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.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Gerald M. Edelman gives us fresh ways of looking at, talking about, understanding, and appreciating both consciousness and its brain. The importance of these contributions cannot be overestimated. Nor can the difficulty of gaining access to them through his writings. It helps if you have advanced degrees in molecular, cellular, and neural biology. It’s not that he doesn’t write well, it’s more that his radical concepts are couched in so unfamiliar a vocabulary as to require a great many encounters in different contexts before their meanings begin to accrete in solid understanding. He includes glossaries in several of his books, but the entries are so bare-boned that they often raise more questions than they answer.

I tried the total-immersion approach, reading seven books in succession (in order of copyright date, 1978 to 2004), hoping that enlightenment would eventually descend from the skies. Which, in the last three works, by dribs and drabs, it began to. It showed up first in unconscious intuitions I became aware of after waking from a sound sleep. I am not sure how they got into me, but there they’d be at three in the morning as I roused from a bout of REM dreaming. I’d understand things I hadn’t grasped before going to bed. Understand is not the right word. More I’d have a feel for an aspect of consciousness I’d never fully appreciated before. By the end of the eighth book, I could entertain elaborate thoughts and images pertaining to consciousness—again, early in the morning—that previously would have been beyond me, or over my head. I credit Edelman as the source of these new ways of apprehending my own mind, and myself for having the will to stay with his challenging program of thinking out loud in a series of books until he got it right in the seventh one.

I am now in the awkward position of learning from my self-imposed program of study, while not being able to recommend a similar course to anyone else because so much depends on the will, stamina, and hunger of the student. It takes a committed autodidact (self-directed learner) to follow Edelman as closely as he deserves. He is clearly an autodidact himself, and to paraphrase the familiar saying, it takes one to fully appreciate another. As perpetual learners, autodidacts typically lose interest in a program of study once they have absorbed or automatized it. They love grappling with novel aspects of consciousness, not mastery of the old and familiar. Self-respecting autodidacts never rest on their laurels. They are driven to reinvent themselves time and again throughout the course of their lives. Consider the career of William James at Harvard, first as physiologist, then psychologist, and finally as philosopher.

Which is similar to the history of Gerald M. Edelman, distinguished recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 for his work on the immune system. A molecular and cellular structuralist, he has contributed to the understanding of antibodies, proteins, plant mitogens, cell surfaces, and now the biology of human consciousness. His contributions in this last field center on his theory of neuronal group selection, which sheds light on the origins and workings of both the human nervous system and the mind it gives rise to in a manner consistent with Darwinian principles.

To put these remarks in perspective, I will digress somewhat in giving a brief history of my own self-directed learning. During high school, I read both Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma on my own for reasons I can no longer remember. Both books spoke to my age and stage of development at the time. In college I put Crime and Punishment down as the sun was rising over the view of Harlem out the window, knowing I had been through a transformative experience. Ten years later, I stumbled on Thoreau’s Walden, which I don’t remember anyone recommending to me, and I went on to read almost every word he wrote, including, eventually, the two-volume Dover Journals. I still consider myself a late-blooming nineteenth-century man. Visual poet E.E. Cummings brought me into the twentieth century.  Later, in grad school, I spent two semesters with Sigmund Koch in a seminar reading one book, Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi. That was the most gripping, challenging, and rewarding course I ever had in school. I took it as an elective, so the motivation was my own. Polanyi’s theme is learning to tell the difference between knowledge and opinion so that you know how you know what you think you know.

Now it’s Gerald M. Edelman who particularly speaks to my age and stage of development in spite of the near ineffability of much he is writing about. He came to his topic (consciousness) from intense study of the immune system, bringing his terminology with him, and when there are no suitable terms, inventing his own. Which makes it hard going for those heading from other directions. But all along the way I have sensed he was theorizing about my personal consciousness as well as his own, so I stuck with him.

Now I am reading an eighth Edelman book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006), which offers a summary of his theory of consciousness as a springboard to understanding human knowledge. The first four chapters offer an overview of his thinking on conscious-ness, leaving out details of the arduous, 28-year journey by which he derived it one step at a time. Here is how Edelman describes consciousness itself, the process he subsequently goes on to account for in theoretical terms:

In the awake conscious state, you experience a unitary scene composed variably of sensory responses—sight, sound, smell, and so on—as well as images, memories, feeling tones and emotions, a sense of willing or agency, a feeling of situatedness, and other aspects of awareness. Being conscious is a unitary experience in the sense that you cannot at any time become totally aware of just one thing to the complete exclusion of others. But you can direct your attention to various aspects of a less inclusive but still unitary scene. Within a short time, that scene will vary in one degree or another and, though still integrated, will become differentiated, yielding a new scene. The extraordinary fact is that the number of such privately experienced scenes is apparently limitless. The transitions seem to be conscious, and in their complete detail they are private, first-person subjective experiences (Second Nature, pages 13-14).

