420. Water Go-Round

January 31, 2015

Almost single-handedly, the water cycle is responsible for the hospitality of planet Earth to life of all forms, including primates, including apes, including humans. Powered upward by sunlight, downward by gravity, the water cycle tells the story of the vast migration of water molecules from the surface of the ocean back into the air from which they fell a day or a million days ago, returning to that upper realm as water vapor, an invisible gas, from which it will eventually fall again as rain, hail, sleet, or snow.

Watersheds are the domains where the water cycle interacts with the land that conveys it back to the ocean, picking up mineral and organic nutrients, making photosynthesis possible in algae and green plants, which in turn make animal life—including consciousness—possible in every clime around the Earth.

In engaging with nature, we are truly engaging with the flow of water in its various forms. We were born in a primal sea; now that sea lives in us. What is the womb but an inner ocean of life? An unbroken stream of water connects us through the eons to our primal selves.

We don’t engage the water cycle all at once, but more typically one stage at a time. We admire clouds in the sky. It rains on our tent. We stomp puddles to make them splash. We kayak down streams and rivers. We sail on the ocean. On steamy days we sweat and return our bodily water to the air.

I divide that continuous flow into fifteen different stages that collectively add up to what we call the water cycle.

  1. Water falls from the sky in one form or another.
  2. It collects in puddles on the ground (or as ice on glaciers flowing to the sea).
  3. Those puddles percolate into the soil or cracks in bedrock.
  4. Drop by drop, soil water flow downhill through porous soils.
  5. Soil water flows from banks into wetlands and small streams.
  6. Small streams join to form rivers.
  7. River water (and glacial ice) mix with salt water in a bay or estuary.
  8. Salt water flows out with the tide to form currents.
  9. Currents flow at different depths to join local seas into one global ocean.
  10. Cold currents are warmed by radiant energy streaming from the sun.
  11. Surface waters evaporate, becoming water vapor.
  12. Water vapor rises into the air.
  13. Where it condenses into droplets to form clouds.
  14. Droplets join into bigger drops too heavy to stay aloft.
  15. Those big drops fall toward Earth, starting another round of the cycle.

Watersheds are one of the primary ways the natural world organizes itself. All life on Earth depends on water, and watersheds are systems for distributing water across time and space, making it available on a reliable enough basis for individual plants—and life dependent on them—to survive.

Watersheds take water from large areas of higher ground on their peripheries and distribute it to ever-smaller, concentric areas lower down, conveying a flow of water, soil particles, and nutrients downward toward a central focus in the lowlands below.

Almost everything we take for granted on Earth stems from the cyclical movement of water from the surface of the ocean into the air, from air into soil, from soil to stream, from stream back to ocean.

In that sense, the water cycle is a huge pump that floods the fields of plant and animal life on Earth. What are we but individual tributaries of the flow from that pump? Every drop of water in the soil is a delivery packet to the roots of plants and trees. Every glass of water, bottle of wine, can of beer or soda is a packet of water to be delivered to our gullets.

Each of us is an integral part of the water cycle. The water cycle is us. If Earth’s great pump ever falters and stops working, we falter and stop working. The pump runs on gravity and sunlight; we run on gravity and sunlight. Our minds run on gravity and sunlight. Heaviness and lightness—there we are again, caught exactly in the tension between them. Made possible and kept running by the pull of our planet in concert with the loft of sunlit-water turned to vapor and rising through warm air.

This puts consciousness in a new light. Consciousness is not in our brains as neuroscientists today so firmly believe; it is in our engagement with our home planet, and only half of that engagement is in our brains (leading from perception to action via meaning and judgment). The rest is in what we engage with in the world beyond our skins.

Consciousness is as much a product of gravity and sunlight as it is of the flow of ions through our neural networks from one neuron to the next. Put differently, that flow of ions is an extension of the water cycle through the flesh-and-blood neural tubes and synaptic junctions that make up the bulk of our brains.

If we disconnect from sensory input by being put in solitary confinement in a bleak cell, or by otherwise depriving ourselves of stimulation from our surroundings—in such cases we shut down to the extent our consciousness shuts down from lack of input. A mind by itself is not enough. Every mind needs a world to engage with in order to thrive. It needs to take part in the larger flow of gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, dissonance and consonance.

I am trying to fit the flow of thoughts through our minds into the larger context of the flow of water through the surface of the Earth. I firmly believe there is a connection between the two flows, an intimate and vital connection that makes my writing this blog, and your reading of it, not only possible, but essential. By that I mean you won’t find this discussion anywhere else.

After all, we and our progenitors have lived on the Earth for a long time—some three-and-a-half billion years. It would be incredible to claim that we are not an integral part of the basic processes that run Earth’s every system. We are not above the Earth or below it; we are creatures of it. We are constituents of the biosphere as made possible by the cyclical flow of water within the limits set by inner Earth and outer space. That biosphere is implicit in our every thought and engagement. It is the true medium of consciousness, of which the brain is but one part.

 

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419. Walking in Woods

January 30, 2015

Beyond rowing whenever I can, I am also fond of walking in woods. A casual question about something I published seventeen years ago recently led me to go back and read my description of a hike I made on snowshoes along the Long Pond Fire Road in Acadia National Park on January 15, 1996. I didn’t think in terms of engagements with nature in those days, but what I wrote then fits well into the theme I am developing in these posts about that very topic. Here is an excerpt from my book, ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park, (Bar Harbor: Earthling Press, 1998, pages 114f.).

