415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, how does it happen, this mental life of ours?

From our point of view, we are born to engage as best we can  the local precinct of whatever universe we find ourselves in. Basically, elaborate neural networks in our brains offer hospitality to a wide variety of signals sparked by whatever part of that universe is within reach of our senses. In different proportions, those signals shape the dimensions of our situated intelligence every instant of our lives, serving as our subjective (and distorted) version of the world. Our job is to interpret as best we can that fleeting mix of signals, and to respond more-or-less appropriately. Voilà, our streaming mental life.

Let us stop willing the mind not to exist because it defies the ideology in which we have been schooled.  And, too, stop assuming that the world we individually entertain is the one and only real world. Let’s get with evolution’s program for our species of primate. The program that plants the presumed order of the universe so firmly in our minds, when all we have to go on is the blur our senses present to us. We are the most willful species imaginable. It is time to admit it so we can transcend our past errors and fulfill the promise we are born to.

Rip off the blinders of our self-serving orthodoxies and join the company of universal beings we might become if we stop claiming to be the one people chosen (by ourselves) above all others. That claim is proof of the distortions that come with our subjective versions of the world.

What I am asking is that we accept the fact that we know only the flickering impressions on the inner walls of the dark caves we inhabit throughout life. That we live in subjective confinement within our minds. That our powers are puny in comparison to the majesty of the stars from which the atoms in our bodies have been created and donated to the universe.

If we can update our thinking and cherished beliefs, then we might at last transcend the narrow thread of history we have come to believe in as if it were true, go beyond our previous attainments, and so become beings worthy of the planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe that have hosted us all along—and of which we are integral parts.

Nothing matters more than the wellbeing of the planet we live on in the vast chill of space. We know that now. It is past time to act on that certainty. Burning fossil fuels is a luxurious habit, like smoking cigarettes, an evil (in the sense of unhealthy) habit. Crowding the planet with our ways of doing things is not our destiny if we are to survive.

If we don’t naturalize ourselves and become first-and-foremost citizens of the Earth, then our glorious achievements cumulatively amount to our own demise.

How ironic is that? All because we claim to take as real the world as we find it, while in the meantime fabricating a world of our own making to suit ourselves from inside the black boxes we truly inhabit.

It is past time to bring our actions into compliance with the living order of nature, not our self-serving fantasies as cast upon the waters of our beliefs.

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I first encountered rockweed when I was four. Lifted off the bow of a lobster boat onto a rocky shore at low tide, I took one step on the slippery stuff, fell and bumped my knee. The hurt made it a moment I’ve never forgotten. Lesson learned: on rockweed, watch where and how you step.

Rockweeds are brown algae growing on rocky surfaces along the shore. As the tide rises from low to high, it also advances up a sloping shore from “out” to “in.” The space demarked by low and high, out to in, creates a volume known as the intertidal zone, a particularly wild place because conditions are so variable. The sun can be shining with a temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit at high tide; or it could be raining or snowing at low tide, with a temperature somewhere between 70 and minus 20 degrees. One way or another, anything living in the intertidal zone has to be adaptable to such extremes.

Two species of wrack or rockweed common in Maine have such an ability, Ascophyllum nodosum, and Fucus vesiculosis, among  others. Both have holdfasts attaching them to rocks at the lower end, with air bladders along their stems enabling them to float as the tide rises, to settle as it falls. Moved about by currents Rockweeds Ascophyllum (l.l.) & Fucus (u.l.)and winds, rockweed is always in motion up and down, side to side, but never far from the surface of the water, exposed to the sun, its source of energy in making sugar from carbon dioxide and water. In winter, rockweeds can lie frozen in ice for weeks or months at a time. Lacking a vascular system, the cold doesn’t bother them by cutting off circulation of nutrients or removal of waste. They simply thaw in March and up the rate at which they photosynthesize the food they need for growth, reproduction, and repair.

Rockweeds play an essential role in providing both food and habitat areas along rocky or ledgy shores in Maine. Living along both low- and high-stress shores, they take a beating from waves and wind, causing bladders and blades to break from the axis,Least Sandpiper in Wrack eventually to disintegrate, attracting bacteria, which make the resulting detritus (loose organic particles) a rich source of protein for the likes of filter-feeders such as blue mussels, scallops, clams, and oysters, as well as other marine invertebrates and insects, subsequently eaten by birds, fish, and mammals. In Taunton Bay, for instance, rockweeds—along with phytoplankton, eelgrass, kelp, and marsh grass—are primary food producers supporting life throughout the estuary and beyond.

In addition, the twining, waving strands of rockweed provide a complex habitat—both nurturing and protective—for small marine creatures such as shore-hugging fish, periwinkles, amphipods, shrimp, crabs, juvenile lobsters, and in Taunton Rockweed at High Tide Bay, even horseshoe crabs. Many of these wait out low tides beneath a quilt of rockweed preserving the high moisture level they need to survive. Supplying both shelter and food to life in the intertidal zone, rockweeds are providers of essential services in any estuarine community. They are particularly important in enclosed coastal embayments having a high ratio of rocky shores to their relatively small surface areas. Cobscook Bay near Eastport, Lubec, and Campobello Island is one such embayment, as are Taunton Bay, Skillings River, and Bagaduce River in Hancock County, and the St. Georges River near Thomaston. Open bays that are broadly exposed to the Gulf of Maine tend to be more dependent on food sources delivered by ocean currents (such as phytoplankton) than are enclosed bays which export clouds of detritus to nearby waters. 

