Eelgrass is an underwater flowering plant that feeds and protects a significant numbers of estuarine and marine species. Like those many species, I, too, have a longstanding engagement with eelgrass in Taunton Bay, though unlike them, my life doesn’t depend on that engagement. I don’t live in it and don’t eat it.

But I do photograph great blue herons and Canada geese that feed in eelgrass meadows near low tide, as well as least sandpipers that glean amphipods (beach hoppers, scuds, and the like) from the wrack of dead leaves that break off from their grassy stems and wash up onshore at the end of the season. So, yes, like my other engagements with nature, eelgrass is part of my life because it’s part of my ongoing awareness.

For over twenty-five years, I have conducted aerial surveys of eelgrass in the bay at frequent intervals. The meadows vary in size from one year to the next because the conditions affecting their growth are never the same two years in a row.

In 2001, the meadows abruptly disappeared, leaf blades turning black, then breaking off their stems and floating away on the tide. Leaving fish nurseries without their usual protective thickets, Canada geese without fronds to graze, black ducks without periwinkles to dabble and upend for.

Shocking surprises get my attention because they trigger consciousness itself. Pleasant surprises do, too, but this was no pleasant surprise.

Eelgrass Dieback Disease, 2001

Eelgrass in the Throes of Dieback Disease, August 2001

This was a catastrophe for Taunton Bay, and I hadn’t seen it coming. If I had extrapolated the downward trend of rainfall in preceding years, I might have predicted the drought, but I noticed it only in hindsight. I wouldn’t have predicted the dieback because I didn’t know that the wasting disease responsible for the loss of eelgrass was usually held in check by the low salinity characteristic of estuaries where streamflow and snowmelt dilute the saltiness of incoming tides.

I spent years trying to grasp what had gone wrong, and by studying aerial photos, finally figured it was a one-two punch delivered by a season with the least rainfall in the region since precipitation records had been kept for over a hundred years. The higher than normal salinity favored the dieback disease, which knocked out the eelgrass.

 

Recovering Eelgrass Meadow

Eelgrass Recovering from Dieback Disease, June 2010

There were no sea lavender plants in 2001, either. What do eelgrass and sea lavender have in common? An absolute dependence on skywater. In the first case to keep salinity low so the wasting disease (which thrives in high salinity) wouldn’t take hold. In the second case, to maintain sufficient flow of water through the soil from shorelands into sandflats where sea lavender thrives.

It took some eight years for the meadows to recover to anywhere near their extent in the year before the drought. I could tell that eelgrass was beginning to come back when sprouts appeared in the shallow drainage channels across mudflats at the mouths of small streams. Of all places in the bay, that’s where salinity is lowest and most hostile to the wasting disease organism. A seed that settles there has a good chance of taking hold.

 

Eelgrass Up-Close and Personal

Healthy Blades of Eelgrass at Low Tide

Eelgrass meadows disappeared again in 2013 as abruptly as they did in 2001, for an entirely different reason. Here again there were warning signs, this time unusually high turbidity two years in a row, but no one could figure out why bay waters were so cloudy. Was it due to mussel dragging in Frenchman Bay? Hand-raking mussels in Taunton Bay? As it turned out, it was due to green crabs.

No one suspected that the unusually warm winter of 2012-2013 would spur a bloom in invasive green crab populations, or that that bloom would affect eelgrass. But that’s what happened. In 2013, green crabs were everywhere. I saw a great many every time I walked along the shore. Lobster pots containing hundreds of green crabs were hauled up, attracted by the bait in each trap. I had trouble picturing green crabs using their claws to nip off eelgrass stems, mowing down hundreds of acres of inshore meadows all along the Maine coast, but that’s what they did.

Add warmer waters due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere favoring green crab reproduction, and I quickly saw that given their appetites as individuals, a spike in their numbers could result in a loss of eelgrass throughout the state. Fishermen are now taking green crabs as bycatch, developing a new market for their use as fertilizer, catfood, and lobster bait.

