Early human settlements were commonly located on the banks of lakes, streams, or wetlands where water for drinking, fishing, hunting, washing, removing waste, and boating was readily available. London was founded at the junction where the River Fleete flowed into the Thames Estuary, New York between the Hudson and East Rivers, Rome on the Tiber, Paris on the Seine, Alexandria in the Nile Delta.

Communities spring up where they do for good reason, often having to do with protection from the elements, plentiful food, water, and natural resources essential to survival, together with ease of access to other areas.

People gather in communities for many reasons. We have school communities, work communities, religious communities, ethnic group communities, and common interest communities of all sorts. I see all these various groupings as communities of engagement. We gather together either formally or informally but always personally, at meetings and events, or on the Internet, to suit our common needs and interests.

In community there is strength because engagement builds connections between separate individuals. When facing difficulties, two minds are better than one. Communication by means of a common language is of the essence in building communities to meet common needs and purposes. Communities are where we learn the language(s) we will use to express our minds for the rest of our lives.

To achieve mutual benefit, all members of a community must abide by the same set of rules and expectations. In reflection 427 I suggested ten rules of engagement with nature. Local courts and law enforcement agencies enforce our formal rules of engagement with our local communities. Pay your taxes, honor contracts, don’t go bankrupt, drive on the right side of the road, and so on. If we’re late for school, we’ll be called to the office. If we’re late for work, we’ll be docked.

There are no laws requiring us to respect our neighbors, but without doubt communities depend on harmony between neighbors of all sorts. If you borrow a cup of sugar, repay the favor as soon as you can. If you borrow a lawnmower, return it all gassed-up the same day. Invite the neighbors over at least once a year, and by all means be sure the kids go to birthday parties bearing gifts when invited.

In my case, coastal Hancock County, Maine, provides the context of my personal engagements. It is the particular sector of nature and culture that I engage with every day. It is where my wayfaring feet meet the pathways of the collective society I am a member of. Community is the footprint of my personal experience on my local culture and, in turn, my culture’s footprint on my mind. In practical terms, my community is the locus of my engagements within walking (and short driving) distance of where I live.

A circle with a fifteen-mile radius around my apartment in the town of Bar Harbor embraces the coastal community (both land and water) I have engaged with for the past twenty-nine years. If I have made any kind of a mark, it would lie within that circle. Certainly that circle has left its mark on my mind.

I have a good many albums of photographs I have taken within that circle, and thousands of jpg files on my several computers. I have made a dozen aerial surveys of bays, ponds, streams, and mountains within that circle, and written four illustrated books about my natural experiences within that same geographic area.

My son and his wife blow glass within that circle, and his brother is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along with my mother, father, and two brothers. Stephen Merchant, my great-great-great-grandfather (after whom I was named), who spent the Revolutionary War in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would have been buried next to his wife in that circle had he not died at sea as crew of a ship loaded with lumber that went down off Cape Cod in “the memorable snowstorm” of November 20, 1798.

Communities write their memories on our minds, as we blaze our ways through the generations along their walks, trails, and roads. My father first met my mother at her family home within the bounds of my communal circle. He was walking from Middlebury, Vermont, to Nova Scotia in 1925 when he stopped at a colleague’s wife’s family home in Sullivan, Maine. That wife’s sister bore me as a child seven years later. My father never made it any farther along his intended journey than that stop. Had he not entered my community circle, I would not be writing this blog today.

On December 23, 1988, I left Burying Island after my two-and-a-half-year stay in the wild to live with Janwillem van de Wetering and his wife , Juanita, in Surry, Maine. Janwillem was a Duch writer of police non-procedurals based on his experiences in a Zen monastery in Kyoto. His wife was a skilled sculptor from Colombia. They were ideal hosts and companions during the two years it took me to develop a new community on the mainland centered on environmental activities.

Both Janwillem and I were on the rebound from excessive indulgence, sobered by pushing ourselves too far in searching for an ideal community to engage with, he in Zen Buddhism, I in going solo as an outlier in nature on Burying Island. We both found a sense of humor essential to our recovery. He offered me a small bedroom in an uninsulated studio on his land on the Union River near Ellsworth. Having little money, I gratefully accepted, and stayed with him and Juanita for two years.

In 1993, I took a job as a seasonal ranger at Acadia National Park, lived in park housing, and in the off-season did volunteer work in the Lands Office in exchange for a place to stay for the winter. I worked first as volunteer coordinator, then as a writer-editor in the Planning Office. My community involvement began to expand, first due to contact with over a thousand park volunteers, then through planning projects in the park and beyond.

Today I live in senior housing in Bar Harbor adjacent to the park, a more suitable habitat among many people, so I am not the conspicuous exception disturbing the natural order of my wild habitat on Burying Island, my toehold in Maine. Now retired, I serve on the Bar Harbor Housing Commission, am the token atheist member of Acadia Friends Meeting (Quakers), and spend my days writing and blogging about the miracle of consciousness as witnessed during many daily bouts of introspection. I also manage Burying Island LLC, a company that owns the island on behalf of its members among my extended family.

