I will conclude these posts on cultural engagements with twelve episodes illustrating a few of my personal engagements as divided among four successive posts. Here are the first three.

1. Rush Week. In 1951, I was living in a fraternity in Boston as a sophomore at MIT. Early in the term, fraternities entertained prospective pledges from among the incoming freshman class. I was particularly struck by the mental acuity and good nature of a student from India. I took him around the house, played Ping-Pong with him, sat with him at lunch, and thought he made an excellent candidate.

After lunch, the president of the fraternity took me aside and told me I was doing a great job stringing the boy along, making him feel welcome, while there wasn’t a chance in hell we would pledge a dark foreigner.

My response to that news was to find an apartment near Kenmore Square and to quit the fraternity I could no longer belong to because of its Whites-only policy, which I naively hadn’t realized was part of its deep-South traditions from post-Civil-War days. I haven’t stepped into a fraternity house for sixty-four years.

2. Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz. In a recent post I mentioned coming upon a Boston Symphony performance led by Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. That was one of the most moving experiences of my college life, which I stumbled into during a Wednesday afternoon walk when I found the door open at Symphony Hall. A sandwich-board on the sidewalk announced an open rehearsal, so, out of curiosity, I went in and sat in the back row. I knew Berlioz from WGBH broadcasts, but had never been present at a live performance. Monteux raised his baton just as I took my seat.

What caught my attention was actually witnessing the different instruments and sections playing the music that I heard with my ears. It was the simultaneous presence of hearing the music and seeing its lively performance at the same time that astonished me. My eyes and ears reinforced each other, adding to an experience I had never had until that day.

It was the seeing that sticks with me, the actual display of sounds being produced through human effort. Violins, cellos, bases, brass, woodwinds, tympani—I can see them all. The standing percussionist striking the suspended chimes with a small mallet produced sounds I had never fully appreciated until then. He is with me today as I write these words, making a guest appearance in my mind, reminding me of my discovery of what “in concert” actually means.

3. Tripping on the Long Island Railroad. In Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, I took all the physics, chemistry, and math classes that were offered. By my senior year, there were no more to take. Back in Hamilton, my ninth-grade science teacher had sent home a note telling my parents that he thought I had a knack for science, and might pursue it as a career. In Seattle, I took an aptitude test to see if that was really the case. In disbelief, I looked over the bar graph of the results: I was high in arts and humanities, low in science. Stupid test! I instantly dismissed it. As a senior I went all-or-nothing, applying to MIT and no other school. For good or ill, I got in.

The first year was made up solely of meeting core requirements, with one token humanities course. In my second year I took differential equations, heading toward a major in physics—I thought acoustics sounded nice. But I ran out of steam, and decided to quit school. My mother got on my case and convinced me to see out the year. Which I grudgingly did. I went to a counsellor, and applied to Columbia in New York as a transfer student. I was scheduled for an interview on the Columbia campus, so arranged to stay with friends of my parents on Long Island the night before, and took the bus from Boston to New York, then the LIRR to Port Washington.

A memorable trip under heavy skies. I spent most of my time staring out the rain-spattered window at heavy wires strung next to the tracks on what I still think of as telegraph poles. From my perspective looking out the window, the wires rose to the level of the crossbars on successive poles, then fell in great swoops in between, rising and falling like waves mile-after-mile, putting me into a kind of hypnotic trance. I wasn’t thinking about anything—then the truth burst upon me: There is no God! There can’t be any God because I can’t square God with those wires, which are absolutely real. I was totally engaged with the rhythm of the wires strung along the tracks; there was no room for God in that experience. He was superfluous. Irrelevant. God, I saw, was a vain conceit of ancient peoples in all their innocence. It was not a rational thought, it simply came to me as a bolt out of gray skies and those up-and-down wires.

It was one of the most powerful realizations of my life. Transformative. Everything up to then culminated in those lilting wires along the Long Island Railroad. It was like a dam had burst inside me as a declaration of undoubted truth. Farewell, creator, ruler, judge, and confessor. Banished by clarity. Blessed clarity washing over and through me. Had I been that wishy-washy all those years? I abruptly discovered I was capable of independent thought. Well, not thought, really, but profound insight. I knew I was right; my entire life until then added up to that moment. Childhood fell away; everything would be different from now on.

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434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.