The issue with rockweed is harvesting it by the ton to be processed as fertilizer, animal feed, packing material for shipping marine worms and lobsters, and a stabilizer in foods and cosmetics, among other human uses. How much is itRockweed, Ledge, Low Marsh, Boulder, Shoreline Trees appropriate to take, from what areas, when, by what method? As is invariably true of living natural resources, the issue is one of categorizing the resource in such a way to emphasize its utility to humans and downplay its function and value in the wild. Which is it to be, protective habitat or food additive?; primary producer or fertilizer? Only purists can hold to making such an either/or distinction. In practice, the art is in finding a balance between wild and industrial functions, values, and uses in the human community—between priceless living habitats in nature’s economy, against so much biomass as a commodity worth two cents a pound in the human economy.

Who would ever imagine that the categorical essence of rockweed could be determined by committees that deny membership to the natural food web depending on rockweed itself and its peers for survival? But that’s how the civilized world works, people making all the decisions from their respective points of view, doing their best to represent the interests of the wild, but never doing a very good job of it. Cutting rockweed is analogous to felling tropical rainforests in that living systems are reduced to biomass while delicate microclimates and habitats are eliminated in the process. The reason, of course, is that humans declare themselves as essential parts of every food web on Earth, so of course they cast their categories onto the natural world to insure it meets their desires. This is specially true now that humans have overrun the Earth, and have staked their claim to it as their personal planet. Which it may effectively have become, by preemption, if not by magical thinking in the theological, mythological, or industrial mind.

To further complicate matters, different groups with interests in rockweed project different categories on it according to their personal interests. Seaweed harvesters (getting paid by the wet ton) say it is biomass, the people of Maine (who are said to own public trust resources) say it is both a marine habitat and a commodity, ecologists see it as the base of the estuarine food pyramid, and resource managers see it as a headache they wish would go away because there is no simple remedy that will make all interested parties happy. As usual, the stakeholders having the most money to provide them with the most aggressive lawyers and publicists are the ones who come out on top in deciding what rockweed, for all practical purposes, really is.

Another issue with rockweed is the matter of ownership. Does it belong to the people as a public-trust resource? or does it belong to the owners of rocky shorelands where it grows? ByRockweed at Low Tide_96 tradition expressed in the Colonial Ordinance, public access to intertidal waters is limited to the express purposes of “fishing, fowling, and navigation.” Moves have been made in the Maine Legislature to legally categorize rockweed as a “fish” for the purpose of including it among harvestable resources, but such moves have been declared unconstitutional; algae, in fact, are not fish by any stretch of the tongue or imagination. Seaweed harvesting licenses granted by the Maine Department of Marine Resources do not grant or affect proprietary rights to the seaweed, including within the intertidal zone. So by what right or principle do harvesters withdraw rockweed from the public trust and privatize it as their own? As far as I can make out, they do so on the strength of their own will, declaring for all practical purposes, “This is mine.” 

The name “rockweed” makes it sound like Ascophyllum nodosum belongs in the same category as burdocks and dandelions, so is not to be missed if reduced from a living organism to a mound of limp and dripping biomass. The Latinate binomial, on the other hand, calls up images of presentable people in white lab coats peering into microscopes in the halls of science and academia, suggesting it may have some ecological interest and value after all. “Knotted” or “bladder wrack” sound quaint and old fashioned, pointing perhaps to the Magna Carta as a reference to King John’s take on such species.

The more I know about rockweed, the less I know what it is. I know it exists; I have seen it frequently with my own eyes. But  how to regard it with those eyes, how to relate to it as one member of one species to another, that is not mine to say.  Rockweed and I both live on the same planet; here is our home in the universe. We both qualify as Earthlings. Which in my eyes makes us equal under the sun. I am not here for its use, and vice versa. We coexist. Yet it lives in the basement of the food pyramid, I live in an apartment at the apex, which looks over all like the eye peering from the top of the pyramid shown on the dollar bill. Does that suggest I have higher powers or knowledge than lowly rockweed? That I am somehow “better” or more “deserving”? The big difference is I possess consciousness and rockweed does not. On the other hand, it can lie frozen in ice for months at a time, which I cannot do. It can tolerate a range of temperature and salinity that would kill me—mighty predator that I am—within a few hours. In a very real sense, my survival depends on rockweed and its ilk—the photosynthesizers of the Earth—whereas its survival is entirely independent of mine. I need it; it doesn’t need me.

So how come people assume responsibility for managing rockweed without giving anything back to compensate rockweed for giving up the right to manage its private affairs? Is that equable? Is it just? I know, I know. . . apples and oranges. Rockweed is rockweed; I am a human being. But what bothers me is that this entire blog is being entertained in a single human mind, and rockweed is excluded from the action. I can have input as to its fate, but it has no say in mine.

