(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)

By June, 2005, I got pretty good at thinking like a horseshoe crab. I’d been tracking 26 of them in Taunton Bay for two years, and was finally able to anticipate their movements with some success. In doing his biological assessment of the bay, biologist Slade Moore had suggested a cooperative hoSonar Transmitter on Female HSCrseshoe crab tracking program with Friends of Taunton Bay. Slade worked out of the West Boothbay offices of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and I was to do most of the tracking. In June of 2003, we epoxied miniature sonar transmitters on 26 crabs, 13 in Hog Bay, 13 in Egypt Bay. My job was to track the movements of each transmitter with a sonar receiver and hydrophone from a small boat. If the epoxy held and the transmitter stayed in place, the location of a transmitter would indicate the location of the crab we’d attached it to.

We tested the range at which we could detect a sonar signal, and based on the assumption the bottom of the bay was flat, Slade worked out a grid of listening stations where we would turn the hydrophone 360 degrees, and record the direction in which we heard any signals. That way, we could triangulate a crab’s location if we picked up its signal at two or more stations. Which seemed like a reasonable plan, until we got a great many signals bouncing off underwater boulders and ledges, and determined the bottom was full of ridges and depressions that effectively blocked reception of even nearby signals. Our backup plan was to steer the boat as close as we could come to being directly on top of a signal—when it would be loudest in our headphones, and use a GIS receiver to log the boat’s—and presumably the crab’s—position. It took a while to work the bugs out of the tracking program, but on good days, both Slade and I were able to pinpoint the location of most transmitters in both bays. On other days, we might find only half of them.

What does this have to do with consciousness? For starters, we were engaged in a project never attempted in Taunton Bay, so we were relying on on-the-job experience to train ourselves in the use of a new language we invented as we went, somewhat as a child creates language by observing the sounds people make on certain occasions, and then mimics them. Too, we were not only interested in where a given crab was, but wanted to know what it was doing and why it was there. Ultimately, we wanted to know what factors governed horseshoe crab movements at different times of year. Factors like water temperature, water depth, habitat type, hormone levels and mating urges, food availability (such as small clams, worms, mussels), presence of predators, and so on. The big questions were where and when did the range of local horseshoe crabs overlap with beds of blue mussels, so that dragging for mussels might put them at risk?

Like every other small embayment, Taunton Bay exhibits a range of features that make it unique. Because of its extensive Mating Horseshoe Crabs and Striiped Killifish system of mudflats, it has more mussels, clams, and marine worms than many other bays. Which attracts predators of mussels, clams, and worms—such as horseshoe crabs, flounders, ring-billed gulls, several duck species, and predators of predators such as harbor seals, striped killifish (which prey on horseshoe crab eggs), ospreys, and eagles. And human harvesters who go after any one of them by dragging, digging, pulling, fishing, or hunting.

Too, the upper reaches of Taunton Bay are extremely shallow, making them warmer in summer and colder in winter than many other bays in Maine. Every creature that lives on the flats has to adapt one way or another to a wide range of seasonal temperatures. Harbor seals, for instance, exit the bay in December when ice begins to form, leaving only the alpha male to defend his territory against rivals. A big question for the horseshoe crab tracking program was where do members of the two local sub-populations spend the winter? When we started the program, we fully expected local crabs to seek deeper, warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine during the winter, and to return to mate in warm shallows in late spring. We were planning to install a fixed hydrophone aimed across Taunton River to record their departure and return. We never deployed that second hydrophone because, as we found in November 2003, the horseshoe crabs of Taunton Bay retire from shallow flats to the upper slopes of deeper channels, where they bury themselves in the mud and wait out the winter by suppressing their food intake, breathing, and blood flow, becoming as close to inanimate as creatures can get while still retaining the ability to reanimate themselves when conditions improve six months later.

That was big learning for us because by rights, horseshoe crabs have no place in a northern bay that freezes-over in winter. Throughout most of their global range—including the Indian Ocean, southwestern Pacific, and Atlantic as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula—they move to deeper waters in winter and remain active for the duration. Now it appears that in several bays in Maine and New Hampshire, they hibernate, slowing their metabolisms to the survivable limit for six months of the year. In our study at the northern limit of their global range in Taunton Bay, we found them hunkering down and not moving again until the third Mating Horseshoe Crabsweek in April, when they’d take a month to feed and work their way upslope to their breeding shores, where females would lay their eggs and males fertilize them in the shallow sand and gravel nests where they were deposited. In the narrow confines of horseshoe crab research, that was a breakthrough—a mind-expanding discovery.

Imagine sleeping for half a year, waking up, eating a big breakfast, then looking to have a year’s worth of sex in the two weeks you’ve got before having to store up enough calories to get you through the following winter! Horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay live like that, not day-by-day or month-by-month but year-by-year.

Another thing we found was that horseshoe crabs do not adopt routine ways of meeting their needs but reinvent themselves almost constantly to see if, hit or miss, they can’t find a way to adapt to their surroundings wherever they are. No wonder they’ve been around for more than four-hundred million years. There are only a few shores around the bay suitable for digging nests in sand or small gravel. The bay is largely ringed by outcrops of bedrock, with a few stony beaches interspersed here and there. Of Digging a Nest those beaches, many are armored with cobbles and boulders left by the Laurentian Ice Sheet that retreated 12,000 years ago. Most shores provide only a few patches here and there of substrates suitable for digging nests and laying eggs. Horseshoe crabs seem to find breeding sites almost at random, females constantly testing the bottom in their travels, digging down when they hit the occasional soft spot. If it’s too rocky or rooty, they are thwarted and move on, always testing as they go, scratching, scratching, scratching.

