(Copyright © 2010)

If the future is all in our minds, that is equally true of distractions which keep us from looking ahead. To write a post I have to clear the decks of litter that will distract me from the topic I want to reflect on. Sounds from a radio or TV coming through the walls of my apartment, for instance, drive me nuts because my mind tries to make sense of what it’s hearing. The same for voices coming from the hallway, or shouts in the street. But most of all the enemy lies within the conflicting thoughts that flit like static electricity through my brain. With so many internal goings-on, I don’t know which channel to turn to, so end up letting them have their way with me, focusing on none, getting nothing done.

The art of countering distractions is to listen to them all, prioritize their urgency, then concentrate on each one in turn. That takes willpower, but somehow it works. The main thing is to acknowledge each item so it doesn’t keep nagging. If I give it a place in the queue, then it waits quietly until its turn comes and I can give it my full attention.

Easy to say, hard to do. For the past month I’ve been working on two PowerPoint presentations, one on what I’ve learned about eelgrass in the past twenty years, the other on granite quarries and quarrying around Taunton Bay. My goal is to have two shows ready for the summer series of talks I’m putting together for Taunton Bay Education Center. I’ve already got four speakers signed up, have yet to hear back from a fifth, and am working on the two talks I plan to give. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep up with my blog. That is, stay ahead of the Monday and Thursday schedule I’ve set for myself in order to get anything done at all. If I don’t plan ahead and work ahead, I find I am always off-balance playing catch-up, doing a poor job of everything because I can’t focus my mind on any one thing.

I’m also involved with the issue of rockweed harvesting in Maine, which I’ve handled by making it the topic of three or four posts to my blog. In a crunch, that strategy sometimes works—putting two things together so I can deal with them as one item. That helps me organize my thoughts so I can actually get something done. But if there isn’t a true connection between disparate items, then it becomes an exercise in frustration trying to force them together.

I have other things on my mind from the senior housing unit where I live, from Quaker Meeting, from the state of the world such as it is, from family, friends, and random acquaintances. All of which leave traces in my mind, requiring me to sort and prioritize them if I am to get anything done at all. They all have the same common denominator in taking up space in my conscious mind. The buck for organizing my concerns stops with me, Organizer-in-Chief of my own thoughts, Head Payer of Attention, Chair of my own Planning Committee, and Works Committee to boot.

I think I blog to stay sane. That is, blogging for me is largely a process for sorting my concerns so I can work on them one at a time. Nothing is more important than getting my act together, and blogging is a way for doing just that. Today is the day for taking up distractions. Yesterday it was the tree that fell in the park, before that Peter Roget’s amazing mental Thesaurus, rockweed harvesting, differences between religious and scientific thinking, and so on, back through the recent history of how I’ve been steering my consciousness and my life through the maze of things as they present themselves (actually, it’s my consciousness steering me). No one can do that job for me, or if they try, then I no longer feel like myself. I’m their employee, their servant, their pawn. Which I have come to see is the normal state for a great many people. Signing a job contract is truly selling a big part of your soul because you pledge to deal with your employer’s concerns, not your own. Or as I’ve mentioned, trying to fit the two concerns together so you can act on them both—getting paid for doing the work your supervisor assigns you. Leaving you hollow in one sense, but well-fed in another.

This post rises out of a list I made of things I’ve been putting off in order to concentrate on blogging on various themes as they occur to me in order to be my own man:

Call Emery about access to Franklin Historical Soc.

Call Debbie about granite used in BH PO

Get back to eelgrass PowerPoint

Plot eelgrass, wasting disease, and salinity on one chart

Read Fred’s two papers on wasting disease

Look up tidal dam story in 1965 Ellsworth American

Find source of 100 hanging name tags

Call Mark about granite sculpting talk

Settle on title for Robin’s talk

Meet with Andy and Jonathan about CSF

Write up summer talks for newsletter

It’s these kinds of things that natter at me from inside my head. Once lodged there, they keep making sure I’m paying attention. But not so much attention that I actually do them and check them off. Just enough to unsettle me as if there’s something I ought to be doing. A whole lot of things. By force of will, I suppress them—most of them—most of the time. But they keep coming back, tugging at my pants leg, reminding me they’re still here, still waiting.

The art of cutting granite is to follow the natural stress lines so it breaks neatly into two pieces. If you go against the grain of the rock, it will shatter. So that’s how I work on my to-do list, by paying attention to the tensions between items, figuring where to make the first cut, second, third. Or as today, to write this post first of all and disregard the entire list. So far, so good. But just thinking about the list gives it a toehold, and I can feel my attention draining away, leaving the distractions high and dry in full sunlight. Am I keeping my metaphors straight? See, I’m losing it; I can’t even tell.

