(Copyright © 2010)

Memory dwells in the past; perception dotes on the here and now; what do we call that portion of consciousness devoted to the future? Expectancy? Anticipation? Planning? Hope? Dread? Worry? Anxiety? Fear? Confidence? Waiting? Probability? Prediction? Prophecy? Fate? Whatever we call it, this cursory list suggests the human mind’s preoccupation with unknowable yet inevitable times ahead.

When you play a video on YouTube, a little slider on the bottom shows where you are on the timescale of that particular microworld. Think what it would be like to have a similar slider showing your position relative to your lifespan. Birth is well behind you; death is approaching. Whoee! Now’s the time to get moving—or drunk.

Fortunately, with life expectancies now seen as a matter of statistical probability, no such little slider exists for any one individual. Which doesn’t get us off the hook. Rather, it puts us in the murky realm of probabilities, where we could be here today, gone tomorrow—or the day after, or ten years from now. The uncertainty of it all is why consciousness spends so much of the brain’s resources trying to get a grasp on the future in so many different ways.

Matthew Arnold paints life as one’s journey on the river of Time, which rises in a snowy mountainous pass as a clear-flowing stream, and draws to the Ocean, ending with:

As the pale waste widens around him,

As the banks fade dimmer away,

As the stars come out, and the night-wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

Here’s how Emily Dickinson puts it in less flowing, more telegraphic terms:

The Future – never spoke –

Nor will He – like the Dumb –

Reveal by sign – a syllable –

Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe –

Presents it – in the Act –

Forestalling Preparation –

Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to Him –

The Dower – as the Doom –

His Office – but to execute

Fate’s – Telegram – to Him –

Peter Mark Roget was no poet. He remained stodgily prosaic to the end. His goal was reasoned and literal clarity, not some ineffable tone or mood. Under heading 124 Futurity: prospective time, he included these adjectives and adjectival phrases:

Adj. future, not in the present, to be, to come; about to be, coming, nearing  289n. approaching; nigh, near in time, close at hand  200adj. near; due, destined, fated, threatening, imminent, overhanging 155adj. impending; in the future, ahead, yet to come, waiting, millennial  154adj. eventual; prospective, designate, earmarked  605adj. chosen; promised, looked for  507adj. expected,  471adj. probable; predicted, predictable, foreseeable, sure  473adj. certain; ready to, rising, getting on for; potential, on, maturing, ripening  469adj. possible; later, ulterior, posterior  120adj. subsequent.

My point being that conscious largely looks ahead to how the current situation might develop in order to figure out what to do next, and then next after that—that is, how to make the self happen in the world in a manner appropriate to the situation as it might evolve or lead to a different situation altogether. All informed by what we’ve done in the past, our current state of being, and the goals we’ve set for the future. Think of the long-term projects we commit ourselves to. Going to school. Getting a job. Getting married. Having a baby. Developing a career. Building a house. Taking a trip or vacation. Writing a book. Going on a diet. Giving up smoking, drugs, or alcohol. Going to prison. Cutting credit-card debt. Learning tai chi, Spanish, to play tennis or the guitar. The mission of consciousness is to enable us to do these things—to learn to be ourselves as we imagine ourselves being in the future on the basis of what we know now. And then to revise the plan as we move through uncharted regions ahead.

What part of consciousness is devoted to the future? I’d say the whole thing, including memory, including perception. As everyone knows, the future is in our heads, always has been, always will be. Right up there with gods, demons, fears, desires, Mr. Right, Dream Girl, the Na’vi, and Jaba the Hutt.

I write this post to my blog because for three years now I’ve been waiting for a mature spruce tree on the shore of Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park to blow down and die. That’s where the idea of a death watch comes from. I knew in 2006 it was going to happen; I didn’t know when. So I’ve been watching that tree, looking to see if it’s still standing every time I drive across Thompson Island in leaving Mount Desert Island where I live. I’ve taken pictures of it from time to time to see if I can catch it listing to port more than it did the last time I looked. After every big storm I’d make a point of checking that tree, which I’m using as a crude gauge to sea-level rise in Hancock County, Maine. When that tree falls, it’s another milestone passed as the sea encroaches on my personal turf.

Over the years, I’ve devoted a fair portion of my mental concentration to that particular tree. I’ve made a project of watching it head into its death. We had a strong wind on the night of February 25, the wind gusting from the northeast at 45 or 50 miles an hour. On the morning of February 26, I looked through my usual gap in the trees for that spruce on the shore—and it wasn’t there. The gate to the picnic area was locked, so I pulled over, took my camera, and walked in. I came back in another storm during daylight on March 1 at high tide—which is when I figured the great tree had fallen at either dusk on February 25th or dawn on the 26th. Here are a few of the photos my consciousness directed me to take showing the final days of that spruce.

(Note: The most dramatic way to illustrate sea-level rise is to take photos of crashing waves at high tide during a storm at full or new moon. The rusty metal rings along the shore are fire rings for barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers.)

Death Watch 1-3-2007

Death Watch 5-12-2008

Death Watch 1-12-2009

Death Watch 2-26-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-1-2010_C

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_D

Death Watch 3-1-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_E

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-12-2010

(Copyright © 2009)

Emily Dickinson gets my vote for poet laureate of introspectionists. She excels at conveying her world of inner experience through the medium of metaphor. But she is not unusual in being a poet of such inward landscapes. Poetry is the language of consciousness, not of the material world or any of its inhabitants. Long before neuroscientists took on the brain, poets were inwardly probing its most intimate folds and relationships. There, they were close to the origin of words, and so understood them in a personal rather than a social sense. Prose is social and grammatical, poetry personal and idiosyncratic. To understand the poem, you must understand the experience of the poet who, in conveying it, invents her own special language.

It strikes me that if we study rats and victims of trauma to learn about the brain, we ought now and then to study artworks that spring directly from individual brains to gain a sense of what they make possible through the medium of personal consciousness. Any model of the workings of the brain must account for poetry, long in existence in every culture well before neuroscience was invented.

Dickinson’s resume is captured in the following four poems, which I offer here without comment. The essence of poetry is in working with what your are given of the poet’s world and weaving coherent sense from the richness of detail. Please help yourself.

DDD

DDD

The Brain, within its Groove

Runs evenly—and true—

But let a Splinter swerve—

Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—

When Floods have slit the Hills—

And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—

And trodden out the Mills—

DDD

DDD

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

DDD

DDD

The Heart is the Capital of the Mind—

The Mind is a single State—

The Heart and the Mind together make

A single Continent—

One—is the Population—

Numerous enough—

This ecstatic Nation

Seek—it is Yourself.

DDD

DDD

The Mind lives on the Heart

Like any Parasite—

If that is full of Meat

The Mind is fat.

But if the Heart omit

Emaciate the Wit—

The Aliment of it

So absolute.

DDD

DDD

Squash Blossom-2-72