On both sides of the fire road, verdant panoramas unfurled in a continuous strip as I went. Anchored at each end by stands of Northern white cedar, with several magnificent cedar swamps between, roadside vegetation set the tone of the hike.

I felt like a traveler depicted on a Japanese landscape scroll. The most spectacular thing about this hike was the unending woods on both sides. I had to pay close attention to detect subtle changes from one stand to the next. Here, cedar mixed with spruce and pine, there, with tamarack. Birch and popple put in a show, then mountain maple.

The slope of the land was so gradual, the shift from one watershed to the next so unpronounced, the landscape seemed quietly to flow with the road as one seamless forest. But wherever they grow, trees thrive under a limited range of specific conditions. Those conditions changed as I went, from wet to dry, north slope to south, shallow soil to less-shallow soil (never deep), shaded to sunny, with diverse histories of human and natural influence.

In one sense, the scene changed with such little commotion that it appeared bland and wholly undistinguished. These trees had been standing behind the door when charisma was handed out. They may have been ordinary and uninteresting, but, too, they were the stuff of Acadia, its heart and its strength.

The landscape of Maine and the health of our region depend on these woods. They are anything but boring. Maine’s motto is Dirigo, Latin for “I lead.” That is the voice of the pole star, but it is also the voice of the Maine woods. As they go, so go the rest of us. Our tracks follow the lead of the woods—deer, squirrel, hare, fox, coyote, the rest of us falling in behind, whether by snowmobile or snowshoe, cross-country ski or on foot, ax or chainsaw in hand, or not. If anything is dull it is our perception of the woods, not the woods themselves.

Woods are the waters of Earth come to life. On this hike I crossed six streams, flowing into four ponds, each stream rising in the woods through which I walked. Given air, sunlight, and water, woods spring up. Followed by insects and wildlife. And people. What are we but walking woods? What are woods but water with branches and roots?

The woods along the fire road flow as streams flow downslope into Duck and Long ponds, into Hodgdon and Seal Cove ponds. And water, where does it come from? From the firmament, and now this fallen white fundament underfoot. Making tracks in the snow, animals come full circle, walking in the stuff they are made of. Here are the origins of Acadian life.

The primary theme of the winter hike I made around Long Pond Fire Road was the unity I felt between my outer surroundings and my inner self. Everything came together—snow, tracks, woods, streams, ponds, sunlight, and the sky above. Like the little bent figure in the scroll, I played my part in the larger scene, one mote of awareness trekking through the landscape of the universe.

You have to go back to the woods or you lose your place. Your ties to the land. To your origins. You forget who you are. You come to believe you are a free agent, an independent being with no ties to anything beyond yourself. You lose your sense of belonging. Your judgment becomes uprooted. With nothing under your feet, what holds you up? You wander and are lost.

I have been that route. Centered on family and work, for years I gave no thought to what holds up the globe of human affairs. Woods, soil, water, sunlight, air—these were nothing to me. I wanted to get ahead, to be somebody.

Studying science, the humanities, education, I focused on human society and its accomplishments—as if they bloomed by spontaneous generation from human genius itself. I thought nature was a nice place to visit but I didn’t want to live there. It was a resort, a kind of sideshow of natural wonders and curiosities.

It never occurred to me I was made of Earth, thought its thoughts, saw with its eyes, spoke with its voice, or was in any way responsible to it for the benefits I received, which I took for granted as my deserts for being alive. I saw as a child. Wholly self-centered, I was a child. Reality for me was symbolic, found in art, movies, television, music, and books. I rowed on a rowing machine and ran at the side of city streets. For thirty years, thinking I dwelled in Paradise, I wandered and was lost.

One day I woke up realizing I was alone. Looking down, I saw nothing beneath me holding me up. My life was an unfounded dream. That day I might have become a taxi driver or a monk, but instead, for the first time, I heard a voice calling me to witness the miracle of life on planet Earth.

The trick to miracles is in recognizing them for what they are, otherwise we let them pass unacknowledged. Another day, oh hum. No, not oh hum, but by golly! How many miracles can we spot before our time runs?

Now paying attention, I explored Long Pond Fire Road for the first time, finding water, air, sunlight, trees, and wildlife in good order. Another day, another walk among miracles.

If I hadn’t come to my senses and spent the next thirty years in Maine, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. But I did come to my senses, and did move to Maine. Now here I am standing tall among the trees where I belong, with deep roots in the soil and the watershed that keeps it moist.

418. Rowing

January 29, 2015

I am a walker and hiker in nature. And also a rower. By necessity, if I want to get to Burying Island in Taunton Bay. The island my extended family used to own in undivided shares. The island I now manage for Burying Island LLC, and for the members who now own shares in that company.

I lived on the island from June 14, 1986, to December 23, 1988, so did a lot of rowing back and forth in all seasons for two-and-a-half years. In this post I will tell of four memorable trips I made in my thirteen-foot fiberglass peapod made by Eric Dow in Brooklin, Maine. It’s called a peapod because, like a canoe, it narrows to a point at both ends. Eric made a mold from one of his hand-built wooden boats, and reluctantly (he’s a wooden-boat man) turns out fiberglass copies.

 

Steve in his peapod.

That’s me in my peapod on an unusually calm Taunton Bay.