Time to take a break.

This is where projects come up as a means of aligning multiple tasks toward a common end. Which is really what I need to be doing—group related tasks together, figure the sequence, and work on one at a time till it all falls in place. Eight items on the above list are related to the summer talk series, so I’ll make a project of that. Which leaves tidal dam story, name tags, and CSF (community supported fisheries). OK, that simplifies things. Thank you, consciousness, for being there when I need you. I think I’ll try a post on projects next, to see if that leads somewhere interesting.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the mega-distractions I think of as big-ticket items because we all pay for them every day of our lives. I’ll leave such issues as overconsumption; poverty; corporate personhood, free speech, and spending; campaign finance reform; gridlock in Washington and greedlock on Wall Street; global warming and the need for clean energy; the flaws inherent in capitalism; U.S. militarism; and bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan—all on my list of things to attend to—but such distractions will have to wait until I can make a project of them on another day.

Granite pavings cut one at a time.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

On the evening of July 9, 2009, I handed a CD containing a PowerPoint presentation to a colleague from Taunton Bay Education Center in Hancock, Maine. The simple act of passing a compact disc from one hand to another ended one phase of a project, and opened way for using the contents to further understand the vagaries of eelgrass growth in Taunton Bay. The CD had been more than a month in the planning stage, based on a framework laid down 18 years earlier when local eelgrass monitoring was begun. The nature and significance of the small plastic disc was not evident in its physical form; it existed solely in the mind of one conscious being, namely me, the one who had made the PowerPoint based on 128 digital photographs taken that morning on an overflight of Taunton Bay. Phase one of the eelgrass monitoring project for 2009 was concluded; now on to phase two and beyond.

Which sounds like pretty dry stuff until you realize how powerful human consciousness is in freeing evolution from reliance on what worked in the past to enabling ideas in the mind to come to fruition in the future through projects based not solely on past success but on anticipation of what future success might look like. Evolution is based on the profound truth that what worked once is likely to work again—that successful adaptation breeds more of the same. But in a rapidly changing world, that truth is merely a possibility, not a guarantee. Once a genome is in place, that’s it for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Consciousness, on the other hand, is more adaptive to changes within a lifetime, so can can alter its prospects by planning ahead. That way, it extends the reach of evolution by taking current and projected states of local variables into account—that is, by knowing what evolution cannot predict on the basis of past success.

Compared to lean and agile consciousness, evolution is slow-footed and cumbersome. It can’t anticipate events; it can only react after-the-fact. Consciousness possesses imagination where evolution has none. Evolution is stuck in the past; consciousness can think ahead and bring about a future that does not yet exist. For evolution, what works works; for consciousness, anything is possible.

A project is a throwing ahead of the mind (Latin pro- forth, ahead; iacere to throw). No feature of consciousness is more powerful than thinking ahead. Planning. Working towards a goal. Heading out. Designing. Implementing. The whole concept of work is based on directing energy toward making something happen. Where evolution cranks out more of the same old pattern, consciousness strives for improvement—something better. One is evolutionary, the other revolutionary.

Evolution came up with consciousness through physical adaptation, but consciousness transcends the physical and biological by enabling states of mind: dissatisfaction, doubt, questioning, imagination, planning, design, implementation, and follow-through. Unifying them behind a common purpose, the mind proposes projects. Leading on to execution by a series of stages to achieve the desired result. Shazam, the world is changed!

Camera in hand, I am in a small plane flying from Bar Harbor Airport toward Taunton Bay, on the lookout for eelgrass. We took off at 8:40 a.m. to be over the bay at low tide. The pilot’s name is Eric. We both have headsets and mikes so we can talk over the noise of engine and wind. I’ll tell him when to make a loop. Flight time costs $289 an hour; I want to keep this short. I know where eelgrass meadows have grown in the past, so we’ll fly loops around those flats, keeping me on the inside of the turn, lens pointing down. Starting at Tidal Falls, we head up Taunton River, loop around the basin between Route One bridge and the falls. I unlatch the window on my side and let the wind hold it open. I’m also looking for kelp beds, so get shots of those along the Sullivan shore. On to Cedar and Evergreen Points where the bay opens up. Cross Havey Point, then swing a big loop around Burying Island Ledge. Not much eelgrass here, though it used to be thick. Along the west shore of Egypt Bay—where it’s really coming back since the 2001 dieback. Loop around Egypt Bay, getting a good shot of horseshoe crab beach and the eelgrass both sides of Egypt Stream channel. Cross Butler Point to West Brook Cove, get three shots of spreading eelgrass. Loop Creasy Cove to get shots of the three groups of boulders called Seal Rocks. Then on up the shore to Round Island and Shipyard Point, making a loop at the entrance to Hog Bay. Along Saltmarsh, Hog Bay the north shore to get shots of the salt marsh (bright green from weeks of rain) and do a loop around Hog Bay to show eelgrass coming in where the channel is cutting a new course through the mud. Down mid-channel to Hatch Point and the land-based aquaculture operation, then loop the flats there, and on further to Evergreen Point with its mussel bar and eelgrass bed. Turn down Taunton River to the bridge, then head for the airport. Touching down, we’ve been in the air exactly half an hour—$125 worth of flight time.

