique, so dismissing all but the few who are more-or-less similar to ourselves. That is the height of ignorance, foolishness, pride, and arrogance. If our upbringing—both formal and otherwise—can do no better than that, then our families, schools, social institutions, and governments are failing us utterly.

The Future Is Now

 

(Copyright © 2010)

“God,” “heaven,” “the night sky,” and “the universe” are four different characterizations for a sensory phenomenon that looks something like this:

One TurningOur sense of the motion of the stars at night is one of the most powerful and enduring wonders of human experience. Because we can have that experience again and again throughout a lifetime, we know it is true. Yet it isn’t true. The apparent wheeling of the stars is an illusion. The stars are not moving in unison—Earth is turning on its axis, carrying us with it, making the stars appear to be rotating overhead while all the time it is we who are rotating. We have names for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon—two heavenly bodies closer to home—yet, again, sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset are illusions created by the dipping of the eastern or rising of the western horizon against the background of the solar system and stars beyond. Projecting our Earthly motion onto the sun and the moon, as we do on the stars, we stake our claim to being the center of the universe, even though that concept is a convenient fiction in the human mind.

Earthrise experienced as sunset Universe means “one turning” or “turning oneness,” reflecting the sense of unity we feel when all about us shares the same motion. The concepts of God and heaven arise in the sighted consciousness of every human who has ever stood in the dark after the western horizon has swallowed the sun and celebrated the stately dance of the stars overhead against the background  of eternity and infinity. There is no escaping the feeling of awe and reverence which that ceremony kindles within us. Projected onto the scene, we categorize our feeling as being in the presence of the gods or of deities, which is what the words signify—the shining ones, from the Indo-European root, deiw-, to shine (and in such derivatives as sky, heaven, god, deity, divine, divinity, dios, Jove, and Jupiter).* Halos about the Heads of sacred figures reveal the cosmic origin of their holiness—and of the awe we bestow upon them. 

Early shepherds and other night folk noticed that seven great lights moved against the cyclical pattern apparently set by the stars, and we still dedicate the days of our week to those lights.

  • Sunday to the sun;
  • Monday to the moon;
  • Tuesday to planet Mars personified as Tiu, Germanic god of war;
  • Wednesday to planet Mercury personified as Odin, Woden, or Wotan, chief Teutonic god;
  • Thursday to planet Jupiter personified as Thor, related to Late Latin thunor or thunder;
  • Friday to planet Venus personified as Old Norse Frigg, wife to Odin, goddess of love and of heaven;
  • Saturday to planet Saturn personified as the rustic Roman god of agriculture.

This seven-day week is an amalgam made from several different cultural systems:

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number. In A.D. 321 the emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar (The American Heritage Dictionary, Word History for Wednesday).

Distancing themselves, various religions dismiss these categorizations as pagan, that is, being of the country where uncultured peasants dwell, but the characterizations linking planets and gods in the human mind have stuck for thousands of years, suggesting the true power of such primal images and associations. In themselves, these images are neutral aspects of our placement in Earthly surroundings, but consciousness endows them with a salience of grandeur and significance, requiring the categories we project upon them be of the very highest order.

The four quarter days of the year demark the four seasons, summer and winter solstices when the sun “stands still” at the extreme turning points on its journey along the horizon, and spring and fall equinoxes when the sun rises and sets due east and west, respectively, and night and day are of equal length. Our compass of 360 degrees (reflecting an early approximation of the seasonal cycle repeating after that many days) is based on the normal (right-angle) alignment of Earth’s axis pointing due north toward the Pole Star and the east-west line between sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. A great many pyramids, temples, basilicas, cathedrals, and city plans are oriented in time and place to harmonize with the evident plan of the universe as early observers interpreted it in light of their understanding and experience. As Earthlings, humans have had no other choice. Sensitivity to the cosmos is built into consciousness, calibrating our senses of orientation, correctness, and wonder.

Since 1994, I have joined a group of friends in observing theVernal equinox vigil “sunrise” at 5:35 a.m. on the day of the spring equinox as viewed from Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. Equinox It strikes me still as the right thing to do—make a personal effort to celebrate the  ending of winter and coming ofEquinox potluck breakfast spring as one of the most decisive events of the year. Following the vigil, we retire to the home of a couple living nearby for a potluck  breakfast. After orienting our lives to the seasons, by 7:45 a.m. we are ready to walk into our days heartened to be in synch with the cosmos.

  Using the simplest tools, early astronomers projected lines and angles onto the night sky in mapping the positions of stars and planets, giving birth to geometry, navigation, and astrology at the same time. A friend once had my horoscope done, informing me my rising sign is in 03 degrees Scorpio:

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge—for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism (Astrolabe @ alabe.com, 2001).

As a characterization of myself, that’s about as accurate as any resume I might concoct on my own. All based on heavenly alignments and relationships bearing on the date, time, and place of my birth. Those who devised and refined the system were conscious and observant Earthlings determined to conduct their lives in keeping with the order of the heavens as they perceived it. Perhaps subtle planetary alignments actually do affect the epigenetic connections of our brains as we lie deep within the refuge of our mother’s womb. I think it more likely that our placement in time and locale on the Earth sets the conditions of our formative development. We become creatures of that particular era and place, adopting or reacting to the ways of family and community as exemplars we ourselves would do well to follow.

In Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness, I wrote of my young self discovering fossils as a vital part of my early life, and splashing about the springtime hills surrounding my native haunts:

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.

Which, for me, captures the essence of who I am in engaging the specific circumstances of my placement on Earth, forging interests and attitudes to last a lifetime. I detect that same essence in the horoscope fragment quoted above, and in the image of early peoples enrapt by the slow dance of stars and planets across the night sky. Consciousness aligns us with the turning of the universe we are born to, committing us early on to lead the lives we fulfill as we age. For me, spiritual guidance is found not in churches so much as in open spaces—estuaries, mountain ridges, shores, bogs, deserts, and wild areas of every sort where natural processes flourish today as they have since beginning times. If I can resonate with those processes without disturbing them, then I am more likely to thrive than those who degrade or deplete them.

Joining the dance of stars and planets in the night sky is a bit like hopping onto a moving freight train or spinning carousel. You have to get up to speed before making the leap. But when you do leap, you are already with the program, so have a better chance of furthering the general order than upsetting it, of adding your weight to the one turning than stumbling and being flung aside as disruptive or irrelevant. How we characterize the dance determines how we live—in or out of harmony with Earth and its cosmos.

 __________

* “Indo-European Roots,” Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Earthfall, March 20, 2006