I took C. Kenneth Meese’s Theory of the Photographic Process with me into the Army when I was drafted. I’ll bet no other draftee has ever chosen that particular book to take with him into the service. But the choice made sense to me because I wanted to know how light striking a light-sensitive emulsion could produce a photographic image.

Kodak made emulsions out of cheek pieces of cattle obtained from slaughterhouses. The makeup of those cheek pieces depended on what the cattle had eaten in the fields they had lived in. The sensitivity of the photographic emulsions invented by George Eastman depended on the amount of sulfur from mustard weed the cows had ingested.

Kodak film came to depend on very strict quality control of the diets of cows whose cheek pieces went into the gelatin from which that film was made. Who could have known, or even suspected? I loved it, reading that book by flashlight after taps during basic training. The Army didn’t own me completely; by clinging to such idiosyncratic engagements, I was still my own man.

So here I am today, writing about the exploration of my own mind, trying to finish this project before I die, continuing a tradition begun so long ago under the influence of the family I was born to as middle male child out of three. I loved my parents, but felt distant from them. My older brother had my father’s attention; my younger brother was my mother’s chief concern. I turned my engagements into the world of nature and discovery. Given the family I was born to, I didn’t know what else to do.

Here I am, still at it, but with a twist. Looking inward because so few others have taken that path, and among all choices, that is the one that intrigues me the most. The real action is not in the world or its universe. It is in the miracle of our own minds that dare entertain such mysteries.

Einstein’s famous thought experiments were all in his mind, as current theories of how the universe works are in the minds of modern cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists. I can’t understand taking on the universe with an incomplete grasp of the primary tool I use to observe its features. Talk about carts before horses, that strikes me as insane, employing a mind you don’t understand to probe the biggest mystery of all. The blind leading the blind. Trapped in worlds of conjecture and opinion.

All going back to the families we were raised in, to our primal engagements, and the lifelong habits we build around them. To the situations we found ourselves in early on and tried to understand. And to explain, often mainly to ourselves. The very selves we have to understand in getting beyond our limitations to a true appreciation of our place in the cosmos.

The development of our minds begins in our families where we catch on to the trick of linking perception to judgment to acting on purpose, then extending our reach into nature, culture community, and back to us in our families. Taking full responsibility for such loops of engagement, we can begin to understand features of the universe beyond our true grasp.

This post concludes my series not only on family engagements, but engagements with nature, culture, and community as well. I now switch to considering three examples of engagements that distinguish us as a people: our engagements with baseball as our national pastime, Roget’s Thesaurus as a reference on every writer’s bookshelf, and with the stars which serve as a luminous slate for projecting our deepest needs into the mystery of the night sky.

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450. Family Story

March 6, 2015

My grandmother died of a heart attack in 1896 after giving birth to her only child, so he, my father, had never know her, his own mother. He was christened at her graveside. And as it turned out, his own children never knew him, our father. To us he might well have been a cobbler hammering at his last in some distant workroom across town.

But we loved him in spirit because he often read to us before bedtime. In the end, he pipe-smoked himself to death at age sixty-four. When he said good night, he smelled like an ashtray.

Though famous in a professional sense, he never found the engagement he missed-out on when the one person destined to be there for him never showed up. He never engaged her, his own mother, so never had a chance to respond to her personal qualities, and so never developed his own. He was a presence notable for its absence due to professional duties. Throughout my life, he was always this bemused man in the background.

In retrospect, I see him as a good provider, but, too, as a kind of silent partner, a sort of blank to be filled-in upon later reflection. That is what I see myself doing in writing this blog using the English language to write about the one mind I have to work with. And saw my two brothers doing late in life before they died, putting themselves into typing out plays and poetry, respectively. Reminding me of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, children of the John B. Watson era of child abuse by means of edicts issued from academia.