The scales of justice are weighted in favor of those having consciousness, a situation I call asymmetrical, unjust, and unfair. This makes it seem that having consciousness is somehow better than not having it. Which might well be true if the haves actually watched over the have-nots. But we don’t watch over trees to protect their interests; we cut them to make toilet paper. We don’t watch over rivers; we dam them to turn them into still waters, and pipe our waste into them. We don’t watch over Earth’s climate; we do our thing and leave it to react how it will. These are moral issues. How we treat rockweed is essentially a moral issue. In categorizing rockweed as a harvestable resource for my personal benefit, I am practicing an ethic as viewed from a particular point of view.

Robins and hermit thrushes regard rockweed from a different perspective: when it snows in April after they have migrated north, their primary forage areas on the forest floor are off-limits; where can they get something to eat? As long as the snow lasts, those on the coast forage in seawrack along the shore for amphipods—not their preferred food, but it’ll do in a pinch. If the rockweed isn’t there at precisely that time, tens of thousands of thrushes can starve. If there is even a trace of carageenin in the ice cream I eat, then I am an accomplice to the perpetrator who treats rockweed as a commodity and commissions its harvest, or cuts it himself.

In the human economy, rockweed is currently worth about two cents a pound, or $40 a wet ton. One harvester can cut about a ton of rockweed a day, making about $4,000 a season. With cutting machines, he can make more. From a human standpoint, the rockweed issue comes down to balancing the reduction of rockweed to an inert commodity-with-a-price against its value as an intertidal habitat and producer of food that sequesters carbon for the good of estuarine, marine, and terrestrial communities. Wanted dead or alive, which is it to be: tubs of industrial-grade ice cream in suburban freezers, or least sandpipers, robins, shrimp, and crabs along the shores of enclosed bays in Maine?

Which leaves me where? Perhaps in denial; perhaps upset; perhaps in some kind of limbo, committed to a life sentence of guilt and confusion. What about my biological values? Do they have anything to say on the matter of harvesting rockweed? What I’m getting at is the ethical dimension to consciousness that crops up in the most surprising places. I see clouds on the horizon, telling me I will soon have to address the coming storm, perhaps after I feel comfortable with the categorizing aspects of consciousness. Then I will be free to face into the wind and deal with the ethical issues I have successfully avoided up till now.

Where I think I’m headed is toward developing a deliberate attitude of stewardship as the going price for diminishing the living Earth in any way. If we use our knives to cut rockweed at all, then we are committed by that act to watching over what’s left to protect it from harm. We live on the same planet; it’s the least we can do.

Ascophyllum with Sea Star

 

 

Reflection 176: Heart Rot

January 28, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If one size fits all, then everybody can wear the same hat. If one medium of exchange works for all, then everybody can work for the same dollar, and spend the same dollar. With the result, as Jaron Lanier puts it regarding advertising on the Web:

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless (“The Serfdom of Crowds,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2010, page 19, from You are Not a Gadget, Knopf, 2010).

Instead of thinking for ourselves, we go shopping as we are conned into doing for our own good. So much for biological values and survival. Our role as we see it is to serve the global economy in the virtual money game it has become. Where once we would employ consciousness on behalf of personal sex-reproduction-family, eating, drinking, shelter, safety, companionship, learning, skill-building, etc., now we roll-over for those who get us hooked and support our nasty habit, going through the motions of pretending to use our minds, which now passes for a lifestyle of fake purposefulness (or let’s just pretend).

Trees are subject to a fungal infection that weakens or destroys their central core. The condition is called heart rot. People suffer from it as well, but from a different cause—being overly comfortable. When we finally “have it made,” we lose our edge and wander in Brownian motion wondering what to buy next. Hyper-sufficiency short-circuits our biological motivations (such as those listed above). What matters most is shopping, consuming, possessing, and living well. When that fungus strikes a nation, the population at large attempts to make a living by investing other people’s money in stocks, startups, real estate, mortgages, crime—whatever requires minimal effort to make the most profit at least risk.

Now it’s cap-and-trade, or you cap and I trade: I promise not to make more money than you, unless I can convince you and a thousand others that it’s your lot to stay as far below the poverty line as I can fly above it. Think capitalism and the two-class society. The Industrial Revolution was the engine for that line of reasoning, largely through exploitation of the so-called laws of thermodynamics in the instance of steam engines, locomotives, electrical power generation, internal-combustion engines, weaponry, and later, computers, the Internet, cell phones, and related technology:

The limitations of organic human memory and calculation put a cap on the intricacies of self-delusion. In finance, the rise of computer-assisted hedge funds and similar operations has turned capitalism into a search engine. You tend the engine in the computing cloud, and it searches for money. In the past, an investor had to be able to understand at least something about what an investment would actually accomplish. No longer. There are now so many layers of abstraction between the elite investor and actual events that he no longer has any concept of what is actually being done as a result of his investments (same source, page 16).

The challenge of global warming is not in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions but figuring how to make the most money from a global catastrophe by betting against our own fate. We have reached Nirvana, effectively becoming disconnected from the myriad natural processes and ecosystems that sponsor our continued existence on Earth. In the ultimate (fatal) sense, we are rotten at the core.