On a windless, sunny day in early May, 1987, I rowed ashore for some provisions, and on the trip back saw a jellyfish in the water right next to my boat. A big jellyfish. Half as long as my boat. Like an amethyst city in a bubble, with tendrils dangling into the depths. I’d never seen or imagined such a thing. But there it was. An apparition. A lion’s mane jellyfish brought from the Arctic by the Labrador Current that feeds into the Gulf of Maine and the upper reaches of Frenchman Bay into Taunton Bay.

It was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, and I didn’t have my camera. I quickly eyed my position relative to ledges and rocks, rowed to the island, ran to my cabin, got my camera, ran back, rowed out to the channel—and couldn’t find it again. The tide was coming in, so I rowed farther into the bay. But it was gone. Lost, except to my memory, which provides a vivid image as I write these words some twenty-seven years later.

That’s what I mean by an engagement, coordinating my senses and muscles so my whole body is focused on the same event that fills my consciousness. Not like crossing the street while talking on a cellphone or looking down at your email on a small screen.

 

View from Burying Island

My peapod on Burying Island with Taunton Bay waiting beyond.

Then there was the still September evening I rowed back to the island with a bright green aurora wafting to the north, arching over Burying Island, and reflecting in the calm bay, making a shimmering green eye with the black island at its center. And luminous phytoplankton in the bay itself, so my oars stirred up glowing ripples on the surface, and pale green drops dripped into the water when I readied for the next stroke.

I’ve seen Taunton Bay under all sorts of conditions, but that was the most stunning row I ever made. The sky was alive, the surface of the water was alive, and the water itself was literally alive with phytoplankton. I took it all in, turning my head to watch where I was heading while continuing to row, my perceptions and motions proving that I, too, had never felt more alive. Once on the island, I stepped off onto the line of wrack at the edge of the tide, and it, too, glowed when I trod on it, leaving a track of luminous footprints from the plankton washed up from the bay.

 

Frozen Taunton Bay.

In February, Taunton Bay is much different than in July and August.

In November, after a particularly delicious Thanksgiving dinner with Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point in Franklin, I rowed out into a northeast blizzard, in total darkness at ten o’clock at night, with no stars or shoreline lights to steer by, and navigated by the bite of ice pellets driven by the wind against my right cheek, pulling on my oars with all the strength I took from eating that meal. I sensed where I was going, and got into the rhythm of a galley slave to head a straight course through heavy seas by keeping the sting of hurtling ice fixed on my cheek.

When the wind abruptly died, I knew exactly where I was by the map in my head—in the lee of the cliff on the north end of the island I was aiming for, the rest of my course hugging the windless shore of the island, which I couldn’t see, but could sense as a presence off to port, so I could avoid every rock and jutting point in reaching the gravel beach where I could haul up my boat, and then wend my way through snowy woods to my cabin.

Despite my hosts’ pleas not to row into the storm, my expectancy after rowing through all kinds of weather, steering by hidden signs that I didn’t know I could read—those signs told me I could make it. And by believing I was a match for the risk, I made it safely, where no caring or careful person might think it possible.

We learn about nature by engaging with it up-close and personally under all manner of conditions. If we give our all to it, nature will return its all to us. If we insist on only taking from nature, as we frequently do, we’ll end up with nothing.

 

Deer on an iced Taunton Bay.

Deer have learned to walk single-file at a distance across thin ice.

The last row across the bay I will mention took place in mid-March when I left a board meeting of Frenchman Bay Conservancy about ten at night and headed for my island home. March is a month of transitions when the ice goes out of the bay and deer can no longer stroll single-file back and forth between island and mainland.

I’d equipped my boat with a flashlight lashed to the bow so I could see ice floes as I approached them. On this trip, halfway across I came to a barrier of ice running with an outgoing tide. I had no idea how large a chunk of Egypt Bay ice was going out, but I certainly wasn’t going to pass in front of it, so turned northwest along the barrier to get behind it. Finding no break in the ice, I rowed. And I rowed. And I rowed. The entire bay seemed to be emptying in that one chunk of ice. Way off course, I steered around the back end of the outgoing ice, and headed toward the unseen island beyond it, almost crashing into Burying Island Ledge before I saw it ahead, so rowed around it, too, and knew right where the island lay not far ahead in the dark water.

What got me about that sheet of ice was how silent it was. No creaking, groaning, splashing to announce its presence. It was just there, blocking my route where, in my recent experience, no ice had been lately. Of course the entire bay had been frozen-over all winter, but Taunton River had been carefully reaching into the bay day-by-day, and for over a week my passage had been ice free. But this particular crossing coincided with the half-hour when the bulk of the upper bay cut loose and happened to lie between me in my boat and the island I was headed for. Learning from experience, I was prepared for just that possibility, so had put fresh batteries in my flashlight, and snugged its lashing to the boat.

Caring and careful engagement opens the way to learning through experience. Which is how people are meant to pull themselves ahead by their own bootstraps. By turning their worries and mistakes to good use. Which we are fully equipped to do, even in wholly unfamiliar situations.

That potential for self-teaching is the heritage that evolution has equipped us with. If we know what’s good for us, we trust that heritage every chance we get. Which is how I rowed myself safely across the bay under trying conditions, and had time to enjoy whatever scenes I met along my route.

 

Don’t start a war on terrain that your enemy knows better than you do. They’ll be fighting for their homeland; you’ll be fighting for an idea. Think of the homegrown Minutemen driving the Brits back to Boston from outlying Concord and Lexington. Think of U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. Homeland trumps technology every time.