As I view it, our life’s energy courses through our varied engagements within our several communities. We act, and are acted upon in return, round after round of exchange. In that sense, the communities we contribute our life’s energy to are dynamic and ever-changing. Our immediate surroundings support us, as we support them, each in our own way. Community building is one of our main jobs in life.

With this blog, I am striving to contribute to a global community of conscious individuals with a shared understanding of, and appreciation for, our common endeavor.

 

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419. Walking in Woods

January 30, 2015

Beyond rowing whenever I can, I am also fond of walking in woods. A casual question about something I published seventeen years ago recently led me to go back and read my description of a hike I made on snowshoes along the Long Pond Fire Road in Acadia National Park on January 15, 1996. I didn’t think in terms of engagements with nature in those days, but what I wrote then fits well into the theme I am developing in these posts about that very topic. Here is an excerpt from my book, ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park, (Bar Harbor: Earthling Press, 1998, pages 114f.).

On both sides of the fire road, verdant panoramas unfurled in a continuous strip as I went. Anchored at each end by stands of Northern white cedar, with several magnificent cedar swamps between, roadside vegetation set the tone of the hike.

I felt like a traveler depicted on a Japanese landscape scroll. The most spectacular thing about this hike was the unending woods on both sides. I had to pay close attention to detect subtle changes from one stand to the next. Here, cedar mixed with spruce and pine, there, with tamarack. Birch and popple put in a show, then mountain maple.

The slope of the land was so gradual, the shift from one watershed to the next so unpronounced, the landscape seemed quietly to flow with the road as one seamless forest. But wherever they grow, trees thrive under a limited range of specific conditions. Those conditions changed as I went, from wet to dry, north slope to south, shallow soil to less-shallow soil (never deep), shaded to sunny, with diverse histories of human and natural influence.

In one sense, the scene changed with such little commotion that it appeared bland and wholly undistinguished. These trees had been standing behind the door when charisma was handed out. They may have been ordinary and uninteresting, but, too, they were the stuff of Acadia, its heart and its strength.

The landscape of Maine and the health of our region depend on these woods. They are anything but boring. Maine’s motto is Dirigo, Latin for “I lead.” That is the voice of the pole star, but it is also the voice of the Maine woods. As they go, so go the rest of us. Our tracks follow the lead of the woods—deer, squirrel, hare, fox, coyote, the rest of us falling in behind, whether by snowmobile or snowshoe, cross-country ski or on foot, ax or chainsaw in hand, or not. If anything is dull it is our perception of the woods, not the woods themselves.

Woods are the waters of Earth come to life. On this hike I crossed six streams, flowing into four ponds, each stream rising in the woods through which I walked. Given air, sunlight, and water, woods spring up. Followed by insects and wildlife. And people. What are we but walking woods? What are woods but water with branches and roots?

The woods along the fire road flow as streams flow downslope into Duck and Long ponds, into Hodgdon and Seal Cove ponds. And water, where does it come from? From the firmament, and now this fallen white fundament underfoot. Making tracks in the snow, animals come full circle, walking in the stuff they are made of. Here are the origins of Acadian life.

The primary theme of the winter hike I made around Long Pond Fire Road was the unity I felt between my outer surroundings and my inner self. Everything came together—snow, tracks, woods, streams, ponds, sunlight, and the sky above. Like the little bent figure in the scroll, I played my part in the larger scene, one mote of awareness trekking through the landscape of the universe.

You have to go back to the woods or you lose your place. Your ties to the land. To your origins. You forget who you are. You come to believe you are a free agent, an independent being with no ties to anything beyond yourself. You lose your sense of belonging. Your judgment becomes uprooted. With nothing under your feet, what holds you up? You wander and are lost.

I have been that route. Centered on family and work, for years I gave no thought to what holds up the globe of human affairs. Woods, soil, water, sunlight, air—these were nothing to me. I wanted to get ahead, to be somebody.

Studying science, the humanities, education, I focused on human society and its accomplishments—as if they bloomed by spontaneous generation from human genius itself. I thought nature was a nice place to visit but I didn’t want to live there. It was a resort, a kind of sideshow of natural wonders and curiosities.

It never occurred to me I was made of Earth, thought its thoughts, saw with its eyes, spoke with its voice, or was in any way responsible to it for the benefits I received, which I took for granted as my deserts for being alive. I saw as a child. Wholly self-centered, I was a child. Reality for me was symbolic, found in art, movies, television, music, and books. I rowed on a rowing machine and ran at the side of city streets. For thirty years, thinking I dwelled in Paradise, I wandered and was lost.

One day I woke up realizing I was alone. Looking down, I saw nothing beneath me holding me up. My life was an unfounded dream. That day I might have become a taxi driver or a monk, but instead, for the first time, I heard a voice calling me to witness the miracle of life on planet Earth.

The trick to miracles is in recognizing them for what they are, otherwise we let them pass unacknowledged. Another day, oh hum. No, not oh hum, but by golly! How many miracles can we spot before our time runs?

Now paying attention, I explored Long Pond Fire Road for the first time, finding water, air, sunlight, trees, and wildlife in good order. Another day, another walk among miracles.

If I hadn’t come to my senses and spent the next thirty years in Maine, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. But I did come to my senses, and did move to Maine. Now here I am standing tall among the trees where I belong, with deep roots in the soil and the watershed that keeps it moist.

