418. Rowing

January 29, 2015

I am a walker and hiker in nature. And also a rower. By necessity, if I want to get to Burying Island in Taunton Bay. The island my extended family used to own in undivided shares. The island I now manage for Burying Island LLC, and for the members who now own shares in that company.

I lived on the island from June 14, 1986, to December 23, 1988, so did a lot of rowing back and forth in all seasons for two-and-a-half years. In this post I will tell of four memorable trips I made in my thirteen-foot fiberglass peapod made by Eric Dow in Brooklin, Maine. It’s called a peapod because, like a canoe, it narrows to a point at both ends. Eric made a mold from one of his hand-built wooden boats, and reluctantly (he’s a wooden-boat man) turns out fiberglass copies.

 

Steve in his peapod.

That’s me in my peapod on an unusually calm Taunton Bay.

On a windless, sunny day in early May, 1987, I rowed ashore for some provisions, and on the trip back saw a jellyfish in the water right next to my boat. A big jellyfish. Half as long as my boat. Like an amethyst city in a bubble, with tendrils dangling into the depths. I’d never seen or imagined such a thing. But there it was. An apparition. A lion’s mane jellyfish brought from the Arctic by the Labrador Current that feeds into the Gulf of Maine and the upper reaches of Frenchman Bay into Taunton Bay.

It was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, and I didn’t have my camera. I quickly eyed my position relative to ledges and rocks, rowed to the island, ran to my cabin, got my camera, ran back, rowed out to the channel—and couldn’t find it again. The tide was coming in, so I rowed farther into the bay. But it was gone. Lost, except to my memory, which provides a vivid image as I write these words some twenty-seven years later.

That’s what I mean by an engagement, coordinating my senses and muscles so my whole body is focused on the same event that fills my consciousness. Not like crossing the street while talking on a cellphone or looking down at your email on a small screen.

 

View from Burying Island

My peapod on Burying Island with Taunton Bay waiting beyond.

Then there was the still September evening I rowed back to the island with a bright green aurora wafting to the north, arching over Burying Island, and reflecting in the calm bay, making a shimmering green eye with the black island at its center. And luminous phytoplankton in the bay itself, so my oars stirred up glowing ripples on the surface, and pale green drops dripped into the water when I readied for the next stroke.

I’ve seen Taunton Bay under all sorts of conditions, but that was the most stunning row I ever made. The sky was alive, the surface of the water was alive, and the water itself was literally alive with phytoplankton. I took it all in, turning my head to watch where I was heading while continuing to row, my perceptions and motions proving that I, too, had never felt more alive. Once on the island, I stepped off onto the line of wrack at the edge of the tide, and it, too, glowed when I trod on it, leaving a track of luminous footprints from the plankton washed up from the bay.

 

Frozen Taunton Bay.

In February, Taunton Bay is much different than in July and August.

In November, after a particularly delicious Thanksgiving dinner with Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point in Franklin, I rowed out into a northeast blizzard, in total darkness at ten o’clock at night, with no stars or shoreline lights to steer by, and navigated by the bite of ice pellets driven by the wind against my right cheek, pulling on my oars with all the strength I took from eating that meal. I sensed where I was going, and got into the rhythm of a galley slave to head a straight course through heavy seas by keeping the sting of hurtling ice fixed on my cheek.

When the wind abruptly died, I knew exactly where I was by the map in my head—in the lee of the cliff on the north end of the island I was aiming for, the rest of my course hugging the windless shore of the island, which I couldn’t see, but could sense as a presence off to port, so I could avoid every rock and jutting point in reaching the gravel beach where I could haul up my boat, and then wend my way through snowy woods to my cabin.

Despite my hosts’ pleas not to row into the storm, my expectancy after rowing through all kinds of weather, steering by hidden signs that I didn’t know I could read—those signs told me I could make it. And by believing I was a match for the risk, I made it safely, where no caring or careful person might think it possible.

We learn about nature by engaging with it up-close and personally under all manner of conditions. If we give our all to it, nature will return its all to us. If we insist on only taking from nature, as we frequently do, we’ll end up with nothing.

 

Deer on an iced Taunton Bay.

Deer have learned to walk single-file at a distance across thin ice.

The last row across the bay I will mention took place in mid-March when I left a board meeting of Frenchman Bay Conservancy about ten at night and headed for my island home. March is a month of transitions when the ice goes out of the bay and deer can no longer stroll single-file back and forth between island and mainland.

I’d equipped my boat with a flashlight lashed to the bow so I could see ice floes as I approached them. On this trip, halfway across I came to a barrier of ice running with an outgoing tide. I had no idea how large a chunk of Egypt Bay ice was going out, but I certainly wasn’t going to pass in front of it, so turned northwest along the barrier to get behind it. Finding no break in the ice, I rowed. And I rowed. And I rowed. The entire bay seemed to be emptying in that one chunk of ice. Way off course, I steered around the back end of the outgoing ice, and headed toward the unseen island beyond it, almost crashing into Burying Island Ledge before I saw it ahead, so rowed around it, too, and knew right where the island lay not far ahead in the dark water.