In the next sentence things get more complicated when he introduces the concept of intentionality: “Conscious states are often, but not always, about things or events, a property called intentionality” (page 14, my italics). And then goes on to summarize: “As human beings, we know what it is like to be conscious. Moreover, we are conscious of being conscious and can report on our experience” (page 14).

Which I think might lead some to oversimplify the nature of consciousness in that we frequently assume it is of some sort of world apart from ourselves, not recognizing it is the subjective doing of our own brains that underwrite the appearance in consciousness of any such world. To see something “with our own eyes” is no guarantee it actually happens as consciousness depicts it. Our minds are full of phantoms, vampires, ogres, aliens from other worlds, elves, Santas, and other characters we project onto the world as if they were not aspects of subjective consciousness and the bodies and brains which make it possible. It is a fundamental error to mistake phenomena in consciousness for the world as it is—for reality. The sounds of music and colors of art are in us, not the world, which in turn consists of sources, sinks, and patterns of energy that our brains and minds transform into the “objects and events” we are conscious of. It requires another indirect or imaginative transformation to locate them in an outer world.

It is good to remember that language and intentionality refer to concepts and appearances in consciousness, and these map onto the world very much as processes in the brain map onto consciousness. We live at least doubly removed from the so-called real world, so intentionality, in being “about things or events,” makes no claim that they actually exist in any other context than awareness itself. We know this from watching “movies” made from a succession of still images, and the many optical illusions and magic tricks that similarly “fool the eye.”

Which is my way of warning readers to beware of succinct distillations such as even Gerald Edelman might give of his work. When the unfamiliar terms crop up, as inevitably they must in writings about consciousness, we are asked to give the author the benefit of the doubt—particularly when the words flow easily and seem to make sense. Key terms in Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection include reentry, degeneracy, perceptual categorization, global mappings, dynamic core, phenomenal transform, qualia, among others.

Reentry [to take one example] is the ongoing recur-sive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time. Unlike feed-back, reentry is not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop. Instead, it simulta-neously involves many parallel reciprocal paths and has no prescribed error function attached to it. (Wider than the Sky, 2004, pages 39-40).

As Edelman and Giulio Tononi detail “reentry” in an earlier work (A Universe of Consciousness, Basic Books, 2000):

Reentry plays the central role in our consciousness model, for it is reentry that assures the integration that is essential to the creation of a scene in primary consciousness. Integration can best be illustrated by considering exactly how functionally segregated maps in the cerebral cortex may operate coherently together even though there is no superordinate map or logically determined program. . . . The organi-zation of the cerebral cortex is such that even within a single modality, for example, vision, there is a multitude of specialized or functionally segregated maps devoted to different submodalities—color, movement, and form. Despite this diversity, we are aware of a coherent perceptual scene. When we see such a scene, we are not aware of colors, move-ments, and forms separately and independently, but bind the color with the shape and the movement into recognizable objects. Our ability to act coher-ently in the presence of diverse, often conflicting, sensory stimuli requires a process of neural inter-action across many levels of organization without any superordinate map to guide the process. This is the so-called binding problem: How can a set of diverse and functionally segregated maps cohere without a higher-order controller? . . . Binding can occur as a result of reentry across brain maps that establishes short-term temporal correlations and synchrony among the activities of widely spaced neuronal groups in different maps. As a result, neurons in these groups fire at the same time. Thus, reentry correlates a large number of dynamic circuits in space and time. . . . This binding principle, made possible by reentry, is repeated across many levels of brain organization and plays a central role in mechanisms leading to consciousness (pages 106-107).

The tradeoffs between explicit details and broad summations in the different works of Gerald M. Edelman makes it difficult to recommend one particular work as representing his thought in its most cogent form. To those highly motivated to under-stand consciousness, I can at best recommend a selection of three of Edelman’s books:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagina-tion (Basic Books, 2000). This work assembles in readable form the details on which the theory of neuronal group selection rests.

Edelman, Gerald M., Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press, 2004). This summary presents the theory in its clearest form.

Edelman, Gerald M., Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006). The theory is here applied to gain fresh insight into the issue of human knowledge.

I strongly urge any readers with the will to do so to read them in the order given, from detailed account to more general overview. Five other books I have read in addition to those listed above:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Vernon B. Mountcastle, The Mindful Brain: Cortical Organization and the Group-Selective Theory of Higher Brain Function (The MIT Press, 1978; reprinted 1982).

Edelman, Gerald M., Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (HarperCollins Publishers, Basic Books, 1988).

Edelman, Gerald M., The Remembered Present: A Biological theory of Consciousness (Basic Books, 1989).

Edelman, Gerald M., Bright Air, Brilliant fire: On the Matter of Mind (Basic Books, 1992).

Edelman, Gerald M., and Jean-Pierre Changeux, editors, The Brain (Transaction Publishers, 2001).

I have yet to read:

Edelman, Gerald M., Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (Basic Books, 1987).

Medial View of Brain-96