Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.

species-interactions_mussels

That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.

Governor

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Pen in hand, yellow pad in lap, I sit in my rocking chair at 2:35 a.m., waiting to discover what is on my mind. One at a time, concerns declare themselves, retreat, to be replaced by others. A very orderly process: nothing, then something, then nothing, then something else. Slow and easy. A kind of unthinking. As a mere spectator, I take sketchy notes. This goes on for twenty minutes.

1) Bonnie is gone. She died Friday afternoon. Hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for most of the week. Dear Bonnie, so loving, kind, fervent in her gentle way.

2) Overtaken by events, the plan to honor Ed (Bonnie’s husband of 59 years) on Sunday was put aside. I gave him the cards I had received, and announced that donations in his name came to $4,820. Most of the occasion was focused on remembering Bonnie.

3) Sent checks to FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation) in Washington in Ed’s honor. I wanted the donations to be a done deed by the time he heard about them, I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel comfortable delivering a promissory note.

4) Now on to forming an LLC that will own the island, keeping members’ shares undivided so no fences will ever be put up or lots partitioned off. Only communal ownership will preserve the integrity of the place. Once subdivided, the island might as well be part of the mainland.

5) Chef Jesse, my youngest son, has moved somewhere near Boston. The job didn’t work out as he’d hoped, but he wrote that that was more or less a ruse for making the break. He’s looking for work. Hope he’s OK.

6) Son Ken and his wife Linda’s Wednesday night suppers are their way of sharing with friends. I’m such a stick-in-the-mud about food, I feel like an outsider because, bringing my own little thermos of pea soup, I don’t share in the feast. Damn celiac disease!

7) Friends of Taunton Bay seems to be on the right track, switching from an emphasis on monitoring and research to public outreach. Me, I’m a research kind of guy. I’ll still have enough to do monitoring eelgrass, oysters, bottom temperatures, erosion, sea-level rise.

8) Taunton Bay Advisory Group is hit by low energy these days. Difficult transition to new leadership. Are we on the skids? Local bay management is too good an idea to let go. Spread stewardship around so users all take part in the process. How else can we achieve sustainability?

9) Having gone 186,000 miles so far, the old Geo’s got to keep going. Get that exhaust line patched up so I can get it inspected.

10) I’ve lost momentum in reading Gerald Edelman. Too much happening. Get back in the swing. Six down, only the last two books to go. I’ve followed along as he got his legs under him; now on to his taking full strides on the topic of consciousness.

11) November is car registration month. Pay off the balance due on insurance. Find the $300.

12) Eelgrass (and sea lavender) thrive when there’s plenty of snowmelt and rain; blue mussels thrive when salinity is high from lack of rain. Eelgrass died back in 2001, year of the drought. In this year of the deluge, it’s coming back—and mussels have gone missing. Eelgrass and mussels compete for the same patch of bottom, trading off as salinity rises and falls. I’m beginning to see the big picture. What do I do with it?

13) I retrieved my two water-temperature loggers this fall, read off a year’s worth of data (24 temperature readings every day) from each, and redeployed them one last time before their batteries run out. I see future climate instability reflected in the data, sea-level rise behind that. Extrapolating from the data in hand, any prophet worth his salt can peer into the future.

14) Consciousness is driven by both internal and external awareness. Whatever words and phrases we hear spoken around us when we are young serve to label concepts we form as we grow older. We pick up the customs and habits of our elders, and the terms they use to explain their worlds to themselves. That’s where the notion of god comes from—in the beginning was the word. First the sound of the word from the mouths of others as a label for something unknown, then the evolving concept of what we think it might refer to. Sounds like there’s a blog in there some place.

Then nothing. After sitting for 20 minutes tracking my own mind, I go to bed.

Indeed, there is a blog in those rocking chair thoughts. I woke up this morning wondering how much of my consciousness is due to the culture I am embedded in, how much flows from my own inner workings. Is there any way to tell the difference? I seem to be a creature of my time and place on Earth, and, simultaneously, to be wholly my natural self. The art of living may well be in finding a balance between that pair of loyalties.

One thing for certain: consciousness mediates our looping engagement with our surroundings, directing motor signals outward into the unknown, receiving incoming signals through our senses, picking and choosing which to attend to, which to ignore. Round and round we go, ingesting the culture we are immersed in, responding though acts shaped by and expressing values uniquely our own.