What got me about that sheet of ice was how silent it was. No creaking, groaning, splashing to announce its presence. It was just there, blocking my route where, in my recent experience, no ice had been lately. Of course the entire bay had been frozen-over all winter, but Taunton River had been carefully reaching into the bay day-by-day, and for over a week my passage had been ice free. But this particular crossing coincided with the half-hour when the bulk of the upper bay cut loose and happened to lie between me in my boat and the island I was headed for. Learning from experience, I was prepared for just that possibility, so had put fresh batteries in my flashlight, and snugged its lashing to the boat.

Caring and careful engagement opens the way to learning through experience. Which is how people are meant to pull themselves ahead by their own bootstraps. By turning their worries and mistakes to good use. Which we are fully equipped to do, even in wholly unfamiliar situations.

That potential for self-teaching is the heritage that evolution has equipped us with. If we know what’s good for us, we trust that heritage every chance we get. Which is how I rowed myself safely across the bay under trying conditions, and had time to enjoy whatever scenes I met along my route.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

By “bird consciousness” I mean my inner experience of birds rather than whatever it is birds might be conscious of in their own minds. My consciousness of birds is challenging enough without venturing onto the slippery slope of what kind of world birds make for themselves.

To set the stage: yesterday I rowed to the island where workers were replacing the roof of the stone cabin my father built in 1941. The old roof had leaked on and off for almost 70 years, so my brother in Hamilton decided to fix the problem with a new one made of modern materials laid down by professionals. He was paying the bill; I wanted to get a few pictures of work in progress to show him what the job looked like.

On the island, I revert to my island self, camera ready, ever on the watch for the state of the tide, wind direction, shore erosion, wildlife, fallen trees, approaching storms, and other concerns. I talk with the roofers, take a few pictures, walk the trails. Everywhere I see and hear birds. Song and white-throated sparrows, loons, winter wrens, hermit thrushes, cormorants, ring-billed gulls, crows, red-breasted nuthatch, even an adult eagle in the nest. I am at home among old friends and close neighbors.

But blogging about consciousness as I do, I find the island less simple than it used to be. What is it about that flitting shape that says red-breasted nuthatch? What about those calls announces hermit thrush or loon? These are labels for interpretations of shapes, motion, coloring, size, sounds, settings, and expectations all pointing to one bird and not another. Conceptual birds at that. Birds in my head. Is that where they are? Are they stimuli which I recognize?  Representations of stimuli? Percepts by themselves? Percepts joined to concepts so I am able to identify the class they belong to? I came over to talk to the workers and here I am roaming the trails, talking to myself.

Such is my life these days. As both investigator and subject of my own introspection, I find little firm ground to anchor my boat to. I am ruled by mixed metaphors. Like the Indian clubs I wrote about the other day (see Reflection 131: Feedback), everything is up in the air. I am back with Aristotle trying to figure the relation between thinker, thought, and the thing thought about. How do words jibe with nonverbal experience? When I see a bird, what am I really seeing? Bird on branch? Representation in my head of bird on branch? Sensory or phenomenal bird on branch? Sensory and conceptual bird on branch at the same time? Fulfilled expectation of bird on branch? If not a mess, my bird consciousness seems at least more complicated than in the old days when a bird was a bird was a bird, always and forever.

It’s like trying to make sense of lichens that have the nature of both algae and fungi. I saw a lot of them yesterday on the island. Or slime molds—I saw bright yellow swarms of  them, too. Slime molds boast two different natures—fungal and animal. They crawl about the forest floor like so many amoebas—or massed mushrooms! It depends on how you look at them. Slime on the move, it can flow through tightly woven silk, then set spores and make more of the same stuff. Animal, vegetable, mineral? Hard to say. With free-floating nuclei not separated by cell membranes, they have herd and individual mentalities at the same time. After blogging about conscious-ness for nine months now, that’s how I feel about my own mind: hard to say what it is, where it is.

We talk about birds all the time as if they were up in the air, out on the water, or right here on the land. Yet every bird we see is clearly in our minds at the same time. Not all in one place but spread throughout in a great many separate representations—over 40 for visual aspects alone. To us, those collective representations are what the bird is. We don’t have immediate access to the bird itself that somehow bypasses our sensory apparatus, and there’s no little homunculus in a screening room watching the show. No, the bird can’t be in our eye as an upside-down optical image—that’s only the beginning. It’s there all right, but pixelated by individual photoreceptors which convert it to brain language in terms of ionic flows and neurotransmitters. From there on, for us, it’s existence is strictly electro-chemical.

Yet somehow birds are emergent properties that flit about consciousness as if in the aviary at the Washington Zoo. How do they get there by such a long route as if beamed down in an ion transporter at this very instant? Will I ever understand? Is it possible to understand? Does it make any sense to try to understand? What would happen if I just accepted the fact that consciousness happens, and let it go at that.