My father’s great gift to his family was Burying Island, which my mother brought to family attention as a memory from her childhood, presented to her in a dream she had in 1937 of a time she and her father had rowed to the island to pick raspberries. Talk about family engagements: I have spent almost my whole life interacting with that island on the Maine coast, and I am sure that connection explains why I moved to Maine in 1986 to become an inadvertent environmentalist.

My love for that island goes back to its meaning for both of my parents. For my mother it was a living remnant of her relationship with her father; for my father is was a fantasy remnant of a relationship with the mother he never knew. For me, it was the setting of the happiest days we enjoyed as a family before we went our separate ways into disparate worlds of our own.

I now manage Burying Island LLC for the three families that used to own it in undivided shares, but together formed an LLC to assure protection of its ecological integrity for the foreseeable future. A good part of my life’s energy has gone toward protecting that island from innocent degradation by well-meaning family members. That island is at the core of my creative life as Steve from planet Earth.

Mind, self, island, planet—I can’t keep them separate because in my experience they aren’t separate at all. They are levels of life on Earth as expressed through my lineage. I had to live my whole life to this point in order to write that sentence in the context of this reflection.

That is how my mind works. And I would now say how minds work in general. Ultimately they are expressions of the planet that bore them, their families, communities, cultures, and natural surroundings, at root based on sunlight and water joining forces with soil to create mindful life.

Our families provide a core around which our engagements are wrapped, giving shape to our actions, judgments, and perceptions. Here I am connecting the words in this blog to the situation I have created for myself by undertaking this project as an expression of my family history as kindled by my mother and father all the way back to the founding of one-celled life in ancient waters and soils pooled together and both warmed and lit by rays from the sun.

This is my story as dictated to my fingers by my mind. All told by trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling that make up the mind that I am.

Can you feel it—that flow? That’s who I am in alerting you to that flow in yourself, to give you encouragement to keep your own flow flooding through your mind and activities as a vehicle for your family’s history of turning sunlight and moisture into deeds that perpetually flower in the guise of your creative engagements.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, that is why I undertook the project of writing this blog—to earn the right to say what I just did in these last few sentences and paragraphs.

 

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.

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.

Maine is known as a so-called natural-resource state. Think trees. Lumber. Paper. Wood pellets. Firewood. Peat moss. Lobsters. The once-famous fish in the Gulf of Maine. Sand and Gravel. Granite. Seaweed. Scenery. Wildlife. There are a lot of jobs dependent on those resources. A huge chunk of the Maine economy.

Resources, by definition, are supposedly renewable. That’s what re-source means. It’s a source again and again. Which requires careful management, including setting quotas that can safely be “harvested.”

When the price of elvers—tiny eels migrating back to their home habitat areas in Maine rivers—rose to a thousand dollars a pound, you can bet the eel catchers did everything they could to capture as many as possible in their nets. That collective effort put tremendous pressure on the homeward-bound elvers, which Asian nations raise to mature eels to feed their burgeoning populations.

Industrial giants make billions from their many natural-resource extractions. We mine the Earth, trawl the seas, cut the tops off mountains, spew our spent space apparatus as a belt of scrap metal circling the Earth—because that’s how we engage natural resources as our personal cornucopia. Enterprise we call it. Big business. Making a living.

How ironic is it that we plunder the Earth in order to live?

What others have, we want for ourselves. That’s called jealousy. Jealousy, it seems, runs the world. We are envious of others for what they take from the Earth. What they possess. What they engage with. We envy their circles of engagement with life itself, and treat them as celebrities.

We want to attain such a level of engagement for ourselves. To own such possessions. To have them available for our personal use.

Having and owning are the basis of our possessiveness, our shopping sprees, our powerful concept of personal ownership of a planet that clearly supports us all. Private ownership is the dark side of human engagement. Of consciousness gone haywire.

