421. Watersheds

February 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

420. Water Go-Round

January 31, 2015

Almost single-handedly, the water cycle is responsible for the hospitality of planet Earth to life of all forms, including primates, including apes, including humans. Powered upward by sunlight, downward by gravity, the water cycle tells the story of the vast migration of water molecules from the surface of the ocean back into the air from which they fell a day or a million days ago, returning to that upper realm as water vapor, an invisible gas, from which it will eventually fall again as rain, hail, sleet, or snow.

Watersheds are the domains where the water cycle interacts with the land that conveys it back to the ocean, picking up mineral and organic nutrients, making photosynthesis possible in algae and green plants, which in turn make animal life—including consciousness—possible in every clime around the Earth.

In engaging with nature, we are truly engaging with the flow of water in its various forms. We were born in a primal sea; now that sea lives in us. What is the womb but an inner ocean of life? An unbroken stream of water connects us through the eons to our primal selves.

We don’t engage the water cycle all at once, but more typically one stage at a time. We admire clouds in the sky. It rains on our tent. We stomp puddles to make them splash. We kayak down streams and rivers. We sail on the ocean. On steamy days we sweat and return our bodily water to the air.

I divide that continuous flow into fifteen different stages that collectively add up to what we call the water cycle.

  1. Water falls from the sky in one form or another.
  2. It collects in puddles on the ground (or as ice on glaciers flowing to the sea).
  3. Those puddles percolate into the soil or cracks in bedrock.
  4. Drop by drop, soil water flow downhill through porous soils.
  5. Soil water flows from banks into wetlands and small streams.
  6. Small streams join to form rivers.
  7. River water (and glacial ice) mix with salt water in a bay or estuary.
  8. Salt water flows out with the tide to form currents.
  9. Currents flow at different depths to join local seas into one global ocean.
  10. Cold currents are warmed by radiant energy streaming from the sun.
  11. Surface waters evaporate, becoming water vapor.
  12. Water vapor rises into the air.
  13. Where it condenses into droplets to form clouds.
  14. Droplets join into bigger drops too heavy to stay aloft.
  15. Those big drops fall toward Earth, starting another round of the cycle.

Watersheds are one of the primary ways the natural world organizes itself. All life on Earth depends on water, and watersheds are systems for distributing water across time and space, making it available on a reliable enough basis for individual plants—and life dependent on them—to survive.

Watersheds take water from large areas of higher ground on their peripheries and distribute it to ever-smaller, concentric areas lower down, conveying a flow of water, soil particles, and nutrients downward toward a central focus in the lowlands below.

Almost everything we take for granted on Earth stems from the cyclical movement of water from the surface of the ocean into the air, from air into soil, from soil to stream, from stream back to ocean.

In that sense, the water cycle is a huge pump that floods the fields of plant and animal life on Earth. What are we but individual tributaries of the flow from that pump? Every drop of water in the soil is a delivery packet to the roots of plants and trees. Every glass of water, bottle of wine, can of beer or soda is a packet of water to be delivered to our gullets.

Each of us is an integral part of the water cycle. The water cycle is us. If Earth’s great pump ever falters and stops working, we falter and stop working. The pump runs on gravity and sunlight; we run on gravity and sunlight. Our minds run on gravity and sunlight. Heaviness and lightness—there we are again, caught exactly in the tension between them. Made possible and kept running by the pull of our planet in concert with the loft of sunlit-water turned to vapor and rising through warm air.

This puts consciousness in a new light. Consciousness is not in our brains as neuroscientists today so firmly believe; it is in our engagement with our home planet, and only half of that engagement is in our brains (leading from perception to action via meaning and judgment). The rest is in what we engage with in the world beyond our skins.

Consciousness is as much a product of gravity and sunlight as it is of the flow of ions through our neural networks from one neuron to the next. Put differently, that flow of ions is an extension of the water cycle through the flesh-and-blood neural tubes and synaptic junctions that make up the bulk of our brains.