Living in a small village is one thing; you know everyone by name, know their children, what they do for a living, when they are sick. You can afford to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they are good people, and help them when they have a setback. By helping a neighbor in a village, you are likely helping one of your relatives who shares some of your genes.

But when an entire culture intrudes into our safety zone by mail, phone, TV, newspaper, magazine, internet, email, cellphone, connecting us to everything that’s happening every minute of our lives—culture is no longer our friend or relative but is clearly out to get at us in our homes and other places where we used to feel safe and snug.

It’s not our culture so much as theirs, whoever all those people are who commandeer our personal engagements for purposes of their own. I know they are out there; I get emails, letters, and phone calls from them every day trying to convince me to follow their agenda.

Perhaps in some far and mythical past, cultures were built and maintained by groups for the mutual benefit of all members. When people got sick, others took care of them. When they needed help, others lent a hand.

But now there are so many of us, and we come in so many varieties, we can’t identify with the whole, so tend to defend ourselves by reducing our decisions to yes-or-no choices, stay or flee, love or hate, pass or fail.

As it turns out, this is exactly how our minds work on the most basic level. Neurons either fire or they don’t, send signals forward or not, excite or inhibit, engage or stand pat. Our minds are made to reduce complex issues to simple choices so that we can act decisively in short order.

Which holds as true in cultural as in natural settings. Culture exists for our personal benefit so that our needs can be met with minimal fuss, delay, and expense. When it gets out of hand and causes more trouble than we can bear, it consumes us as so much fodder for the benefit of aggressive others, not as individuals worthy in themselves.

In the end, cultures are governed by nested layers of laws, ordinances, rules, edicts, ignorance, and hearsay. With culture serving as a buffer between humans and nature, we thrive on obeying the rules, such as they are. That way we can coordinate our efforts, take turns, play our parts in synchrony with others, practice, rehearse, and improve our performance so that we eventually get it right—either that, or are proven wrong once again.

Rules of one sort or another are what make cultures work for a wide diversity of people looking out from the relative calm and shelter of their subjective states. And if they don’t work all that well, they can always be improved.

Along with rules come the enforcers. The leaders, teachers, trainers, coaches, managers, directors, supervisors, inspectors, umpires, referees, timekeepers, linesmen, hall patrollers, quality controllers, and all the rest.

Their job is to make sure the rules are obeyed, which challenges us to do our best within tight constraints. We can harmonize our efforts, play our parts, go solo, work in unison, or in duets, trios, quartets . . . unto nonets and beyond. Which takes training, practice, rehearsal, anxiety, adrenalin, and giving our all.

Being under direction the whole way assures coordination of specialized efforts to achieve maximum effect by smoothing and synchronizing our individual performances as they issue from the passionate core of our respective black boxes.

Culture, then, is the great stabilizer that balances and coordinates our myriad individual efforts for the common good (or ill). Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Symphony Hall is one cultural event at which I was present in my little black box back in 1951. It was, well, fantastique.

Others have watched or run in the Boston Marathon; cheered Harvard on against Yale; attended Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots games; taken flights from Logan Airport; cruised among the islands in Boston Harbor; visited the Science Museum and Massachusetts General Hospital; read the Boston Globe; and borrowed books from Boston Public Library.

Such coordinated events and institutions are not generally possible in nature. It is human culture that sponsors them, and human individuals that support the opportunities for engagement they offer. Without culture, we wouldn’t be anything like who we are. Imagine being born in the Neo- or Paleolithic Era.

Whether we are deferential or assertive personality types, culture forms, stirs, provokes, instructs, and challenges us to grow into the people we become. And that profound influence is not so much in our brains as in our cultural experience as enabled by our brains. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take country culture out of the boy. Country culture isn’t so much in the boy’s brain as it is in the integrated style of his engagements, in his way of being himself. Through years of engagement, it resides in his eyes, ears, muscles, clothing, vocabulary, and neural pathways, ready to be activated on demand.

Music is a branch of culture that makes it possible for people to gather for the purpose of making noise. The art is in the integrity of the noise, how it all fits together. What string quartets and jazz ensembles release in me is a sensitivity to and appreciation for the interplay between separate voices weaving in and out among their companions.

I find musical chords boring. I like polyphony, each voice playing its part. It’s the difference, not the sameness that gets me. The playful gap between voices, the delta, the dichotomy, the discrepancy, the polarity, the disparity. In brief, the close encounter, engagement, relationship, interaction. Moving in, then away, then back again by a different route.

