(Copyright © 2010)

I’d been a Signal Corps photographer in the Army. When I got out I went to work for a photo studio in Manhattan that took pictures for catalog houses like Sears Roebuck. The studio was really three studios, each with photographer (who adjusted lighting and clicked shutters), assistant photographer (who cocked shutters and changed 8×10 film holders), and stylist (who made clothes look good on thin models by taking tucks in back with clothespins). I learned early on that there were two classes of people, photographers and assistants; there was no way for an assistant to cross the barrier between them. Once an assistant, always an assistant.

Sensitive to such distinctions, I noticed that the janitor came to work in suit and tie, and carried his lunch in a briefcase. I figured he did it to show his kids he had an important job in the city. He’d arrive early, change his clothes, and get to work. What he really did was mop the floors. At the end of the day he’d reverse the process, put on the suit, and get on the elevator with an empty briefcase.

To simplify matters, I’ll say there are two kinds of people: doers and thinkers. Hands-on and minds-on. There are all manner of gradations in between, but the basic distinction still holds: labor and management, students and teachers, stage crew and talent. You can tell the difference by looking under fingernails, feeling calluses, noticing who shines his shoes, who wears overalls and who a tweed jacket. 

In Maine, there are fishermen who hold their catch in their hands, and then everybody else. Fishermen look like fishermen. They wear aprons, slickers, and boots, and get wet a lot. The others try to stay away from water and out of the rain if they can. Fishermen are doers. After all these years, they still work with their hands and speak basic English. Many of the rest of us type with our fingertips, work in cubicles, write endless reports, go to meetings, and speak jargon that sounds like a foreign language.

One of the chief reasons I am writing this blog is to figure out how hand workers and mind workers can come to a common understanding about managing natural resources (fish, clams, worms) to guarantee steady catches over the long term. I speak a lot about sustainability and stewardship, which are words labeling conceptual categories, not concrete items such as living lobsters or bags full of bait. Categories don’t smell like a mixture of herring, oil, and gasoline.

As kids we are all much the same, born with a few rudimentary skills centered on our mouths. We eventually learn to hold up our heads, look around, coordinate arms and fingers, and eventually walk. We all go through the play stage of learning how to use our hands. Then we go to school to learn how to use our minds, and that is supposed to lead us on the way out of childhood. Some of us end up putting everything into words and symbols, not coordinated motions. Or if we do practice fine motor skills, we take drum or violin lessons, color within the lines, and strive for neat handwriting. You can’t learn to fell trees in school, raise cattle, dig potatoes, catch lobsters or fish. And if that’s what you want to do in life, then you’re better off apprenticing to someone who does those things for a living. If you work hard enough, long enough, and pay attention, you’ll train your muscles to behave as you want to get the job done.

The classic put-down used to be:  If you can, do; if you can’t, teach. For some reason, our culture turns that around and puts a higher priority on teaching and mind work than doing and making things. While we know that the most important people in any school are the students, not teachers or administrators. The main thing with us seems to be not getting our clothes dirty, which is a sure sign of social status. No mucking out the barn for us. So we dutifully dress in blouses and button-down shirts, stand behind our counters or file into cubicles (much like desks in school), turn on the computer, and have at it, engaging our minds—and little else of our basic equipment such as muscles, senses, and personal judgment.

Broadly speaking, our culture creates two classes of people who can’t talk to each other very easily because their life experience is so different. What they do is so different. How they talk is so different. How they make themselves happen in the world is so different. How their minds work is so different. Either you’re a photographer or a photographer’s assistant, perhaps bringing your lunch in a briefcase or a brown paper bag.

So much for discriminating two sorts of people. In truth, even fishermen and cubicle dwellers are unique individuals, as are we all. The issue is, how do we learn to talk with one another in the spirit of democracy so we can work side-by-side for the good of all people and the one Earth we share in common? Where self-interest and competition split us apart, how do we put ourselves together again in order to deal effectively with dwindling resources, global warming, pollution, poverty, and overconsumption? Many of us seem to find it easier to stand apart, calling those we don’t agree with offensive names, than gather beneath a common banner.