Which is pretty much how they select a mate. A male horseshoe crab will try any stone, log, or available boot in searching for a mate. If female hormones are in the water, that Horseshoe Crabs and Boot doesn’t mean your average male knows what secreted them. Males apparently can tell how close they are to the source by the concentration of the scent, but any smooth rounded shape is worth a try until they find something they can clasp onto. Then they hold tight and won’t let go, unless perhaps flipped upside down by a wave, or trapped in a too-narrow passage between adjacent rocks—and even then they tend to cling to the death.

Taunton Bay crabs seem to find suitable places to hibernate almost at random, with no fidelity to that nice little B&B they found last year. They live out their lives within less than a mile of suitable breeding shores, but during winter settle in on the upper margin of any channel within that range. Usually among mussels or eelgrass. They can crush small shellfish and eat them, so they seem to hibernate in areas where mussels are plentiful. Mussels thrive near eelgrass beds on the upper slopes of channels where tidal currents provide phytoplankton through the seasons. Horseshoe crabs wander around in search of food until they stumble across a bed of mussels, which makes their decision for them. In trying to think like a horseshoe crab, I found myself thinking like a mussel as well, or the rare patch of sandy gravel—both of which the local horseshoe crab life cycle depends on.

The big challenge was locating horseshoe crabs I couldn’t see solely by the sonar signals their affixed transmitters emitted. The bottom is nowhere near level, it turns out—even where flats looks level at low tide. I’d consult my GPS unit and go back to where I found one the day before, put down the hydrophone, and hear nothing but white noise. Each signal was coded with an identifying frequency and sequence of sounds, so if we heard any signal at all we could tell which transmitter was the source. But silence told us nothing but that nobody was home. The challenge was always: which way did they go? As I grew more familiar with horseshoe crab ways, and the bottom terrain in their respective sub-embayments, I began to grasp more of how they might relate to a given site. And then imagine which way they would head from there. Following crude hunches upslope or down, along the edges of channels one way or another, I found I could recover signals far more readily than simply heading off on any random heading as I had done as a novice tracker. I didn’t really think like a horseshoe crab because I don’t have any idea what a horseshoe crab would think even if it could. But I developed a sense of where they would be heading at that time of year, and I let that sense steer my boat, often to a successful encounter.

When they’d rouse from their winter sleep in late April, horseshoe crabs would head for the nearest food supply in the vicinity. I got pretty good at predicting where that would be. Then they’d head upslope to breeding shores, and I got so I could follow along. In late May and June, I’d start out near known nesting shores. In July and August, they could be almost anywhere, but usually in shallower water. In September and October, they’d head downslope toward the network of channels, usually where eelgrass or mussels were concentrated. And in November they’d select their hibernation site, usually in the middle of a plentiful food supply. Several things could go wrong with that simple scheme. Transmitters could stop sending signals, or become detached and send false signals. Horseshoe crabs aren’t supposed to shed their shells after reaching sexual maturity at age 10—but maybe they do now and then. I got several signals that never moved from week to week, even in mid-summer. Slade managed to retrieve one transmitter from the mud and re-epoxy it to another crab. In any project things are going to go wrong, and you just have to roll with the punches.

Tracking horseshoe crabs changed my consciousness for life, much as living with a pet will expand your awareness to include other ways of looking at the world. It isn’t the owner who walks the favored pet so much as the pet who takes its “owner” on daily walks. I certainly was led on many a boat trip by horseshoe crabs, and I know the underwater terrain of Taunton Bay much better as a result. I hold mussels, clams, eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, and striped killifish in mind as living beings, not objects of casual curiosity. To know about a species in a general sense, you have to befriend it and meet its members up-close and personal in the most particular and detailed way possible. Knowledge obtained from books or the Internet cannot affect you as deeply as knowledge gained through firsthand experience.

Thinking like a horseshoe crab requires reading backwards from observable behaviors to recreating the “mind” responsible for those behaviors. A module of my brain is now dedicated to doing just that with horseshoe crabs at the northern limit of their range on Earth. Other modules are devoted to eelgrass, ring-billed gulls, bald eagles, even slime molds. As my friend Anette Axtmann once said, “We have much to learn from wood lilies.” To be as truly knowledgeable as we need to be in this time of estrangement from life on Earth, we have much to learn from the plants and animals who share our native habitat. Which requires us to take the initiative in giving our minds to them so that we pay attention to what matters on Earth and not solely what concerns us at the moment. The future depends on us expanding our consciousness to include other such beings in order to live with them on equal terms, not on our forcing them to adapt to our ways as if we were in charge.

To care for the Earth, we must first become mindful of its creatures and their ways, making room for them in our consciousness so that we can incorporate them into our thinking, and more importantly, our acting on the world stage. It is no accident that mussel draggers keep away from horseshoe crab habitats in Taunton Bay. The Taunton Bay Advisory Group incorporated horseshoe crabs in its thinking, and then into its recommendations for regulating local fisheries. When horseshoe crabs speak, we do our best to get their message—and act accordingly.

Horseshoe Crab-72