(Copyright © 2009)

Extreme sports are the norm among those who feel they have to prove themselves. These days, walking is about as boring as weak tea or rice pudding. But in his time, Henry David Thoreau made walking the equivalent of an extreme sport. In “Walking” in his posthumously published book of essays, Excursions (Houghton Mifflin, 1893, originally published 1863), he says this: 

We should go forth on the shortest walk . . . in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk. (Page 252f.)

Bungee jumping or hang gliding off a cliff, maybe—but walking? What these activities share if Thoreau could have compared them is freedom. People in every age have made sacrifices and taken risks to be free in living their lives. We all know the feeling of getting away from our troubles, duties, and responsibilities for a time. Freefalling through the air can take you there, and walking through the right terrain can as well. Not walking to reach a set destination, but walking with a free spirit, which is what Thoreau had in mind:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. (Page 254.)

That kind of walking frees consciousness to follow its own course without distraction. To engage the landscape out of interest and excitement, not necessity. Being free opens the way to adventure and discovery, which is what Thoreau sought on his jaunts:

Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farm-house which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey [in western Africa]. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (Page 259.)

Here walking is used to expand consciousness by exploring the limits of personal experience in such a way to achieve resonance with all that the landscape has to offer over the course of a lifetime. That, now, is walking. Walking as an extension of the mind, as a mutual engagement between consciousness and its place on Earth in its time. Can anything be more exciting, demanding, or rewarding than that?

One Saturday in June, to make a point of walking, not driving, I joined two friends in walking a little over a mile and a half along Norway Drive to reach the site of a day-long retreat—and then back again that evening:

We pass by Hamilton Pond where we meet three snapping turtles digging nests in roadside sand. Lupine, buttercups, iris, and daylilies bloom all along the way; cow lilies are just coming on. A female black duck crosses the road heading for the pond, followed by a single duckling; they sail off through reflections of pine, spruce, and birch across the cove. In roadside marshes, bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds pour out liquid duets. Three turkey vultures sweep circles through blue sky. On the return walk, we gape at a bald eagle atop a tall spruce. A pair of flycatchers alight on a pondside bush. Slanting sunrays on green foliage, flowers, light winds, clear air, birdsong, good friends—all add to far more than an experiment in cutting our carbon footprints: it is a celebration of ambulatory life itself. What are we doing driving along listening to CDs or the radio when we could be coursing along the footpaths of the Earth!

We commonly believe we have to be fully employed to survive. Every act must contribute to the economy—our modern-day god. But Thoreau’s point in Walden is that the human economy is an aberration of nature which turns life into drudgery—as if drudgery were a virtue. No wonder he steers clear of the cultural wonders of his day in taking his walks.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (Page 260.)

Freedom for Thoreau, then, is freedom from distraction by what many take to be the essence of civil affairs. Imagine being free from the news of the day, from All Things Considered, say—from stock prices, political posturing, the fraught lives of celebrities, from glamour and glitz and hype and spin and the rest of the distractions we waste our lives attending to in great detail so we can achieve the required degree of emptiness in time to die. If I really want to scare myself, I think of the horde honking and waving to get my attention so I can devote precious energy and awareness to their concerns and not mine. I’m with Thoreau in his take on walking: 

In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man. (Page 261.)

Exactly, we pride ourselves on blowing smoke rings as if we didn’t have worthier things to do with our lives. The most recent presidential primaries and campaign went on for two years! Two years in the lives of 300 million people represent a heap of Earth’s energy spent trying to affect the outcome of a single day of voting in one nation. We could have gone on a lot of walks in that time and ended up our own persons knowing exactly where we were and what we stood for, not mere constituents of one party or another—elephants or jackasses.

What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. (Page 265.)

That’s what I’m searching to discover in this blog, that “subtle magnetism in Nature” that provides proper guidance if only we would attend to it inwardly, not outwardly. That sense of direction wise men and women have steered by since beginning times. Every now and then I sense it strongly, that pull to pay attention to what is truly important. And do my best to follow that pull wherever it leads because it is the most important clue consciousness can provide about the meaning and purpose of life. Everything about us is “of” nature, after all. We are natural beings from a long line of natural beings. It is fitting for us to walk in nature to ensure our current state of nature can engage its proper companions.

We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does no yet exist distinctly in our idea. (Page 265.)

From my perspective, consciousness is not devoted solely to the ideal but is far larger in being experiential to the max. That is, besides cognition, it embraces every aspect of emotional, imaginative, and sensory life. I’d say here Thoreau’s transcendentalism may be getting in the way by crediting guidance to intuitive perception of “higher laws” as if they existed apart from personal consciousness. For myself, I believe the human mind is the great organizer and, given sufficient experience to chew on, is fully capable of finding its own way without the tug of external magnetism, so-called. When our minds are clouded, the problem often comes down to being distracted by other minds with other agendas made evident and insistent through the culture we live in. How are the greedy to profit if we follow our own star as our own man and woman? I love to travel through the fullness of my experience, as Thoreau did of his. He was a native explorer of two worlds at once, both inner and outer in balanced relationship. 