That’s what language is for, but people on fishing boats and people in cubicles tend to develop dialects within their common language that require translation from one to the other. How do they make themselves clear when they meet face-to-face? How do they hear what the other is saying? That’s what schools are supposed to be for, but they are better at emphasizing individual differences than general commonalities. That’s because differences are concrete and recognizable while the commons is an abstract idea you can’t point your finger at. Differences are up-close and personal, while the commons is vague, fuzzy, and apt to be ideological or reduced to a caricature of itself (Uncle Sam, John Bull) or some kind of mascot. Where individuality is specific, unity is symbolic. It is easy to say, “No man is an island,” “God is love,” or “All are one,” but extremely difficult to put into practice. I know there are such places as Fiji, Timbuktu, and Ultima Thule, but I have a hard time picturing them in my mind; to me they are conceptual abstractions, like “objects,” “things,” “items,” “entities,” “geographical locations.”

If we learn and act best when we put our bodies where our values are, then when two people generally have their bodies in different places, to get along they have to shift their consciousness to the place where they meet in order to take the physical presence of the other into full account. If they speak from their customary locations (their respective Aways), they won’t get very far. It works better to acknowledge the other, and move on from there in small steps, always waiting for the other to catch up. Cooperating on a shared task or project makes a good beginning, both taking part in something they can do easily and well. I have seen women sitting in a circle, each spinning yarn or knitting, having a great time. Drinking coffee or eating a meal together might work, but I personally find it hard to talk and eat at the same time.

Once the ice is broken—and it may take some time—the real work can begin. Which is to include the other in your thoughts as you make yourself happen there and then in her presence. Inclusion is the first priority in any group process. Excluding the other is self-defeating if you have to work together toward a goal you both share. Such as sustainable harvests of natural resources, stewardship, or saving the Earth.

The trick is to identify a goal you both can agree on from your separate perspectives. The more specific a goal the better. It’s easy to say we are both human, or both love our children. It’s harder to bring it down to a personal level on which you can identify with each other in equally concrete and meaningful ways. Sharing your biological values might be one way to identify a goal you could work toward together, such as food, shelter, clothing, safety, health, companionship, community, cooperation, learning, and so on.

I once taught a summer workshop built around finding a common project that a diverse group of eighteen high school students (who had never met) could not only work on but finish together in six weeks. That was the summer Apollo astronauts first landed on the moon. Students decided to bring out a publication commemorating that event, each contributing to the overall project, in addition to being responsible for content and layout of one page. Within three days, animosity blossomed within the group, so I included addressing that in the lesson plan. I identified pairs of students who didn’t get along, and gave them the afternoon off, with the stipulations that they had to stay within five feet of each other the whole time, and report back how it went for both of them. Each of the nine pairs worked things out between them, many coming back best friends. Another exercise was for each student to do something with the class to prove they were alive (however they interpreted those instructions). One girl led us up to the roof of the three-story building, then left, locking the door. Being trapped together is a wonderful way to build group spirit. I can’t remember how we got down, but we were up there for several hours.

Thinking about how close those students were to one another at the end of the workshop, I identified facing a common challenge, humor, and respect for both originality and ability as key factors in binding the disparate students into a cohesive and productive group. Of course they were all volunteers, but there was no way they could tell what they were getting into when they signed up. The workshop was built around their unique contributions, but no one knew in advance what they might be.

How about having fishermen, researchers, shorefront property owners, wildlife watchers, and kayakers, for instance, join forces to produce a portrait of the part of the Maine coast they all share in common? Each could tell her own version of the story of that part of the coast as he knew it. Could that work? Not only would it provide a starting project, but it would serve as a reference ever after, a document of what actually happened. The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, does 15-week workshops in developing skills in writing, radio, and photography. As one student said: “15 weeks at Salt rearranged 80% of my brain. The person I was when I arrived at Salt was not the person I was when I left.” I think a bay-wide project of this nature could be a life-changing event, bringing people together instead of perpetuating the social divide between them.

Including the other in your loop of engagement with your personal surroundings seems an obvious place to begin working together toward a common understanding. Getting their body and your body in the same room together so you can interact in a safe location, engaging conscious minds with each other, starting to build a constructive relationship instead of trying to wear the other down. Two kinds of people? No, there are almost seven billion. Things happen only when a few gather together in mutual engagement. Then there is no limit to what they can do, no matter what the odds.