It’s the wayfaring. Playfully finding the way in easy company. I turn off the switch on jazz that blows the loudest, highest, longest. That’s for the Olympics. So what? I say to myself. It’s not individual prowess in itself I want to hear but deftness in relating to others. The more spontaneously the better and more engaging. That is my preference. I am not a rational or reasonable person. I’m out for adventure. That’s what I seek and pay attention to. The lilt and surprise, not the pure form. Not the logic.

432. Our Cultural Philosophy

February 13, 2015

Regarding impediments to our personal journeys, in an increasingly globalized culture, of our many concerns, commerce has come to dominate our attention and engagement. Trading in goods. Shopping, buying what we need and selling what we don’t. Money changing hands all the while. The point being to get a good price; good from buyers’ perspective, good from sellers’.

In the U.S., commerce is now what we are primarily conscious of, every day of our lives. Making a profit from the sale of material goods and services. Most other facets of our culture—art, education, governance, justice, technology, sports, healthcare, food and energy production, personal freedom, fairness, environmental protection—are glossed over by the arch value of making a monetary profit.

In the world of films, for example, box office eclipses excellence as a criterion of success. On our national journey, profit leads the way. Wherever we pay attention with alert minds, trade is involved.

We are out to make, if not a killing, a better life for ourselves. Which we see primarily in terms of money and goods, not engagement with the mysterious or the unknown, not self-improvement, not beauty, not world peace, not equality, not civil rights, not freedom and justice for all (including Native Americans, Blacks, Latin-Americans, Asians, women, children, immigrants, and animals).

The whole story of mind is told by what we are interested in, pay attention to, notice, discover, and engage with every day of our lives. That is, by what we have in mind, what we are mindful of, what we think and talk about, what captivates us, what excites us, what is important to us, what is at the core of our existence as cultural beings.

Because of the way our minds operate, these peak engagements are told by their polarity, the way they strike us on an either/or scale of polar opposition. That is, by what pleases us or displeases us. What we like or don’t like, want or don’t want, seek or avoid, love or deplore.

After all, we can’t pay attention to every gradation. Our bandwidth is too small. So we focus sharply on what strikes us as good or bad, pleasant or painful, beautiful or ugly, healthy or unhealthy, wise or stupid, enriching or debasing, fun or serious.

If we have too many choices, we get confused. Too much email to respond to, too many friends on Facebook, too many films to see, books to read, games to play, people to meet, glasses of beer to drink—we have to draw the line sharply just to stay sane. Enough, already! Simplify. Prioritize. Being starkly clear lets us act fast and stay on top of things.

Reflecting the conscious concerns of every one of its members, each culture is hugely complex. Living with others, particularly those we don’t know, can be stressful. We can’t be all things to all people. If we try, that leads to overload. Our minds have limited capacities for dealing with what cries out for our attention. We have to cut back to the essentials we need to deal with and chuck the rest.

So in the U.S., we put first things first in paying attention to money and commercial affairs because, as we see it, everything else depends on that. With money in the bank, we claim to lead the good life. Poverty and deprivation—even sufficiency—are thought degrading. Everything takes money; without it, we can’t do what we want. Or be who we want.

It’s the economy, stupid! In black and white, Bill Clinton has given us a bumper-sticker slogan to serve as America’s cultural philosophy.

Our brains are too puny to account for the fullness of, and variations between, our minds. We can study the brain forever and not find diamonds, electricity, tartans, boomerangs, umlauts, or inhabitable planets in far galaxies.

When we die as individuals, such things persist in our cultural repository. When all people die, then only the mind of nature will be left, and nature’s brain, which is the whole Earth itself from whose waters and soils we have risen into sunlight.

Nature and culture are unnamed lobes of the brain. We participate in them as much as we do our own thoughts. Without them, we wayfarers in our black-box vessels would not float on life’s currents. Nature and culture (including art, science, politics, economics, literature, and religion) are concepts in our minds, and memes in our cultures. We become imaginable only in their fields of influence. The initiative to engage them is up to us.

We find ourselves simply thrown here at birth by forces we do not understand any more than we do gravity. We know only that we have to stack dishes bottom to top, and that when we trip we will fall down. If we are wise, we will learn to live in gravitational fields, natural fields, cultural fields, subjective fields.