416. Natural Wonders

January 27, 2015

So what does nature do? It has an arsenal of nasty tricks: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, mudslides, windstorms, snowstorms, ice storms, sandstorms, firestorms, floods, droughts, avalanches, sinkholes, pandemics, and the rest of the worst that we think of as natural catastrophes. Nature’s destructive side often makes headlines.

At the opposite extreme is nature as shown on monthly calendars: scenic, subtle, serene, colorful, majestic, calming, dramatic, inviting, exhilarating, glorious, beautiful, cute, adorable, and so on. Nature is inherently neither one nor the other. It is what we make of it, depending on what we want it to be in a given situation.

Dead squid on Ellsworth schist.

A dead squid does its best to match the pattern of the rock beneath it.

Largely, nature is a high-level abstraction built up from our cumulative experience in natural settings over a lifetime. Yes, it is subject to seasonal and daily variations. It has a lot to do with flowing water, both fresh and salt, hot and cold. And sunlight, which depends on clouds and where the sun is in the sky.

The topic of nature brings wild animals to mind—birds, snakes, salamanders, fish, marsupials, mammals, dinosaurs, whales, insects, spiders. Too, nature is a hard and gritty place, full of rocks, cliffs, mountains, boulders, pebbles, sand. Then there are the stars, which are so remote as to form a special class by themselves, in the company of asteroids, meteors, comets, planets, galaxies, nebulas, and much closer to home, auroras.

Lentil-shaped Clouds

A few of the shapes and colors of nature.

For me, nature brings to mind experiences I’ve had outdoors in the fresh air. The first such foray I can recall is looking for mayflowers with my mother and two brothers by peering under leaves released by melting snow. My mother was from Maine, so she knew about such things. That was near Hamilton, New York, almost eighty years ago. Where we also went outdoors in winter to cut a balsam fir that we took indoors and hung with decorations.

About the same time, when I was four, I remember jumping off the bow of a lobster boat in Maine, landing on rockweed, slipping, hitting my knee. On that trip we tented in Acadia National Park so we could explore my mother’s nearby homeland around Sullivan. I remember running through woods, finding a deer antler, which I had no idea you could just come across as if it belonged right where it was. That experience hugely expanded my view of “outdoors.”

Edge of the sea.

The protective coloration of a least sandpiper matches its native habitat.

I also remember eastern cottontails sitting still behind every stump and standing tree on a small island that had recently been cut-over for timber. That and raspberry bushes scratching my legs.

A few years later, I hiked with my family to the fire tower on top of Schoodic Mountain, near where my mother grew up. We climbed through stiff summit winds on a rickety ladder to talk with the fire ranger in his tower standing over his plane-table map of surrounding terrain, a man who wouldn’t look us in the eye because he was so watchful of the forestlands stretching around us in every direction, on the lookout for faint wisps of smoke.

For almost 500 million years, these trilobite descendants are still going strong.

Wave-tossed horseshoe crabs mate in Taunton Bay, Maine.

As a boy in Hamilton, I spent many Saturdays in March and April roaming surrounding hills, drawn by meltwater forming little rivers rushing into the valley. I dammed those rivers by poking palisades of twigs into damp soil, got sopping wet head-to-toe, and had the time of my life.

In summer, I explored creeks flowing from those same hills, looking for fossils in the black layers of slate that formed the walls those creeks had dug into bedrock. Crinoids. Fluted mollusks. Trilobites of all sizes. I learned to take hammer and chisel with me to break into natural cracks, freeing the wonders within.

Ancient birch with one last limb.

An ancient birch extends one last limb into the canopy to catch a few rays.

That’s who I still am today, Steve from planet Earth, poker of twigs, launcher of leaf boats, pryer-loose of fossils, staunch defender of watersheds and the life they support.

Later, just after the war when I was fourteen, I stood looking from the shore of Lido Key in Sarasota out over the Gulf of Mexico, and saw without warning a great manta ray lift from the gulf, hover above the surface of the water, and glide back into the depths, something I had never imagined before and have never seen since, that single experience alerting me to the possibilities offered by a lifetime of curiosity, exploration, and discovery.

Which I am living to this day in exploring and writing about my own mind. I take the sight of that manta as the very emblem of who I was then and still am, an Earthling to the core, alert to the natural wonders of my home planet.

 

379. Wayfarer In a Black Box

December 10, 2014

Our animal nature as go-getters casts a revelatory light on the function of our minds, our personal prime movers and shakers. In some circles it may be an unforgivable slip to mention the existence of free will, but what is it that is missing in states of sleeping and dreaming if not precisely that, the will that serves as navigator and wayfarer-in-chief when we reawaken?

Self-guided locomotion is the essence of our animal existence. Going to school, going to work, going to the bank, going to jail, going to dinner, going shopping, going home, even going to sleep.

Our distrust of free will is a shadow cast by the ideology of behaviorism on the entire discipline of psychology. If I were a psychologist or neuroscientist, I would look first at the link between perception and behavior for the neural structures that account for the effective coupling of the two. What I find at that location in myself after thirty years of introspection is the deadly duo of judgment and meaning imposing law and order on my wayward thoughts, so bridging the gap between input and output, converting sensory impressions into decisive actions in the world.