Two Lobsters

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

For her birthday, I gave Carole an all-expenses-paid trip to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, about 25 miles northwest of Portland. That is, we went in her car, both brought our lunches, and I paid for gas, tour and museum tickets. From Bar Harbor, it was about a three-and-a-half-hour drive; I drove down, she back. Neither of us had ever been to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village—now down to three members after peaking at some 180 in the 1840s—sole surviving Shaker community in the U.S. of the 19 main villages that once thrived from Maine to Florida. We visited the museum, took a guided tour of the village, ate lunch, and purchased seven books about the Shaker experience.

I have never spent a more profoundly moving four hours than those that passed so quickly in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. I had no idea what to expect, but intuition told me it was time to find out. What we discovered was a working model of what a human community could be if it set its collective mind to living sustainably and cooperatively on the land with dignity and spirit made possible by skilled craftsmanship and hard work. Patterning their lives on Jesus’ example, Shakers knew how to live sustainably on the land with a modest carbon footprint long before peak oil and global climate change were conceived in the human mind. Sustainably, that is, except for one thing: Jesus was celibate and so were they. Going forth and multiplying was never their way. They relied on personal convincement to bring in new blood, which worked from 1776 until before the Civil War, but failed to replenish their numbers after that. They took in orphans and children placed with them, giving young people a choice upon turning 18 to rejoin the world or become Shakers. If they stayed on, then they largely retired from the world to embrace a life of celibacy, confession of sin, pacifism, communal activity and ownership, and handiwork without end. 

Which by modern standards would add up to an extreme way of life. But through strict communal discipline, Shakers created joyous and highly productive lives for themselves. Their priorities were clear, their efforts devoted to expressing peace and love in everything they did. One Shaker catch phrase says it all: Hands to Work and Hearts to God.

Shakers were renown for their handicrafts, well-tended farms—and the enthusiasm of their worship. Like every other aspect of their life, they put themselves into it. Apparently it was something to see; Sunday mornings, people came from miles around to witness Shakers singing-dancing-marching in praise of the Lord. But what got to me in the four hours I spent at Sabbathday Lake was the undeniable evidence of Shaker consciousness. Most of what they accomplished required elaborate hand-eye coordination, a sure outward sign of deliberate consciousness and attention to detail. The tour, for instance, covers:

  • bonnet making
  • dressmaking and tailoring
  • shoemaking
  • basket weaving
  • woodcarving
  • chair making and caning
  • broom making
  • spinning
  • weaving
  • rug-hooking
  • needlework
  • quilting
  • herb gardening and drying
  • pickle and catsup making
  • beekeeping
  • apple harvesting and pressing
  • painting and drawing
  • photography
  • candy making
  • not to mention agriculture and animal husbandry, and  other activities I have forgotten.

It was not the various craftsmedia themselves that got my attention so much as the design and overall simplicity of individual pieces turned out day after day. Consciousness cannot be random or chaotic and turn out Shaker furniture, gift drawings, rugs, tins of herb teas, or even fudge for that matter. It was how individual details fit together that mattered in almost everything they did. The simple elegance of Shaker tables, desks, chairs, cupboards, and boxes speaks of the minds that designed, cut, and put them together. Collectively and individually, Shakers give the impression of being a together people. Which I see reflecting the internal discipline required of them in becoming Sisters and Brothers. Each was valued as a decided individual, and the ways they found of respecting and valuing one another bound them together—like the separate straws making up the business end of a Shaker broom.

I felt a strong rapport with this tradition with its people being wholly who they were under what must have been stressful conditions. Survival takes full concentration, particularly in rural Maine in days when there were no big boxes to mar the landscape, no imports from China. Everything had to be done locally by hand. Most of us in the U.S. today wouldn’t last a week if we had to produce what we ate and used from scratch by hand labor. When life depends on conscious activity, a certain gladness shines through every task completed, every new beginning, every tool, every mending job. Evolution did not create Shaker furniture, but it did create human consciousness, which created cultural evolution, which created Shakers, who did create furniture by putting their minds to work on the challenge of day-to-day survival. The whole saga is on view at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, and at other Shaker villages as preserved because we can’t stand to lose them as examples of what human consciousness can achieve.

