(Copyright © 2010)

Two weeks ago I got a phone call from a colleague asking if I would give a presentation at the January 14 meeting of the Maine Wildlife Society. He and I have worked together for over eight years on common projects, and share similar environmental values; I said I’d be glad to. He made a couple of suggestions about what he’d like me to cover, basically present a capsule history of projects we’ve worked on together in Taunton Bay estuary. I said I’d like to address the issue of trusting consciousness as a guide to how projects should go, and he said fine. Combining my interests with his, I came up with a rough sketch of a presentation, then set to work bringing it to life or, more accurately, bringing my life to it.

Day before yesterday, after wrestling for almost a week with what to include and what to leave out—ending up with a Rube Goldberg contraption that just didn’t work—I was extremely frustrated, and went to bed in low spirits. Next morning—yesterday—I woke up knowing exactly what I had to do to make it fully my presentation, not an awkward mockup of ideas from two different minds. I took the contraption I’d heaped together, got rid of thirty slides, rearranged the remaining slides in a wholly new sequence, added a few slides to emphasize points I wanted to make—and every slide fell into place. Eureka, I’d done it! Best PowerPoint I’d ever made.

What I’d actually done is trusted my unconsciousness to do the job for me while I was asleep. I showed that trust by paying attention to what was in my head when I woke up yesterday morning. It’s that first fifteen minutes of consciousness each day that I want to talk about in this post. It is precisely then that the actual connections between neuronal groups in my brain show what they’ve been up to during the night. In those first fifteen minutes when consciousness dawns each day, I have a unique opportunity to learn what is actually on my mind as a result of recent mental activity. If I set an alarm and rush to get ready for school or work, I don’t have time to pay attention to the most crucial messages I am likely to get all day. Messages from the parts of myself that make me the intuitively guided person I am meant by nature to be.

If I allow my consciousness to be steered by directives and reports stacked in my in-box at work, or a sequence of e-mails from other minds, or other people’s agendas, in such cases I lose touch with my own mind—and end up leading a life that is not fully my own. We’ve all been in that place, particularly rearing young children, and having to work at jobs largely for the paycheck and benefits. Those days behind me, I feel lucky to have the luxury of lying in bed listening to my own mind at 4:30 in the morning. That’s the most valuable part of my day that I don’t want to waste because it heads me into my day, a day of my own making under the existential circumstances I actually live with.

What came to me yesterday morning was a clear overview of what I’d been doing for the last twenty-four years of my life so that it actually made sense. Not as a random series of projects and events, but as a slow and steady working-out of what I have done in order to be myself in the particular place on Earth I have chosen to live. There in full sense-surround within my mind was revealed for the first time the saga of my being the person I am. It was my story and no one else’s. That’s what a few morning minutes of quietly attending to my own brain had on offer. My PowerPoint was to be an outward and visible sign of that inner vision, which I will summarize here as briefly as I can.

In keeping with my theme, I remember lying in bed in earlier days (before moving to Maine), my body sunk so low I hardly pushed up the covers—I barely existed, even to myself. I was the wrong person leading the wrong life in the wrong place. I couldn’t breathe; I was dying. I had to get out before the life was sucked out of me. [This was well before I knew I had celiac disease, and had had it my whole life.] The upshot was my fleeing to Maine—my mother’s homeland—to write my great book. I lived on a thirty-acre island my parents owned in undivided shares with two other families, in a cabin I’d built in the 1970s, and struggled to reinvent myself.

On Easter Sunday in 1987 I rowed across Taunton Bay to investigate the cloud of smoke I’d been watching for a week, every day shifting a little farther north. It looked like slash (piles of branches from felled trees) was burning, and I wanted to know why. I sensed that circumstances made me the only person who could see the smoke moving north—toward a productive eagle nest that had sent one, two, or three fledglings a year out over the bay for many years.

I found a developer and his crew running a road for a thirty-four-lot subdivision. He claimed not to know the course of the road went directly under the eagle nest. I walked 200 feet along Schoodic Overlook, 1987 the surveyor’s line—and there it was. You couldn’t miss it. I showed up at the planning board hearing on Schoodic Overlook subdivision. Seventeen spaghetti lots (long and thin to have acreage adequate to a summer home, and minimal shore-frontage to squeeze in as many lots as possible) bisected by the road, doubling the number of lots. Several didn’t have soils suitable for septic systems, so down-slope lotsSubdivision Nest pumped sewage uphill—in one case three lots feeding into one septic field. The nest was in lot 11, and an alternate nest built by the same pair of eagles was in a tall white pine on the shore of lot 9. Two eagle nests, the one on the shore producing three fledglings the year before. With surveying and woodswork going on around them, the eagles didn’t produce any eaglets in 1987. I joined with my cousin in opposing the subdivision, and when she dropped out, I went on alone. The development was approved, so I went to the appeals board, which voted I didn’t have standing. By then I had a pro-bono attorney, who filed in Superior Court. On the day that court ruled I did in fact have standing, a deal was announced by which The Nature Conservancy bought the land, enabling the developer to find a parcel with no resident eagles farther downeast, and the land was donated in the first Land for Maine’s Future grant (December 1988) to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to maintain as eagle breeding habitat.

