Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Wildness is a quality of situations I get myself into. As I use the term, it points to relationships in nature I notice but don’t understand. My kind of wildness prompts feelings of awe and wonder, leading to questions about why things turn out as I discover them. Here are a few sample questions based on my pursuit of wildness during this past summer.

  • Why do trees grow layers of smooth bark—only to rend them in growing bigger, producing characteristic patterns and textures of rough bark?
  • Why do lichens express themselves in so many different forms?
  • Who drops crab parts on the forest floor far from water?
  • Why do Indian pipes sprout up in thick clumps, and who pollinates them so they can do it again next year?
  • Why do mushrooms come in so many colors?
  • Is it mushroom spores or flesh (or both) that attracts slugs?
  • Which comes first, flowers or their pollinators? Do they evolve together?
  • Life exposed at low tide seems so vulnerable to shoreline scavengers (raccoons, foxes, gulls, crows, eagles); it’s as if sharing the wealth were part of nature’s wild structure. Or is that my wild imagination?
  • Foresters talk about “overage” trees which should have been cut, but snags and decaying stems and branches are essential to healthy forest ecosystems in the future. What am I missing?
  • I have never found two trees alike; each grows into its unique location on Earth as an expression of the unique conditions on that site. Yet we talk in general terms of “wood” and “trees” and “forests” as if particular trees did not exist as living beings. Once we reduce life to platitudes and generalities (“dinosaurs,” “Indians,” “natural resources”), we are not telling the full story. Why do we base education on books as a substitute for personal discoveries and insights in the field?
  • How long does it take a spider to spin a ground web? How does it do that, fitting each strand to the local terrain?
  • Why is old man’s beard found on one branch of a tree and not another nearby? Does it get water from airborne vapor, or does that vapor need to condense on individual filaments?

Wildness to me is one big question. It is something that draws my attention but I can’t explain. I live with wildness every day as a mystery I seem to be immersed in, even though I know that sense is in me and not the world. If wildness existed in the world, everybody would be exploring it and asking questions, not making a killing on Wall Street or a battlefield in some distant land. Wildness is right here where I live because it is something I take with me everywhere I go. Wildness is part and parcel of my consciousness, a feature of my inquisitive mind.

It is no accident I have a small digital camera in a case on my belt. I love to photograph the wild mysteries I come across in my wanderings, and have since I was four years old. This summer I’ve been engaged with wildness every day, producing hundreds of JPG files each week. That’s what I do when I confront wildness—take its picture, if I can. Other people listen to music, watch TED talks, go to movies. I press the shutter. Then Photoshop each picture, adjusting size, contrast, brightness, sharpness. I compare photos I’ve made of wildness, select the few that present it best to my eye, resize them to post to my blog, upload them to show the world the kinds of situations I get into while making myself happen as I do.

It’s all here in this blog—the sensory impressions I face on a daily basis, the situations I build around those impressions because they’re so wild, and actions I take in response to that situated wildness by going through the necessary steps of engagement it takes to post my words and photos to the Web.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of being conscious in the way I have learned to think about consciousness over the past thirty years in terms of loops of engagement connecting my mind to the world—and hopefully to other minds in other corners of the world.

I’ll add a few more photos of wildness as I see it in my next post.

As ever (while I last), y’r friend, —Steve from Planet Earth

P.S. While stretching my legs after writing this post, I heard a whooshing sound nearby along the trail, and looked down on the rotting carcass of a snowshoe hare, covered with flies, alighting after my approach sent them whooshing up. Wildness in the flesh (i.e., in my mind). I came across the same scene on a different trail last year; it was gone in two days, old life turned to new.

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

We learn to engage the world around us in earliest childhood, starting in the womb when our mother is our environment, and then expanding on that beginning when we are born. Sooner or later we encounter nursery rhymes, which help us consolidate loops of engagement we have begun on our own. Take this one, for example:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Imagine engaging with the stars! But even though we haven’t a clue what they might be, we gape nonetheless at their splendor because they’re unlike anything else in our experience. In this case, that little star is probably the planet Venus, apt to be the most striking object in the western sky before bedtime. That point of light fills us with wonder and curiosity. As children, we aren’t likely to compare such a sight to a diamond in the sky. That would be be the voice of our culture speaking. But the salience of the sensory impression alone would arouse us, kindling consciousness at the same time so that both the image and the rhyme stay with us for a lifetime.

Mirror, mirror, tell me,
Am I pretty or plain?
Or am I downright ugly
And ugly to remain?

Shall I marry a gentleman?
Shall I marry a clown?
Or shall I marry old Knives-and-Scissors
Shouting through the town?