For myself, I choose to find a message in the behavioral idiom Shakers created for themselves. I see that idiom addressing many of the challenges we face in the 21st century. Evolution equipped humans with strong appetites for sex, food, personal possessions, wealth, and social status. But it did not have the foresight to equip us with an off-switch so when appropriate, we could squelch our drives and coast along with what we had. The Shakers took it upon themselves to manage their drives by adopting a code of celibacy, communal living, moderate (but healthy) diet, few personal possessions, no personal wealth, and invention of a new kind of social security—all labor intensive—all extremely rewarding because of the skill and discipline required. Without genetic engineering, the Internet, cellphones, pesticides, superhighways, international trade, or big government. What did the Shakers know that we don’t? That hard work and imagination can solve problems if you really put your mind to it. Shakerism is a lesson in locally applied consciousness based on personal initiative and cooperative living, not massive infusions of cash.

OK, so they sacrificed sex to get there, but if the human population is a problem in itself, that could be seen as a good thing. Sustaining bad ideas and sorry institutions is not necessarily a good thing if they are in fact the source of the problem. There is deep wisdom in Shaker madness, wisdom I think we should emulate insofar as it is appropriate to our current situation—which I maintain is a fairly close match to that of their day. Hardship unto the threat of death was always at the gate of a Shaker Village. Yet they persisted by making the most of what they had in the time available to them. We, on the other hand, are more profligate, doing precious little with our vast stores of wealth, wasting much of it on gadgetry, glitzy trinkets, and empty entertainment—as if spending money gauged the meaning of life.

Where Shakers made the most of their conscious hours, we seem to pride ourselves in taking as much time as we can to do as little as possible. Worker productivity is said to be up, but productivity of what? Most of it turns out to be nonsense rebundled in tinsel to bilk investors of their retirement funds. Our consciousness is spinning its wheels, seeing if there’s anything good on the tube or the Web when, all the time, what counts is what’s in us already: consciousness, evolution’s gift to us all, which we can’t seem to get the hang of.

Removing themselves from the vanities of the civilized world, Shakers staked their lives to the soil, not to fashion. We have chosen the other road, preferring vanity over nature—to sorry effect. Our world runs on image and influence, not energy coursing through the seasons, which Shakers knew how to harness. Yet we thrive and Shakers shrivel. Our world is surely powered by irony, that of the Shakers by simple self-knowledge. Which seen in the right light is our failure, not theirs.

Shaker barns, Sabbathday Lake

 

 

 

Reflection 47: Stewardship

January 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989 was due to a failure of consciousness. So was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. As was the Visigoth sacking of Rome led by Alaric in 410 CE, and likely the Achaean sacking of Troy in the 11th-century BCE. In modern times, global warming and sea-level rise result from similar failures of consciousness, along with the Enron hoax, America’s preemptive war in Iraq, unsustainable lifestyles, the current recession, Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion scam, among other catastrophes due to lax regulation and oversight—personal and otherwise.

 

Consciousness is the control center of deliberate human activity. Much of what we do in the world is subject to its governance, including actions meant to gain an advantage by deceiving others who are not privy to our schemes and desires. Let the buyer beware, we say. Which we take as a license for perpetrating all manner of malevolent tomfoolery. Human nature? There you have a good portion of it. Resulting in much of the chaotic behavior we see around us on all sides. And, truth be told, which we ourselves indulge in when we think no one is looking.

 

Bernie Madoff would never take advantage of his friends, he’s just not that kind of guy. Except he is precisely that kind of guy and no one suspected. American consumers would never be stupid enough to sacrifice planet Earth for a few moments of comfort and convenience. Except, that is exactly who we are. Not collectively in the mass, but individually, each and every one. Especially those of us whose way of life demands maximum consumption of Earth’s limited resources.