Does that matter? Or is it just another cell in the great database of life? I say it matters utterly and absolutely. Our Faustian bargain is for as many as can to game the system for as much as we can as long as we can, at which point Mephistopheles takes all:

The central faith embedded in Web technologies whereby users not only consume information but widely generate it is the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature. The designs guided by this perverse kind of faith leave people in the shadows. Computers will soon get so big and fast, and the Internet so rich with information, that people will be obsolete, either left behind like the characters in Rapture novels or subsumed into some cyber-superhuman something (same source, page 15).

Our current ethos falls somewhere between seeing numbness as a virtue for the majority, with fanaticism reserved to a driven elite. If you haven’t made your first million by twenty and billion by thirty, you might as well quit. Today, that counts as thinking. The rich are too comfortable to care, the poor too weak to fight back. We put our money—not our bodies, not our consciousness—where our values are. With the result that, as far as we’re concerned, money is all, life nothing. We make a show of sending money to Haiti after the earthquake, not before, when the U.S. built a record of siding with one corrupt dictator after another in repressing the people. Regarding Cuba, Howard Zinn writes:

Americans began taking over railroad, mine, and sugar properties when the [Spanish-American] war ended. In a few years, $30 million of American capital was invested. United fruit moved into the Cuban sugar industry. It bought 1,900,000 acres of land for about twenty cents an acre. The American Tobacco Company arrived. By the end of the occupation, in 1901, [Philip] Foner estimates that at least 80 percent of the export of Cuba’s minerals were in American hands, mostly Bethlehem Steel (A People’ History of the United States, page 303).

The CIA not only tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, but in a clandestine operation in 1971, it used swine fever virus as a weapon against Cuba, leading to the slaughter of half a million pigs (Zinn, page 542f.). Ever furthering the financial interests of its industries, the U.S. has long viewed the Caribbean as its territory, never hesitating to punish the locals in foisting its economic agenda upon them. Now we regard the Internet as ours, and are determined to make it pay—even if it means the death of newspapers, magazines, thought, conscience, or consciousness itself.

Finally, let me make one thing perfectly clear: these are not bad times. That is passing the buck. It is we who are acting badly by expecting to live on too grand a scale, consuming more than our share of so-called natural resources, far longer than we deserve, regardless of the cost to others and the planet we all share together. Our collective appetites and arrogance are not only wasting our culture’s potential for living within its means, but spoiling the Earth for all living beings. In that sense, we have become fanatics both mindless and heartless. Our headstones, if any, might well read:

The Buck Stops Here

(Or Would Have

Stopped

If  Only We’d

Taken It To Heart).

Grave Marker

 

(Copyright © 2009)

For her birthday, I gave Carole an all-expenses-paid trip to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, about 25 miles northwest of Portland. That is, we went in her car, both brought our lunches, and I paid for gas, tour and museum tickets. From Bar Harbor, it was about a three-and-a-half-hour drive; I drove down, she back. Neither of us had ever been to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village—now down to three members after peaking at some 180 in the 1840s—sole surviving Shaker community in the U.S. of the 19 main villages that once thrived from Maine to Florida. We visited the museum, took a guided tour of the village, ate lunch, and purchased seven books about the Shaker experience.

I have never spent a more profoundly moving four hours than those that passed so quickly in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. I had no idea what to expect, but intuition told me it was time to find out. What we discovered was a working model of what a human community could be if it set its collective mind to living sustainably and cooperatively on the land with dignity and spirit made possible by skilled craftsmanship and hard work. Patterning their lives on Jesus’ example, Shakers knew how to live sustainably on the land with a modest carbon footprint long before peak oil and global climate change were conceived in the human mind. Sustainably, that is, except for one thing: Jesus was celibate and so were they. Going forth and multiplying was never their way. They relied on personal convincement to bring in new blood, which worked from 1776 until before the Civil War, but failed to replenish their numbers after that. They took in orphans and children placed with them, giving young people a choice upon turning 18 to rejoin the world or become Shakers. If they stayed on, then they largely retired from the world to embrace a life of celibacy, confession of sin, pacifism, communal activity and ownership, and handiwork without end. 

Which by modern standards would add up to an extreme way of life. But through strict communal discipline, Shakers created joyous and highly productive lives for themselves. Their priorities were clear, their efforts devoted to expressing peace and love in everything they did. One Shaker catch phrase says it all: Hands to Work and Hearts to God.

Shakers were renown for their handicrafts, well-tended farms—and the enthusiasm of their worship. Like every other aspect of their life, they put themselves into it. Apparently it was something to see; Sunday mornings, people came from miles around to witness Shakers singing-dancing-marching in praise of the Lord. But what got to me in the four hours I spent at Sabbathday Lake was the undeniable evidence of Shaker consciousness. Most of what they accomplished required elaborate hand-eye coordination, a sure outward sign of deliberate consciousness and attention to detail. The tour, for instance, covers:

  • bonnet making
  • dressmaking and tailoring
  • shoemaking
  • basket weaving
  • woodcarving
  • chair making and caning
  • broom making
  • spinning
  • weaving
  • rug-hooking
  • needlework
  • quilting
  • herb gardening and drying
  • pickle and catsup making
  • beekeeping
  • apple harvesting and pressing
  • painting and drawing
  • photography
  • candy making
  • not to mention agriculture and animal husbandry, and  other activities I have forgotten.