What if I claimed, these are my horseshoe crabs, my eelgrass meadows, my fish in the bay? If life has a mystery, personal ownership is it. How working for a living turns into an engagement that degrades the Earth. How our engagements come to master us as if we had no control over them. And once we initiated them, they had to run to their inevitable conclusion.

Ownership and control are such fundamental parts of our nature, of our natural heritage, we devote a huge amount of our cultural law to protecting the rights of individuals to engage as they please. This we call freedom, life’s blood of the capitalist system of consumption.

We interpret ownership as a right to engage whatever we want, however we will. Even unto destroying that which we love and desire.

But as the word “resource” implies, we own something, not by buying it or extracting it, but by caring for it and keeping it safe so we can enjoy it again and again. Not to exhaust it, but to ensure it will be available forever.

Engagement is a fundamental property of mind. It comes with coupling perception to action by way of meaning and judgment. In that sense, all property is intellectual property, property that reflects the workings of our minds. You’d think that if we all want the same thing, then we would be sure to keep that thing safe for everyone’s use.

But that’s not how our engagements work. Property is an attitude, a state of mind, a combined outlook and inlook. When we engage, we know exactly what we’re doing. Or should, if we keep our eyes open. If we do damage, we can see it for ourselves. And modify our behavior accordingly.

Engagement is strong stuff. Powerful in getting at the heart of our life as conscious beings. Of our having and holding a particular way of life we can count on, now and forever. Don’t come between me and my significant other—what- or whoever it might be. I will get very angry because you are threatening my way of life. My perceiving, judging, acting, and engaging. If you break my accustomed loop, I will take it very personally.

That loop is me as I know myself from the inside. It is who I am on this Earth. I am an ongoing process. I live to engage as I am with whom or what I choose at the time. I am beholden to those people or things I am responsible to in asking them to be responsible to me. That is all I want. Mutual engagement, commitment, and responsibility. Ownership and freedom as I say. The right, within limits, to live my life according to natural law.

That is the state of mind I am trying to get at in this post. The conflicted inner life we lead by leaving a sacked Earth in our wake. We engage our home planet as if it were the peel of a banana we lower the car window to toss into the road. Do you feel the power of that image? The true horror? If I didn’t believe it was the culminating truth of our existence, I wouldn’t be writing these words.

The course of our everyday mental functioning creates the worlds we live in as individuals who are living the lives we have made for ourselves. The lives we live out every day by maintaining the engagements we do with all that we care about. In our respective black boxes, unsupervised, we are at the center of those worlds, creating them day-after-day as the foundation of the life we hold as a commonwealth for one another.

The upshot of this line of thinking is that nature and its resources are not for sale and cannot be put on the market as the basis of our gross domestic product. That would be an absurdity. A for-sale sign on either the richest or poorest piece of land is an oxymoron, a contradiction unto itself. Nature is that which cannot be bought or sold. As Earthlings, we are born of the Earth; it is not possible to own our own mother. We survive as members of Earth’s family.

The point of our mutual engagements is to celebrate our common family together. Nature cannot be for sale, and cannot be bought, no matter what you hear in the market. Nature is a gut-level attraction we recognize when we go to open places and pay attention to the ambient energy falling on our sensory receptors.

We have to open our personal expectancy to such experience. No matter how many safaris we go on, and trophy heads collect, money won’t get it for us. To enjoy a truly natural experience, we must hold hands together, take the deepest possible breath, and breathe out a sigh of thanks for all that has come our way as a gift without our even having to ask.

The moral of this post:  We are stewards of our every engagement.

424. Why Taunton Bay?

February 5, 2015

Why do members of a small, fringe band of horseshoe crabs live in cold, rocky Taunton Bay when they could be living it easy in Delaware Bay with its much warmer waters and sandy shores? Having monitored horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay for several years, then witnessing the horde of breeding crabs in Delaware Bay in 2005, I couldn’t help asking that question.