Simply put, that is both our heritage and our destiny if we are to fulfill the promise we are born to. Pitch-in and engage the best we can, that is the way. Start by opening our eyes, focusing, lifting our heads, paying attention, looking at and listening to the sights and sounds around us. Opening ourselves to the great ambient that is ours by birth, whether we discover ourselves in Mongolia, Tibet, Syria, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, Finland, or the south side of Chicago.

We will come into selfhood by starting where we are, when we are there, then moving on through nature and culture while always being true to ourselves, building on that genetic and cultural platform. How far can we go in a single lifetime? That is the question. All we can do is start out and see where our legs carry us on our great, unforeseen journey.

Culture can be as much an impediment as it is a way to the future. We have to be selective in how we follow the advice and example of our family, friends, and elders. Pick and choose, that is the way of engagement. As guided by our personal judgment acquired through years of proceeding by trial and error.

Take a step and see where it gets us. Then retreat or move ahead, or bound like a knight in a game of chess. Or even stay put where we are. We all have choices, all the time, wherever we are.

Ever rethinking, we revise and adjust our engagements. That is called growth. Learning through experience. Blazing our own trails. Being ourselves. Not who we were, but who we are on the way to becoming who we will turn out to be.

No, we can’t know in advance; we have to find out through a process of self-discovery. That is the adventure of a lifetime, the very reason we are here. Our survival depends upon it.

Overall, culture is the footprint of our collective ways of actually obtaining the basic necessities of life from our home planet. Necessities including air, water, food, shelter, warmth, fuel, clothing, sex, safety, healthcare, and help with projects we can’t handle alone.

Omitting environmental protection (along with the arts, sciences, religions, sports, entertainments, and other cultural interests), the U.S. President’s cabinet of top advisors is concerned with agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health, housing, homeland security, interior, justice, labor, state, treasury, transportation, and veterans affairs.

That brief list hints (by what’s on it and what’s missing) at the intricacy of the infrastructure necessary to maintaining a modern national culture. The shadow of the Washington Monument reaches farther than we commonly suppose. In that shadow, the U.S. is governed by a lopsided, Washingtonian synopsis of the culture we engage with every day of our lives, whether we know it or not.

We are governed by the rules of “fair play” in the form of legislative and judicial decisions, edicts, proclamations, ordinances, policies, and guidelines of every imaginable sort. We are subject to the rule of law—layer upon layer of it—which regulates our engagements in more ways than we can keep up with or even imagine.

This system results in a state of full employment with good pensions for government employees, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of our system of laws. Think of the potholes filled, snows plowed, ditches dug, wrecks hauled, votes counted, tax bills sent out, hearings held, reports issued, checks cashed, jails filled, witnesses sworn, and on and on. The pulse of state never skips a single beat.

On the other hand, we now use the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to gauge the success of the U.S. Economy, and by extension, the standard of living of its culture and people. Little Bhutan on the slopes of the Himalayas, to the contrary, gauges its national quality of life by an index of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Other alternatives to the GDP include the Happy Planet Index, Better Life Index, and Social Progress Index. Or if you’d rather wallow in the mud, there’s the Misery Index.

How about cultural ratings based on Justice for All, Peaceful Solutions, Nonviolent Alternatives, Earth Forever, or Small is Beautiful? Once you start thinking about other ways of rating cultural achievements, it’s hard to stop.

One thing is clear: It’s time to raise the bar for the cultural measures we use to rate our success. The GDP ignores environmental degradation and exploitation as direct consequences of production, as well as inequality of wealth distribution. Who are we kidding. Who else but We the People?

Clearly, culture descends from above and outside as a distorted reflection of the concerns we sent aloft in the first place. We the People are the proposers of culture. The instigators. The starting impetus is our doing, each of us bearing the burden of the share for which he or she is personally responsible. And for which her/his parents are personally responsible. And their parents before them.

But the disposers—the administrators—of culture are the powers that be. It is they who take our little yearnings and view them through the lens of their personal advantage. Culture is like an archaeological dig down through the midden of human activity until we hit bedrock, which is nature’s doing before our tribe came on the scene. Ultimately, our culture is founded on the native ground of our planet. We inherit a version of culture that, beyond being built on that substrate, is modified by the cumulative impact of all who have come before us.