If we disconnect from sensory input by being put in solitary confinement in a bleak cell, or by otherwise depriving ourselves of stimulation from our surroundings—in such cases we shut down to the extent our consciousness shuts down from lack of input. A mind by itself is not enough. Every mind needs a world to engage with in order to thrive. It needs to take part in the larger flow of gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, dissonance and consonance.

I am trying to fit the flow of thoughts through our minds into the larger context of the flow of water through the surface of the Earth. I firmly believe there is a connection between the two flows, an intimate and vital connection that makes my writing this blog, and your reading of it, not only possible, but essential. By that I mean you won’t find this discussion anywhere else.

After all, we and our progenitors have lived on the Earth for a long time—some three-and-a-half billion years. It would be incredible to claim that we are not an integral part of the basic processes that run Earth’s every system. We are not above the Earth or below it; we are creatures of it. We are constituents of the biosphere as made possible by the cyclical flow of water within the limits set by inner Earth and outer space. That biosphere is implicit in our every thought and engagement. It is the true medium of consciousness, of which the brain is but one part.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

A year or a hundred years from now, people will still breathe, eat, drink, excrete, have sex, sleep (not necessarily in that order). And still depend on damp soil and photosynthesis in a favorable climate as we do today. Earth will be even more depleted then, but we can’t escape to Mars—the cost would be prohibitive to shoot even two of us to that dreary world. We’re stuck where we are and have to make the best of it. Which means suiting our minds, beliefs, expectations, and actions to our home planet by becoming Earthlings in every thought and deed.

 

Which right now we are not. We distance ourselves from the natural world which provides for us by building an imaginary civilization distinct from the natural order. No other species plays golf, for instance, drugs itself to get through the day, or mistakes DVD films for the real world. We live in a mental space tailored to the habits and beliefs we are used to. Ritualized behaviors keeps us there—as surely as if we were caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Only, it’s not our legs that are caught but our minds.

 

If not Earthlings, what are we? A sort of creature that lives in the space it creates for itself in consciousness. We are creatures of dreams, desires, fears, fantasies, illusions, fairy tales, fiction, and other forms of unreality. We dwell on a planet of make-believe, pretense, as-if, . . . whatever. Sure, technology can solve every problem. Earth can feed and accommodate us, no matter how many we are. There’s no stopping economic progress. What I want right now I deserve. Our ritual behaviors tell us so. If we do the same thing often enough, it’s as good as true, no matter how foolish. Ritual is the repetitive re-enactment of belief. What we do repeatedly is what we become.

 

What we have become is disconnected from the planet that truly supports us in every way. We have slipped from our mooring. Adrift in a fog of our own making, we can’t find our way back. Our compass is broken. We are running out of power. Among treacherous ledges, we are dimly aware of waves crashing ahead.

 

The way back requires synchronizing our ritual behaviors with the rhythmic productivity of the Earth. That is, not insisting ecosystems meet our demands, but living within the natural flow of energy through the ecosystems making up the biosphere. For practical and sustainable purposes, that energy comes from the sun. Life on Earth is run by the solar-powered process of photosynthesis in the cells of algae and green plants. That process combines carbon in the air with water in the soil to produce sugar, the staff of life for plant-eaters, and those who feed on them—including us.

 

Sunlight falling on Earth varies with latitude, weather, and season. Overall, seasonal climate determines food production through the year. We used to know that, but have largely forgotten. Especially those who live in cities where light, heat, and food are plentiful 24/7/52. Shopping in shadowless, fluorescent supermarkets, we forget to set our needs in synchrony with the seasons. No matter when, we want blueberries now. Processed foods know no season, so we fill our carts with them as well. But that is changing.

 

Having to free ourselves from dependence on industrial farms consuming huge amounts of water, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, we have no choice but to rediscover the seasons of the year. And to synch our activities with them as they govern the amount of sunlight and moisture available to plants, determining local food production.

 

Not long ago, most of us would have been agriculturalists, either growing our own food or gathering it locally. In response to over-population, climate change, excessive consumption of food and fuel, and an unworkable economy, many of us are heading that way again. To get there, we will need to develop rituals that will link our activities to the seasons.