The future, recently thought to be far ahead, is upon us. I have no notion how this drama will play-out due to changing conditions, but it is clear that tomorrow will differ from today in ways I never imagined.

This is the last example I will give of my firsthand engagements with nature. My next post will be a summary of what I have learned from my lifelong natural experience. Then I will move on to the cultural level of my engagements, which I see as engagements with nature once-removed. That is, with nature in human disguise.

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.

In June, 2003, I became a tracker of horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay, where they are at the northern limit of their global range. Friends of Taunton Bay had a grant from the State Planning Office to do a one-year pilot project in bay management. The tracking effort was part of an assessment to provide background for that study.

I am a lifetime member of Friends of Taunton Bay, a nonprofit group keeping an eye on the bay through a variety of monitoring programs, starting in 1990. We partnered with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources in attaching sonar transmitters to thirteen crabs in each of two sub-embayments.

We were trying to figure out the horseshoe crabs’ annual patterns of movements, and whether or not they left the bay in the winter months for warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine, which it was generally believed they did.

 

Sonar Transmitter

Attaching Sonar Transmitter to Horseshoe Crab, June, 2003

My job was to track those twenty-six crabs with a sonar receiver carried about in a small boat. When the signal in my earphones from a particular crab was as loud as I could make it by fine-tuning my maneuvers, I marked my GPS (geographic positioning system) coordinates on a chart, figuring I was directly over that crab so my position was also its position as viewed from overhead.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore only during a two-week breeding season in the spring, so it’s no surprise that I saw only one during the two-and-a-half years I was tracking crabs from late April through late November. I judged that one to be directly under the boat when it was lodged against shoreline rocks; I backed off a few feet—and there it was with its mate, blue sonar transmitter epoxied to its prosoma (the forward part of its shell).

 

Horseshoe crabs

Gravel shore lined with mating horseshoe crabs.

As the tracking effort turned out, horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay stay in the bay year-round, burying themselves in the mud for half the year during colder months. They rouse in late April, and immediately take off upslope from their over-wintering sites.

Not one of the crabs we were studying left its native embayment; there was no evident bridge between the two distinct populations that were separated by a distance of only about two miles. The channel bearing cold water into the bay from Frenchman Bay passes by a particular point of land that leaves no room for a warmer passage between the two shallower habitat sites.

 

Female horseshoe crab with male attached

Female horseshoe crab digs a nest for her eggs.

The movements of the crabs appeared almost random, but when females began giving off pheromones during the breeding weeks, males and females got together on their traditional breeding shores, males clasping females with a foremost pair of legs suited to that task, females navigating for both of them, making trials at digging suitable nest sites in sandy bottom soils, moving on if it didn’t work out, typically laying eggs in several sites in a row once it did.

 

Mating horseshoe crabs.

Mating horseshoe crabs.

I will write more specifically about my engagement with the crabs in the following post.

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 June, 2005, I got pretty good at thinking like a horseshoe crab. I’d been tracking 26 of them in Taunton Bay for two years, and was finally able to anticipate their movements with some success. In doing his biological assessment of the bay, biologist Slade Moore had suggested a cooperative hoSonar Transmitter on Female HSCrseshoe crab tracking program with Friends of Taunton Bay. Slade worked out of the West Boothbay offices of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and I was to do most of the tracking. In June of 2003, we epoxied miniature sonar transmitters on 26 crabs, 13 in Hog Bay, 13 in Egypt Bay. My job was to track the movements of each transmitter with a sonar receiver and hydrophone from a small boat. If the epoxy held and the transmitter stayed in place, the location of a transmitter would indicate the location of the crab we’d attached it to.