Culture shapes us according to the free-floating pressures and concerns most alive in our minds at the time and place of our birth—and those same concerns as translated and answered by those who are in charge. Where do we find shelter? Water? Something to wear? A place to sleep? Our next meal? Work? Help? Care? A potential mate? A dump for our waste?

Our culture shows us the path. As wayfarers, we learn from those around us. We go where they go and do as they do, modifying their example to fit our personal needs and desires. As we engage with our culture, so do our minds learn, so do we become.

Our minds respond to the bite, the pang, the sting, the punch of disparity between the two sides of our engagements with culture. Between what we want to do and what we can actually pull off. We dream big so we can at least make some kind of mark.

Habits and convictions are a drag. The secret is to pursue what we don’t understand. We can run on that fuel forever. The ocean of culture is always bigger than our little puddle of experience. There’s way more ahead than behind us. Surrender? Never! Keep looking over the next hill and around the next bend and down the back alley. We haven’t been there yet to discover those dimensions of ourselves.

It’s easy to believe that culture is largely caught up with what’s wrong with the world, not what’s right. Just turn on the news. Read the paper. Talk with your neighbor. After a time it’s tempting to settle for that world of petty skirmishes and frustrations and disappointments and forlorn hopes.

Bruised and battered, we want to give up. That seems the safest course. If we do nothing, nobody can blame us for doing the wrong thing. If we disengage and don’t venture a thing, we’ll be safe. Quick, hide! Quit the race, the forum, the stage, the soap box, the protest, the rebellion, the call to action. Don’t make waves. Go find a cave in the desert and cherish your lonely illusions. Blame the world for all that is wrong. You know who to name: Everyone but you.

People are no damn good. If you’d never been born, you could have lived in ignorance forever. You had it made. Your big mistake was having doubts and asking too many questions. There are no questions in a cave. Only darkness. Forever. Just shut your eyes and ears—your black box is a kind of private cave. The ultimate shelter. Your own living grave.

But no, disengagement is not the answer. Never the answer. This reflection is about engagement, not giving up. Not hiding, not taking drugs, not getting drunk, not running away, not quitting, not lashing out in anger, not blaming others.

Engagement is aimed at using errors and discrepancies to change things for the better. The helmsman doesn’t blame his compass for getting off course; he has a wheel for correcting his heading. He’s not there to complain but to rectify that specific situation. He is a change agent, not a prophet of doom.

As every cultural wayfarer is an agent of change. Every path leads both the right way and wrong way. It’s not the fork in the road that makes all the difference, it’s the change in your mind—your attitude, your dreams, your understanding, your growth—that matters. Where you are compared to where you want to go. You can get there from here. You are the voyager crossing unknown depths to new shores and continents, not for conquest, but for engagement, revelation, and discovery.

As an Earthling, you claim nothing for God, King, or Queen. Your loyalty is to Earth and your own mind, your designated planet and vehicle of experience.

It would be tiresome to run through all the dangers and failings of our cultural engagements. That would merely catalogue the norm of our fumblings through the ages. We could harp forever on the burning of witches and heretics, sinking of the Titanic, fiery crash of the Hindenburg, America’s so-called Iraq War, or the ruin of Middle-Eastern culture by sectarian strife and hostility. Killing others requires deadening oneself.

I’m more interested in the opportunities suggested by the widening gap between the fullness of our promise and our meager accomplishments. There, now, is something to contemplate and engage to the fullest. A challenge worthy of us all.

Embracing all the ways of the human world, “culture” labels a concept so large and abstract that it has room for almost any idea, construct, behavior, object, or institution we can imagine being projected outward from the collective human mind onto the natural world. Pizza is an aspect of culture, as is a school bus, AK-47, hula hoop, an abacus, the Eifel Tower, and religious strife in the Middle East.

Reduced to a metaphor, culture has many faces. It can be seen as:

  • A people’s collective human agenda writ large on the Earth.
  • The façade we erect to make nature acceptable to us.
  • The mask we force nature to wear in our presence to reshape its looks to our liking.
  • The great mirror we put up to reflect our personal likes and dislikes as if they were features of the world.
  • The wall we build around ourselves to keep the wild world at bay.
  • The stage set we prefer to our natural setting.
  • The human context we are born to, including its language, vocabulary, reference libraries, statistics, artifacts, histories, wars, arts, sciences, ideas, monuments, communication media, ways of getting about, trade routes, and all the rest.