Here is youthful curiosity again, looking toward the future at the possibilities for engagement it might offer. The issue seems to be driven more by wonder than anxiety: what will be my lot in life when I grow up? The one approaching the mirror is asking what fate has in store for her, not what she can bring about for herself. Old Knives and Scissors would be every bit as worthy as clown or gentleman. Being pretty, plain, or ugly is not under her control; it is destiny’s call. The culture she is growing into is preparing her to accept her fate however it turns out. In the meantime, we all know that we all can affect our fates by how we choose to make ourselves happen as we go.

1. He loves me.
2. He don’t!
3. He’ll have me.
4. He won’t!
5. He would if he could.
6. But he can’t.
7. So he don’t.

The numbers here count petals being plucked from a flower. The issue is decided when the last petal is reached. This simple procedure of keying answers to a finite number of questions is a crude device meant as an aid to reviewing indeterminate issues. The point is not to settle the issue but to bring possible solutions to the forefront of attention. The benefit flows from playing with the engagement itself in a lighthearted manner as if it could be settled once and for all. Turning life decisions into simple routines is a means of dealing with underlying uncertainties.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

This rhyme is a reminder that some engagements come to a bad end. No matter what resources you bring into play, things will never work out. Keeping in mind an image of Humpty as an egg drives home the message: some things are best scrambled.

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean;
And so betwixt them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.

The message here is that complementary engagements promote harmony amid diversity. It’s OK for people to be of different persuasions if they all fit into the big picture.

If you wish to live and thrive,
Let the spider walk alive.


This rhyme embraces the engagement between people and those of the arachnid persuasion, assuming the prescriptive weight of a proverb or aphorism. Committed to memory, it reminds us at sight of a spider that it takes many creatures to build a world, including weavers of intricate webs who happen to eat insects.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Sets all heaven in a rage.

Again, the voice of conventional wisdom aimed at little ears for rote memorization as a guide to subsequent restraint.

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
That was the end
Of Solomon Grundy.

This rhyme reinforces recitation of the days of the week in proper sequence by linking it to the natural order of life events. This is the old mnemonist’s trick of pegging a random list of things to an order internalized through repeated experience such as a stroll along a familiar street or the arrangement of familiar body parts. The drama and fun here come from the compression of major life events into the span of a single week, making the sequence of days all the more memorable. It helps to have all the lines end with the same sound and share the same rhythm. Ever after this rhyme is learned, engagements will seem naturally to accord with the days of the week.

Mary had a little lamb,
It’s fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.


It followed her to school one day,
That was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play,
To see a lamb in school.


And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.


Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.

Engagements have rules, it turns out. Lambs are OK at home, but not at school. The tale is more about the lamb than Mary, but it is Mary’s attachment for the lamb that gives the story punch. The narrative unfolds from a brief description of the lamb to telling what it did one day, what happened next, and ends with an insight as to why things went as they did, brought home by a simple question. This rhyme is a paradigm for building a story that has characters, action, consequences, and a message. Rhyme and meter help make it memorable for use in future engagements or writing assignments.

Six little mice sat down to spin;
Pussy passed by and she peeped in.
What are you doing, my little men?
Weaving coats for gentlemen.
Shall I come in and cut off your threads?
No, no, Mistress Pussy, you’d bite off our heads.
Oh, no, I’ll not; I’ll help you to spin.
That may be so, but you can’t come in.

Another narrative based on the age-old rivalry between mice and cats. This time, the mice aren’t fooled by Pussy’s soft words, providing an example meant for children to take to heart in conducting their own engagements. How others choose to engage with you may well differ from how you would choose to deal with them, providing a model for future reference when needed. Many nursery rhymes and other early readings depict situations in which children should learn to be on their guard without someone being around to warn, “Now be careful.”

Who are you? A dirty old man
I’ve always been since the day I began,
Mother and Father were dirty before me,
Hot or cold water has never come o’er me.

This unexpected answer to an ordinary question achieves a humorous effect, but it rouses consciousness from its customary slumber, priming awareness to perk up at the thought of dirty old men (or, indeed, women). I can hear kids mouthing this rhyme as they head for a bath, reveling in the virtue of cleanliness as the rhyme advises by default.

I do not like you, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

This rhyme makes no forward motion at all, despite a modest show of trying. It would be humorous if it did not reveal so set a mind. The humor here is like laughing at someone stuck in the mud. It illustrates a disdain for ridicule or non-engagement. Something about you, Doctor Fell, turns me off; I can’t get started with you. There’s no telling what the problem is, or how it began. My advice to those whose engagement is blocked in this way is to look into themselves to see if they can’t identify the problem. It’s there waiting to be discovered.