We tested the range at which we could detect a sonar signal, and based on the assumption the bottom of the bay was flat, Slade worked out a grid of listening stations where we would turn the hydrophone 360 degrees, and record the direction in which we heard any signals. That way, we could triangulate a crab’s location if we picked up its signal at two or more stations. Which seemed like a reasonable plan, until we got a great many signals bouncing off underwater boulders and ledges, and determined the bottom was full of ridges and depressions that effectively blocked reception of even nearby signals. Our backup plan was to steer the boat as close as we could come to being directly on top of a signal—when it would be loudest in our headphones, and use a GIS receiver to log the boat’s—and presumably the crab’s—position. It took a while to work the bugs out of the tracking program, but on good days, both Slade and I were able to pinpoint the location of most transmitters in both bays. On other days, we might find only half of them.

What does this have to do with consciousness? For starters, we were engaged in a project never attempted in Taunton Bay, so we were relying on on-the-job experience to train ourselves in the use of a new language we invented as we went, somewhat as a child creates language by observing the sounds people make on certain occasions, and then mimics them. Too, we were not only interested in where a given crab was, but wanted to know what it was doing and why it was there. Ultimately, we wanted to know what factors governed horseshoe crab movements at different times of year. Factors like water temperature, water depth, habitat type, hormone levels and mating urges, food availability (such as small clams, worms, mussels), presence of predators, and so on. The big questions were where and when did the range of local horseshoe crabs overlap with beds of blue mussels, so that dragging for mussels might put them at risk?

Like every other small embayment, Taunton Bay exhibits a range of features that make it unique. Because of its extensive Mating Horseshoe Crabs and Striiped Killifish system of mudflats, it has more mussels, clams, and marine worms than many other bays. Which attracts predators of mussels, clams, and worms—such as horseshoe crabs, flounders, ring-billed gulls, several duck species, and predators of predators such as harbor seals, striped killifish (which prey on horseshoe crab eggs), ospreys, and eagles. And human harvesters who go after any one of them by dragging, digging, pulling, fishing, or hunting.

Too, the upper reaches of Taunton Bay are extremely shallow, making them warmer in summer and colder in winter than many other bays in Maine. Every creature that lives on the flats has to adapt one way or another to a wide range of seasonal temperatures. Harbor seals, for instance, exit the bay in December when ice begins to form, leaving only the alpha male to defend his territory against rivals. A big question for the horseshoe crab tracking program was where do members of the two local sub-populations spend the winter? When we started the program, we fully expected local crabs to seek deeper, warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine during the winter, and to return to mate in warm shallows in late spring. We were planning to install a fixed hydrophone aimed across Taunton River to record their departure and return. We never deployed that second hydrophone because, as we found in November 2003, the horseshoe crabs of Taunton Bay retire from shallow flats to the upper slopes of deeper channels, where they bury themselves in the mud and wait out the winter by suppressing their food intake, breathing, and blood flow, becoming as close to inanimate as creatures can get while still retaining the ability to reanimate themselves when conditions improve six months later.

That was big learning for us because by rights, horseshoe crabs have no place in a northern bay that freezes-over in winter. Throughout most of their global range—including the Indian Ocean, southwestern Pacific, and Atlantic as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula—they move to deeper waters in winter and remain active for the duration. Now it appears that in several bays in Maine and New Hampshire, they hibernate, slowing their metabolisms to the survivable limit for six months of the year. In our study at the northern limit of their global range in Taunton Bay, we found them hunkering down and not moving again until the third Mating Horseshoe Crabsweek in April, when they’d take a month to feed and work their way upslope to their breeding shores, where females would lay their eggs and males fertilize them in the shallow sand and gravel nests where they were deposited. In the narrow confines of horseshoe crab research, that was a breakthrough—a mind-expanding discovery.

Imagine sleeping for half a year, waking up, eating a big breakfast, then looking to have a year’s worth of sex in the two weeks you’ve got before having to store up enough calories to get you through the following winter! Horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay live like that, not day-by-day or month-by-month but year-by-year.