Surfing the Web splits mind and body apart. As does watching TV. Talking on a cellphone. Our minds leave our bodies and go off on their own. Leaving us mindless in dealing with what’s right in front of us. Dreamland is a place of great fantasies perhaps, but not of great works. The trick is in bringing mind home where it belongs so together mind and body can engage as a team. Apart, they invariably get into trouble.

When I moved to Burying Island in Maine from suburban Boston in June, 1986, I forced my body and mind to come together so I could survive on thirty acres of natural terrain. No roads, no electricity, no refrigeration, no phones, no neighbors (except in July and August)—just a few trails through thirty acres of woods. Wild terrain, with herons, eagles, foxes, sandpipers, the Acadian Forest, and me.

I had three great advantages in establishing a toehold. With a lot of help, I’d built an insulated cabin with a sleeping loft in 1976, had a boat to get back and forth to the mainland, and a spring on the island providing an unfailing supply of fresh water. Everything else was up to whatever I could do with mind and body working as the team they were meant to be.

So began an era in my life starting with two-and-a-half years on the island, followed by four years of environmental work in coastal Hancock County, five years working as a ranger in Acadia Nation Park in Bar Harbor, and then the golden ten years of my retirement as a writer about, and photographer of, the local terrain, capped by nine years writing about all the introspective thoughts I’d had since arriving in Maine for keeps.

How did I engage nature during those almost thirty years of my life? The answer to that is the story of my coming of age as a person fulfilled in mind and body: Steve from planet Earth, an Earthling through-and-through.

Let me count the ways. Here is a numbered list of some of my various engagements with nature in that era, all leading back to my lifelong focus on my mind where those engagements begin, end, and continue to develop.

  1. Cutting firewood, hauling water, bailing boats.
  2. Being out of my depth in the wild; doing what had to be done.
  3. Taking thousands of photographs with my 35mm and 11×14” view cameras; writing at least six unpublished books dealing with environmental issues.
  4. Opposing a thirty-four-lot subdivision encroaching on two eagle nests—and actually winning my case with a lot of help from environmental groups, the land at issue being deeded to the state by the Nature Conservancy as 100 acres of eagle habitat.
  5. Helping to found three local environmental groups: Frenchman Bay Conservancy (FBC), Friends of Taunton Bay (FTB), The River Union (TRU)—the first two still going after 25 years.
  6. Working on a proposed watershed management plan for salmon and trout streams.
  7. Compiling a watershed map of Mount Desert Island. Developing my Watershed File.
  8. Working on a management plan for Saint Croix Island settled by the French in 1604.
  9. Self-publishing ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park based on descriptions of 60 hikes through the seasons in Acadia National Park.
  10. Producing three small photo books: Acadia’s Trails and Terrain; Acadia’s Native Flowers, Fruits, and Wildlife; The Shore Path, Bar Harbor, Maine.
  11. Conducting a bay management project for Taunton Bay with a grant from the state.
  12. Monitoring two populations of horseshoe crabs at the northern limit of their global range in order to understand their seasonal migrations, finding that they stayed in their respective sub-bays in Taunton Bay throughout the year.
  13. Determining why eelgrass in Taunton Bay suffered a 90-percent dieback in 2001 due to the worst drought in recorded local history.
  14. Monitoring coastal erosion and sea-level rise in Taunton and Frenchman Bays.
  15. Attending a month-long symposium at the Quaker Institute for the Future in 2006, where I worked on trying to discover why fishermen and fisheries-management biologists didn’t speak the same language. That work sparked my introspective study of my own mind, the only mind I have access to on intimate terms.
  16. Beginning this blog in 2008 as an attempt to get my random notes on consciousness and engagement into presentable form. I used the blog as a scratchpad for later writings.
  17. Working on and self-publishing CONSCIOUSNESS: The Book, in 2011.
  18. Working on and self-publishing ON MY MIND: A New Vision of Consciousness, in 2013.
  19. Putting up a new Website on consciousness, mindfarer.institute, to help me organize my thoughts.
  20. And now using this blog, onmymynd.wordpress.com, to polish my writing about consciousness and engagement through the years into a coherent whole before I die.

When I moved to Maine, I could not have predicted that any of this would happen. But by getting my act together in 1986 so mind and body could effectively work to engage in a collaborative fashion, the flow of events in my life began adding to a larger summation as a body of work, which has yet to come to its final conclusion.

I’m still at it. Not boasting of my accomplishments, but making bare the method I use to engage nature, myself being only one contributor to the far grander aim of living with the Earth in a meaningful way, not just on it as a mindless passenger. Why else do I have a mind if not to work toward that concerted end?

 

416. Natural Wonders

January 27, 2015

So what does nature do? It has an arsenal of nasty tricks: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, mudslides, windstorms, snowstorms, ice storms, sandstorms, firestorms, floods, droughts, avalanches, sinkholes, pandemics, and the rest of the worst that we think of as natural catastrophes. Nature’s destructive side often makes headlines.

At the opposite extreme is nature as shown on monthly calendars: scenic, subtle, serene, colorful, majestic, calming, dramatic, inviting, exhilarating, glorious, beautiful, cute, adorable, and so on. Nature is inherently neither one nor the other. It is what we make of it, depending on what we want it to be in a given situation.

Dead squid on Ellsworth schist.

A dead squid does its best to match the pattern of the rock beneath it.

Largely, nature is a high-level abstraction built up from our cumulative experience in natural settings over a lifetime. Yes, it is subject to seasonal and daily variations. It has a lot to do with flowing water, both fresh and salt, hot and cold. And sunlight, which depends on clouds and where the sun is in the sky.