It was not the various craftsmedia themselves that got my attention so much as the design and overall simplicity of individual pieces turned out day after day. Consciousness cannot be random or chaotic and turn out Shaker furniture, gift drawings, rugs, tins of herb teas, or even fudge for that matter. It was how individual details fit together that mattered in almost everything they did. The simple elegance of Shaker tables, desks, chairs, cupboards, and boxes speaks of the minds that designed, cut, and put them together. Collectively and individually, Shakers give the impression of being a together people. Which I see reflecting the internal discipline required of them in becoming Sisters and Brothers. Each was valued as a decided individual, and the ways they found of respecting and valuing one another bound them together—like the separate straws making up the business end of a Shaker broom.

I felt a strong rapport with this tradition with its people being wholly who they were under what must have been stressful conditions. Survival takes full concentration, particularly in rural Maine in days when there were no big boxes to mar the landscape, no imports from China. Everything had to be done locally by hand. Most of us in the U.S. today wouldn’t last a week if we had to produce what we ate and used from scratch by hand labor. When life depends on conscious activity, a certain gladness shines through every task completed, every new beginning, every tool, every mending job. Evolution did not create Shaker furniture, but it did create human consciousness, which created cultural evolution, which created Shakers, who did create furniture by putting their minds to work on the challenge of day-to-day survival. The whole saga is on view at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, and at other Shaker villages as preserved because we can’t stand to lose them as examples of what human consciousness can achieve.

For myself, I choose to find a message in the behavioral idiom Shakers created for themselves. I see that idiom addressing many of the challenges we face in the 21st century. Evolution equipped humans with strong appetites for sex, food, personal possessions, wealth, and social status. But it did not have the foresight to equip us with an off-switch so when appropriate, we could squelch our drives and coast along with what we had. The Shakers took it upon themselves to manage their drives by adopting a code of celibacy, communal living, moderate (but healthy) diet, few personal possessions, no personal wealth, and invention of a new kind of social security—all labor intensive—all extremely rewarding because of the skill and discipline required. Without genetic engineering, the Internet, cellphones, pesticides, superhighways, international trade, or big government. What did the Shakers know that we don’t? That hard work and imagination can solve problems if you really put your mind to it. Shakerism is a lesson in locally applied consciousness based on personal initiative and cooperative living, not massive infusions of cash.

OK, so they sacrificed sex to get there, but if the human population is a problem in itself, that could be seen as a good thing. Sustaining bad ideas and sorry institutions is not necessarily a good thing if they are in fact the source of the problem. There is deep wisdom in Shaker madness, wisdom I think we should emulate insofar as it is appropriate to our current situation—which I maintain is a fairly close match to that of their day. Hardship unto the threat of death was always at the gate of a Shaker Village. Yet they persisted by making the most of what they had in the time available to them. We, on the other hand, are more profligate, doing precious little with our vast stores of wealth, wasting much of it on gadgetry, glitzy trinkets, and empty entertainment—as if spending money gauged the meaning of life.

Where Shakers made the most of their conscious hours, we seem to pride ourselves in taking as much time as we can to do as little as possible. Worker productivity is said to be up, but productivity of what? Most of it turns out to be nonsense rebundled in tinsel to bilk investors of their retirement funds. Our consciousness is spinning its wheels, seeing if there’s anything good on the tube or the Web when, all the time, what counts is what’s in us already: consciousness, evolution’s gift to us all, which we can’t seem to get the hang of.

Removing themselves from the vanities of the civilized world, Shakers staked their lives to the soil, not to fashion. We have chosen the other road, preferring vanity over nature—to sorry effect. Our world runs on image and influence, not energy coursing through the seasons, which Shakers knew how to harness. Yet we thrive and Shakers shrivel. Our world is surely powered by irony, that of the Shakers by simple self-knowledge. Which seen in the right light is our failure, not theirs.

Shaker barns, Sabbathday Lake

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Medical care seems centered more on appointments than patients these days. Without an appointment you are without care, it’s as simple as that. You have ten minutes to state your symptoms. Hello, my name is Thursday at 8:15. Administrative concerns are driving patients right out of the system. Who cares about patients? The wellbeing of the system is all. That’s how it feels.

I have had three or four bouts with a dermatologist this past winter. Each time I’ve walked out of his office with names of new salves, lotions, ointments, emollients to buy and rub on my body—all to no effect. I bought two humidifiers to raise the water content of the air in my apartment, which made lots of noise 24 hours a day, but didn’t ease my eczema.

I asked what caused my rash. The dermatologist said he wasn’t sure. I asked what eczema was, and he said blood vessels under the skin get inflamed, making the skin red, hot, and itchy. Why do they get inflamed? He couldn’t say.