Every one of the 14 night thoughts I had early this morning presents an issue or concern selected from my ongoing engagement with the world. There is a tension between my personal values and events in that world, a tension that arouses thoughts in the middle of the night. Which makes it seem that consciousness is a kind of spark bridging the gap between my current situation and how I plan to deal with it. Have I done everything I can do? Can I do better? The result is a cross-section of my being in the world from my point of view.

Our early education calibrates our animal selves according to the lore and ways of our culture. Still today I find myself counting out the strokes of my hammer, one, two, three, . . . not eins, zwei, drei, or un, deux, trois. One process, different labels. I “know” that seven times eight is fifty-six because I memorized that formula from flip-cards in grade school. I can even prove it by constructing a box with seven units on one side and eight on another, then counting all the units in the box—see, fifty-six like I told you! I also know that houses are built on rectangular foundations and have rectangular windows and doors. On the other hand, those living in rural Mongolia or Guinea in West Africa know that houses are circular with arched openings, or have flaps made of overlapping yak skins. I know what a hat is . . . and that people in other parts of the world wear headgear I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I seem to be part natural and organic, part cultural and manmade. Reviewing those night thoughts again from that perspective:

1) Bonnie’s death is wholly natural; sitting in a circle, remembering how her life has affected ours, is largely cultural.

2-3) Honoring Ed for his initiative, leadership, clear-headedness, and exemplary actions feels personal, spontaneous, and wholly natural; making donations in his name to the organization he used to work for is a gesture of cultural recognition. To honor means to bestow high respect or esteem.

4) It seems a natural urge to want to protect an island on the Maine coast as habitat for humans and wildlife alike; opting out of the commercial real estate market by forming a limited liability company to own the island in undivided shares on its members’ behalf is a cultural solution to the threat of individual owners going bankrupt, forcing partition and sale of separate parcels, thereby destroying the island’s natural integrity.

5) It strikes me as natural that Jesse’s pursuit of happiness has taken him to the Boston area where year-round work is more likely available than in Maine’s seasonal (vacationland) economy; the loss I feel at his moving away also feels natural; that he makes a living as a chef and not a carpenter or exterminator is more a cultural expression of his making his own way in the world. The issue being, I want to send him a check for his birthday, and he has yet to tell me his new address. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time now that he hasn’t responded to my email inquiry; time to follow up on that, my unconscious mind takes pains to remind me.

6) Ken and Linda celebrate their circle of friends by preparing meals for them Wednesday evenings in November, thereby taking steps to create and maintain their own culture; nothing is more essentially natural than feeding one’s own metabolism. Celiac disease is a natural response to our culture’s breeding enormous amounts of gluten into wheat, overburdening the immune systems of those unfortunate enough not to tolerate massive doses of gluten. It’s partly a matter of genetics, which is as natural as can be, and partly a matter of diet, which is largely cultural and traditional.

7) Friends of Taunton Bay is a cultural—501(c)(3)—organization set up to protect a particular Maine estuary, and through revision of its by-laws, now dedicated to informing the public about the state and workings of that bay. As a founding member of that organization, however, I have fulfilled my inherently natural interests and concerns through trying to understand the processes that give this particular coastal embayment its essential character. As my native habitat, the bay and I have an ongoing mutual interaction of long standing.

8) The Taunton Bay Advisory Group, on the other hand, is a more recent cultural creation established in 2007 to advise the Commissioner of Marine Resources on how best to implement the Comprehensive Resource Management Plan for Taunton Bay. My role is to make sure conservation concerns are voiced and considered in group discussions, a role that comes to me naturally in light of my personal values and life experience.

9) Getting around may be a natural act, but automobiles are artifacts of the culture we live in. Without wheels, I could not participate in the culture I was born to. Taking care of those wheels seems only prudent, so repairing a leaking exhaust system is as natural and vital as eating and sleeping.

10) Reading eight of the books Gerald Edelman has written on consciousness is one of my chief educational projects at this stage of my life. Not that it is either easy or fun. But I do think it is important to look at consciousness from a variety of perspectives, and Edelman has more to say about the workings of consciousness than almost anyone else. So I read him and take what I can. Which I find very exciting because he sheds light on his topic from a novel point of view—that of a man trained in molecular biology of the immune system. He is his own man; I am my own man; we get along just fine. If consciousness is natural, then trying to figure out what it is and how it works must be natural. The mental frameworks in which such understanding can arise are products of years of intense speculation and research, thereby reflecting cultural traditions as old as human curiosity and thought.