The topic of nature brings wild animals to mind—birds, snakes, salamanders, fish, marsupials, mammals, dinosaurs, whales, insects, spiders. Too, nature is a hard and gritty place, full of rocks, cliffs, mountains, boulders, pebbles, sand. Then there are the stars, which are so remote as to form a special class by themselves, in the company of asteroids, meteors, comets, planets, galaxies, nebulas, and much closer to home, auroras.

Lentil-shaped Clouds

A few of the shapes and colors of nature.

For me, nature brings to mind experiences I’ve had outdoors in the fresh air. The first such foray I can recall is looking for mayflowers with my mother and two brothers by peering under leaves released by melting snow. My mother was from Maine, so she knew about such things. That was near Hamilton, New York, almost eighty years ago. Where we also went outdoors in winter to cut a balsam fir that we took indoors and hung with decorations.

About the same time, when I was four, I remember jumping off the bow of a lobster boat in Maine, landing on rockweed, slipping, hitting my knee. On that trip we tented in Acadia National Park so we could explore my mother’s nearby homeland around Sullivan. I remember running through woods, finding a deer antler, which I had no idea you could just come across as if it belonged right where it was. That experience hugely expanded my view of “outdoors.”

Edge of the sea.

The protective coloration of a least sandpiper matches its native habitat.

I also remember eastern cottontails sitting still behind every stump and standing tree on a small island that had recently been cut-over for timber. That and raspberry bushes scratching my legs.

A few years later, I hiked with my family to the fire tower on top of Schoodic Mountain, near where my mother grew up. We climbed through stiff summit winds on a rickety ladder to talk with the fire ranger in his tower standing over his plane-table map of surrounding terrain, a man who wouldn’t look us in the eye because he was so watchful of the forestlands stretching around us in every direction, on the lookout for faint wisps of smoke.

For almost 500 million years, these trilobite descendants are still going strong.

Wave-tossed horseshoe crabs mate in Taunton Bay, Maine.

As a boy in Hamilton, I spent many Saturdays in March and April roaming surrounding hills, drawn by meltwater forming little rivers rushing into the valley. I dammed those rivers by poking palisades of twigs into damp soil, got sopping wet head-to-toe, and had the time of my life.

In summer, I explored creeks flowing from those same hills, looking for fossils in the black layers of slate that formed the walls those creeks had dug into bedrock. Crinoids. Fluted mollusks. Trilobites of all sizes. I learned to take hammer and chisel with me to break into natural cracks, freeing the wonders within.

Ancient birch with one last limb.

An ancient birch extends one last limb into the canopy to catch a few rays.

That’s who I still am today, Steve from planet Earth, poker of twigs, launcher of leaf boats, pryer-loose of fossils, staunch defender of watersheds and the life they support.

Later, just after the war when I was fourteen, I stood looking from the shore of Lido Key in Sarasota out over the Gulf of Mexico, and saw without warning a great manta ray lift from the gulf, hover above the surface of the water, and glide back into the depths, something I had never imagined before and have never seen since, that single experience alerting me to the possibilities offered by a lifetime of curiosity, exploration, and discovery.

Which I am living to this day in exploring and writing about my own mind. I take the sight of that manta as the very emblem of who I was then and still am, an Earthling to the core, alert to the natural wonders of my home planet.

 

415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

Beyond serving as citizens of four great worlds at once (nature, culture, community, family), in the end each of us stands on her own legs as his own unique person. So many factors make up our identities, no other person on Earth has a mind like the one in our private, mysterious, and, yes, figurative black box.

In that sense, each one of us is an experiment to see what we can make of the gifts the universe sends our way. Since evolution cannot predict what fixes we will get ourselves into, it gives us the makings of a mind we can fashion into the very one we need to serve our widely varying purposes.

It is hard to tease out the separate influences of nature, culture, community, or family, so it is easier for us take responsibility for ourselves as agents in charge of our own perceptions, judgments, behaviors, and engagements as a result of the lives we actually lead. We can apply this approach to whatever level of activity we are operating on at the time.

This does not make evolution into some kind of genius with universal forethought. Rather, reliance on personal consciousness works for us today because it was the only thing that worked in earlier stages of our species’ development. What works, works; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Those who fit the former case will survive, the latter die off. Evolution is that efficient, and that blunt.

So here we are, standing on the shoulders of countless past survivors who in turn met the challenges of their times. As we offer our shoulders to those who come after us. We can’t necessarily provide the support our descendants will need, but at least we can offer what we have in the form of the lives we actually lead.

Which raises a question. What rules of engagement with the natural world might be appropriate for us to live by in working toward a more secure future for the extended family of Earthlings that will follow our faint tracks? Certainly Love your mother is good advice, but no one yet has found a way to forge that advice into a firm rule.

I’ll settle for: Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe. That ought to cover it. Don’t just do as I say, but do what you feel is appropriate in your individual case. And please note that in “our” I include every Earthling of all species.

Think in terms of a water cycle that includes rain and snow, wetlands, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, oceans, and ocean currents, not just your minute portion of such a cycle. Think in terms of watersheds, not political boundaries. Think in terms of natural processes, not products. Think in terms of habitats and ecosystems, not places on a map. Think in terms of quality of life for all species, not just your amassing a fortune in money or possessions. What you “have” is a life in progress, not what we now would call a personal possession. Life is one thing we may have but cannot own.