What he did know was how to prescribe expensive chemicals to rub on my body in an effort to treat the symptoms if not the cause of my trouble. It all sounded like peddling snake oil to me. One prescription for VANOS(TM) 0.1% cream cost over $400 (medical insurance cutting my cost to $92). This was to temporarily reduce the symptoms without curing the underlying cause. But the precautions that came with the prescription read (in tiny, tiny type) partly:

General: Systemic absorption of topical cortico-steroids can produce reversible hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression with the potential for glucocorticosteroid insufficiency after withdrawal of treatment. Manifestations of Cushing’s syndrome, hyperglycemia, and glucosuria can also be produced in some patients by systemic absorption of topical corticosteroids while on treatment.

Patients applying a topical steroid to a large surface area or to areas under occlusion should be evaluated periodically for evidence of HPA-axis suppression. This may be done by using cosyntropin (ACTH1-24) stimulation testing. Patients should not be treated with VANOS(TM) Cream for more than 2 weeks at a time and only small areas should be treated at any time due to the increased risk of HPA axis suppression.

With a history of skin problems (I have celiac disease which showed up as a persistent rash that lasted for years), I told both the pharmacist and dermatologist I felt I would be an idiot to spread that stuff on my body. The pharmacist said it was the accepted treatment for eczema, and had been for 20 years. He wouldn’t take it back.

In the end, with help from Wikipedia, I cured my eczema by myself. When first diagnosed, I’d looked eczema up and found that entry shed no light on my problem. But after seven months I tried again, and found the whole section had been rewritten and greatly expanded. Reading through it, I found a passing mention that nuts could cause a skin rash diagnosed as eczema. Allergic to peanut butter, I had taken to cashew butter, but at $10 a jar, I looked for something cheaper. A pound of unsalted, organic cashews cost $3 less, so I went for those. During the winter, a pound lasted me a week and a half. In seven months, I accounted for a heap of cashews. So the instant I read that article in Wikipedia, I gave them up. In three days my rash was gone.

What does this sad little story have to do with consciousness? It highlights the difference between my consciousness of living with a painful rash night and day for over half a year, the pharmacist’s consciousness of making a living from the suffering of people like myself, and the doctor’s consciousness of being a go-between with the pharmaceutical industry on one hand and the suffering public on the other, a public whose symptoms he is happy to treat, as long as they meet him on his terms in his office and don’t pester him between appointments. Me, I felt like a rat running an electrified maze to see how long I could stand the shocks.  

It is my nature to try to understand why things are as they are. To me, eczema, God, the universe, and human consciousness are all the same: mysteries to be investigated and—as far as possible—understood. I don’t know very much about any one thing, but I do have an inquiring mind. And once I get on a case, I stick with it until it makes sense to me. Everything that runs through my mind for whatever reason is an opportunity for greater understanding. Even the quirks of my own body and mind. Especially the quirks of my own body and mind. I am the single aspect of the universe I have the best opportunity to observe, and through observation over a long enough period of time, to understand.

I had a somewhat similar experience with an earlier rash that claimed my body 20 years ago. I went through the same routine, going to various doctors, finding a dermatologist in Bangor, rubbing an assortment of lotions and ointments on my skin—all to no avail. My rash had a will of its own. After years of ineffective treatment, the dermatologist removed a chunk of skin for a biopsy, and the diagnosis came back: Dermatitis herpetiformis. What causes that? An irritant that collects in the skin. And that was it. Now I had a fancy name for my ailment. To learn that secret Latin name cost me three thousand dollars, the price of joining the fraternal order of jackasses. But as an initiate I got no privileges beyond the right to flaunt those two words.

Which paid off ten years later when I got access to the Internet in 1997, the Web was being developed, and search engines offered the perfect interface between jackasses like me and those in the know. Working part-time for the National Park Service, I had a computer on my desk. When that computer got connected to the Web, I typed the magic words into NetCrawler—which hooked me up to a site at St. John’s University that said in effect, Dermatitis herpetiformis is caused by celiac disease, and celiac disease is an immune response to the gluten content of wheat.

I’ve been gluten-free for 12 years now. Ingesting gluten caused the villi in my intestine to lie flat so they couldn’t absorb calcium (among other minerals and nutrients), which caused all kinds of havoc in my bones, teeth, and nervous system. The human brain runs on calcium ions crossing membranes in every neuron, making action potentials possible, letting the brain get on with its work. Until I was sixty-five—the year I retired—my brain never worked as I wanted it to. I had inklings what it could do, but it just laid down and died when my expectations were too high.

Is it any wonder why I put my working brain out in full public view on the Web in this blog? I have used the Web twice to find answers to serious problems. There are answers to be found if you hit on the right source. It took me a lifetime to find that out, so now I’m trying to shorten the wait in regard to questions about consciousness that introspection can explore. Not that I have answers, but I do have a drive to pursue questions, and I’ve still got some days of hot pursuit in me yet.

As I see it, the world is not so much a monument to humanity’s great accomplishments as it is a great big question mark. And our job is not to flaunt how great we are but to get down to the hard work of answering important questions—especially those nobody has thought to ask till now because they weren’t in a position to ask. Such as diagnosing and treating the world’s ills, which are becoming more evident every day.

If our numbers and appetites are a problem not only for ourselves but for Earth itself, we’ve got to do something about them. I don’t see us making any headway until we ask the right questions in the right way in the right place. I am here to suggest that all problems that evade conscious scrutiny will remain problems until we engage them deliberately in full-frontal conscious investigations and deliberations.