11) Oops, it’s November: time to register my car. That thought seems to come out of the blue, yet clearly surfaces now because it is alive and well in the unconscious workings of my mind. Car registration is a cultural obstacle to inner peace; recognizing that obstacle as something that needs to be dealt with is a natural aspect of living in today’s world. Cultures are shaped by rules and procedures; if survival depends on mastering such, then abiding by cultural requirements rises to the level of a natural value, and obeying legal requirements becomes yet another challenge for those attempting to live a long, happy, and hassle-free life.

12) I am happy to have lived long enough after the great eelgrass dieback of 2001 in Taunton Bay to have some inkling as to why it happened. This fall another piece of the puzzle fell into place. 2009 is the year of the deluge, the opposite of 2001, year of the drought. Eelgrass and blue mussels are often found in the same habitat areas, sometimes together, other times one replacing the other. In some way, their habitat requirements are complementary. This fall while monitoring oyster set, I got a glimpse of how that works during a search for signs that salt-water farmed oysters were reproducing in the bay. No oysters, but equally interesting, no blue mussels either—attached to boulders we’ve inspected annually since 2005 and up to this year found blue mussels. Eelgrass dieback in the year of the drought; mussel dieback in the year of the deluge. Ah ha, it must be the salinity! Eelgrass likes it low, mussels like it high. I feel I begin to understand something about the bay when pieces fit together like that. Oyster aquaculture is a cultural activity (it is daunting to realize how much human effort it takes to farm oysters); understanding has been a natural activity of the human mind since the first child pounded the first precision timekeeper with the first blunt instrument.

13) Recording temperature data is one thing, interpreting that data is something else, and convincing a stranger that the interpretation is correct is something else again. Research is a cultural enterprise; otherwise we’d just thrust our arm in the air and pronounce whether it feels warm or cold. But the imperative of wanting to know and understand is both personal and natural. We pay attention to what matters. If temperature matters, we examine it closely. In a world that runs on energy, temperature as a measure of heat energy is highly significant, and a change of a degree or two Celsius is a big deal in natural systems because it affects how life-forms in such systems cope with increasing or decreasing heat energy.

14) Cultural rules and customs shape our life situations; native drives and inclinations guide our actions. Round and round we go, our biological values urging us on, the many facets of our culture making it clear just how appropriate our actions really are. Informed and calibrated by culture, consciousness is as consciousness does in the world; affirmed or offended by our actions, culture is as culture does right back at us. If the fittest are to survive, their fitness to the prevailing culture is a big issue. But start to finish, consciousness plays by nature’s rules: culture is a product of human beings doing what comes naturally. Clearly, I am of two minds about almost everything.

Black-and-Yellow Argiope

 

(Copyright © 2009)

By June, 2005, I got pretty good at thinking like a horseshoe crab. I’d been tracking 26 of them in Taunton Bay for two years, and was finally able to anticipate their movements with some success. In doing his biological assessment of the bay, biologist Slade Moore had suggested a cooperative hoSonar Transmitter on Female HSCrseshoe crab tracking program with Friends of Taunton Bay. Slade worked out of the West Boothbay offices of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and I was to do most of the tracking. In June of 2003, we epoxied miniature sonar transmitters on 26 crabs, 13 in Hog Bay, 13 in Egypt Bay. My job was to track the movements of each transmitter with a sonar receiver and hydrophone from a small boat. If the epoxy held and the transmitter stayed in place, the location of a transmitter would indicate the location of the crab we’d attached it to.

We tested the range at which we could detect a sonar signal, and based on the assumption the bottom of the bay was flat, Slade worked out a grid of listening stations where we would turn the hydrophone 360 degrees, and record the direction in which we heard any signals. That way, we could triangulate a crab’s location if we picked up its signal at two or more stations. Which seemed like a reasonable plan, until we got a great many signals bouncing off underwater boulders and ledges, and determined the bottom was full of ridges and depressions that effectively blocked reception of even nearby signals. Our backup plan was to steer the boat as close as we could come to being directly on top of a signal—when it would be loudest in our headphones, and use a GIS receiver to log the boat’s—and presumably the crab’s—position. It took a while to work the bugs out of the tracking program, but on good days, both Slade and I were able to pinpoint the location of most transmitters in both bays. On other days, we might find only half of them.