 

temb-chart-722

The seasons told by water temperature in Taunton Bay, Maine. Fall is a time of rapid decline, winter of holding steady under saltwater ice, spring of gradual incline, summer of attaining and sustaining the peak of the year. Smoothing out the highs and lows for the sake of human comfort and convenience would change everything at exorbitant expense to functioning ecosystems and all who depend on them.

 

Our word “season” stems from the Latin verb serere meaning to plant. Everything has its season, its appropriate time of planting in accord with the relative positions of Earth and sun during their annual journeys. Planting occurs first in the mind, then in damp soil. That is where rituals begin. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is fit to mark the sun’s apparent turn at its lowest point at the winter solstice, and to welcome it at its height six months later. We can witness those turnings of the year with great accuracy, as we can the midway points when the sun rises and sets due east and west. Those quarter days—two solstices and two equinoxes—divide the annual round into four seasons, and the climate of our consciousness into four moods of anticipation.

 

We celebrate many of our festivals and games in sympathy with the waxing and waning of light, warmth, and plenty through the year. Winter is a time for looking ahead, spring for renewal, summer for fulfillment, fall for hard work. The seasons divide the cultural year into four distinct situations. Summer is for baseball, fall for football, winter for basketball (or skiing), spring for tennis (or golf, or soccer, or skateboarding). No activities are more rewarding in their time than planning a garden, ordering seeds, tilling, planting, tending, harvesting, storing and preserving, putting to bed, and sharing with others. Nothing is more satisfying than living in accord with the seasons of the year.

 

As Earthlings, we are born to celebrate the seasons and the conditions of our lives which resonate with them. Just as flowering and fruition are native to their seasons, so are dearth and deprivation to theirs. Distributed through the year, these situations flow into one another, achieving an overall balance in consciousness that echoes the ups and downs of sunlight, the ecological processes dependent on them, and the dynamics of life situations.

 

It is when we try to smooth out the hills and valleys of the seasons that we get into trouble. Wanting it all, all the time, we let our appetites (rather than sunlight) take control. Instead of being ruled by the seasons, we attempt to rule them. But they cannot keep pace with us any better than ecosystems can, or the flow of edible vegetation through the year. We engineer an ever-growing economy to meet our desires, but Earth cannot maintain it or us at so unnatural a rate, so dwindles and fails as we take second helpings. This is a matter of record. Fish in the sea, forests, topsoil and tillable land, species diversity, and quality of life—all are collapsing as we try to squeeze more from natural systems than they can provide.

 

Men congratulate themselves for emancipating their women, children, and slaves, but do not see that they persist in enslaving other nations and even Earth itself to meet their collective desires—which are truly insatiable. The global economy is based on the enslavement of living resources, both human and natural, to the appetites of powerful for-profit corporations which, though they claim the right of free speech for themselves, would silence all who oppose their stripping Earth of its natural wealth.

 

In defiance of the seasons and common sense, corporations are the perpetrators of the growth economy. The feet of their executives don’t touch the Earth any more than their hearts do. They live in penthouses far above the streets where common folk trade. They are not men for all seasons but for no seasons at all. Increasing wealth and plenty is their goal. To gain which they are killing the planet, its living systems, and the mere mortals among us.

 

I have a problem with that. Recent events bear me out. Congress has been bought by corporate lobbyists, as has the legislation it votes into law. No regulatory superhero has stood between corporations and their goal of showing extravagant profits every quarter of the year. But as the economic crisis demonstrates so clearly, a financial climate driven by insatiable greed is no substitute for the seasonal climate which governs the productivity of the biosphere. So much for corporate consciousness and any supposedly built-in safeguards. Focused solely on making excessive profits for themselves, corporations have no brain cells left to devote to the ecological economy of their host planet which, in the end, is the only thing that matters. If we don’t put the speed bumps back in our yearly consumption of global resources and expectations for profit, then truly Earthlings of every tribe are at risk.

 

¦