 

Failures of consciousness are failures of vigilance, of personal husbandry and stewardship. Husbandry refers to careful management of resources. Stewardship comes from an ancient word meaning “to watch out for.” It has overtones of being aware, wary, watchful, and respectful. A steward is a kind of guard, keeper, or warden of nature’s gifts to us all. Consciousness is each person’s head steward. Its job is oversight of personal behavior to make sure it is appropriate to particular situations. When consciousness is devious, distracted, drunk, or asleep at the helm, anything goes.

 

Denial, secrecy, and subterfuge are means of throwing consciousness off track when it comes to governing our affairs. Here’s an example:

 

I am a member of a bay management advisory group on the coast of Maine. Our aim is to take fisheries management to a new level consistent with the ecological health of marine and estuarine ecosystems. Not along the entire coast, but in one small bay serving as a kind of prototype for exploring more effective ways of managing coastal resources.

One way of doing that might be to declare the bay a marine sanctuary or protected area. But Mainers have strong sympathies with folks who make a living at sea, so our group has adopted the double objective of protecting ecosystems and fishermen both through a strong emphasis on stewardship for the sake of sustainability.

          Which is where consciousness comes in. To set a limit on how much of a given resource (scallops, mussels, sea urchins, kelp, etc.) can be taken from the bay without disturbing the ecosystems they depend on, we have to figure how much of each resource is present in the bay, and set an allowable catch as a reasonable percentage of that total. Then we ask fishermen to report daily on their catch of target species and bycatch (of incidental species). Which requires stock assessments for each species, meaning someone has to dive down and count the population per unit area. That is, bring the bay’s actual situation into consciousness, along with the daily catch. If we can’t set the allowable catch as a percentage of the potential catch, we would be working in the dark and might as well pick a random number of pounds as allowable—or give up ecosystem-based management altogether.

          Fishermen are largely opposed to any kind of oversight aimed at their activities out on the water. They prefer confidentiality to transparency. I can’t blame them; who likes backseat drivers, even when they’re lost? Regulatory measures such as quotas, no-take zones, and harvest seasons go against their grain. But accurate stock assessments and mandatory reporting are essential if sustainable harvests are to become a reality. Thereby putting strong pressure on fishermen to become stewards of the marine ecosystems they depend on. Which is a little like appointing a fox as henhouse steward. Or like electing a realtor as head of the local planning board.

 

You see the problem. Consciousness is essentially a private and personal affair, whereas social interactions are best based on transparency and full disclosure. We can never be sure what lurks in another’s mind. If we cannot base our relationships on honesty, then we are wise to become cynics and suspect the worst.

 

What a sorry state of affairs. Amply illustrated by the current state of the world. Sink the Titanic, wreck the Earth—same thing. It’s not that consciousness is inherently flawed, it’s more the way we mortals apply it. We make the mistake of thinking our situation as we view it is at the heart of the real world. What do we know? Very little, it turns out, of all there is to be known. We are like fruit flies dreaming we are the point of life and run the whole show.

 

In the example above I used the phrase, “Stewardship for the sake of sustainability.” Which requires taking a larger view of the world stage than our personal situations allow. Consciousness is fine, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t cover very much of all that’s happening on Earth. We act in small and selfish ways on a planet that nurtures us all. Collectively, our acts are more than Earth can bear.

 

What to do? We’ve all got to become good stewards of the personal bailiwicks consciousness presents to us rather than sacking them for our short-term advantage as if they did not connect to every other bailiwick and to our common Earth as a whole. Which means acting not for ourselves alone, but acting as if we were delegates of Earth itself, which we are. That is, we have to rediscover transparency as an essential value so that in acting in light of personal consciousness we are acting on behalf of consciousness as a planetary accomplishment. We are conscious, not for ourselves alone, but for Earth itself. We are Earth’s eyes and ears.

 

That is what becoming stewards demands of us: being stewards unto ourselves so that we may share in the sustainability of all. Which is the opposite of the Bernie Madoff approach. It is up to us to take the initiative and do unto others as a sustainable Earth requires, not as a reflection of our puny selves-writ-large would do unto us.

 

Honesty, stewardship, and transparency first; sustainability will follow as a matter of course. That is one challenge humanity is facing (the other big one is our excessive population). Are we up to it? Each of us has the basic equipment. It is our choice whether to skillfully apply it or not.

 

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