Then what would I blog about? My children, my day, what I had for lunch, or ideas other people wrote about without consulting me? No, at this stage of my life, I am called to blog about consciousness. That is, to enable consciousness to blog about itself. And consciousness, being an aspect of the universe, to give the universe a chance to blog about itself. That seems to be what I am doing. I didn’t ask for this, it’s just the position the universe has put me in, so I’m bent on meeting the assignment the best I can.

Start again. My topic today, class, is bird consciousness. Consciousness of birds, not by birds. One thing I know, it’s all in my head. Another thing is, my brain makes it happen, helped along by the rest of my body, and the situation I’m in as I construe it, along with my experience of that particular bird. So the bird image, meaningful as it is, is not alone. It exists in a situation that favors observation of birds—like me walking along a wooded trail where birds are apt to appear. I’m familiar with birds. I’ve been watching them for years, training myself to identify them from minimal clues. Lilt of a wing, coloration where I expect it to be, familiar call—these are in my head because I’ve taken pains to put them there. The bird is the end result of my learning to see birds as I have trained myself for many years.

So consciousness isn’t given out fully formed and operational but is learned bit-by-bit over a lifetime. Largely by trial and error. I’ve made a lot of blunders and misidentifications. But with the restricted set of birds I am apt to see on the island, I’m not all that bad. Even with sandpipers, which are notoriously hard to tell one from another. Some sandpipers. Some of the time when conditions are favorable.

So there’s more to consciousness than simply opening your eyes or your ears. Consciousness is learned by doing. It hoists itself by its own bootstraps, getting better at it every day. In my case, it doesn’t just happen to me; I make it happen. Not just because it’s there, but because it’s important. To me. At the time. I set the standard of achievement. That’s what it means to be me. Consciousness is self-determining because any particular person is self-motivated and invested in the results. Like riding a bicycle or rowing a boat, consciousness is a skill. We have to learn to avoid the pitfalls if we want to get it right.

Let me talk about rowing. It’s ready to mind because I rowed to the island and back yesterday. It’s always an exercise in navigation, getting from A to B across a mile of waves and currents, my back to my path through the water, which is every bit as hard as it might seem. Like consciousness, rowing is a learned skill. Yesterday, for instance, I could see where I wanted to land a mile away from where I launched, but there were three tidal crosscurrents I couldn’t see but knew from experience were there to be dealt with. The challenge was figuring which direction to head out, taking those currents into account, in order to end up where I wanted to be on the far side of my crossing. The currents I would be rowing across moved at three different speeds, so I had to average their speed and width in choosing my initial heading, otherwise they would sweep me well past my landing of choice. Normally, I would factor-in wind strength and direction as well, but the wind was light so I could focus on the currents, which at the time of my crossing were at greatest strength. To make a long story short, I adjusted my heading every few minutes in light of what portion of my trip lay ahead—ending up right where I wanted to be with minimal expenditure of effort.

A lesson that applies to consciousness as well. You have to prefigure it if you want to get it right, taking feedback into account the whole way. We get good at those skills we practice the most. Taking consciousness as a given, we find it full of surprises we aren’t good at anticipating. We often get it wrong without realizing it. As in baseball, if we don’t see the drop or curve coming, we swing and we miss. Seeing consciousness as an acquired skill, we do our best to navigate the crosscurrents sure to throw us off course.

In a very real sense, consciousness is what we make of it. Like the jinni in the bottle, it will grant the wishes we lay on it. In speaking of pitfalls and crosscurrents of consciousness, I am speaking metaphorically, which is the only way I have of giving my inner workings some kind of shape I can deal with. Even neuroanatomists have the same problem in naming parts of the brain: the amygdala looks like an almond (which is what the word means in Latin), and the hippocampus like a seahorse (ditto). We paint the brain as a “computer” with the job of “processing information” for similar reasons. Are there really “representations” of stimuli in the mind as Aristotle claimed (so-called “likenesses of things”), or did he put them there for us? Would we ID “reality” if we saw it, or is that just a name we use to mask our ignorance? I suspect consciousness works the other way round, reality fulfilling the vision we entertain beforehand in experience and then cast on the world. That is, reality is what we make of it through consciousness.

If that is true, then much of the sense brain science makes of the brain is literally that—a manmade balm to suit the preconceptions brought to the study of the brain and its mind. Inadvertently but dependably, is it possible the conceptual tools we use are salting the mine even as we dig? Is there any way to dig without hitting upon the preconceptions with which we advance? That seems to be how consciousness works, tailoring our findings to our circumstances, the situations we find ourselves in as we construe or imagine them—and then make them come true. That is certainly how fiction works. Are works of nonfiction any different as far as consciousness is concerned?

To bring these heartfelt conjectures to a conclusion of sorts, let me tell you what just happened. For months now I’ve been piling papers and magazines I want to save on the little table at the end of my bookcase, balancing each addition very carefully so not to disturb things. Next to the pile is a packed bin of stuffed file folders on one side, a stack of mounted photos and posters too big to fail because too big to file. As I was writing the last sentence of the paragraph before this one, the whole construction let go and is now heaped on the floor. Like what I’ve been saying about consciousness, it was all my own doing.

Ring-Billed Gull-72