 

Horseshoe Crabs in Delaware Bay

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs on the Warm, Sandy Shores of Delaware Bay

Or, put differently, what draws horseshoe crabs to Taunton Bay in the first place? Why are they here?

I’d lived as a guest of Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point for several years after leaving my camp on Burying Island, and laid out a monitoring site divided into 10-meter sectors that wrapped around a point of exposed granite ledge and boulders where horseshoe crabs faithfully came ashore to breed every spring when water temperature reached 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius). Patches of sand and gravel were far between around the point, yet that was the soil the crabs needed to lay their eggs. The rest was ledge and fields of glacially-rounded cobbles and boulders.

 

Ledges in Taunton Bay

Ledges and Boulders at the High Tide Line in Taunton Bay

A common saying has it that horseshoe crabs breed in the light of the full moon in May. If that is true, what is it about the full moon that brings them to shore? Could it be the extra light at night? The gravitational pull when moon, sun, and Earth are lined up in syzygy?

In Taunton Bay, breeding horseshoe crabs show up in the daytime at high tide. The shore is so treacherous, I’ve never checked for them at night. But that seems to rule out the light of the moon as the spark that sets off the breeding season. And at full moon, the tide is low at 6:00 a.m. and p.m., high at noon (and midnight), or an hour-and-a-half later in Taunton Bay due to the constriction at Tidal Falls.

 

High-tide line, Butler Point.

Rocky Shores of Butler Point Where Horseshoe Crabs Come to Breed.

It makes more sense to me that water temperature reaching the threshold of 56 degrees is what brings the crabs ashore to lay their eggs. And that the moon’s effect is in drawing an incoming tide over flats and rocks and ledges warmed by the morning sun, sharing the sun’s heat with the water as the tide rises, so warming the water to a maximum at high tide, when the crabs come ashore to breed for a period of a couple of hours.

In my thinking, breeding crabs are attracted to particular sites by the heat given off by sun-warmed ledges and boulders, then imparted to incoming tidal waters, and has nothing to do with the sparsity of suitable breeding habitat, which the crabs find by relentlessly searching and digging wherever they go along their favored breeding sites, no matter how ledgy and stony.

 

High Tide Line, Egypt Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Love the Warm Waters that Cover These Stones & Ledges.

Other horseshoe crab breeding sites in Maine feature sandier shores than does Taunton Bay, where the crabs are hardy enough to eke out a living under stern local conditions in spite of short summers, cold waters, and harsh habitats.

What Taunton Bay does have to offer is two shallow sub-embayments, Egypt Bay and Hog Bay, where incoming waters are warmed by sunlight falling on mudflats and ledges from low tide to high, briefly achieving warm conditions such as are a regular feature of Delaware Bay much farther south where millions of crabs breed on an annual basis.

 

Horseshoe crab breeding habitat, Taunton Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Eke Out the Gravel Between These Boulders & Ledges.

That is my hypothesis, achieved by observing and thinking about why horseshoe crabs have established an outlying population this far to the north of their usual spawning grounds across the world. I offer this as an example of my ongoing engagement with horseshoe crabs. They have established a beachhead in my consciousness, and I carry them everywhere I go, thinking about issues they raise on sleepless nights, dwelling on the predicaments they face, wondering why, against all odds, they cling to two exceptional habitat areas in Taunton Bay.

You might well ask, Who cares? I can only reply, I, for one. Because I engage horseshoe crabs on a daily basis, and have made them part of my life by paying attention to them for much of my time on this Earth. Our regular engagements become parts of our lives because so firmly rooted in our minds through our frequently acting and perceiving in unity.

By engaging, we make lives for ourselves. Those lives are what we are. Each different by nature and by passionate engagement. As we are expectant, observant, attentive, and active, so do we become. No two the same.

Me, I’m taken with horseshoe crabs, eelgrass, rockweed, deep woods, rowing, walking, hiking, and similar natural activities and engagements with my home planet. And now with consciousness as my basic tool for conducting those engagements. As you are taken by the aspects of that same planet as they affect you and draw out your lifetime engagements.