Think Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam, Suez Canal, Stonehenge, The Koran, Bible, Sayings of Confucius. Songs of Woody Guthrie. Beethoven string quartets. Our courts and penal system. Cosmology through the ages. Be sure to include Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and the legislative stalemate in Washington.

Culture is nothing less than the public forum where we engage throughout our lives, the stage where we each give our personal performance. We ought to know, we built it ourselves. Not the original, but the one we keep running in good order with daily contributions of our collected dreams, needs, and desires. In that sense, culture is a reification (thingification) of our thoughts, imaginings, hopes, fears, and all the rest of the contents of our personal black boxes.

When we were infants, the then culture of our birth family calibrated our inner workings in the terms we would grow into and live by for the rest of our lives. It gave us a repertory of numbers, letters, words, gestures, symbols, songs, poems, stories, behaviors, lies, and beliefs useful in describing our inner thoughts and situations.

Now that we are older and know the ropes, we give back in kind to keep the show going for the next generation, modified to slight degree by the gleanings of our cumulative personal experience. As adults, the whole thing is now our intellectual property because we’ve given it nothing less than our perceptions, meanings, judgments, actions, and engagements, all adding up to nothing less than our inner lives turned inside-out.

I remember being told that I was born in Faxton Memorial Hospital in Utica, New York, in the dark days of The Depression in 1932. That puts the culture I was born to in Upstate New York during days of high unemployment. One of the primary goals people had in that place and time was, if not getting “ahead,” at least holding their own. I was given tests in school to see how I would measure-up at getting a good job. Which was seen as something called my “intelligence.”

Nobody could tell me what that word meant, but it seemed to imply how smart I was in terms of doing well on the test, and perhaps beyond that, doing well in life. Cultures do a lot of that—gauging how well young people can expect to fit into the beliefs of their particular segment of humanity. Which often turns out to be a kind of superstition that such tests actually measure a meaningful mental quality that individuals are said to possess in varying amounts.

So here I am today, a grown-up child of that upstate culture, writing about “situated intelligence” as if I knew what it meant. It is only fair that I share that understanding with anyone who happens to read these words.

I use situated intelligence in referring to the key link between perception and action in individual human minds. In my last post (Reflection 427), I wrote, “Consciousness comes down to having behavioral options and choosing among them.” I see situated intelligence as the agent responsible in each of us for making such judgments and decisions regarding how to respond to any particular situation as based on the configuration of a great many dimensions contributing to the nature of just that situation.

As I now see it, personal intelligence responds to three Questions. Perception, I have said, gives our best answer to the question, “What’s going on?” from our point of view at that moment. Judgment answers the question, “What does that mean in my case?” With action following on to give the answer to, “What should I do?”

As I see it, our intelligence plays the central role in coming up with answers to those questions in order, so linking perception of ongoing events to actions meant as an appropriate response to those same events. What I call situated intelligence serves as the mediating agent that routes incoming signals toward outgoing actions in a meaningful way.

That link, in other words, is the central focus of what I call our loops of engagement with selected aspects of our external environments, enabling us to fit our behaviors to the situations we find ourselves in as best we can figure out what they are.

The several dimensions of consciousness constituting the situation that we feel we are in include sensory impressions, remembrance of similar situations in the past, emotions, values, imagination, understanding, humor, life force (available energy), ideas, thoughts, attitudes, excitement, interest, curiosity, among other constituents of inner awareness. That particular situation is our judgment of what all those dimensions mean or add up to, allowing us to choose the behavioral option that best serves our amalgamated interests at the moment.

That is what I mean by situated intelligence in developing these posts to my blog.

My thought is that my ongoing engagement with my surroundings is run by my intelligence as the agent designated to provide just that service. That agent is who I am. It is not a little man in my head, it is no one else but myself, agent-in-charge of matching my perceptions to actions intended to promote my personal well-being.

That is my conclusion after considering my many engagements on the cultural level of my lifelong experience. My experience is embedded in the particular culture that has calibrated my mind from the first minutes after my birth eighty-two years ago.

I am not making this up out of my head. I am actively engaged with the culture that has enveloped me every moment of my life. This is a long-lasting, team project for which I happen to be the primary spokesperson from an introspective point of view. Other than serving in that capacity, I have nothing else to offer. I have no choice. I am committed to being myself, my very own situated intelligence, until my last minute of conscious life as shaped by the culture I was born to.

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.