Another thing we found was that horseshoe crabs do not adopt routine ways of meeting their needs but reinvent themselves almost constantly to see if, hit or miss, they can’t find a way to adapt to their surroundings wherever they are. No wonder they’ve been around for more than four-hundred million years. There are only a few shores around the bay suitable for digging nests in sand or small gravel. The bay is largely ringed by outcrops of bedrock, with a few stony beaches interspersed here and there. Of Digging a Nest those beaches, many are armored with cobbles and boulders left by the Laurentian Ice Sheet that retreated 12,000 years ago. Most shores provide only a few patches here and there of substrates suitable for digging nests and laying eggs. Horseshoe crabs seem to find breeding sites almost at random, females constantly testing the bottom in their travels, digging down when they hit the occasional soft spot. If it’s too rocky or rooty, they are thwarted and move on, always testing as they go, scratching, scratching, scratching.

Which is pretty much how they select a mate. A male horseshoe crab will try any stone, log, or available boot in searching for a mate. If female hormones are in the water, that Horseshoe Crabs and Boot doesn’t mean your average male knows what secreted them. Males apparently can tell how close they are to the source by the concentration of the scent, but any smooth rounded shape is worth a try until they find something they can clasp onto. Then they hold tight and won’t let go, unless perhaps flipped upside down by a wave, or trapped in a too-narrow passage between adjacent rocks—and even then they tend to cling to the death.

Taunton Bay crabs seem to find suitable places to hibernate almost at random, with no fidelity to that nice little B&B they found last year. They live out their lives within less than a mile of suitable breeding shores, but during winter settle in on the upper margin of any channel within that range. Usually among mussels or eelgrass. They can crush small shellfish and eat them, so they seem to hibernate in areas where mussels are plentiful. Mussels thrive near eelgrass beds on the upper slopes of channels where tidal currents provide phytoplankton through the seasons. Horseshoe crabs wander around in search of food until they stumble across a bed of mussels, which makes their decision for them. In trying to think like a horseshoe crab, I found myself thinking like a mussel as well, or the rare patch of sandy gravel—both of which the local horseshoe crab life cycle depends on.

The big challenge was locating horseshoe crabs I couldn’t see solely by the sonar signals their affixed transmitters emitted. The bottom is nowhere near level, it turns out—even where flats looks level at low tide. I’d consult my GPS unit and go back to where I found one the day before, put down the hydrophone, and hear nothing but white noise. Each signal was coded with an identifying frequency and sequence of sounds, so if we heard any signal at all we could tell which transmitter was the source. But silence told us nothing but that nobody was home. The challenge was always: which way did they go? As I grew more familiar with horseshoe crab ways, and the bottom terrain in their respective sub-embayments, I began to grasp more of how they might relate to a given site. And then imagine which way they would head from there. Following crude hunches upslope or down, along the edges of channels one way or another, I found I could recover signals far more readily than simply heading off on any random heading as I had done as a novice tracker. I didn’t really think like a horseshoe crab because I don’t have any idea what a horseshoe crab would think even if it could. But I developed a sense of where they would be heading at that time of year, and I let that sense steer my boat, often to a successful encounter.

When they’d rouse from their winter sleep in late April, horseshoe crabs would head for the nearest food supply in the vicinity. I got pretty good at predicting where that would be. Then they’d head upslope to breeding shores, and I got so I could follow along. In late May and June, I’d start out near known nesting shores. In July and August, they could be almost anywhere, but usually in shallower water. In September and October, they’d head downslope toward the network of channels, usually where eelgrass or mussels were concentrated. And in November they’d select their hibernation site, usually in the middle of a plentiful food supply. Several things could go wrong with that simple scheme. Transmitters could stop sending signals, or become detached and send false signals. Horseshoe crabs aren’t supposed to shed their shells after reaching sexual maturity at age 10—but maybe they do now and then. I got several signals that never moved from week to week, even in mid-summer. Slade managed to retrieve one transmitter from the mud and re-epoxy it to another crab. In any project things are going to go wrong, and you just have to roll with the punches.

