(Copyright © 2009)

On the evening of July 9, 2009, I handed a CD containing a PowerPoint presentation to a colleague from Taunton Bay Education Center in Hancock, Maine. The simple act of passing a compact disc from one hand to another ended one phase of a project, and opened way for using the contents to further understand the vagaries of eelgrass growth in Taunton Bay. The CD had been more than a month in the planning stage, based on a framework laid down 18 years earlier when local eelgrass monitoring was begun. The nature and significance of the small plastic disc was not evident in its physical form; it existed solely in the mind of one conscious being, namely me, the one who had made the PowerPoint based on 128 digital photographs taken that morning on an overflight of Taunton Bay. Phase one of the eelgrass monitoring project for 2009 was concluded; now on to phase two and beyond.

Which sounds like pretty dry stuff until you realize how powerful human consciousness is in freeing evolution from reliance on what worked in the past to enabling ideas in the mind to come to fruition in the future through projects based not solely on past success but on anticipation of what future success might look like. Evolution is based on the profound truth that what worked once is likely to work again—that successful adaptation breeds more of the same. But in a rapidly changing world, that truth is merely a possibility, not a guarantee. Once a genome is in place, that’s it for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Consciousness, on the other hand, is more adaptive to changes within a lifetime, so can can alter its prospects by planning ahead. That way, it extends the reach of evolution by taking current and projected states of local variables into account—that is, by knowing what evolution cannot predict on the basis of past success.

Compared to lean and agile consciousness, evolution is slow-footed and cumbersome. It can’t anticipate events; it can only react after-the-fact. Consciousness possesses imagination where evolution has none. Evolution is stuck in the past; consciousness can think ahead and bring about a future that does not yet exist. For evolution, what works works; for consciousness, anything is possible.

A project is a throwing ahead of the mind (Latin pro- forth, ahead; iacere to throw). No feature of consciousness is more powerful than thinking ahead. Planning. Working towards a goal. Heading out. Designing. Implementing. The whole concept of work is based on directing energy toward making something happen. Where evolution cranks out more of the same old pattern, consciousness strives for improvement—something better. One is evolutionary, the other revolutionary.

Evolution came up with consciousness through physical adaptation, but consciousness transcends the physical and biological by enabling states of mind: dissatisfaction, doubt, questioning, imagination, planning, design, implementation, and follow-through. Unifying them behind a common purpose, the mind proposes projects. Leading on to execution by a series of stages to achieve the desired result. Shazam, the world is changed!

Camera in hand, I am in a small plane flying from Bar Harbor Airport toward Taunton Bay, on the lookout for eelgrass. We took off at 8:40 a.m. to be over the bay at low tide. The pilot’s name is Eric. We both have headsets and mikes so we can talk over the noise of engine and wind. I’ll tell him when to make a loop. Flight time costs $289 an hour; I want to keep this short. I know where eelgrass meadows have grown in the past, so we’ll fly loops around those flats, keeping me on the inside of the turn, lens pointing down. Starting at Tidal Falls, we head up Taunton River, loop around the basin between Route One bridge and the falls. I unlatch the window on my side and let the wind hold it open. I’m also looking for kelp beds, so get shots of those along the Sullivan shore. On to Cedar and Evergreen Points where the bay opens up. Cross Havey Point, then swing a big loop around Burying Island Ledge. Not much eelgrass here, though it used to be thick. Along the west shore of Egypt Bay—where it’s really coming back since the 2001 dieback. Loop around Egypt Bay, getting a good shot of horseshoe crab beach and the eelgrass both sides of Egypt Stream channel. Cross Butler Point to West Brook Cove, get three shots of spreading eelgrass. Loop Creasy Cove to get shots of the three groups of boulders called Seal Rocks. Then on up the shore to Round Island and Shipyard Point, making a loop at the entrance to Hog Bay. Along Saltmarsh, Hog Bay the north shore to get shots of the salt marsh (bright green from weeks of rain) and do a loop around Hog Bay to show eelgrass coming in where the channel is cutting a new course through the mud. Down mid-channel to Hatch Point and the land-based aquaculture operation, then loop the flats there, and on further to Evergreen Point with its mussel bar and eelgrass bed. Turn down Taunton River to the bridge, then head for the airport. Touching down, we’ve been in the air exactly half an hour—$125 worth of flight time.

I never imagined on my first flight in 1992 I’d still be doing the same thing in 2009. But eelgrass growth is different every year, depending on seasonal conditions of sun, rain, salinity, Eelgrass in Egypt Bay_2009 temperature, disease organisms, and so on. With eelgrass you never know. It died back in the 1930s, made a comeback in the 1950s, peaked in 1973, eased off in the 1980s, came back throughout the 1990s, almost disappeared in 2001, and is now making a gradual comeback. One large meadow at the base of Butler Point thrived in 1955, was half gone by 1985, and went missing in 1993. That’s a worst-case scenario. Eelgrass is habitat for fish nurseries, crabs, and all sorts of estuarine life. An underwater flowering plant, it is one of the primary producers—including rockweed, marsh grass, kelp, other algae, and phytoplankton—on which all life in Taunton Bay depends, including predators such as kingfishers, ducks and geese, ospreys, and eagles. Without eelgrass, Taunton Bay wouldn’t be Taunton Bay. So Friends of Taunton Bay (one of which I am) pays close attention to eelgrass. Which explains the eight overflights I have made through the years.