So are we all, products of the lives we actually lead, because those lives are in our minds to live out as we do. We can’t help it. That is our destiny. To be ourselves because it is beyond our abilities to be anyone else.

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.

In June, 2003, I became a tracker of horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay, where they are at the northern limit of their global range. Friends of Taunton Bay had a grant from the State Planning Office to do a one-year pilot project in bay management. The tracking effort was part of an assessment to provide background for that study.

I am a lifetime member of Friends of Taunton Bay, a nonprofit group keeping an eye on the bay through a variety of monitoring programs, starting in 1990. We partnered with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources in attaching sonar transmitters to thirteen crabs in each of two sub-embayments.

We were trying to figure out the horseshoe crabs’ annual patterns of movements, and whether or not they left the bay in the winter months for warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine, which it was generally believed they did.

 

Sonar Transmitter

Attaching Sonar Transmitter to Horseshoe Crab, June, 2003

My job was to track those twenty-six crabs with a sonar receiver carried about in a small boat. When the signal in my earphones from a particular crab was as loud as I could make it by fine-tuning my maneuvers, I marked my GPS (geographic positioning system) coordinates on a chart, figuring I was directly over that crab so my position was also its position as viewed from overhead.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore only during a two-week breeding season in the spring, so it’s no surprise that I saw only one during the two-and-a-half years I was tracking crabs from late April through late November. I judged that one to be directly under the boat when it was lodged against shoreline rocks; I backed off a few feet—and there it was with its mate, blue sonar transmitter epoxied to its prosoma (the forward part of its shell).

 

Horseshoe crabs

Gravel shore lined with mating horseshoe crabs.

As the tracking effort turned out, horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay stay in the bay year-round, burying themselves in the mud for half the year during colder months. They rouse in late April, and immediately take off upslope from their over-wintering sites.

Not one of the crabs we were studying left its native embayment; there was no evident bridge between the two distinct populations that were separated by a distance of only about two miles. The channel bearing cold water into the bay from Frenchman Bay passes by a particular point of land that leaves no room for a warmer passage between the two shallower habitat sites.

 

Female horseshoe crab with male attached

Female horseshoe crab digs a nest for her eggs.

The movements of the crabs appeared almost random, but when females began giving off pheromones during the breeding weeks, males and females got together on their traditional breeding shores, males clasping females with a foremost pair of legs suited to that task, females navigating for both of them, making trials at digging suitable nest sites in sandy bottom soils, moving on if it didn’t work out, typically laying eggs in several sites in a row once it did.

 

Mating horseshoe crabs.

Mating horseshoe crabs.

I will write more specifically about my engagement with the crabs in the following post.

421. Watersheds

February 2, 2015

Watersheds are land basins that often contain large amounts of soil. Soil, by definition, is porous. It consists of particles of rock and organic material nestled more-or-less closely together (more closely in the case of clayey soils, less in sandy or gravely ones). Spaces between particles invite water to flow in-and-around them, picking up air and dissolved nutrients and minerals, which that underground water conveys to thirsty roots and microbes on its relentless journey downslope toward the ocean.

The early stages of that journey do not take place across the land so much as within it, by winding routes between soil particles of remarkable complexity leading on to more and more of the same. We are fascinated by the wonder of ocean depths and outer space, while the wonder of the soil beneath our feet eludes us. The French peasant who held up a clod of soil from his field and exclaimed (in translation), “This is France!” had it almost right. He might have said, “This is life!”

The local transport system of individual plants is an extension of the watershed in which it grows. Powered by evaporation through the surface of leaves, a lifting force draws water taken in from damp soil upward into the presence of chlorophyll, where it intercepts energy from the sun, ionizes, and frees a hydrogen ion that triggers the process leading to the production of glucose—a form of sugar containing energy in a form plants can use for maintenance, growth, repair, reproduction, and defense.