What does this have to do with consciousness? For starters, we were engaged in a project never attempted in Taunton Bay, so we were relying on on-the-job experience to train ourselves in the use of a new language we invented as we went, somewhat as a child creates language by observing the sounds people make on certain occasions, and then mimics them. Too, we were not only interested in where a given crab was, but wanted to know what it was doing and why it was there. Ultimately, we wanted to know what factors governed horseshoe crab movements at different times of year. Factors like water temperature, water depth, habitat type, hormone levels and mating urges, food availability (such as small clams, worms, mussels), presence of predators, and so on. The big questions were where and when did the range of local horseshoe crabs overlap with beds of blue mussels, so that dragging for mussels might put them at risk?

Like every other small embayment, Taunton Bay exhibits a range of features that make it unique. Because of its extensive Mating Horseshoe Crabs and Striiped Killifish system of mudflats, it has more mussels, clams, and marine worms than many other bays. Which attracts predators of mussels, clams, and worms—such as horseshoe crabs, flounders, ring-billed gulls, several duck species, and predators of predators such as harbor seals, striped killifish (which prey on horseshoe crab eggs), ospreys, and eagles. And human harvesters who go after any one of them by dragging, digging, pulling, fishing, or hunting.

Too, the upper reaches of Taunton Bay are extremely shallow, making them warmer in summer and colder in winter than many other bays in Maine. Every creature that lives on the flats has to adapt one way or another to a wide range of seasonal temperatures. Harbor seals, for instance, exit the bay in December when ice begins to form, leaving only the alpha male to defend his territory against rivals. A big question for the horseshoe crab tracking program was where do members of the two local sub-populations spend the winter? When we started the program, we fully expected local crabs to seek deeper, warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine during the winter, and to return to mate in warm shallows in late spring. We were planning to install a fixed hydrophone aimed across Taunton River to record their departure and return. We never deployed that second hydrophone because, as we found in November 2003, the horseshoe crabs of Taunton Bay retire from shallow flats to the upper slopes of deeper channels, where they bury themselves in the mud and wait out the winter by suppressing their food intake, breathing, and blood flow, becoming as close to inanimate as creatures can get while still retaining the ability to reanimate themselves when conditions improve six months later.

That was big learning for us because by rights, horseshoe crabs have no place in a northern bay that freezes-over in winter. Throughout most of their global range—including the Indian Ocean, southwestern Pacific, and Atlantic as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula—they move to deeper waters in winter and remain active for the duration. Now it appears that in several bays in Maine and New Hampshire, they hibernate, slowing their metabolisms to the survivable limit for six months of the year. In our study at the northern limit of their global range in Taunton Bay, we found them hunkering down and not moving again until the third Mating Horseshoe Crabsweek in April, when they’d take a month to feed and work their way upslope to their breeding shores, where females would lay their eggs and males fertilize them in the shallow sand and gravel nests where they were deposited. In the narrow confines of horseshoe crab research, that was a breakthrough—a mind-expanding discovery.

Imagine sleeping for half a year, waking up, eating a big breakfast, then looking to have a year’s worth of sex in the two weeks you’ve got before having to store up enough calories to get you through the following winter! Horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay live like that, not day-by-day or month-by-month but year-by-year.

Another thing we found was that horseshoe crabs do not adopt routine ways of meeting their needs but reinvent themselves almost constantly to see if, hit or miss, they can’t find a way to adapt to their surroundings wherever they are. No wonder they’ve been around for more than four-hundred million years. There are only a few shores around the bay suitable for digging nests in sand or small gravel. The bay is largely ringed by outcrops of bedrock, with a few stony beaches interspersed here and there. Of Digging a Nest those beaches, many are armored with cobbles and boulders left by the Laurentian Ice Sheet that retreated 12,000 years ago. Most shores provide only a few patches here and there of substrates suitable for digging nests and laying eggs. Horseshoe crabs seem to find breeding sites almost at random, females constantly testing the bottom in their travels, digging down when they hit the occasional soft spot. If it’s too rocky or rooty, they are thwarted and move on, always testing as they go, scratching, scratching, scratching.

Which is pretty much how they select a mate. A male horseshoe crab will try any stone, log, or available boot in searching for a mate. If female hormones are in the water, that Horseshoe Crabs and Boot doesn’t mean your average male knows what secreted them. Males apparently can tell how close they are to the source by the concentration of the scent, but any smooth rounded shape is worth a try until they find something they can clasp onto. Then they hold tight and won’t let go, unless perhaps flipped upside down by a wave, or trapped in a too-narrow passage between adjacent rocks—and even then they tend to cling to the death.