Could we ever learn to be conscious in such terms? I’ll put it like this: if we can’t, then we’re not long for this Earth. The signs are all around us. Ebola is a clear example of how infectious diseases will thrive among our overpopulated and overcrowded living conditions in the future. It will be with us from now on. ISIS is an example of what will happen if we base our behavior on selectively narrow cultural beliefs instead of a true understanding of the workings of the natural world. And AI (artificial intelligence) is an example of what the corporate-commercial parody of intelligence leads to as a substitute for the authentic intelligence we will need to guide each one of us as an agent of personal freedom and understanding.

My long study of my own mind leads me to entertain such thoughts. We are in this world together, each playing our part in preparing the future of life on Earth. The trends I have pointed to above suggest where we, together, are heading. Taking our planet hostage as we go.

I firmly believe we can do better. And that doing better is up to us as conscious individuals who take responsibility for the lives we lead, not as mindless victims of the most narrowly focused and aggressive among us.

As I said, each one of us is an experiment. Life is a test of our situated intelligence, such as it is.

414. Gravity

January 24, 2015

Our every thought and action takes place in a field of gravity. In the womb we may not have noticed it so much, but we are born to that field, and are comforted by being held, fed, and warmed at the breast to ease the shock of abruptly having to accommodate to that relentless force on our own.

In time, we learn to lift our heads, press down with our arms, crawl, sit up, toddle, walk, hop, skip, run, dance, and climb, always strengthening ourselves against the pull of gravity, learning to move despite that constant tug that draws us down. We learn to trade new skills for hard knocks, but the threat of falling never goes away.

In time we learn to play games against gravity, our constant opponent. We like being tossed into the air and lovingly caught. We like swinging back and forth, up and down. We learn to use gravity for fun and play, not merely tolerate or work against it. Chasing after balls, kicking, throwing, catching, running, always on the go, we prove our mastery of moving within a gravitational field. Many become famous for their skills at playing against gravity, the same force that weighs the rest of us down.

High-wire balancing, ballet dancing, window washing, pole vaulting, steeple chasing, hurdling, even cheating death by leaping from planes with a parachute or off a bridge on a bungee cord, the adventurous among us thrive by taunting gravity to deter them.

In the process, some achieve a certain lightness of being despite the Earthbound certainty of their lives. Many fly in airplanes high in the sky, another few become astronauts and dare to escape gravity altogether by being thrust into space aboard rockets at the cost of having to bear even sterner forces we call Gs.

With every thought, urge, and emotion existing in a gravitational field, we must account for that fact in advance to avoid falling on our faces when we act. Gravity is a fact of life, of planning and action in living in a gravitational field.

Yet we take that profound fact for granted, and seldom give it a thought. Yes, we smile when baby lifts her head the first time, then crawls, stands, and tries a few steps. But that is what she is supposed to do as a matter of course, so we don’t dwell on it overmuch. Another milestone passed on schedule, oh hum.

Gravity is a fact of nature. We wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t cope with it. In fact, evolution has equipped us with bones, muscles, and tendons that work around gravity’s constant pull, fitting us to defy gravity every second of our lives. Or even to gracefully succumb by sitting or lying down to get some temporary relief.

Gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, are two of the most obvious poles of our being. Rising and falling, smiling and frowning, feeling good and feeling bad—these are a few of the polarities that generate our minds in the first place. I believe that without gravity, we wouldn’t have evolved as conscious beings. We may have gotten our start in the warm seas of early Earth, but when we clambered onto land we took on gravity full-force, and had to match that challenge rather than float on the surface of life as our watery environment once allowed.

Birds and butterflies go us one better by shedding every spare ounce and leaping off into the air. No wonder we admire monarchs and chickadees so much, and all the others who make defying gravity look so easy. I have spent many a dream laboriously flapping my arms, only to rise into a tangle of power lines without a landing field in sight. I can do it in my dreams, but there’s no joy in doing it, only worry about getting tangled.

Astronauts bounding about on the moon are as close as we can come to the ideal of a life free of gravity. Sailing and hang-gliding are runners-up. Golf offers us the surrogate of a dimpled white ball flying down the fairway, all credit to the driver standing staunchly in his cleated shoes. Basketball, too, offers the swish of a ball downward through the net. And baseball through the trajectory of a well-hit ball of leather.

Too, I would add consciousness itself, which is capable of light thoughts and flights of fantasy. Gravity and levity, I suggest, offer prototypes of the polarities such as heaviness and lightness, sadness and happiness, that kindle consciousness by offering the mind something to chew on, and the life force a challenge worthy of its seating in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies.

After all, it requires huge amounts of energy to work or play games in a stern gravitational field. Levity has been one of our goals from the start. Think of it: that is precisely what we have gained bit-by-bit over the three-and-a-half-billion-year course of evolution.

It was no accident we got where we are today, with gravity-defying minds such as we have. Drawing up our lips and cheeks into a smile, that is how we receive the news that gravity has made us the miracles we are.

413. The Life Force

January 23, 2015

Whether we keep watch on the world or on our inner life, we employ the same mental equipment. I call that equipment our situated intelligence. Situated in the sense of always being in our heads under the particular conditions that make up our awareness at the moment.

So in switching my focus in this blog from my inner world of perception-judgment-action to my outer world of nature-culture-community-family, I the watcher am still the same conscious being, relying on the same mental energy and equipment, facing the same difficulties in making sense of what is before me.