I’ll end this brief review of nursery-rhyme engagements with the challenge Doctor Fell poses for us all. To engage or not engage, that is the question. Whatever the cause, a good part of it lies with each one of us. If we are to get beyond the childish level of engagement we picked up in our earliest days, we must do our share of the heavy lifting required.

I will leave it at that, As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

Reflection 166: In the Loop

December 21, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

To extract ourselves from, say, the economic way of being on Earth, the military or consumptive way, we need to break free from the looping engagements that hold us where we find ourselves, and then enter into engagements based on wholly new loops of attachment. The loops I speak of are artifacts of how consciousness reaches out through expectancy and action, and takes in feedback from the world through the senses. That’s where we live, in that loop. The point of personal consciousness is to engage the world in an effectively adaptive manner, and to monitor the progress of that engagement by opening the senses to the world’s response. But consciousness itself is changed through any such consistent patterns of engagement. Once we learn the lingo, the customs, the routines, the tools, we become creatures of the worlds we inhabit.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, bring their wars home with them, where those wars leap from their dreams, a wailing siren, or the sound of a kid’s stick clacking against a picket fence. Once a continuous loop is established, a way of being in the world, it is hard to extinguish. Forsaken lovers suffer longings well after the possibility of fulfillment is shut away. A great many poems and songs flow from that psychic wound. To be between engagement means trying to transform old ways of reaching out to the world into new ones. Sorrow, regret, fear, and sometimes anger stem from knowing things will never be the same.

Consciousness is participatory. It involves giving oneself to the world, and opening to what the world offers in response. Or the world might initiate the process, with consciousness rising to the occasion by sending a tentative gesture of acknowl-edgement. Once opening moves have established the flow, it can run either way. Creatures of habit, we expect more of the same. And if biological values are released, we actively crave more and more. Once our appetites for sex, food, drink, comfort, protection, companionship, and excitement are aroused, the loop becomes part of our history as recorded in neuronal patterns in our brains. Looping engagements with the world are the stuff of memory, and memory is the stuff of both consciousness and the altered synapses which make it possible.

In restoring our sense of connectedness to the natural world that supports us, it is up to us to send Earth a message saying we are willing to negotiate. Having evolved while we were rising up on two legs and working out our relationship with the savannahs of Africa, our brains are predisposed to the idea. Which is reinforced by the aesthetic sense of beauty, rightness, or approval we feel in places we find scenic and appealing. We recognize a productive habitat when we see one because that judgment is stamped into the primal being that makes us human. Aesthetics are a modern code for what satisfies the biological yearning to realize our most fundamental values. Without that yearning, we would not have survived as long as we have. And having lost sight of its biological underpinnings—thinking it cultural merely—we forget that our future survival depends on finding ways to excite that same sense.

Bird and wildlife watching strike me as variations on the ancient art of stalking game. It’s still in us; we just put it to new uses by establishing novel loops to fulfill it. On the island I mentioned in my last post, I paid particular attention to wildlife in winter. Every day I would snowshoe out looking for black-backed and pileated woodpeckers, red squirrels, mink, otters, white-tailed deer, harbor seals (there was one in the bay), eagles—even dead gulls, geese, ducks, and jellyfish. It is no accident this exercise was so important to me. In earlier times, my life would have depended on it. I was particularly fascinated by the many different kinds of ducks on the bay. I worked out strategies for getting as near them as I could. My justification was taking photographs, where once it would have been hunting in order to eat. Greater scaup, goldeneye, bufflehead, red-breasted merganser, eider, black duck, surf scoter—I loved them all. I got close enough to one Canada goose to read the numbered band on its neck, which I relayed to Maine Fish and Wildlife. I later received word that that particular goose was shot near Lake Ontario in western New York State.

I took thousands of slides during the two-and-a-half years of my stay, collecting them into slideshows, which I presented everywhere I could from suburban Boston to Calais, Maine. When I was paid an honorarium, I went to the grocery and converted it to food. Such fulfillment is more elaborate now than it once was, but it satisfies exactly the same urge. When I worked for the National Park Service, I tapped into the same primal dynamic, using a computer instead of a spear. Over the years, my fascination with various forms of wildlife has morphed into a concern for the ecosystems that feed and shelter them. That particular dynamic organizes the food web, so I systematically identify the primary producers in any habitat—plants and algae that convert sunlight into carbohydrates—then find out what vegetarian species are in the neighborhood, what carnivores, up to top predators such as owls, hawks, sea mammals, and mink, all the way to the arch-predator, namely We the People.

