421. Watersheds

February 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Copyright © 2009)


Memory is situational because consciousness is situational. Everything that happens takes place in the particular circumstances that frame our life worlds at the time. Consciousness is a matter of being alive to our current life situation as the mind configures it.


Exhibit A. I am at scout camp the second week in August, 1945. It is Sunday, so there’s nothing to do. The sun is shining. I go for a walk with a friend down a dirt road lined with tall trees. Everything is different somehow. Looking into the sky, I picture a bomb falling, falling, falling. Earlier, at breakfast, I’d seen a story in the camp director’s newspaper about an American plane dropping an A-bomb on Hiroshima, a city in Japan. I don’t know what an A-bomb is, but I know it is bad. I am scared.


Exhibit B. I am in eighth grade. The war is over. My father is renting a cinderblock house in Sarasota for a year. My mission is to help dismantle Sarasota Army Air Base, soon to close. On Saturdays, wrench and screwdrivers in my pocket, I ride with bus driver Russ Shin (from his name tag), north to the airfield, but get off where he turns west and the railroad tracks continue north through the swamp. I walk along the tracks, cross a trestle, to the dump in the southeast corner of the airfield. Crawling under the fence, I am among the remains of planes, trucks, and all sorts of military gear. My personal stock pile. I pick up smoke grenades and dye packets. Radio equipment. Skipping the tubes of prophylactic ointment, I climb in the cockpit of a wingless plane and unscrew gauges of all kinds. Gyroscopes! Checking the time, I gather my haul—by now including pilot’s seat and dummy bomb—and head back, loaded much heavier than when I came, along the elevated rail bed through the swamp. What’s that noise? Looking ahead—a locomotive heading my way. No sir, I’m not going to ditch any of this stuff. I can’t go back, I’d miss the bus. And I’m not going into that swamp! Which leaves the bank under the trestle. I figure I can just make it. Flapping and rattling, I plod towards it as fast as I can. The train keeps coming. I keep plodding. Just as the train reaches the trestle, so do I. I taste the heat and smell of the steam as I dive under the tracks onto the bank below, my feet in the water. I feel how fast my heart is beating. No time to sit around. I keep going and meet Russ at the corner. Saying nothing, he just looks at me. When I get home, I put the stuff under my bed. Next day, I use a can opener to take the bottom off one of the smoke grenades. I show it to Jack Tisdale who lives across the street. In his living room, we use a lens to focus sunlight streaming in the window onto the cake of white. Wisps of smoke, then billows. We drop the grenade on the rug and run out the door. Jack tells me later everything in the house is coated with white powder. I am surprised how angry some grownups can get.


Exhibit C. For reasons unknown, in 2001, 90% of the eelgrass in Taunton Bay died back. Which is an ecological tragedy because eelgrass beds provide habitat for all manner of sea creatures including cod, flounder, crabs, periwinkles, and amphipods. I’ve been worrying that bone for seven years. What I know through personal experience is that no sea lavender appeared that year, periwinkles died by tens of thousands, the water was cloudy, ledges were extremely slippery as if coated with slime, and Maine had the lowest rainfall in 111 years. Looking at photographs from earlier years, I saw that eelgrass reached maximum extent and density in 1973, year of the heaviest snowmelt since records have been kept. Since 1992, I’ve flown aerial overflights to check on eelgrass in the bay. It was down in the 1980s, as it was in the drought years of the 1930s, but making a nice recovery throughout the 1990s. Boaters noticed how thick it was getting because it clogged their propellers. Then in 2001 it crashed. And only now in 2008 and 2009 is slowly coming back in some places but not others.

I’ve been trying to make myself conscious of the circumstances which prevailed in 2001 so I could accurately characterize the situation and figure out what the significant variables might have been that led to the dieback. What I notice from aerial photographs is that eelgrass is recovering in areas fed by both salt- and freshwater. That is, where the bay is brackish, as in stream channels and where melt- and rainwater flow off the land. The dieback, I think now, has something to do with the amount of salt in the water flowing over the eelgrass beds. Salinity is highly variable in Taunton Bay, ranging from pure fresh water on the flats at low tide (when it rains) to the salty flows coming over the reversing falls from Frenchman Bay and the Gulf of Maine beyond.

I now believe the eelgrass dieback was triggered by the drought that reached its peak in 2001, causing slight dilution and unusually high salinities, allowing eelgrass dieback disease to flourish whereas runoff and rainfall usually moderate the salinity, and thus keep the ever-present disease organisms in check. This makes sense because Taunton Bay is a closed bay largely surrounded by land (unlike open bays which are subject to greater flushing by marine waters), so periods of low runoff and rainfall produce pronounced changes in salinity. Too, global warming may have given the disease organism a significant boost in 2001.

By this exercise I have approximated the consciousness I might have had in 2001 if I had kept track of all that was going on in the world of local eelgrass beds at the time. By doing my best to recreate those conditions, I have tried to make myself aware of the prevailing situation that led to the decline. At least I can make an educated guess with more certainty than I could have when I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.


The larger question remaining is where in the brain does situational consciousness come together as a gateway to both situational memory and informed behavior which is more-or-less appropriate to the circumstances within which it arises? The anterior cingulate cortex (see Reflection 60: Discovery) receives all the appropriate inputs (motivational, emotional, sensory, cognitive, remembered, anticipatory) as well as direct input from peripheral eye fields (what we see out of the corner of our eye), feeding forward to motor planning and execution areas of the frontal lobe. The locus where these various strands of consciousness come together could well serve as the seat of both situational consciousness and—when arousal is sufficient—situational memory (by a perhaps less direct route).


This is conjecture on my part. Maybe it has some heuristic value. My contribution is the details I glean through introspection, which animal and clinical studies generally do not provide. I offer it in this blog to give the world a chance to judge what it is worth. For me the reward is in the pursuit of understanding while I still have a mind to keep me entertained.