Watching over eelgrass has turned into a real project. This most recent flight, for instance was in the planning stages for six weeks. The weather in June and early July simply didn’t conform to my wishes. My garden is slug city from all of the rain. I’d consult my tide chart to see when the tide would be low (exposing the eelgrass) during early morning with slight wind, add two hours to compensate for the lag between Bar Harbor tides and Taunton Bay, and call Maine Coastal Flight Center to give them a heads-up. And call back later when the rain didn’t let up or the ceiling reach the minimum 1,000 feet required for takeoff. I tried the weeks of June 8, 22, July 6—and finally had got a go-ahead on July 9, a day with blue skies and no wind. I put a lot of thought into all those weeks of doing nothing. I checked my flight plan, and kept thinking of simpler ways of getting in the loops I wanted to make. In the end I let my loopy map sit in my lap and decided to rely on intuition in telling Eric where and when to make a loop. That way—and by making every shot count—I cut five minutes off last year’s flight time.

I left the airport by car about 9:15 and got back to my apartment at 9:35. I loaded the photos into my computer, and began PhotoShopping each frame about 10:00 a.m. I changed the resolution of each image from 72 to 160 pixels per inch, the size of the long dimension from 22 to 10 inches (to fit the PowerPoint screen), adjusting brightness and contrast as appropriate. At noon-thirty I heated lunch, then transferred the photos to my PowerPoint-blogging laptop and got to work on the presentation. I finished labeling each slide with its location in the bay at 5:00 p.m., having spent an entire day on this installment of the project. I made a CD, ate dinner, then went to a meeting of Friends of Taunton Bay where I handed over the CD. I stress the minor details because that’s what a project is made of. If you attend to every detail, all will be well. There are no substitutes for loving what you do and getting good at it.

A day in the life, made possible by personal consciousness. Just like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Emily Dickinson turning her life’s energy into poetry, Hillary Clinton devoting her life to public service, or Beethoven putting sonatas from his head into music notation, here I am giving my all for eelgrass. At least for several days out of the year. The payoff of my paying close attention to eelgrass has been the emerging sense of understanding why the beds in Taunton Bay suffered such a sharp decline in 2001. Making a PowerPoint of photos from my 2007 overflight, I saw image after image pointing to dilution of the bay by fresh water as the key to the dieback in 2001. Or lack thereof, 2001 being the year of least rainfall in Maine in 111 years of keeping records. The year with the greatest amount of runoff from snowmelt was 1973—when eelgrass peaked in the bay. Photos revealed eelgrass recovering first in small stream channels draining freshwater across the mud flats. Maine’s eelgrass expert, Hilary Neckles with the USGS, told me that the dieback disease organism thrives under conditions of maximum salinity, and is held in check by brackish (less saline) waters typical of most estuaries. With only 20-some inches of rain in 2001, salinity rose in Taunton Bay, giving an edge to the disease organism, which attacked the eelgrass, causing the dieback. Putting the evidence together, my consciousness reached a new level of understanding of events in one little bay in Maine. I’ve long maintained that, as goes the watershed, so goes Taunton Bay. Eelgrass, being dependent on its watershed to an extreme degree for the desirable dilution of full-strength salt water, was done-in by the drought. In wet years such as we’ve had recently, it’s making a comeback.

Which is a long way of saying that projects not only get us organized, but can lead to new ways of understanding the specific situations within which we live. By focusing the mind, projects enable us to surpass ourselves.

If we would apply that logic to the many crises of under-standing we face today, I think we wouldn’t keep repeating the same old mistakes that, evolution-like, keep us tied to outmoded ways instead of reaching ahead to keep up with changing times. Did Michelangelo settle for what he did yesterday? Did Emily Dickinson, Hillary Clinton, or Ludwig van Beethoven? Is writing one string quartet the same as writing 35 of them? Not on your life! Through channeling our energies into specific projects, we sharpen our skills and comprehension both. The ultimate project of saving the world by making humankind safe for the Earth deserves the maximum talents we can develop in ourselves. Anything less under current conditions is an absolute copout. Let’s hear it for eelgrass, for projects, for consciousness raising in hard times! Let’s get our heads together and do the necessary work. If evolution can’t guarantee success, then the heavy lifting is now up to us. All it will take is directing our attention into projects that will make us as good at solving problems as, unthinking, we are at creating them.

My Wings

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

Ω