No, in a couple million years, the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree. We still hunt as of old, just in new looping patterns of engagement with our surroundings; now it’s called shopping. Even our cultural interests and drives haven’t changed all that much. Our values are still much the same, only now we buy jogging strollers and plastic toys instead of chipping arrowheads and scrapers by hand out of rocks. One thing for sure, modern consciousness is no more advanced than it was when ice-age hunters painted bison on the walls of caves in what we now call southern France. We can still activate the same old loops, and reactivate those we have neglected once we moved from the plains to the village, and on to the city.

If our cultural ways are decimating our home planet—as they surely are—we can do something about it. Where formerly we would have started walking to find new territories, now we know there’s no place to go where we can avoid trashing our environment by exercising all those bad habits we have only recently picked up—say, within the past three hundred years. The conspicuous alternatives are to reduce our population, or change our ways of consuming and polluting our place on this Earth.

It’s that simple—and that hard. For starters, we need to include planet Earth in our loop of engagement with our surroundings. The culture we think of as supporting us is maladaptive in being a mere illusion. Even dressed in modern clothes and housed in gated communities, we are still cave-dwellers at heart and in mind. Our priority values still center on sex, food, drink, safety, comfort, companionship, and excitement. That is, we haven’t lost the biological edge we developed in Africa. Or, more accurately, Africa developed in us. If we look for a modern-day version of that primal savannah, we will find it not far away. That special place will feature no automobiles, no mega-corporations, no coal-fired power plants, no bulldozing of mountaintops, no supermarket shelves crammed with prepackaged foods, and so on. No, it will offer a natural, back-to-basics kind of life. At least more so than the lifestyles we trap ourselves in today. As Michael Renner, writing in the current World Watch, describes the effects of those lifestyles on the Earth in terms of the so-called natural disasters they inflict:

The number of natural disasters (excluding geological events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) has risen from 233 per decade in the 1950s to more than 3,800 in the decade 2000-2009. Though there are considerable variations year-to-year, the number of people affected by such disasters has grown from less than 20 million to 2 billion during the same time frame.

The pace is likely to accelerate as climate change translates into more intense storms, flooding, and heat waves. In addition to sudden disasters, there is also the “slow-onset” degradation of ecosystems through drought and desertification processes, which in some cases is sufficiently extreme to compromise habitability (“Climate of Risk,” pages 19-20).

Two billion people is almost a third of the current human population, not to mention the other species affected by our collective carelessness and extravagance. That is one indicator of the price someone is paying so we can be privileged to turn our backs on our native habitat by hiding out in the confines of our culture and economy. It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, it cannot stay that way. The good news is that we are just as well equipped to live the old way as the new. We are much the same people, with the same consciousness and looping connection to wherever we live. Knowing what we know now, the challenge is to figure out how to dial back to, say, 1932. Height of a depression then, height of a depression now—only with five billion fewer people on Earth. That’s the span of my lifetime; I liked it much better then, with cornfields across the street, a few cattle back of the barn, and neighbors who spoke with one another when they met on the street. It shouldn’t be that hard to rebuild a decent world to that scale.

And if we don’t change our habits, they will be ruthlessly changed for us as we are overtaken and overcome by events. There’s no doubt in my mind the human population will be cut drastically one way or another. I am not voicing doom here, I am talking common sense. If we have any imagination at all, we already know how this is going to turn out. Take a look at the folks overcome by fumes and pumice in Pompeii. Those are our writhing bodies. Except it will be like a slow-motion movie with us. The effect will be much the same.

If consciousness is not up to planning ahead in an emergency, then I’d say it’s doesn’t set an example for others to emulate. Maybe that’s how the end will go. Good riddance, then. We never found the owner’s manual, so didn’t really understand what we were doing all along. The fact is, the modern way doesn’t work, and we haven’t hit on a better one. We’re between engagements, neither here nor there, so suffer from a profound sense of loss with no new prospects in sight. Pitiful, really, to have so much potential, yet be too dense to learn to apply our own gifts. This is the stuff of sad songs.

Quagmire

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Enough words. Time for pictures. These are slides from the PowerPoint I showed on the last day of my adult ed class on consciousness at MDI High School in Bar Harbor. See for yourself.

1-Consciousness 2-Consciousness

3-Diver Ed

4-Quaker Ladies

5-This Body 6-Sensory World

7-Consciousness-Self

8-Loops of Engagement

9-Echo-of-thought

10-Engagement  

Steve Perrin