Tracking horseshoe crabs changed my consciousness for life, much as living with a pet will expand your awareness to include other ways of looking at the world. It isn’t the owner who walks the favored pet so much as the pet who takes its “owner” on daily walks. I certainly was led on many a boat trip by horseshoe crabs, and I know the underwater terrain of Taunton Bay much better as a result. I hold mussels, clams, eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, and striped killifish in mind as living beings, not objects of casual curiosity. To know about a species in a general sense, you have to befriend it and meet its members up-close and personal in the most particular and detailed way possible. Knowledge obtained from books or the Internet cannot affect you as deeply as knowledge gained through firsthand experience.

Thinking like a horseshoe crab requires reading backwards from observable behaviors to recreating the “mind” responsible for those behaviors. A module of my brain is now dedicated to doing just that with horseshoe crabs at the northern limit of their range on Earth. Other modules are devoted to eelgrass, ring-billed gulls, bald eagles, even slime molds. As my friend Anette Axtmann once said, “We have much to learn from wood lilies.” To be as truly knowledgeable as we need to be in this time of estrangement from life on Earth, we have much to learn from the plants and animals who share our native habitat. Which requires us to take the initiative in giving our minds to them so that we pay attention to what matters on Earth and not solely what concerns us at the moment. The future depends on us expanding our consciousness to include other such beings in order to live with them on equal terms, not on our forcing them to adapt to our ways as if we were in charge.

To care for the Earth, we must first become mindful of its creatures and their ways, making room for them in our consciousness so that we can incorporate them into our thinking, and more importantly, our acting on the world stage. It is no accident that mussel draggers keep away from horseshoe crab habitats in Taunton Bay. The Taunton Bay Advisory Group incorporated horseshoe crabs in its thinking, and then into its recommendations for regulating local fisheries. When horseshoe crabs speak, we do our best to get their message—and act accordingly.

Horseshoe Crab-72

(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

Eagle-72

(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)

 

Memory is situational because consciousness is situational. Everything that happens takes place in the particular circumstances that frame our life worlds at the time. Consciousness is a matter of being alive to our current life situation as the mind configures it.

 

Exhibit A. I am at scout camp the second week in August, 1945. It is Sunday, so there’s nothing to do. The sun is shining. I go for a walk with a friend down a dirt road lined with tall trees. Everything is different somehow. Looking into the sky, I picture a bomb falling, falling, falling. Earlier, at breakfast, I’d seen a story in the camp director’s newspaper about an American plane dropping an A-bomb on Hiroshima, a city in Japan. I don’t know what an A-bomb is, but I know it is bad. I am scared.

 

Exhibit B. I am in eighth grade. The war is over. My father is renting a cinderblock house in Sarasota for a year. My mission is to help dismantle Sarasota Army Air Base, soon to close. On Saturdays, wrench and screwdrivers in my pocket, I ride with bus driver Russ Shin (from his name tag), north to the airfield, but get off where he turns west and the railroad tracks continue north through the swamp. I walk along the tracks, cross a trestle, to the dump in the southeast corner of the airfield. Crawling under the fence, I am among the remains of planes, trucks, and all sorts of military gear. My personal stock pile. I pick up smoke grenades and dye packets. Radio equipment. Skipping the tubes of prophylactic ointment, I climb in the cockpit of a wingless plane and unscrew gauges of all kinds. Gyroscopes! Checking the time, I gather my haul—by now including pilot’s seat and dummy bomb—and head back, loaded much heavier than when I came, along the elevated rail bed through the swamp. What’s that noise? Looking ahead—a locomotive heading my way. No sir, I’m not going to ditch any of this stuff. I can’t go back, I’d miss the bus. And I’m not going into that swamp! Which leaves the bank under the trestle. I figure I can just make it. Flapping and rattling, I plod towards it as fast as I can. The train keeps coming. I keep plodding. Just as the train reaches the trestle, so do I. I taste the heat and smell of the steam as I dive under the tracks onto the bank below, my feet in the water. I feel how fast my heart is beating. No time to sit around. I keep going and meet Russ at the corner. Saying nothing, he just looks at me. When I get home, I put the stuff under my bed. Next day, I use a can opener to take the bottom off one of the smoke grenades. I show it to Jack Tisdale who lives across the street. In his living room, we use a lens to focus sunlight streaming in the window onto the cake of white. Wisps of smoke, then billows. We drop the grenade on the rug and run out the door. Jack tells me later everything in the house is coated with white powder. I am surprised how angry some grownups can get.

