(Copyright © 2010)

I posted Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness to set my mind straight before attending the Feb. 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine. I also made up a handout on species utilizing rockweed as habitat one way or another, the different perspectives I thought might be represented at the symposium, and, yes, a list of terms I thought attendees might use in categorizing rockweed from their different perspectives. Forty-five people showed up, representing harvesters and industrial processors, resource managers, teachers and researchers, and interested members of the public.

No one spoke of rockweed as a commodity, but the other 14 terms I expected to hear all came up at one time or another: rockweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, seaweed, seawrack, wrack, marine resource, public-trust resource, marine or estuarine habitat, primary producer, fishery, property, private property, alga or algae, and biomass. The first talk was called “Biomass Assessment,” the second “Ecology and Habitat” (my italics).

The biomass speaker added a few broad terms I hadn’t anticipated: weed, beds, stock. The habitat man made a great many distinctions, including energy production; carbon sequestration; refuge, feeding, foraging, and nursery areas; predation; structural terms including architecture, assemblages, and communities; and specifically pointed to spatial and temporal scales of observation, as well as particular species utilizing rockweed one way or another.

The biomass man effectively lumped all organic matter into one one pot of gunk or goo, ignoring structural and functional considerations entirely. I didn’t hear the word “ecosystem” ever crossing his lips. The habitat man refined that matter into specific regions providing a wide variety of functions within a living estuarine community and the larger ecosystem beyond. He asked “How much habitat loss is too much?” (turning the biomass perspective on its head by seeing it in terms of habitat reduction), raising the issue of habitat restoration after harvesting reduces habitat to so many tons of biomass. 

The two speakers were both educators, one from a marine resource perspective, the other from an ecological perspective. What you learn as a student depends on where you go to school, the classes you take, the teachers you engage. Very likely, it is the attitude you have toward the subject that decides which path you follow. And that attitude goes back to the orthodox perspective you acquired during childhood as connections between nerve cells were either strengthened or weakened in response to the behaviors, speech patterns, and attitudes of your formative caregivers.

The after-lunch talk was on “Effects of Harvesting.” Following a brief detour to ecologyland, we were home again in the realm of biomass. But from a more nuanced perspective that combined aspects of both earlier talks. This was the issue many of us had come to consider—not where the rubber meets the road, but cutting blades meet lively habitats. The harvesting metaphor led to talk of rockweed as a “standing crop,” which was acceptable to many as a variant form of agriculture—sea farming without plowing furrows or planting seeds. Nowhere is consciousness more evident than in categorizing one thing as something else entirely for the sake of effect—to make a new recipe, idea, or practice “palatable” as an acquired taste (or unpalatable, as when Rush Limbaugh characterizes President Obama as a foreign-born, Islamic terrorist).

If compromise is to be reached, the issue must be framed in terms equally acceptable to both sides. In this case, the biomass people and the habitat people have to agree to categorize or conceptualize the issue in such a way that both retain their integrity on a playing field they see as level. The people who perform this service are called educators. They are the ones who train us to direct our expectations in such a way to be mutually agreeable to as large a population as possible by selecting an appropriate level of discourse. That is, society at large is invested in minimizing its internal differences to enable a wide a range of social needs to be met on an everyday basis. Since each person is unique, this can only be done by convincing a majority of people to adopt a common perspective for looking at things in such a way that their differences become invisible.

Framing the rockweed symposium as biomass people vs. habitat people would lead to open conflict. The art of compromise demands the conversation be conducted on a higher level of discourse to avoid concrete disagreements between the parties affected. The more familiar and acceptable the level, the better to restore order. Which is precisely what the harvesting metaphor provides. We all have to make a living, we all have to eat, we all want to go about our business without criticism, undue regulation, and harassment. The farmer and cowman can be friends if they look at each other the right way. Arranged marriages throughout history have turned competing tribes and kingdoms into extended families, transforming warring states into good neighbors through vows of eternal fidelity.

Sports, money, law, and religion are a few common currencies of social compromise, enabling many to live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony. Any Red Sox fan is a friend of mine; My vote goes to the highest bidder; I present the image of a law-abiding citizen; Jihad in the name of God is man’s highest calling. No wonder sports is the most prominent section in the paper; the economy is always newsworthy; law, order, and military might are esteemed virtues; religions offer comfort to all who humble themselves before a supreme being. Social  orthodoxy is a means of compromise that requires individuals to surrender their particular take on events by subscribing to a higher order (or even absolute) level of generality. Toeing the company or party line replaces personal consciousness with a particular brand of cultural consciousness for the sake of taking unified action on an issue.