This view runs counter to our everyday assumption that when we open our eyes, we look out on the world as it truly is. But no, we don’t live in any such privileged position. Always, always, always we peer out from the depths of our psychic intelligence as situated in one fix or another.

We cannot escape ourselves or our current perspectives. We live in our minds, not our physical bodies in their various physical settings. Even if we look upon the Gulf of Aqaba or Grand Teatons, we look from within the same old intelligent self that is referenced to the same old memories we truck with us wherever we go.

It is forbidden us to walk in anyone else’s moccasins; we are stuck in our own footwear wherever we go. Our ever-changing situations are in our minds, not the world.

As I have repeatedly said, those situations are made up of the psychic dimensions that affect us at the moment. Those dimensions may include a varied mix of imagination, impressions, values, understanding, emotions, memories, aesthetics, beliefs, ideas, attitudes, interests, expectancy, attention, habits, ideology, prejudice, life experience, motivation, and what I call the life force with which our metabolisms drive us to perceive, judge, and act.

That is my credo. The belief derived from thirty years of personal introspection. My reality, the frame of mind that I live in every moment I work on this blog.

The point I want to make in this post is that the fuel that drives our personal life force does not differ whether we are focused on our inner or outer worlds. No matter where we are, we are the same person driven by the same force.

Most people I know do not believe that. They believe in forces speaking to them from the heavens. Mystical forces. Spiritual forces. Forces out of the blue. But awareness of any such force is securely seated inside us, and I would say is projected outward by mistake when it is deep within our most basic awareness all the time.

Even the splendor of the stars at night is within us, because that is how we take those stars in, the climate in which we reach out to them and receive them in that very splendor, as our personal life force drives us to receive them.

I am saying that our individual portion of the life force drives us to respond to our thoughts and perceptions in certain life-fulfilling ways. That force is always positive, urging us to make the most of the moment, to be fully aware, to seize the moment by making the most of ourselves.

The splendor of the sky stems from our native susceptibilities and sensitivities, which we bring with us as carried along by the life force we bear in every cell in our bodies. The spirit we see all around us is the spirit we bring with us to be released on such occasions.

Our metabolisms derive our life energies from the simple food we eat every day. Spirit rises from that energy in preparing to meet the adventures and challenges we may face on any given occasion.

Once in our cells, that energy is ours to respond to, to direct, to express in our every action. It is that energy that lightens our step as we go, heightens our spirits, lifts us above the cares of life so that we can thrive in good health with an attitude that reaches out to our every engagement with our world.

The life force is world energy made ours. It is sunlight brought to life. First in our food, then in us. In our wayfaring, it is the fuel that drives us in taking step after step, always anticipating the view we will have around the next bend, across the next river, from the peak of the next mountain.

It is we who respond to the message our situated intelligence translates into the language of our personal behavior. How we address the world in making our rounds day-after-day tells who we are. Our share of the life force is ours alone to use, direct, and express. It is the resource that gets us through the day, no matter what happens. Its source may be the sunlight that reaches the Earth, but its power is within us as a reservoir of energy we can release in our daily activities.

In writing this blog, I am driven by my share of the life force derived from sunlight striking the Earth and transmitted to me in the food I eat. In reading this blog, you are driven by your share of sunlight stored in your personal reservoir. Together, we are guided in our actions by our respective reservoirs of the life force.

Yesterday, my partner said that she appreciates the spiritual support she discovers in life by seeking guidance in her daily activities. “It feels like the spirit is on my side,” she said movingly. I responded that that guidance is already within her, and is hers to respond to as she will. My point being that each of us is responsible for directing our activities for good or for ill. It is not some external spirit that guides us, but our own inner vision, fueled by our share of the life force.

May that force live within you.

 

412. Introspection

January 22, 2015

My understanding of my own mind is based almost exclusively on introspection—looking within. The gleanings of that inner search are the topic of this blog. The issue is, how do my findings stand up against your view of your own mind?

In 1953, Edwin G. Boring, professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote a detailed history of introspection. In it he included this seemingly dismissive summation:

[L]iterally immediate observation, the introspection that cannot lie, does not exist. All observation is a process that takes some time and is subject to error in the course of its occurrence (A History of Introspection, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 50, No.3, May, 1953, page 187).

Rather than as a dismissal, I take those words as a challenge to study, through introspection, the errors I make in my everyday perceptions. That study has led to discovery and development of the ideas on which this blog is based. Those errors include such incidents as the following.

