Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

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Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

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.

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.

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.