Emotions, values, understanding, and memory would feed into that coupling, along with an ability to compare goals against accomplishments as a gauge of the relative success or failure of earlier attempts to coordinate the two.

Mind in its black box as model of the outside world—that is the image I awoke with from my dream on March 10, 2014 (see post 378). Every person’s neural network is different due to formative and experiential factors governing the structure of such networks in finest detail. The job of each mind is to provide a unique model of, and way into, the world as it steers its own course through life.

Our minds guide our steps through successive life engagements in response to relevant sensory experience, remembrance, emotions, values, judgments, imagination, goals, expectancies, and other motivators active for one lifetime.

No mind is merely an autopilot. All serve as finely-tuned, experiential systems creatively bridging the gap between the integrity of a singular organism and its familial, communal, cultural, and natural environments at different levels of resolution and discernment.

The upshot being the powerful influence of mental characteristics and accomplishments on the reproduction and survival of individual bodies and brains, as well as on the cultural and genetic traits they share with their descendants. Shazam! So-called natural selection has stolen credit from individual self-selective engagements run by the situated intelligence at the core of each of our individual minds.

All that from one dream. Backed up by hundreds of earlier examples. And by the flurry of ideas in my mind as I waken unto them yet again. The image of a wayfarer in a black box is as good a metaphor as I have hit upon for what it feels like to be me.

It is no accident that in the 1990s I wrote a book based on sixty hikes in Acadia National Park over a period of five years. I billed the book as an effort to describe “the soul of a national park,” but it was more a portrait of my soul in the mid-1990s when I took those hikes and put that book together. I see it now as an extended metaphor for the park from the perspective inside my black box at the time.

And looking further back to 1982, I see the doctoral dissertation I wrote at Boston University’s School of Education, Metaphor to Mythology, as a portrayal of the mind of the same wayfarer at an earlier stage of his journey.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

Eagle-72

(Copyright © 2009)

Thinking about sacred ground, I had a vague inkling of having dealt with that topic in writing up a hike on Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park in the spring of 1997. Looking up what I had written about that hike in my book, ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park, I found this:

Sargent Mountain brings me to my senses. Literally to my senses. To the skilled perceptions that inform me about the land where I live and on which my life depends. On Sargent my soul responds to the music of a mountain, the song of Acadia, my home on this Earth. If I do not respond to that song, my soul is out of touch with the source of its nurture. When that happens, life is at risk. That is why I go back again and again to the mountain that reawakens me to the music, not of the spheres, but of the Earth and its star, the song of the one sphere where I have risen briefly to awareness and whose native rhythms have shaped every aspect of my being and my soul. I am a minute reflection of the Earth soul, one spark reflecting the brilliance of the sun. (Page 224.)

No mention of sacred ground, but that’s clearly the idea I was trying to convey. And am still trying to convey in this blog. I don’t talk about soul now so much as about consciousness. What I’m after is seeing sacred ground as an aspect of consciousness—that music running through my head as I roam this land that I love. Not music exactly, but the lilting feeling deep inside me of doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Of being fully who I am where I am, or thinking of you, who you are where you are when you find yourself right where you want to be.

What is that all about? That feeling of belonging exactly there. Of being drawn to a place and at the same time driven by something deep inside you. Like Ratty coming home in Wind in the Willows. There are two parts to the feeling, the outward carrot, the inward stick. Perceptions and feelings complementing each other, uniting in one self-fulfilling urge to happiness.

If the ground is sacred, you are sacred at the same time. The ground sanctifies you, you sanctify the ground. The engagement is mutual. When person and place honor each other, you feel music echoing inside you. You are moved by the landscape exactly as you make your way through it. Your song becomes a songline of the Earth.

It’s like being in love. There’s no separation between you and your beloved. I’m not talking physical union here so much as a kind of recognition of being made for each other, as thought and feeling are two aspects of the same mind. It’s more than form and content going together. It’s like form is content. They’re the same thing, or belong together as parts of something larger than themselves.

Dedicated or set apart for special use, sacred ground must be recognized and designated by persons aware of the special qualities warranting protection. That would be all those sensitive to such qualities as represented in consciousness. It takes one to know one. The whole of Acadia is sacred ground. I know that for myself because I have been there and recognized it for what it is—an extension of myself—as have the millions who seek it out year after year so they can celebrate themselves in that place.

But I do not intend to limit myself to my native haunts in this reflection. I am writing about love for the Earth by all Earthlings, those of every species who treasure their homeland and homewater, the territory that provides for and supports their particular livelihood in every detail. It is the living who treasure the ground and water they depend on. When we die, those who survive us will carry on with the same awe and respect. Since its territory is sacred, then Earth is sacred, as all life is sacred. I know because I feel that inside me. My consciousness keeps reminding me.

As a sacred planet, Earth is dedicated to the single task of supporting all life. As far as we know, it is the only body in the solar system—or any other system for that matter—where chemical ions and elements combine in such a way to reproduce in the presence of starlight and water. We, this living horde, sanctify these grounds and these waters. We carry representations of their wonders within us, and recognize them in our experience. As recognizers, we respect or venerate the sacred; as recognized within us, Earth too is sacred. We are made for one another.