If the narrow scope of human consciousness is the problem, then the solution depends on expanding the reach of consciousness until it embraces our human activities and impacts as a whole. One thing I am sure of, collectively we and our ways are the source of the problem. Until we can consciously deal with our unwitting complicity, we are shielding ourselves from questions that need to be asked.

Consciousness begins with a good challenge—a good question. After that, it will serve us well as long as we stay focused. Our cultural witch doctors can’t do our work for us. Let us examine ourselves firsthand so we can find our own cure!

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

In Reflection 65 (I’ve Got Mine, February 18, 2009), I wrote of conflict as arising from competing needs “to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level.” Possession and control of resources is what we generally mean by “wealth.” Wealth comes in three basic forms. 1) Earth resources ranging from food and water to goods and real property; 2) human resources such as skilled labor, healthcare, and, ultimately, life itself; and 3) financial resources sufficient to obtain resources of the first two types. In brief, wealth comes down to possession and/or control of land, labor, and money.

 

Because survival depends on such wealth, a major portion of human consciousness is devoted to these three issues. The Haves have them in sufficient amounts, the Have-nots want more. Money isn’t really a survival resource in its own right, it is a means of obtaining such resources. The basics of survival, then, come down to two types of resources: tangible resources derived from land on planet Earth, and life which endures over time. World enough and time—that’s what survival at a desirable level comes down to. That is our wealth.

 

As a resource, land provides the essentials—food, water, energy, minerals, and place with enough room to move around in. As a resource, life is essential to the procurement and enjoyment of those material resources. If you have little property but live a long life, you can count yourself wealthy. On the other hand, if you have vast stores of goods—but live only for one day—you rank with the poorest of the poor. As resources, land and life are both essential components of personal wealth, which is found by multiplying your property times your lifespan, producing the wealth equation:

 

Land x Life = Wealth, or simply L1 • L2 = W

 

where L1 is in units of area (the size of your Earthly footprint) and L2 is in units of time (your lifespan in years). Wealth, then is in acre-years (or the metric equivalent).

 

Consciousness, of course, is an aspect of life, so is a vital resource in and of itself. Which elevates human consciousness to a survival necessity. Something you’d never suspect, given the ease with which we project our beliefs onto the world rather than strive to understand it, or drink and drug ourselves into warped states of awareness unto oblivion. This adds additional terms to the wealth equation to account for being bullheaded or messing up:

 

L1 • L2 = W – (BH + MU)

 

That is, each of us is accountable for the stewardship we exercise over our property and our lives. Mahatma Gandhi is off the scale upwards, Bernie Madoff doesn’t even register. Stewardship is where consciousness comes into the picture of personal wealth. Measuring personal or corporate wealth in dollars doesn’t even begin to tell the true story. Lack of conscious stewardship devalues the gross total, often severely. Usury? Forget it. Ill-gotten gains? Uh-uh. Tax avoidance? Go back to Go.

 

Think how much time and effort we put into balancing checkbooks, figuring taxes, looking for jobs, earning money, saving, spending, borrowing, worrying, fighting—all for the sake of surviving at our preferred level of wealth. While ignoring the footprint we are stomping into the Earth, as well as the waste and consumption we are inflicting for the full duration of our lives. In the U.S., most of us end up in the poorhouse, indebted to our planet, which has put up with our abuse for so long without complaint. That indebtedness is our true legacy. Maybe we did manage to get the kids through college, but then condemned them to a life of servitude on the very same planet we did our best to deplete. As I wrote in Reflection 65:

 

As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The sum total of our collective pursuit of wealth is told by global warming, peak oil, and the current financial crisis that is so extensive and so devastating that no one can think what to call it. For now, it is the crisis so shameful that it has no name. We have been living—and continue to live—at the expense of the Earth and all its creatures. We have become agents of global depletion, degradation, and destruction. Entropy, thy name is humanity.

 

Well, folks, here we are. The crisis is not out there somewhere, not on Wall Street—it is in here, inside our own consciousness, so-called. Which, much to our surprise, is now bankrupt. Our lack of stewardship over our personal consciousness has gotten us to this point. We could have seen the crash coming, but chose not to. We averted our gaze out of politeness so not to make waves.

 

What do we do now? Leave it to Obama? The only viable solution is to rock the ship of state by making the biggest waves we can to dump the sleeping passengers out of their beds onto the floor. Each one is then in charge of picking himself up, opening her eyes, and becoming fully conscious of the need for stewardship in living every aspect of life from now on. Not stewardship as an afterthought but stewardship at the core.

 

If we can do that, we may be able to restore the wealth equation to a state of balance in our case. But if we keep on being bullheaded or messing up, our personal portion of the crisis will spiral downward. I have written earlier on in this blog of various failures of consciousness. Well, our take on today’s world is what they look like. And feel like. The study of consciousness is not academic; it has profound implications for humanity and its living Earth. To save ourselves, we must first know who it is we are trying to save. As the Oracle at Delphi advised, that journey starts with an inward turn.

 

Take full responsibility for every action; look inward; act outwardly. Not later. Now!