Taunton Bay crabs seem to find suitable places to hibernate almost at random, with no fidelity to that nice little B&B they found last year. They live out their lives within less than a mile of suitable breeding shores, but during winter settle in on the upper margin of any channel within that range. Usually among mussels or eelgrass. They can crush small shellfish and eat them, so they seem to hibernate in areas where mussels are plentiful. Mussels thrive near eelgrass beds on the upper slopes of channels where tidal currents provide phytoplankton through the seasons. Horseshoe crabs wander around in search of food until they stumble across a bed of mussels, which makes their decision for them. In trying to think like a horseshoe crab, I found myself thinking like a mussel as well, or the rare patch of sandy gravel—both of which the local horseshoe crab life cycle depends on.

The big challenge was locating horseshoe crabs I couldn’t see solely by the sonar signals their affixed transmitters emitted. The bottom is nowhere near level, it turns out—even where flats looks level at low tide. I’d consult my GPS unit and go back to where I found one the day before, put down the hydrophone, and hear nothing but white noise. Each signal was coded with an identifying frequency and sequence of sounds, so if we heard any signal at all we could tell which transmitter was the source. But silence told us nothing but that nobody was home. The challenge was always: which way did they go? As I grew more familiar with horseshoe crab ways, and the bottom terrain in their respective sub-embayments, I began to grasp more of how they might relate to a given site. And then imagine which way they would head from there. Following crude hunches upslope or down, along the edges of channels one way or another, I found I could recover signals far more readily than simply heading off on any random heading as I had done as a novice tracker. I didn’t really think like a horseshoe crab because I don’t have any idea what a horseshoe crab would think even if it could. But I developed a sense of where they would be heading at that time of year, and I let that sense steer my boat, often to a successful encounter.

When they’d rouse from their winter sleep in late April, horseshoe crabs would head for the nearest food supply in the vicinity. I got pretty good at predicting where that would be. Then they’d head upslope to breeding shores, and I got so I could follow along. In late May and June, I’d start out near known nesting shores. In July and August, they could be almost anywhere, but usually in shallower water. In September and October, they’d head downslope toward the network of channels, usually where eelgrass or mussels were concentrated. And in November they’d select their hibernation site, usually in the middle of a plentiful food supply. Several things could go wrong with that simple scheme. Transmitters could stop sending signals, or become detached and send false signals. Horseshoe crabs aren’t supposed to shed their shells after reaching sexual maturity at age 10—but maybe they do now and then. I got several signals that never moved from week to week, even in mid-summer. Slade managed to retrieve one transmitter from the mud and re-epoxy it to another crab. In any project things are going to go wrong, and you just have to roll with the punches.

Tracking horseshoe crabs changed my consciousness for life, much as living with a pet will expand your awareness to include other ways of looking at the world. It isn’t the owner who walks the favored pet so much as the pet who takes its “owner” on daily walks. I certainly was led on many a boat trip by horseshoe crabs, and I know the underwater terrain of Taunton Bay much better as a result. I hold mussels, clams, eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, and striped killifish in mind as living beings, not objects of casual curiosity. To know about a species in a general sense, you have to befriend it and meet its members up-close and personal in the most particular and detailed way possible. Knowledge obtained from books or the Internet cannot affect you as deeply as knowledge gained through firsthand experience.

Thinking like a horseshoe crab requires reading backwards from observable behaviors to recreating the “mind” responsible for those behaviors. A module of my brain is now dedicated to doing just that with horseshoe crabs at the northern limit of their range on Earth. Other modules are devoted to eelgrass, ring-billed gulls, bald eagles, even slime molds. As my friend Anette Axtmann once said, “We have much to learn from wood lilies.” To be as truly knowledgeable as we need to be in this time of estrangement from life on Earth, we have much to learn from the plants and animals who share our native habitat. Which requires us to take the initiative in giving our minds to them so that we pay attention to what matters on Earth and not solely what concerns us at the moment. The future depends on us expanding our consciousness to include other such beings in order to live with them on equal terms, not on our forcing them to adapt to our ways as if we were in charge.

To care for the Earth, we must first become mindful of its creatures and their ways, making room for them in our consciousness so that we can incorporate them into our thinking, and more importantly, our acting on the world stage. It is no accident that mussel draggers keep away from horseshoe crab habitats in Taunton Bay. The Taunton Bay Advisory Group incorporated horseshoe crabs in its thinking, and then into its recommendations for regulating local fisheries. When horseshoe crabs speak, we do our best to get their message—and act accordingly.

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