Sacred ground stirs feelings in us of awe, deference, and devotion. Of reverence. Sounds like I’m talking religion here, and in a way I am. The word religion stems from the Latin root ligare, to tie or bind closely. Oblige and obligate stem from the same root in a similar sense, as “to be bound by ties of gratitude” (OED). Beyond matters of belief, religion requires dedication to a life of service. You have to give for what you get. Which is also true of the gift of life itself. We are obliged to pay for what we get, by dying, surely, but also by caring for that which supports us while we share in the blessing of life. That’s my religion, not a matter of serving God so much as thanking Earth for its many gifts.

Which is exactly what I am talking about in using the term sacred ground. Nobody says we have to serve, we just recognize that obligation within ourselves, as we have a duty to serve and protect those we love. How do we serve our particular place on Earth? By protecting it from harm so it will remain productive and whole. That service is not imposed upon us; it comes from inside. Just as mirror neurons reflect actions seen into actions performed (see Reflection 117: Monkey See, Monkey Do), the very awareness of treading on sacred ground stirs a profound feeling of wanting to care for that ground. Whether for a person, animal, or place, caring is a natural form of stewardship. We want to take care of those we love.

Our modern culture places many obstacles between us and those we care for. Essentially materialistic, it reduces obligations to care and serve to financial indebtedness. We are off the hook if we pay up. Buy diamond jewelry, high-calorie foods, big fancy cars, insurance, healthcare, mortgages, the best we can afford—and beyond. Be generous, as long as you consume what we sell, so says our culture. We are surrounded by middlemen eager to profit from our overwhelming obligation to love and to cherish. By serving those who intercede on our behalf, we come to believe money has the magical power to do what consciousness tells us to do for ourselves. As a result, the objects of our many affections become distanced by eager corporations interposing themselves between us now much as priests of the true church were once happy to intercede on behalf of the faithful they made anxious to pay for their sins.

Which not only drains our spirits and bank accounts, but separates our good intentions from our personal values and means for doing good in this life. We drift away from those we would dedicate ourselves to. We say we care, but when it comes down to serving, we cut ourselves off and, by default, serve primarily our material needs exactly as we have been taught. 

The remedy I find in myself is to serve Earth directly and those truly embodying its gifts. That is, by reclaiming my consciousness from those who would steal it from me, I reclaim the right to honor those I rely on and in whom I freely invest all that I am, including my feelings, hopes, desires, accomplishments, and even my genes. And above these, the Earth to which we are bound. It is my sacred obligation to care for these—and the ground on which we live. If I do not sing of these, what other song is mine to sing?

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

It is 5:12 A.M. I am standing with a group of 18 Native and non-native Americans on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We are in the clouds; it is raining. I am first to arrive… but not really the first. Three fire-tenders have been there all night, drumming to keep themselves warm and awake while keeping the fire. The others arrive at this sunrise without the sun. We circle the fire—and more particularly, the bed of glowing coals the fire-tenders have spread. The coals are pulsing orange; we in our rain gear are blue, green, brown, yellow, red. Three stand under black umbrellas. Rain or shine, we have permission from the National Park Service to welcome the sun, begin a new day, and spiritually prepare for the gathering of Tribal environmental leaders from across the country to start later that morning.

The fire-tenders bless themselves with a smoldering braid of sweet grass lit in the coals. They pass the braid over their heads and backs, arms and hands, legs and soles of feet, wafting the scented smoke over their bodies, clad as they are against the rain. Then they offer the sweet grass to each of us in turn and we bless ourselves in the same manner.

Those new to the ceremony carry on by imitation, doing for themselves as they have watched others do before them. Monkey see, monkey do, I thought to myself as I accepted the braid. But in rituals, performance is everything. If you don’t know your way, you are wise to mimic what others are doing. Then we each pinch a tuft of tobacco from a small basket, and hold it out of the rain as the fire-tenders sprinkle theirs on the coals while saying a prayer, and each of us follows the pattern. For my prayer, I say I am honored to have lived long enough to share in the fire ceremony with those gathered on the summit, including a pileated woodpecker chanting nearby. When all have spread their tobacco on the coals, and bent down to waft the smoke over themselves, the fire is put out and every trace removed as if it never had been.

Fire-Tender

But it had been, I was there, and the traces were lodged in my brain. Specifically, in the so-called mirror neuron system that translates evidence of the senses into action. Consciousness, at the junction of sensory and motor systems, is in on the translating. Whatever actions you pay particular attention to and are motivated to imitate, you can perform because mirror neurons are on the job. First discovered in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons were anticipated by William James who wrote, “every mental representation of a movement awakens to some degree the actual movement which is its object.” Thus enabling Russian babies in the presence of Russian speakers to learn how to imitate Russian (not Portuguese) vowels and consonants. And me to learn the proper way to waft sweet-grass smoke over my body in a fire ceremony atop Cadillac Mountain.