The rockweed symposium did not end on a wholly orthodox note. Rather, it asked attenders to identify gaps in our scientific grasp of the issue. The idea being to stimulate research aimed at filling those gaps. This is the stage before orthodoxy can be achieved. Science is another currency of social compromise. It is conducted at such a high level of certainty as to be almost divorced from personal experience, statistical-derived concepts wholly substituting for immediate engagement with the world. The very methods of science are methods of high-level, peer-reviewed compromise, enabled by statistical analysis if not immediate personal knowledge.

The current industry standard governing how much weed can be cut in a given bed is a target of 17% of extant rockweed biomass. The idea is that cutting too low on the axis diminishes regrowth, so cutting should be restricted to the upper 50% of the “plant” (really an alga). And cutting too broad a swath also diminishes regrowth, so harvesters allow themselves to cut only a third as much—33% of the upper 50%—or 17% of the “standing crop.”

The question is, what are the ecological implications of that 17% loss of estuarine habitat? As for natural mortality aside from any harvest, to cite a study conducted in Cobscook Bay, Maine,* “The proportion of Ascophyllum standing biomass lost annually and expressed as turnover rates, ranged from 29 to 71%,” with a mean turnover of roughly 51%. This is no standing crop, it is a fleeing crop, its so-called biomass turning over every two years. It strikes me that if the 17% is removed from the 50% likely to survive the normal turnover to detritus, it makes the harvest more like 34% of the surviving crop rather than the guideline of 17% of the standing crop might suggest. This would appear to double the impact on habitat over what the industry now claims is the case. Until we grapple with percentages seemingly plucked from a hat, and come to agreement on whether, say, 5% harvest might be more reasonable from a scientifically-grounded perspective, then natural-resource managers in Maine won’t be able to adopt a statewide (that is, orthodox) standard for allowable cutting of rockweed.

Where else in the blogosphere can you find such practical considerations to emerge from the study of human consciousness? Track these posts for updates on how mind affects the varied facets of the material universe.

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* Robert L. Vadas, et al., “Biomass and Productivity of Intertidal Biomass,” in Peter F. Larsen, Ed., Ecosystem Modeling in Cobscook Bay, Maine, (Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 11, Special Issue 2, 2004, page 136).

Seal mother & nursing pup on rockweed

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Stop in your tracks and watch those around you striding purposefully about their business. It always amazes me how driven we have become, how earnestly we push on without glancing right or left. We drive the kids to school, to violin practice, to soccer, to ballet, to rehearsals. And then pick them up and drive home. Busyness is our business, the exact opposite of the broad margin Thoreau sought around his life.

 

Having read most of his writings, including the Journals, I have long admired Thoreau for the evident integrity backing up every word. Whatever he did, he did wholeheartedly, his own way. Uniqueness and integrity go together because no two of us are the same. But being busy cuts through our uniqueness, as if routines were more important than personal passions and judgments. What would happen if we stopped and smelled the flowers along the way? We’d be late, and everybody knows it is a sin to be late. Bosses know it, teachers know it, sergeants know it, theatergoers know it, entire corporate hierarchies know it. Lateness can lower your grade, your pay, your IQ, and probably your sex drive.

 

Adopting cultural mores and routines means you have donated part of your brain to your culture for the sake of being accepted. That’s a tough bargain because you are no longer fully yourself. You’ve become a political animal, living part of your life for the effect it might have on others. Wanting to please is one thing, doing it for personal gain is another. Selling your personal integrity is a form of prostitution (from Latin prostituere, expose publically, offer for sale). In our culture, it is an obvious good to watch TV, invest, buy, patronize advisers, consume, and generally go along with the crowd. How do we know? Because that’s the gist of many of the messages beamed at us in modern life.

 

But to take a stand against the onslaught takes integrity—being whole, entire, intact, untouched, or undamaged. Thoreau had that quality, as did Emerson and Walt Whitman. They were their own men, out to be true, not to please. Giving them the biting edge of independent thought, a quality shared with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to name but three exemplars from each sex.

 

The competitiveness of our culture is meant to fracture the integrity of those who oppose it. Backed by wealth and the power of law, corporations will do their best to beat you into a pose of submission, to have you bend at the knees, throw up your hands and cry, “Enough, I’ll go along!” Dominance is claimed to be a synonym for masculinity, submission for femininity—obvious myths in a world requiring both men and women to be strong to survive. But for political and commercial purposes, the claim has a certain weight among those who please by doing what they’re told.