 

Exhibit C. For reasons unknown, in 2001, 90% of the eelgrass in Taunton Bay died back. Which is an ecological tragedy because eelgrass beds provide habitat for all manner of sea creatures including cod, flounder, crabs, periwinkles, and amphipods. I’ve been worrying that bone for seven years. What I know through personal experience is that no sea lavender appeared that year, periwinkles died by tens of thousands, the water was cloudy, ledges were extremely slippery as if coated with slime, and Maine had the lowest rainfall in 111 years. Looking at photographs from earlier years, I saw that eelgrass reached maximum extent and density in 1973, year of the heaviest snowmelt since records have been kept. Since 1992, I’ve flown aerial overflights to check on eelgrass in the bay. It was down in the 1980s, as it was in the drought years of the 1930s, but making a nice recovery throughout the 1990s. Boaters noticed how thick it was getting because it clogged their propellers. Then in 2001 it crashed. And only now in 2008 and 2009 is slowly coming back in some places but not others.

I’ve been trying to make myself conscious of the circumstances which prevailed in 2001 so I could accurately characterize the situation and figure out what the significant variables might have been that led to the dieback. What I notice from aerial photographs is that eelgrass is recovering in areas fed by both salt- and freshwater. That is, where the bay is brackish, as in stream channels and where melt- and rainwater flow off the land. The dieback, I think now, has something to do with the amount of salt in the water flowing over the eelgrass beds. Salinity is highly variable in Taunton Bay, ranging from pure fresh water on the flats at low tide (when it rains) to the salty flows coming over the reversing falls from Frenchman Bay and the Gulf of Maine beyond.

I now believe the eelgrass dieback was triggered by the drought that reached its peak in 2001, causing slight dilution and unusually high salinities, allowing eelgrass dieback disease to flourish whereas runoff and rainfall usually moderate the salinity, and thus keep the ever-present disease organisms in check. This makes sense because Taunton Bay is a closed bay largely surrounded by land (unlike open bays which are subject to greater flushing by marine waters), so periods of low runoff and rainfall produce pronounced changes in salinity. Too, global warming may have given the disease organism a significant boost in 2001.

By this exercise I have approximated the consciousness I might have had in 2001 if I had kept track of all that was going on in the world of local eelgrass beds at the time. By doing my best to recreate those conditions, I have tried to make myself aware of the prevailing situation that led to the decline. At least I can make an educated guess with more certainty than I could have when I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

 

The larger question remaining is where in the brain does situational consciousness come together as a gateway to both situational memory and informed behavior which is more-or-less appropriate to the circumstances within which it arises? The anterior cingulate cortex (see Reflection 60: Discovery) receives all the appropriate inputs (motivational, emotional, sensory, cognitive, remembered, anticipatory) as well as direct input from peripheral eye fields (what we see out of the corner of our eye), feeding forward to motor planning and execution areas of the frontal lobe. The locus where these various strands of consciousness come together could well serve as the seat of both situational consciousness and—when arousal is sufficient—situational memory (by a perhaps less direct route).

 

This is conjecture on my part. Maybe it has some heuristic value. My contribution is the details I glean through introspection, which animal and clinical studies generally do not provide. I offer it in this blog to give the world a chance to judge what it is worth. For me the reward is in the pursuit of understanding while I still have a mind to keep me entertained.

 

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