  • My being struck by a bicyclist going against traffic on a one-way street because I failed to consider that possibility in advance.
  • Driving at dusk in the rain, seeing two motorcyclists putting on black raingear at the side of the road as two cows, in dim light the flicking motion of putting an arm into a sleeve looking to me like the abrupt swishing of a tail.
  • Seeing a dying crow, apparently hit by a car, feebly lifting one wing, which turns into a black trash bag fluttering in the wash of passing cars.
  • Catching a glimpse of sunlight striking the shape of an airplane about to crash into the roofs of Bar Harbor, which at second look turned into a ridgeline TV antenna with swept-back elements.
  • Happily running after my high-school friend Fred walking up Fifth Avenue in New York, only to find an imposter mimicking Fred’s gait while wearing Fred’s characteristic raglan-sleeved overcoat, scarf, hat, and heavy Cordovan shoes.
  • Me, the famous noticer and photographer, not seeing a vase of Mexican sunflowers at the head of the stairs while retrieving my camera so I could go on a walk with my partner. How did you like the sunflowers, she said. What sunflowers? I said.
  • Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am peering from the back seat of the family car as we drive through Eastern Colorado on our way to Seattle in August, 1947, looking for the Rockies, seeing only clouds. Which, half-an-hour later, become snow on the very mountains I yearn to see, but am blind to because I’m not used to snow in late summer.
  • Glancing up icy Holland Avenue, seeing a man applying pressure with his hips, moving side-to-side, scraping paint off his house in midwinter, a scene that abruptly morphs into a cedar tree blowing in the wind.
  • As a budding archaeologist, carefully scraping soil off a human skull I’ve uncovered on the Nespelum Indian Reservation along the Columbia River in 1950, I twist my toothbrush carefully to clear an eye hole under the heavy brow. “Whatcha’ got there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle,” says my supervisor, who has come to check on me.
  • After five minutes of hearing a husky voice shout “Fa, fa, fa,” in the middle of the night, I finally realize he’s shouting “Fire” in a Boston accent, so rush to the phone to dial 911.
  • Screening the photos of granite quarrying I’ve just taken, I really like the one of lighting the torch powered by diesel fuel and compressed air with flames shooting six feet out of the long pipe. I’m so excited about the prospect of PhotoShopping them, when asked if I want to delete all the photos from my camera, assuming I’ve saved them to my hard drive automatically, as I always do, I deleted them—only to realize that I had not, in fact, saved them to my computer.
  • I felt extremely uncomfortable when the lecturer on sex education looked directly at me all during her talk. Afterwards, I asked why she singled me out. “You look just like my son,” she said.
  • And so on.

In explaining to myself how I could make all those mistakes, I got to know myself in a wholly new way by taking full responsibility for everything that happened, including my take on the context of what was going on. It is that personal take on consciousness that I am sharing in this blog.

The serial division of inner experience into perception, judgment, and action makes sense to me, as does the ongoing experience (stream of consciousness) idea which unites them with worldly aspects of consciousness into one continuous loop of engagement. I view that loop as being driven by a valenced sense of disparity (toward gravity or levity, say, good or bad, yes or no) between what I intend to do and what actually happens, providing a conscious sense of the degree and direction of refinement I need to make in order to bring about a desirable relationship with my surroundings.

Now that I am turning my attention to the external portions of my loops of engagement on the four parallel levels of Nature, Culture, Community, and Family as I depicted them in my previous post (No. 411), I want to stress the fact that I am in no way privy to the world as it is, so am still reliant on introspection to present my internal views of what I think the world is like from my current perspective.

As always, all I have to work with is my side of the story. This is precisely the point that I believe many people miss in conducting their lives as if they had cornered the market in Truth. I know nothing of truth. Truth is a concept. What I have available to me is consciousness as an ongoing process that never comes to rest.

Imagine a blog with no end. A blog that continues forever, always hedging, modifying, improving, changing. That is the story of philosophy and every other human activity. Plato’s reflections are only one of the blogs of his day.

I am merely putting my oar into the waters of changing perspectives. I’ve reached a crucial turning point, so I want to be clear that my method will continue to be the same, even though I am taking on a new dimension of my topic. As before, so from now on: introspection is my guide and navigator.

I’m still the same old wayfarer, on a new phase of my journey.

 

411. Levels of Engagement

January 21, 2015

I personally view my loops of engagement as supporting my consciousness on four distinct levels: Nature, Culture, Community, and Family.

Nature presents my view of the planet I was born to, Earth, third planet out from the sun. I am very active in my local segment of nature as exhibited on Mount Desert Island in Hancock County, Maine. Too, I frequently spend time on the shores of Taunton Bay, headwaters of Frenchman Bay. Taunton Bay is—as Canada geese fly— ten miles north of Bar Harbor. My special interests are watersheds, estuaries, horseshoe crabs, and primary producers such as phytoplankton, salt marsh, eelgrass, rockweed, and kelp.

Level of mind: Nature.

Two young male deer in a meadow just down the street where I live.

Culture presents my view of the doings of the human subgroup I was born to, the activities of my kind of people. This includes roughly my engagements with those on the East Coast of the United States, especially in New England, and particularly in Maine, most north-easterly state in the nation.

Level of mind: Culture.

Baseball is one of my favorite cultural engagements.

Community presents my view of engagements within the local coastal area where I now live, centered on Bar Harbor, Maine. Bar Harbor is largely a tourist town in the summer, a small New England village in the winter. It boasts two biological research laboratories, a small college, and the headquarters of Acadia National Park.

Level of mind: Community.

Lobster fishing is the most notable fishery along the Maine Coast where I live.

Family includes lifelong engagements with members of my birth family, my two marriage families, and their respective relatives. I grew up in Hamilton, NY, moved to Seattle when I was fifteen, came back to the East Coast to attend MIT (for two years), another two at Columbia in New York City. I served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps for two years, mostly spent in West Germany. I worked as a photographer in NYC, spent time in Iowa at the State University, then moved to the Greater Boston Area. I moved to Maine in June, 1986, and have been here ever since.

Level of mind: Family.

My birth family on Taunton Bay in 1949. My parents and two brothers (the 4 on the right) are now dead. Now with a gray beard, I am the one on the left.

On a personal level, I am occupied by projects relating to consciousness and introspection, including two books, a number of PowerPoints, and this blog. My goal is to complete writing down my current understanding of consciousness before I die.