427. Rules of Engagement with Nature

February 9, 2015

It is not by whim or accident that I visualize loops of engagement with nature as fundamental to mind and consciousness. Our every cell requires water and nutrients if it is to perform its biological function. We are some seventy-percent water, after all, not as self-contained ponds, but immersed in a lifelong flow that requires continual replenishment, each cell drawing its share.

In turn, our conscious minds flow from the engagements of such cells one with another. That flow is not limited to brain or body, but extends into the ambient of our surroundings, the natural medium to which we are born, as one-celled organisms are born to and interact with the fluids that sustain them and dispense the wastes and chemicals they secrete.

The story of nature is simply this: One thing leads to another. And another. And another. There is no stopping it, as I learned from building dams of sticks to divert meltwater when I was much younger. What I could not do was stop the flow.

And now I cannot stop my mind from running on from one thought to another. Sleep provides a brief respite, but each morning I awaken to those streaming thoughts. Our brains are not self-contained, any more than the stem of a plant is self-contained. We are all caught in the middle between input and output, as between dark, damp soil and sunlit air.

As our one-celled ancestors were caught in the middle of what they took and gave to the ocean around them. Two-way engagement is the essence of life, including mental life. Insofar as we are natural beings, our engagements with nature are of the essence.

All life forms, including fungi, plants, animals, and others, take part in ongoing engagements with their natural surroundings. Those with mediating selves that influence the transformation of perceptual input into behavioral output in response to the controlling influence of their inner states, whether consciously or unconsciously, I would say are equipped with minds of varying degrees of complexity and sophistication.

Any such creature that can direct its sensory attention selectively to one thing and not another in a given situation—and behave accordingly—meets my minimal requirement for consciousness. In that sense, consciousness comes down to having behavioral options and choosing among them.

Even if those choices are decided by trial and error, and for a time exert an influence on subsequent behaviors, I see them spread across a range of mental abilities that I would welcome as mindful. I see apes as being more mindful than monkeys, monkeys more mindful than dogs, dogs more than cats, in turn more than birds, more than fish, more than worms (which I rate as about on a par with plants).

Our respective repertoires of behavioral options—and the shadings between them—tell the world who we are. How we choose among them in given situations reflects our situated intelligence.

A good part of the world we claim as a resource for ourselves has a mind of its own and sees the world very differently than we do. Our careless and heavy-handed method of mountaintop removal to get at seams of coal is an example of human abuse of native Earthling intelligence. Fracking to get at buried oil and gas is another. Burning the products of such efforts to generate heat and power is a third. Blinded by our commercial appetites so we can see nothing else, humanity is at war with its planetary habitat as well as with its own judgment and intelligence.

Our collective engagements with nature are a tragic shambles. Yet we keep blundering on as if our blindness and insensitivity didn’t matter. As if we didn’t have a choice. As if we were mindless.

Many of our sorry engagements with nature aren’t engagements at all; they are brutal, bullying assaults—the antithesis of sensitive engagements. As a species, we are ending as each of us begins, in that dark space below the level of worms.

This is my cantankerous self talking, my inner curmudgeon, voice of the baneful discrepancies that overshadow my personal engagements with nature. Nature is the First Big Thing. It will also be the Last. If it isn’t the Next Big Thing to prove that humanity is on the road to recovery, we won’t make the cut. Lowly horseshoe crabs will outlast us all. They don’t foul their nests as we do, and they have lived in nature hundreds of times longer than we ever will.

In truth, wild nature is dead. Starting with the advent of agriculture and deforestation more than seven thousand years ago, we have killed it off. What’s left is nature managed by humans for human benefit alone.

In Maine, the mountain lions are gone, the wolves, passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, great auks, Labrador ducks—like woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers before them. Now spruce-fir forests are being driven north by a warming climate, hardwood forests moving in to replace conifers with maples and oaks.

Changing habitats mean changing lives. Within a human lifetime, Maine will have a climate like South Carolina has today. Instead of facing into the challenge and taking responsibility for our collective impact on our home planet, we talk of technological fixes, artificial intelligence, and fleeing to Mars. So much for science, philosophy, religion, art, and our other notable accomplishments. So much for nature. So much for us.

Life is a matter of sustaining a continuous two-way flow between our embodied minds and the outer worlds they inhabit. I refer to such streams of exchange as loops of engagement. Those who have the luxury of writing such thoughts as these are a dying breed. When our native intelligence is replaced by machine intelligence—as I see is happening all around me—who will be left to write the critique?

And that brings me full-circle to considering the so-called rules of our natural engagements that I began early on in my posts on engagement with nature (Reflection 415). To continue the list I began there, here I will add other proposed rules as drawn from the thoughts I have had since raising the issue.

Proposed rules for engaging with nature:

  1. Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe.
  2. To discover the Earth, first know yourself.
  3. Judge what is good for you by what is good for the Earth.
  4. Ask yourself: What is Earth’s situation with a throng of humans on board?
  5. Think: You are built on the same plan as the worm—a hollow tube open at both ends, with a brain at one end but not the other.
  6. If you want something to believe in, try sunlight, air, and damp soil.
  7. What if we split Earth like an avocado so we could mine the iron at its core?
  8. Engage without depleting or spoiling, that is the art.
  9. Earth is here for the long haul; what about us?
  10. Our first duty to Earth: Do no harm.

With my next post I will turn to consider the second level of our engagements with the outside world—those with the cultural setting to which we are born.

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