Some researchers conclude that mirror neurons enable us to infer intentions and even beliefs from the behavior of others, but I think that is a bit of a stretch. Angry looks and threatening gestures may well instill fear, but experience advises us to beware seemingly innocent situations as some kind of trap, which I see as due to interpretation, not sadder-but-wiser mirror neurons. Such neurons fire in our brains both when we perform particular acts and when we see (or hear) others performing the same acts—as if all brains were one brain, or are at least wired much the same way.

If someone else looks sad to us, we may be concerned or empathic, but looks alone do not convey the reason for that sadness which, until we understand the other’s situation, is a matter of conjectural interpretation. Look at football fans in opposite bleachers, one standing and shouting with glee while the other slumps in dejection—in response to the same play on the field. Or place yourself in the jury box witnessing one attorney presenting the facts of the case, then the opposing attorney presenting them quite differently and drawing a different conclusion. I think we should not portray mirror neurons as being smarter than they are. The situation in which they perform is every bit as important as the motor gestures themselves.

What mirror neurons do is drape sensory signals (heard, seen, or imagined) in motor clothing as if actor and beholder were the same person and could simply switch roles. But in the fire ceremony, even if I gave a reasonable imitation of a Native American performing a similar sequence of gestures, were our gestures the same or even equivalent? Considering our different backgrounds and understanding of those gestures, I was very much the novice going through certain motions without having the wit to know what I was doing. When the toddler says “dada,” he recognizes the referent he intends by that sound, but knows that referent in a very limited way compared to how Dada knows himself and what he would mean by making the same sound. The idea of male genetic parenthood is far beyond the horizon of the toddler’s small world.

In a neurological sense, mirror neurons are extremely well connected, and their signals bear overtones from other parts of the brain. They not only tie perception to concrete action, but are informed by intention, understanding, interpretation, speech, feeling, and judgment. The feel of the moment is very much a synthesis of many aspects of consciousness. I see the mirror neuron system as bridging between all parts of consciousness at the crucial juncture where sensory input leads to motor output in terms of specific behaviors judged appropriate to the life situation as currently represented in the brain and understood in the mind.

Picture an infant so stimulated that her excitement drives her to flap her arms up and down in wholehearted devotion to what is happening at the focus of her attention. She is excited because her mirror neuron system is excited—but has not yet developed a repertoire of fine-motor responses. Ready for liftoff, she makes like a bird. Think what lies ahead as she learns to suit her responses to whatever so excites her. Think of young Tiger Wood sitting in his chair watching his father practice his golf swing. Think of yourself learning to dance, throw a Frisbee, use chopsticks, or speak like a Valley Girl. Eventually you get to the master class where you pattern your behavior on a performance by the greatest mime-saxophonist-pitcher-poet-chef in the world!

Or else you settle for your halting imitation of their example and decide to live within your personal limitations by sticking to karaoke, restricting your Elvis imitation to Halloween, doting on celebrities, or following the latest fashions. I tried mightily to learn Tai Chi from a teacher who was so impatient with individual moves that he could only teach them in the full sequence of the long form by serving as an example of perfection, which, viewed from the back—or not viewed at all when I was facing away—triggered no response from my mirror neuron system and I had to give up, as I gave up jazz dancing because it was all happening too fast for me to keep to the beat.

The reason that apprenticeships and hands-on training work is due to mirror neurons firing in exactly the same way whether performing an action or observing others perform the same action. Motor planning and execution areas of the brain are involved either way. If you want to paint like Picasso, copy his portraits—each brush stroke exactly—to get inside his head (or let him into your head).

There are a lot of visualization exercises around today, striving to imagine a better future. Picturing such a result and then bringing it about may seem to be very different activities, but they are more closely linked than it seems. The connection is that many of the same mirror neurons are involved in both planning and then striving to realize that plan. To know where you are headed is half the battle; follow-through is the other half. You have a better chance of getting there if you can visualize where you’re going.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, but reflecting on all the behaviors you have learned to execute through imitation will help you appreciate their role in human life. I didn’t just feel like an onlooker during the fire ceremony on Cadillac, I was a participant like the rest. Human see, human do. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything and now lead a larger life because I was there.

 

 

 Ω

Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

¦

 

 

Copyright © 2008.

In consciousness, where time is the signature of the observer, space is the signature of the actor, the doer, the mover. Both of which we are—observers and actors—often at the same time. Consciousness is the domain where these two aspects of the self work together in coordinating those sensory changes due to events in the world with those changes due to our own actions. If we don’t keep the two straight in our minds, we can’t tell ourselves from the world, and so get confused. Are you crazy, or is it me?

 

It’s snowing in Acadia National Park, with two feet already on the ground. I’m climbing Sargent Mountain on snowshoes. No blazes to show the way, no ruts in the snow, no familiar landmarks: I’ve mislaid the trail. Here I am in thick, sloping woods somewhere between the Hadlock Brook Trail below and Sargent South Ridge Trail above. If I keep going up, I know I’ll cross that ridge trail. Excelsior!

          Up through the storm, navigating among black stems of spruce. Rock wall; now where? Go left—blocked. Right—up and around the wall. Up, up winding between trees, making my own route. I could follow my tracks down if I had to. Being lost, I look with new eyes. Flying snow, sloping terrain, dark trees. Beauty all around me. Nature herself in ermine cape.