Adrenalin pumping for months, I called a meeting of local residents in August 1987 to learn about starting a local land trust. The many who showed up decided to found Frenchman Bay Conservancy, which is thriving in much of Hancock County today. In opposing the subdivision, I got the reputation as being anti-development, so the next major event on the bay was a Penobscot Salmon Net Pen deliberate stealth operation to keep below my personal radar. In 1990, without any public notice, net pens for Atlantic salmon appeared in the bay courtesy of Penobscot Salmon Company in Franklin. I and others didn’t even know what they were. The entire operation was in place by then, the town colluding with the company to keep the project secret until it was a done deal. The operator’s plan was to cut the time it took to rear mature salmon by siting his pens in the sunny, sheltered, and unusually warm waters of Taunton Bay estuary on an outgoing summer tide. First came a hearing before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, at which I raised several issues regarding impacts on the bay. Again, I was cast with the opposition. The aquaculture operation was subsequently approved, the salmon put in the net pens to hasten their growth—only to die at the rate of 700 a day, killed by receding midsummer tides. Gearing up for the hearing, local residents founded Friends of Taunton Bay (FTB) “to organize citizens for the well-being of the bay and for its protection from all forms of degradation.” Recognizing that eelgrass provides both food and protective habitat for a great many estuarine species, I began a series of aerial overflights to produce a photographic record of the spread and density of eelgrass over the years, which I now conduct on an annual basis.

In 1999, when a replacement for the “Singing Bridge” over Taunton River on Route 1 (the open mesh deck hummed when cars crossed it) was in the works, the then president of Friends of Taunton Bay feared larger boats rigged for bottom dragging would enter the bay, putting eelgrass at risk. The old bridge Singing Bridge had a ten-foot clearance at high tide; the new bridge twice that amount. FTB presented testimony at a hearing before the state Marine Resources Committee in Augusta, asking that such vessels be banned. I presented slides ostensibly showing effects of dragging on eelgrass beds years before. The Maine Legislature voted for a dragging moratorium to sunset in New Bridge five years, and assigned the Department of Marine Resources the job of evaluating potential impacts of dragging on eelgrass in Taunton Bay. That led to an intense program of research looking at eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, juvenile fish, and related issues. My role in the assessment was to track horseshoe crabs to determine their seasonal locations in the bay, and the habitats they occupied. I also initiated a pilot project in collaborative bay management to explore what a localized use-management effort might look like for Taunton Bay.

The report of the Taunton Bay Assessment recommended continuation of the prohibition on unrestricted bottom dragging, and development of a science-based comprehensive resource management plan to sustain the ecological workings of the bay. The man who asked me to present at the upcoming Wildlife Society meeting had conducted the assessment and made those recommendations. The assessment report was presented to the committee that approved the moratorium, and the committee approved the recommended resource management plan, which included provision for a local group to advise the Commis-sioner of Marine Resources on harvesting of marine resources in Taunton Bay. I am one member of that advisory group. As a result, local bay management is a reality in Taunton Bay, a first in Maine, and as far as I know, in the nation.

Aside from being fully myself in doing these things, I have acted according to my lights, strengthening actively used synapses, diminishing underutilized others, changing connections in my brain and the nature of my mind—all by putting my body where my values are, and paying good attention to what my body and unconscious mind have to tell me. Not in so many words, but the messages are there when I wake up, like glass milk bottles used to show up on the back steps when I was growing up. Open the kitchen door and there they’d be.

Living through Schoodic Overlook subdivision, salmon aquaculture pens in the bay, the dragging moratorium, the assessment, the comprehensive resource management plan, the Taunton Bay advisory group—has made me who I am. Preparing to speak at public hearings,  and to act effectively in my local world, I have reinvented myself as the man I am today. We are all unique to begin with, and further refine our uniqueness by the particular actions we take and lives we lead. All made possible by our conscious and unconscious minds as they not only enable, but keep up with our ongoing engagements with the unique life worlds we inhabit.

From early electrical and radio days, we use the metaphor of “wiring” in talking about the complex neural networks of our brains as enablers of our actions and our minds. But that is too rigid an image, suggesting soldered connections that never change, and can’t change themselves. The brain is a biological system—the most complex object in the known universe—which no corporation has yet patented (though I am sure those days are coming). Our neurons are living cells which respond to the circumstances of their existence by strengthening or weakening their myriad interconnections, or forming new connections—or dying off if neglected. And it is our activity that determines the state of our minds, which in turn reflect what we actually do with our bodies. It is no accident my PowerPoint for the wildlife folks is based on the particular events I have been involved in for the last twenty-four years. It includes images of 12 invertebrates, 14 fish, 16 mammals, 50 people, and 54 birds, along with others of settings, habitats, plants, and charts I have dealt with—such dealings as I have grown into and interacted with in the recent course of my life.

Growing and interacting are better metaphors for the way our electro-chemical minds really work. Our cells either stay in touch, or drift apart. Consciousness is a hands-on operation, a matter of axons working with dendrites where they connect at synapses, preparing the way for ionic and chemical flows more fundamental than copper wires allow. It isn’t done for us; we do it ourselves. Unwittingly, yes, but willingly and even willfully through what we do in daily life. In truth, we invent ourselves as we go, both physically and mentally, by performing what we actually do in making a life for ourselves. Where our body is, the routines we go through—that is exactly what we learn. “You are what you eat” is true only for those who dedicate their lives to watching TV, videos, films, and other passive diversions. For the rest of us, we are what we do because doing is what structures our brains and our minds to do more of the same in the future—only better.

Before we get distracted by other concerns, fifteen minutes a day paying attention to what our most recent brain activity has accomplished overnight is all it takes to stay abreast of ourselves. We springboard higher and higher based on our cumulative mental activity as told by the changing connections in our brains. Our looping engagement with this place where we are on the Earth is the master teacher. That inner guide is far more compelling and effective than any author or professor. Instead of hitting the books, it is more rewarding to learn the lessons from what we did yesterday as revealed in the thoughts that greet us as we wake to a new day. Then, getting out of bed, we enter that day as new men and women better equipped to improve the lives we actually lead, not the lives others would have us lead for their benefit.

Unfurl like a squash blossom

 

(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

Eagle-72