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I live in one of the most beautiful stretches of the East Coast, the kind of place people move to when they retire. Here be mountains, lakes, woods, trails, streams, pounding surf, and wildlife. Here I live among eagles, purple finches, beavers, white-tailed deer, coyotes, snowshoe hares, deer mice, porcupines, harbor seals, and a host of other native inhabitants. My drinking water comes from the watershed of Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park, a watershed about as undeveloped as any this side of the Mississippi River. Intuition tells me this is a good place to live.

 

A great many others think so as well. They come from all over—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts—all seeking the promised land of their dreams. They sell their houses in the Land of Away and move to Maine. But then a funny thing happens. They become very sensitive to any sprawl or overdevelopment that might threaten their values and privacy. The feeling is unanimous: Pull up the drawbridge; Let no others trespass on this sacred ground.

 

There you have it—territoriality. I’ve got mine, but you can’t have yours! Not here, not now. No Trespassing signs spring out of the ground; motion detectors rise in every yard. This attachment to home turf is one of the most prominent features of consciousness. It even floods over into the games we play, many of which are territorial contests between those eternal rivals, the Home Team and aliens from Away. Think football, basketball, soccer, Monopoly, backgammon, chess, checkers, and many others. To win is to rule the field, the course, the board—all stand-ins for what really counts—the territory.

 

Robins define their boundaries, singing from the treetops, along with scarlet tanagers, mockingbirds, and every other bird, declaring, “I’ve got mine!” Which translates either as “Come and share it with me” (directed at females of the species), or “I’m warning you, keep away!” (directed at rival males). Coyotes mark their territories, as do wolves, foxes, dogs, cats, otters, and a great many other territorial animals. Including humans. We clean our houses, mow lawns, plant hedges, put up fences, and so on, all marking this one place on Earth as distinctively ours.

 

The whole concept of ownership, the basis of much of our law, is territorial. Our concepts of justice and fairness are based on territory—what’s mine and what’s yours. When we get paid for work we do, that paycheck belongs to us. We stash it in a bank account that is legally ours. Even when we go shopping we are claiming our own. Personal consciousness is at the forefront of such territorial issues. We are always alert to the need to defend what is ours against roving bands of light-fingered hooligans. Even street gangs are territorial. No, street gangs especially are territorial because their members have no real property to call their own; they have the conscious lust or urge to possess real property, but not the wherewithal.

 

Getting married, who does not have the thought, “Now I’ve got mine!” That first baby may arouse a similar feeling. The roots of slavery are much the same: I can’t do this on my own. So other lives are co-opted or taken by force, much as cattle are branded as private property. Many of our so-called human rights center on issues of property or territoriality. Right to life. Right to earn a living. Right to be free. Rights are claims that, when you make them, the state or community will back you up. So states are in the business of implementing and defending the dictates of consciousness. The drive to band together for mutual benefit is powerful magic.

 

When rival claims are made to the same territory, all hell is apt to break loose. It is on the basis of no whim that Palestinians and Israelis are locked in conflict, Palestinian consciousness and justification versus Israeli consciousness and justification. In Iraq, Kurds are fairly settled in the mountainous north, while Shiites and Sunnis have at one another over the issue of territory. These issues will never be resolved satisfactorily until each party holds sway over its own turf.

 

Sovereignty is at the heart of conflicts around the globe. Such conflicts erupt from personal consciousness when individuals act on the basis of their need to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level. As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The only solution is to reduce the human population in each territory to a level that it can provide for sustainably. Otherwise, the territorial struggle will go on. War will go on. Starvation will go on. Neglect and brutality will go on. Injustice will go on.

 

World violence is situational because human consciousness is situational. The battle is built into us. We can sing, “This land is my land, this land is your land,” only when the singers are a small group in a big land. When the land’s capacity to support life is neared, the singing will cease. The drawbridge will be raised, guns purchased, rockets aimed.

 

This is the brink of understanding to which the introspective study of consciousness can lead us. Must lead us if we are to work toward an effective solution. If there are too many of us consuming too many resources at too high a level of technology for too long a span, what are we going to do about the situation? For indeed that is the situation we have created for ourselves. No one did it to us. We are fully responsible. It is too late to blame anyone but ourselves.

 

In the current world situation, singing out “I’ve got mine!” isn’t good enough. Living on the backs of the helpless isn’t good enough. Winning the game of life isn’t good enough. Hogging resources isn’t good enough. Relying on conventional views of human consciousness isn’t good enough.

 

What needs to happen is that we’ve got to become conscious of one another so to release the inherent compassion we are capable of feeling for the tribe beyond our individual selves. The human tribe as one tribe among all tribes on Earth—all equally deserving of a fair run at survival.

 

Can we do it? If we can’t we are lost, indeed. We have no option but to heighten our consciousness and give it a try. We all know the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land:

 

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California, to the New York Island

From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

 

But here’s the final verse:

 

In the squares of the city—In the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office—I see my people

And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’

If this land’s still made for you and me.

 

Now we know that the grumblin’ and wonderin’ was an early sign of the transformation in consciousness that is now so desperately needed. This land isn’t made for you and me, we are made to suit this land. That is what consciousness has to tell us, if only we will look into the matter. Stewardship—of our numbers, of this land, and of our claims to it—is the real issue.

 

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