          After an hour, I top a ridge and see a single bare stone floating on a drift, its coat of snow blown away by the wind. I know what that is—digging down, yes, a three-foot mound of stones, a cairn marking the ridge trail. Beyond that line of spruce over there, I’ll bet the ridge falls abruptly into the Amphitheater. Past that, the western slope of Penobscot. I plunge through the trees, and there, the most awesome sight I have seen in Acadia—a ghostly mountain flank rising from a gulf seen through snow streaking horizontally, misting and mystifying the air, creating a scene of wild magnificence. Where is everybody? I’m the only one here.

          The transition from being lost to being found is so abrupt, the scene, though I’ve never seen anything like it, hits me with a rush of familiarity. I am found, indeed! Not theoretically, but in deed. Without a map, I know exactly where I am. X marks the spot on the chart I carry in my head.

 

Consciousness comes in handy when you are lost in the woods. When you’re turned-around and disoriented. It heightens your senses and helps you turn every sound, sight, and smell into a clue to your situation—what’s happening around you and where you are in the world. No need to panic. You’re having an adventure. That is, if you anticipated getting lost and come prepared (expectancy, judgment, and preparation are major aspects of consciousness).

 

Sense of place also comes into play when you know where you are, but some one (or some thing) else is missing. You can stay there and wait, or go looking for them. You start from their last known location, and, putting yourself in their state of mind, navigate from there. It isn’t easy replicating the consciousness of someone else—or of a member of another species entirely, as I discovered during the two years I spent tracking horseshoe crabs in Egypt Bay.

 

GPS unit and hydrophone in hand, I know exactly where I am in my boat, but where are they—the six male and seven female horseshoe crabs fitted with sonar transmitters last June when they came ashore to mate? I don’t know it yet, but I’m trying to think like one of those crabs—to enter its frame of mind in order to figure out where it might have gone after our last encounter. I go to the coordinates where I located one a few days ago, put hydrophone in the water, rotate it full circle, and listen for a faint series of clicks in my headphones to tell me it’s still in the vicinity. Total silence. Shut off the motor and listen really hard. Nothing. Scan the horizon 360 degrees. If I were a horseshoe crab, which way would I go? Novice tracker that I am, I haven’t a clue. Every heading looks the same. To me, their movements seem random.

After months of playing this game, I begin to develop a sense of horseshoe crab motivation. The first year taught me that the crabs in this bay (at the northern limit of their range) spend late November through mid-April hibernating in the mud among eelgrass beds, clams, sea worms, and mussels. Then they rouse themselves in response to increasing light and/or water temperature, eat a hearty meal, and begin their upslope climb from channel edges to gravelly shores where they gather to mate starting mid-to-late May. After mating, they stay in the warm shallows for a month, probably feeding, then make the return trip to deeper waters. Once I understand that cycle, I try to gauge the topography of the bottom, and pursue my quarry farther up or down slope, depending on the season. Slowly, I develop a sense of the routes horseshoe crabs might take at any particular time of year. Once I see that their travels are not random, finding them gets much easier. It’s no longer me alone in my boat. Now it’s me and the crabs and the wind and the waves and the current and the sun in this particular place.

 

Consciousness synchronizes sensory world-changes and motor self-changes, which, given the complexity of the situations we get ourselves into—like getting lost in the woods, or chasing after horseshoe crabs, or dancing for that matter—is a tall order. The cerebellum, one of the original parts of the vertebrate brain, used to be seen as fine-tuner of muscle control. But, too, it receives sensory input, so, with the prefrontal cortex at the opposite end of the brain, may well be one of the locations in our heads where world-changes and self-changes are distinguished in order that we conduct ourselves sensibly in a world we cannot control. Or put differently, that we conduct ourselves sensibly by acting in harmony with the world, not against it. We jump and catch the speeding ball in our mitt, never thinking we are performing a miracle. Never thinking of muscles and nerves and time and space. We just do it. Our consciousness at that moment is who we are.

 

We take it for granted we can walk through woods without crashing into trees, pursue quarry across almost any kind of terrain without losing it, or cross busy city streets at one rate of speed while cars and trucks bear down upon us at other rates. Yet these are examples of the kinds of extremely difficult feats our survival depends on day after day. More than goodness, we need to thank consciousness for such gifts, for it alone gives us the blessing of time and space which enable us to perform such complex operations again and again.

¦

 

Let us count our blessings. Happy New Year, everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2008

 

The day stretches ahead of me. All that time. How fill the hours?

 

Had breakfast, washed dishes, did laundry, made a start at my solstice card list, and it’s snowing. What next? Winter solstice on the 21st, the true New Year’s Day. A group of us usually hike up Cadillac Mountain Road, weather permitting. That’s a ways off. First, John and Seth are coming from Boothbay to talk about eelgrass in the bay. I’ve made my eelgrass PowerPoint, but haven’t run through it. Got to do that. Carole’s coming tonight and I want to buy carrots and make rice. Oh, and transfer funds from savings to checking to cover my credit card payment. And blog about consciousness of time and space. And check NOAA weather.