 

For myself, I believe the function of consciousness is to teach us integrity so that whether male or female, we can be wholly ourselves. In the Mind page at the head of this blog, I list various aspects of consciousness that might bear in varying combinations upon any given situation in awareness. These include: attention, feelings, various kinds of memories, motivation, sensory and bodily phenomena, understanding, imagination, intuition, judgment, planning, expectancy, and action (including language).

 

Integrity, to me, means these various aspects complement one another in contributing to any given episode of personal consciousness. They add to a whole greater than their individual shares taken separately. When we get it together, it feels good because it’s all of a piece. When our minds are at sixes and sevens, we know what that feels like—we can’t concentrate on action because we aren’t ready yet to decide what to do. But when the parts work in synchrony with one another, we are ready to make our move without hesitation.

 

Integrity is a sign that the famous binding problem has been solved in a given instance of consciousness. The problem “arises from the brain’s architecture, in which the outside world is represented by nervous activity in a hundred or more distinct regions” (Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness, p. 167). Yet consciousness creates the illusion that the mind is of one piece. Which is what integrity feels like.

 

My finest moments are those in which I am of one mind—not because my thought is so simple—but precisely because it is hard-won from so many sources yet presents itself as a self-made unity. Perhaps contributions from various brain assemblies are in synchrony with one another, which is what it feels like to me. Everything adds up without argument or discord, freeing my actions to be skillful, passionate, and wholehearted. I have served on a great many committees, so I know what it feels like to rub different parts smooth in order to come up with a compromise, always with a feeling of “it’s the best we can do.”

 

Today, a colleague sent an e-mail concerning the possibility of minds meeting in agreement when coming from different perspectives, I sent back this response:

 

Regarding two minds getting together. I agree with you, part way, but come up against the roadblock of personal integrity. I feel I am finally in a situation where much of my consciousness works cooperatively so that I feel wholly integrated as I write. I treasure that feeling because it has been so rare in my life. I threw out my TV in 1986 because it was such a distraction. I defend my turf, now living practically as a hermit (except for weekends). Now that I’ve got myself more or less together, I don’t want to give that up. It is exciting to think of meeting someone concerned with the same issues on the same level—but daunting, too. At least my mistakes are my own. My belief [is] that one life contains all the stimulation required in order to do good work and make a contribution. Am I wrong? Probably. But it feels great doing what I can with what I have. Still, I’m willing to consider—if not fully explore—the options. What happens if my well runs dry? That’s when I’d need help. So far, it hasn’t happened. In the meantime, I pick and choose in the light of my personal judgment. So keep writing and being your own person. Integrity, once achieved, is a priceless possession.

 

Yes, dialogue is possible between persons of integrity. I find it a waste of time between those whose opinions are threatened by dissent because they aren’t fully supported by every aspect of consciousness. That to me seems to be the state in which most of us conduct our everyday affairs. We generally wing it, doing the best we can under the circumstances, often unfavorable.

 

Which is why we play so many games. Governed by rules, they impose integrity upon us from the outside, and by simplifying the number of options we have in making legal moves. If we cheat, it’s too much like work to be fun anymore.

 

Society places so many pressures upon us to do this and do that, it’s a wonder we ever find quiet time for getting ourselves together. I know women who write poetry at the kitchen table during the fifteen minutes the kids take their afternoon nap. Every four days that adds to an hour of integrity, twenty-four hours of integrity every 96 days—almost four days of integrity a year. That kind of serial project may be the best we can manage during our working, childrearing years. In the interests of full disclosure, I am technically retired, but I’ve never been busier in my life. The difference is I do what I choose to do, not what I am assigned. The tradeoff is I’m not always informed about many of the things that other people talk about and seem to take seriously.

 

The juncture (we now say interface) between people of integrity is always the hard part. What good is integrity if you keep it to yourself? Which is the situation my colleague was asking about in his e-mail. Can integrities be shared so they add to more than the sum of their parts? I gotta believe. When we all achieve integrity in our consciousness, then we will act on the best advice obtainable internally and socially, and the world is bound to be a better place.

 

For now, I offer integrity as something to strive for. After that, we’ll have the dialogue that will save the world. Hopefully, some are having that discussion already, so we’re not as far behind as the nightly news would suggest.

 

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