I never imagined on my first flight in 1992 I’d still be doing the same thing in 2009. But eelgrass growth is different every year, depending on seasonal conditions of sun, rain, salinity, Eelgrass in Egypt Bay_2009 temperature, disease organisms, and so on. With eelgrass you never know. It died back in the 1930s, made a comeback in the 1950s, peaked in 1973, eased off in the 1980s, came back throughout the 1990s, almost disappeared in 2001, and is now making a gradual comeback. One large meadow at the base of Butler Point thrived in 1955, was half gone by 1985, and went missing in 1993. That’s a worst-case scenario. Eelgrass is habitat for fish nurseries, crabs, and all sorts of estuarine life. An underwater flowering plant, it is one of the primary producers—including rockweed, marsh grass, kelp, other algae, and phytoplankton—on which all life in Taunton Bay depends, including predators such as kingfishers, ducks and geese, ospreys, and eagles. Without eelgrass, Taunton Bay wouldn’t be Taunton Bay. So Friends of Taunton Bay (one of which I am) pays close attention to eelgrass. Which explains the eight overflights I have made through the years.

Watching over eelgrass has turned into a real project. This most recent flight, for instance was in the planning stages for six weeks. The weather in June and early July simply didn’t conform to my wishes. My garden is slug city from all of the rain. I’d consult my tide chart to see when the tide would be low (exposing the eelgrass) during early morning with slight wind, add two hours to compensate for the lag between Bar Harbor tides and Taunton Bay, and call Maine Coastal Flight Center to give them a heads-up. And call back later when the rain didn’t let up or the ceiling reach the minimum 1,000 feet required for takeoff. I tried the weeks of June 8, 22, July 6—and finally had got a go-ahead on July 9, a day with blue skies and no wind. I put a lot of thought into all those weeks of doing nothing. I checked my flight plan, and kept thinking of simpler ways of getting in the loops I wanted to make. In the end I let my loopy map sit in my lap and decided to rely on intuition in telling Eric where and when to make a loop. That way—and by making every shot count—I cut five minutes off last year’s flight time.

I left the airport by car about 9:15 and got back to my apartment at 9:35. I loaded the photos into my computer, and began PhotoShopping each frame about 10:00 a.m. I changed the resolution of each image from 72 to 160 pixels per inch, the size of the long dimension from 22 to 10 inches (to fit the PowerPoint screen), adjusting brightness and contrast as appropriate. At noon-thirty I heated lunch, then transferred the photos to my PowerPoint-blogging laptop and got to work on the presentation. I finished labeling each slide with its location in the bay at 5:00 p.m., having spent an entire day on this installment of the project. I made a CD, ate dinner, then went to a meeting of Friends of Taunton Bay where I handed over the CD. I stress the minor details because that’s what a project is made of. If you attend to every detail, all will be well. There are no substitutes for loving what you do and getting good at it.

A day in the life, made possible by personal consciousness. Just like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Emily Dickinson turning her life’s energy into poetry, Hillary Clinton devoting her life to public service, or Beethoven putting sonatas from his head into music notation, here I am giving my all for eelgrass. At least for several days out of the year. The payoff of my paying close attention to eelgrass has been the emerging sense of understanding why the beds in Taunton Bay suffered such a sharp decline in 2001. Making a PowerPoint of photos from my 2007 overflight, I saw image after image pointing to dilution of the bay by fresh water as the key to the dieback in 2001. Or lack thereof, 2001 being the year of least rainfall in Maine in 111 years of keeping records. The year with the greatest amount of runoff from snowmelt was 1973—when eelgrass peaked in the bay. Photos revealed eelgrass recovering first in small stream channels draining freshwater across the mud flats. Maine’s eelgrass expert, Hilary Neckles with the USGS, told me that the dieback disease organism thrives under conditions of maximum salinity, and is held in check by brackish (less saline) waters typical of most estuaries. With only 20-some inches of rain in 2001, salinity rose in Taunton Bay, giving an edge to the disease organism, which attacked the eelgrass, causing the dieback. Putting the evidence together, my consciousness reached a new level of understanding of events in one little bay in Maine. I’ve long maintained that, as goes the watershed, so goes Taunton Bay. Eelgrass, being dependent on its watershed to an extreme degree for the desirable dilution of full-strength salt water, was done-in by the drought. In wet years such as we’ve had recently, it’s making a comeback.