Eelgrass is an underwater flowering plant that feeds and protects a significant numbers of estuarine and marine species. Like those many species, I, too, have a longstanding engagement with eelgrass in Taunton Bay, though unlike them, my life doesn’t depend on that engagement. I don’t live in it and don’t eat it.

But I do photograph great blue herons and Canada geese that feed in eelgrass meadows near low tide, as well as least sandpipers that glean amphipods (beach hoppers, scuds, and the like) from the wrack of dead leaves that break off from their grassy stems and wash up onshore at the end of the season. So, yes, like my other engagements with nature, eelgrass is part of my life because it’s part of my ongoing awareness.

For over twenty-five years, I have conducted aerial surveys of eelgrass in the bay at frequent intervals. The meadows vary in size from one year to the next because the conditions affecting their growth are never the same two years in a row.

In 2001, the meadows abruptly disappeared, leaf blades turning black, then breaking off their stems and floating away on the tide. Leaving fish nurseries without their usual protective thickets, Canada geese without fronds to graze, black ducks without periwinkles to dabble and upend for.

Shocking surprises get my attention because they trigger consciousness itself. Pleasant surprises do, too, but this was no pleasant surprise.

Eelgrass Dieback Disease, 2001

Eelgrass in the Throes of Dieback Disease, August 2001

This was a catastrophe for Taunton Bay, and I hadn’t seen it coming. If I had extrapolated the downward trend of rainfall in preceding years, I might have predicted the drought, but I noticed it only in hindsight. I wouldn’t have predicted the dieback because I didn’t know that the wasting disease responsible for the loss of eelgrass was usually held in check by the low salinity characteristic of estuaries where streamflow and snowmelt dilute the saltiness of incoming tides.

I spent years trying to grasp what had gone wrong, and by studying aerial photos, finally figured it was a one-two punch delivered by a season with the least rainfall in the region since precipitation records had been kept for over a hundred years. The higher than normal salinity favored the dieback disease, which knocked out the eelgrass.

 

Recovering Eelgrass Meadow

Eelgrass Recovering from Dieback Disease, June 2010

There were no sea lavender plants in 2001, either. What do eelgrass and sea lavender have in common? An absolute dependence on skywater. In the first case to keep salinity low so the wasting disease (which thrives in high salinity) wouldn’t take hold. In the second case, to maintain sufficient flow of water through the soil from shorelands into sandflats where sea lavender thrives.

It took some eight years for the meadows to recover to anywhere near their extent in the year before the drought. I could tell that eelgrass was beginning to come back when sprouts appeared in the shallow drainage channels across mudflats at the mouths of small streams. Of all places in the bay, that’s where salinity is lowest and most hostile to the wasting disease organism. A seed that settles there has a good chance of taking hold.

 

Eelgrass Up-Close and Personal

Healthy Blades of Eelgrass at Low Tide

Eelgrass meadows disappeared again in 2013 as abruptly as they did in 2001, for an entirely different reason. Here again there were warning signs, this time unusually high turbidity two years in a row, but no one could figure out why bay waters were so cloudy. Was it due to mussel dragging in Frenchman Bay? Hand-raking mussels in Taunton Bay? As it turned out, it was due to green crabs.

No one suspected that the unusually warm winter of 2012-2013 would spur a bloom in invasive green crab populations, or that that bloom would affect eelgrass. But that’s what happened. In 2013, green crabs were everywhere. I saw a great many every time I walked along the shore. Lobster pots containing hundreds of green crabs were hauled up, attracted by the bait in each trap. I had trouble picturing green crabs using their claws to nip off eelgrass stems, mowing down hundreds of acres of inshore meadows all along the Maine coast, but that’s what they did.

Add warmer waters due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere favoring green crab reproduction, and I quickly saw that given their appetites as individuals, a spike in their numbers could result in a loss of eelgrass throughout the state. Fishermen are now taking green crabs as bycatch, developing a new market for their use as fertilizer, catfood, and lobster bait.

The future, recently thought to be far ahead, is upon us. I have no notion how this drama will play-out due to changing conditions, but it is clear that tomorrow will differ from today in ways I never imagined.

This is the last example I will give of my firsthand engagements with nature. My next post will be a summary of what I have learned from my lifelong natural experience. Then I will move on to the cultural level of my engagements, which I see as engagements with nature once-removed. That is, with nature in human disguise.