It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. (Page 266f.)

Into the wilderness of his personal consciousness, that is, in preference to the civilized world of the city other men had built for themselves. Walking, for Thoreau, frees him from “all worldly engagements.” It offers the journey of self-exploration leading to self-discovery and the hard-won freedom of being himself. In the city, this is sometimes painted as escapism into the interior. But look what came in Thoreau’s case from such a personal journey: works such as Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, Excursions, as well as The Journal. Only one person could have written them. We are fortunate he insisted on being free to walk his own path.

We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure (Page 267.)

If we do not pursue that adventure, whose life are we living? Not our own, surely. No, we live the life of the “good citizen.” The end of selfless living is working for someone else, which is a better bargain for one than the other. Are we here to support Microsoft, Coca Cola, General Motors, and various governing bodies, or to be ourselves to the hilt? If we drive, we will go where our vehicles take us on roads paved by the state; if we walk, we will end up making our way cross-lots and arriving as free men and women.

Make our own way—that’s exactly what consciousness has evolved to enable us to do. Note carefully: each of us has the equipment. There is no excuse for not using it. We are born navigators and walkers. If in wheelchairs, we are free to engage others in helping us travel. My conclusion regarding running low on oil is it is better we not search for substitutes but learn to go on our own at last. That is, to discover our own journeys and not follow the official map too closely. Consciousness and intuition will guide us, feet and legs go the distance. Cities will become human again, carbon footprints shrink. And the rewards will not go to others but will accrue to us precisely to the extent we move ourselves forward.

Martin Luther King Jr.-72

 

(Copyright © 2008) 

Regarding consciousness, I keep making the same discovery: Invariably—even in dreams—it is situational in nature. My particular consciousness—which is all I can blog about—is centered on my awareness of what’s happening in a particular situation.

 

Right now I am sitting at my computer starting a blog to be posted on December 10 on the topic of situation consciousness. I have eaten breakfast, washed dishes, brushed my teeth, made a list of terms people use to talk about situations. And am now addressing the issue of what my mind wants me to say.

 

I will go so far as to say my current situation defines who I am. I am he who creates a blog by putting himself in one situation after another. I cannot imagine myself apart from my sense of what’s going on at the time, which gives me the particular point of view I hold on that occasion. Otherwise, I am a formless Will-o’-the-wisp—some kind of phantom waiting to be roused from my stupor and given shape and consciousness of one kind or another.

 

If I want to be fully conscious, I need to find a situation I can throw myself into. My life depends on it. I need a challenge to feel creative and alive. My consciousness is built around a tide of challenges as it ebbs and flows in my mind. Read a mystery; you always want to find out whodunit, so you plunge from one chapter to the next. Read a comic strip; you always want to know what happens in the next frame. Go to a game—any game—and you are who you are by participating in the event as it unfolds. Every game is played one play (pitch, turn, down, throw of the dice, deal) at a time, each shaping your mind. Consciousness pulls itself up by its own bootstraps. We are who we are because of the circumstances we seek and engage.

 

I am on a small island, building a cabin with hand tools. Six years ago, one of my students spent the summer helping me dig the foundation. Now I have time and means to build the actual structure. I cut every plank by hand. Drive every nail, frame and sheathe every wall, hoist every rafter, line up every shingle. My muscles adjust to the work. My fingers take on a permanent curl to fit the shape of my tools. I become a builder, with the consciousness of a builder. Rain or shine, every morning I take up where I left off the night before, doing what needs to be done. I enlist volunteers to help with the heavy lifting, painting, staining of shingles. I am driven to finish the job in three months. At least make it tight for the winter. Get the roof on, doors and windows in, shutters in place. I practice what I call on-site design, letting the place speak to me, tell me how to proceed when my imagination is out of its depth. I have never felt more productive and alive. This is what I am meant to be doing. For three months, this is who I am.

 

Consciousness begs to be active and useful. To fit us to the task at hand. If no task presents itself, then to seek out a situation in which a task will emerge. Need shelter?—build (rent, buy) a place. Hungry?—procure food and fix dinner. Lonely?—seek companions. Want a family?—find a partner, have a baby. Worn out?—engage in restful pursuits. Stuck in your job?—go to school. Need something to do?—build a ship in a bottle. If you give yourself to the situation, consciousness will show you the way.

 

All our organizational talk about strategies, tactics, jobs, projects, objectives, goals, intentions, and plans is really about framing our life worlds in personal consciousness. We are meant to involve ourselves in life situations that will meet our needs and desires. If an appropriate situation doesn’t exist, we have to invent it. Look at the Obama campaign, first the primary contest, then the run for president. The Obama team made it happen. They created the situation in which it could happen. They worked out the dynamics beforehand, then did the leg work. Day by day, they pulled America together behind their man. All consciously through the power of the focused mind.