 

For now, that’s today’s to-do list. In its own way, each item is important. What’s most important? I’ll go to the bank after the post office gets the mail up—usually by 10:30. That gives me an hour and a half. First, check the weather. Make blog notes. Shop when I go to the bank. Keep my solstice card list handy to work on between times. Do the PowerPoint later. Try to get to the blog.

 

O.K., have at it.

 

Not so fast. I check my blog and find a comment from Laura, which I respond to. Then I check my stats, and find two links to porn sites. Am I linked to them or are they to me? How do I get rid of links like that? I e-mail WordPress support to find out. Then I run out of printer ink. And so it goes (“it” being this given day in my life). Planning is one thing, doing another. Things just come up and need to be dealt with. With everything changing, I find it hard to know my own mind.

 

One thing about time, it always runs out. If I start over, it runs out again. What is this flow we call time? As if it were so many grains of sand in an hourglass. When we run out of it, we flip the timer. Until that last hour when we can’t. The metaphor of “the arrow of time” makes it sound like some sort of trajectory, but whether meant in a thermodynamic, cosmological, or other sense, it is a misnomer. It is not time that flows over us so much as change itself. Time is an Earth-bound measure of change. Earth-bound because found only in the human mind, and, as far as we know, humans are bound to their double-planet, Earth-moon system. Time, arrow and all, is in our heads.

 

I think time and space together are the essence of consciousness. We are conscious at this time, in this place. In our current situation. We may be recalling past events or anticipating future ones, but we are doing so at this current moment of consciousness, here and now, the one, ever-changing moment we are allowed.

 

Rather than being principles of consciousness, time and space are derivatives of consciousness. I’d say change is the founding principle on which consciousness rests. Either the world (my situation) is changing in awareness, I am changing, or both are changing at the same time. Time is the signature of myself the observer (the world is changing before me); space is the signature of myself the actor (I am changing the world). When I am both observer and actor (in the ongoing feedback loop in my brain that is consciousness itself), time and space inform me as a participant (in that loop).

 

(Note to self: look at locations in the brain where incoming sensory phenomena are given meaning (interpreted) as a basis for appropriate action—there would be the neural substrate of this consciousness that I am.)

 

Time and space flow from the interaction between sensory awareness and past experiences as made available by recall. Fitting the two together is the effort after meaning we know as human consciousness. Which enables us to act appropriately (or not) in our current situation.

 

In my little booklet Eartheart (Addison Gallery of American Art, 1973—long out of print), I included an image based on the text, “Time is an arbitrarily designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured.” The apparent motion of the sun relative to our Earthly observing station has long served as the standard by which we gauge other changes. Obelisks and sundials translate solar motions into moving shadows, which can be cast on calibrated pathways—giving us the current time of day. Rotating hands on clocks and watches mimic solar movements in different degrees of fineness. Digital timepieces are programmed to step to the same beat.

 

But time is not contained in such instruments. Contrary to Einstein’s famous thought experiments, a mechanical clock in space without an observer is nothing more than an assemblage of springs and gears. The seat of time is in our heads. Where it serves as a standard for calibrating changes we apprehend in the world. Time gives meaning to such changes by referring them to the apparent motions of the sun, moon, and stars. That is, to Earth’s rotation on its axis once each day as divided into practical units found useful in scheduling and measuring human affairs. 

 

I can look in The Old farmer’s Almanac and find out when the sun is predicted to set in my locale. Then I can drive up Cadillac Mountain (when the road is open) to Blue Hill Overlook and watch the sunset from there at that time. A surprising number of visitors do just that when they come to Acadia National Park each summer. Then as soon as the sun drops below the horizon (or the horizon rises to cover the sun), people seem to think the event is over so they drive off to dinner. But the best part of the sunset experience is ahead as the clouds change in turn from gold to orange to red to deep crimson to blue to black.

 

That progression of colors reflects the essence of time in human consciousness. In them time is not just a series of numbers on a clock—which is merely one way of calibrating human awareness of changes in our environment—but it is the sequence of changing phenomena in our minds that is the point. We watch sunsets to have such experiences. Acquired through experience, time is a tool for enabling us to be in the right place at the right time.

 

Or by a different time scale, we can climb Cadillac Mountain on the winter solstice to see the sun, on its trek along the horizon, at its southernmost limit, which serves as the experiential turning point between the old year and the new. With the sun at its lowest arc in the sky (because Earth’s northern hemisphere is turned farthest away from it on this day), days are short and nights long. But exactly at that time, hope wells up in consciousness because from then till the beginning of summer there’s only one way to go and that’s up as sunrise inches its way northward along the horizon toward—first colder—then warmer days ahead.

 

Winter may be a time of hardship and scarcity, but it is the road we must take if we want to make it to spring and summer beyond. Much as to reach those promised tomorrows, we must give today our best shot. Which is why time is our greatest invention and most valuable asset. It is possibility itself. Possibility for careful attention. Possibility for discovering meaning, for effective and rewarding action, for reflecting on the outcome, and then for trying again.

 

The second most important question we can ask ourselves is: What’s happening in my world today? The most important question is: What am I going to do to help things along? Hour by hour, day by day, we mind our situations, then act out the stories of our lives.

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