With roots in the soil, leaves in the air, vascular plants such as trees have the best of both worlds. If they were not able to rise aboveground to spread their leaves in the sun, or able to draw water up to those leaves, plants would exist only in areas where water, air, and sunlight come together at ground level—humid places such as where nonvascular plants like mosses and liverworts grow in glens and at the bases of cliffs, or in bright and shallow wetlands, streams, and ponds.

But by enabling the aerial, sunlit world of wind and leaves to combine with the dark, subterranean watery world of soil and roots, plants bring two aspects of a watershed together, the upper and lower, light and dark, in a way that radically expands the biosphere’s potential for growth, producing the lush world of sap, fruit, seeds, and leaves where every meadow vole, weasel, hawk, person, fungus, and bacterium lives today.

Plants are the creator of this modern world, and watersheds throughout the biosphere are their patrons, mentors, supporters, and protectors.

In a very real sense, brains, too, are watershed extensions, elaborate expressions of damp soils and sunlight. They take in energy from two sources, food (including drink), and sensory or molecular stimulation through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Food fuels bodily life-support processes, sensory stimulation provides the signal that activate the components of consciousness such as perception, memory, understanding, meaning, thought, judgment, and subsequent behavior.

Sensory stimulation sends ions across brain cell boundaries, causing currents to pulse toward axon terminals, where neurotransmitters carry those signals to others next in line, creating sensory patterns of activation and inhibition that spread across groups of neurons, and those patterns can be compared point-for-point with other patterns, creating consonant or dissonant signals, such as those that provoke consciousness.

Consciousness, then, is an extension of the engagement between a mind and the watershed that provides it not only with life, but patterned sensory stimulation in addition. To even partially understand consciousness, we must consider the life-sustaining environment in which it occurs, the patterned stimuli impinging on the senses within that environment, as well as the actions with which particular minds respond to that evocative sensory stimulation, so constituting a particular engagement between our minds and their surrounding worlds.

In my thinking, a mind interprets or translates patterned sensory stimulation as a situation laden with meaning in light of previous experience (sensory stimulation such as one or two lanterns shining from a tower is not meaningful in itself), and organic intelligence in that situation judges what response to make that would be most appropriate to that (perhaps unique) situation.

Minds, then, convert watersheds, sensory signals, and actions into meaningful life situations, and it is those interpreted situations that minds respond to, not watersheds, signals, or actions in themselves. We all develop repertories of situations we are familiar with, and courses of action to take in responding to just that range of situations. Our world at any given time is a construct composed of such situations as delimited by their specific mix of dimensions to which our intelligence responds, the situation serving as the psychic environment standing in for the “real” environment consisting of watershed, stimulation, and appropriate action.

I assume that watershed, sunlight, and gravity contribute to the context within which consciousness exists in the natural world. In watershed I include a sense of the natural resources available in a given situation. In sunlight I include climate, weather, season, wind, and other natural phenomena. In gravity I include the unstated but assumed background of forces to be dealt with, including mental habits, routines, rituals, prejudices, and other psychic influences.

If I were to hold up a clod of soil today, I might well say, “This is consciousness!”

I carry on like this because I think we often overlook the natural influences that affect everyday consciousness and behavior. Even in a cubicle in a skyscraper in a modern city, we depend on water and food that undoubtedly come from watersheds we may not be aware of. Without such unacknowledged watersheds, urban civilization would not exist, as ancient Rome would not have existed without its roads, baths, and aqueducts. Such hidden dimensions of experience are implicit in our modern-day engagements with artificial intelligence, the internet, drone strikes, and covert security operations.

In a very real sense, modern consciousness rests on basic factors such as watersheds that many of us are oblivious to, yet support our minds in everything we do. To the extent that we might mindlessly undermine those natural factors, such unstated assumptions pose a potential danger to our well-being and security.