 

Nobody said it would be easy. Each situations comprises a cast of participants together with their drives, attitudes, talents, levels of understanding, expectancies, personal goals, feelings, motivations, judgments, prior experiences, skillful behaviors tailored to specific occasions, and other aspects of consciousness—all backed by financial resources and coordinated to bring about the desired end result. Thousands of people worked together for two years. The political situation defined the consciousness of the campaign workers, and they put their life’s energy into their work. They did what they set out to do—which was nothing less than change the world one day at a time. Their coordinated consciousness made it happen.

 

Now Obama faces a new situation. A series of new situations. Which will define who he will be from now on. He has to coordinate an executive team that (with legislative and judicial branches) can govern the nation for up to eight years, all the while engaging the novel situations each moment will bring. Which is all any of us can hope to do—apply our unique gifts of consciousness to the challenges we face.

 

In being situational, consciousness defines who we are. If we opt to tune out because the work is so hard, we effectively put ourselves in a stupor and become nonentities. Our culture offers all manner of aids to help us escape (because there is money to be made): drugs, alcohol, entertainments and diversions, induced states of oblivion. Taken in excess, these can make us dull, witless, and mentally un-conscious.

 

To be fully human requires all the wits we can muster. We need to be wholly conscious. Which requires us to be as alive as we can be to ourselves, to others, and to the life situations that call us into being. Nothing can be more productive and satisfying than living on that plane of existence.

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(Copyright © 2008)

Hallelujah, the Bush Era is winding down. The aftermath will linger like the smell of something rotting beneath the porch, but a fresh breeze is coming up. Imagine, taking a terrible situation like 9/11—and kindling it into a firestorm a thousand times worse! The Bush Era inflicted the warped consciousness of very few men onto the nation and its world by going to war in Iraq, wreaking havoc in every quarter. Headlines in the U.S. played up American deaths, but behind those headlines hundreds of thousands of anonymous others were assaulted, injured, and killed. A lot was said about putting our troops in harm’s way, but it was forbidden to point out that the preemptive initiative had been ours—we ourselves were the harm. The doctrine of preemption requires luminous intelligence. We flailed in the dark. Our executive consciousness met no standard at all. It was based on false assumptions, wishful thinking, denial, prejudice, and a sense of urgency that something had to be done. Something was done, and start to finish it was the wrong thing. Our troops ended up defending their civilian leaders’ arrogance, ignorance, and poor judgment.

 

Which is not what I’d planned to write about in this blog. It just bubbled up when I thought about eras coming to an end. I had to plow through the middle to get to the other side. Such is consciousness. One thought leads to another.

 

My intent is to write about the end of black-and-white photography, the end of film photography, the end of photo processing. All brought to mind by Ellsworth Photo closing its doors after eighteen years of service in Hancock County processing countless miles of color negatives for local customers. Of which I was one. Eric, Mary, and their co-workers processed several hundred rolls of film for me when I was illustrating three books about Mount Desert Island where I live on the Maine coast.

 

It was the current recession, on top of the advent of digital photography, that did them in. People like me fled film photography in droves. After starting out as a black-and-white photographer in the 1940s, I switched to color film and slides in the 1980s, and went digital in 2004. I do everything in Photoshop now, and so does everyone else. Collectively, we former customers are the reason Ellsworth Photo is closing today.

 

Mary calls to ask if I want the aerial photo negatives I left with them years ago. They are shutting down, she says. Yes, I’ll come by to pick them up. After a doctor’s appointment following cataract surgery, I drive to Ellsworth Photo on High Street. My three albums and negatives are on the counter. Right next to an Epson printer for sale. “Combination Printer and Scanner, unused, but has no ink cartridges. $11.11.” What’s this about? Eric says they ordered two identical printers, but used only one. I’ll take it, I say. Most things are half-off. Some are free. People come, sort through boxes, pay, leave. I pick up three free binders. A couple of single-lens reflex cameras lie in a box. What are they good for? I ask. Paper weights, says Eric. I already have several of those. What about your machines? Useless, now, he says. He plans to keep working in digital media, but in a different location. Hopefully on the main drag. I walk out with two packs of archival slide preservers, and the printer-scanner. Watching the end of this particular era—my era—I feel depressed. George Eastman invented celluloid negatives in 1885, opening the way for roll film, movies, and 35mm photography. Why wouldn’t I be depressed? This is a big part of my life.

 

People who don’t upgrade to the latest version of consciousness are stuck in the past. Trouble is, we get so invested in our personal perspectives, we have a hard time moving on to the next thing. What’s wrong with these glasses frames? These shoes really fit my feet. I like stick shifts. I prefer to see how things work; electronics aren’t my medium. I’ve never played a computer game in my life.

 

Eras are eras of consciousness when the world is seen a certain way, and things get done a certain way. We come to expect more of the same. We lurch from one era to the next, always having trouble making the adjustment to a new way of seizing the world. Always feeling things are slipping away. Always feeling sad and a little lost. You know you’re over the hill when you find yourself preferring the familiar to the excitement of the new. Which is how I felt on the eighteen-mile drive to Bar Harbor from Ellsworth.

 

I suppose somewhere there may be people sorry to see the Bush era implode of its own gross tonnage. Not me. My consciousness is not that stuck. Good riddance, I say. Bring on the Era of Obama.

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