Which is a long way of saying that projects not only get us organized, but can lead to new ways of understanding the specific situations within which we live. By focusing the mind, projects enable us to surpass ourselves.

If we would apply that logic to the many crises of under-standing we face today, I think we wouldn’t keep repeating the same old mistakes that, evolution-like, keep us tied to outmoded ways instead of reaching ahead to keep up with changing times. Did Michelangelo settle for what he did yesterday? Did Emily Dickinson, Hillary Clinton, or Ludwig van Beethoven? Is writing one string quartet the same as writing 35 of them? Not on your life! Through channeling our energies into specific projects, we sharpen our skills and comprehension both. The ultimate project of saving the world by making humankind safe for the Earth deserves the maximum talents we can develop in ourselves. Anything less under current conditions is an absolute copout. Let’s hear it for eelgrass, for projects, for consciousness raising in hard times! Let’s get our heads together and do the necessary work. If evolution can’t guarantee success, then the heavy lifting is now up to us. All it will take is directing our attention into projects that will make us as good at solving problems as, unthinking, we are at creating them.

My Wings

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

While mounting my photovoltaic panel, I notice wasps hovering around the end of a bough on a nearby spruce, apparently attracted by gleaming drops exuded from its tip. In the grass eight feet below, a smooth green snake eyes the wasps, taking in the scene. I go about my business, but look up ten minutes later to see the snake sliding along that same branch. Stealthily, inch-by-inch, toward the tip and the hovering wasps. Slowly, almost not moving, it extends its body beyond the end into the air, drooping slightly as if part of the bough, as if its nose—its mouth—were the tip. There it waits. And waits. But the wasps have gone elsewhere. I run and get my camera to document what I have seen with my own eyes.

 

Smooth Green Snake 

 

Can I ascribe consciousness, planning, even intelligence to a snake on the basis of such an anecdote? Watching from below, seeing the wasps, climbing the trunk, venturing onto a limb, sliding its length to the end, hanging beyond the tip—this is not random activity. It is clearly deliberate. Each move made in proper sequence. At some point the snake must have put it all together as a plan of action. It had motivation and a clear goal: the wasps were there and it wanted to eat them. It had the smarts to figure out the route to take and what it had to do in order to bring that about. I am sorely tempted to say this is conscious behavior. The only flaw was that the wasps were too wary for the snake.

 

Snake consciousness? Wasp consciousness? Or can such behaviors be fully accounted for by hard-wired, unconscious reflexes? In the case of the wasp, perhaps, but the snake fully grasped the situation before it acted. It had the imagination to draft a plan extending the now into the future, and the follow-through to execute it. Which took time. Memory must have been involved. Situational memory encompassing goal, motive, participants, route, complex course of action, all unified by seeing the world from its point of view.

 

I have seen similar performances in raspberry bushes where insects were drawn by ripe fruit, the snake waiting in the shadows of leaves farther back. Is that necessarily conscious behavior? Does the predator have a sense of what it must do to capture its prey? Or does it simply rely on the equipment it is given to do its thing? Is the frog aware of turning its head toward the fly, of lashing out with its tongue? Frogs and snakes survive only in the presence of suitable prey. The habitat may be the message, all else following as a matter of course.

 

That may be true in the case of the frog, but the case of the wasp-seeking snake is more complicated. If the wasps wouldn’t come to the snake, the snake figured out it would have to go to the wasps. Was the process of “figuring out” similar to what we would call consciousness? It was certainly situational from the snake’s point of view, which took into account its size, capabilities, motives, habitat, and goal. Consciously or not, all that figured in the snake’s behavior, which appears to have been visualized and planned beforehand while it watched from its vantage point in the grass. And then retained as it executed its moves in proper sequence.

 

The first move was to turn away from the wasps toward the base of the tree. Then to climb up the stem of the tree. Only when it turned onto the particular branch leading to where the wasps were when seen from the ground did it face toward its prey. Reflexes are instantaneous; they cannot account for these complex, time-consuming maneuvers. The snake apparently operated within a three-dimensional model in its head, and monitored its position within that space, which became ever more charged with meaning as it neared the end of the bough.

 

Many people accept that (like apes, monkeys, and humans) birds, deer, dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, bears, and other animals have a mental sense of the territory which provides for and sustains them. But snakes? I am here to extend such a sense to them. I see the workings of the vertebrate hippocampus in their case as well. I see no compelling reason to believe that the wasp-seeking snake I witnessed was not conscious of its surroundings or its own actions. Until proven wrong, I will count snakes among the ranks of conscious beings, entitled to all the privileges such membership implies.

 

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