452. Was I Ever Young?

March 9, 2015

Looking back from the vantage of being eighty-two, I wonder, was I ever young? Was I ever! Young, that is. I have a bank of memories to prove it. Too many to count, so I will bullet a few.

  • Falling over the edge of a hayloft, hitting the floor between two pieces of heavy farm machinery, breaking my wrist.
  • My Vermont grandfather scolding me for sneaking into his workshop, messing with his woodworking tools.
  • Watching my grandmother talk through fingers screening her lips to keep her false teeth from flying out.
  • Lying in bed listening to steam locomotives pulling out of the station on wintery nights, hearing them try to gain traction on icy rails, slipping, then slowing, making another try, and another.
  • Auntie Viv giving us a dog that chased cars in Buffalo, and promptly chased cars in Hamilton, never tiring of attacking noisy tires.
  • Feeling heat from the fire in the boiler at the basket factory, hearing the machinery.
  • Crunching on broken glass, hearing whining complaints from sheets of galvanized roofing clanking in the wind at the old observatory on the hill.
  • Holding my nose among the bodies of cats pickled in formaldehyde at the gut lab, stiff legs poking under lids of their metal coffins.
  • Ogling a man’s head in a jar, donated the label said for research, skin stripped from half his face to show veins and arteries filled with blue and red rubber.
  • Watching a meteor shower with Norman Stauffer.
  • Finding fossil trilobites in layers of slate.
  • Getting stung by yellow jackets.
  • My father tapping his pipe out the car window, sparks setting tents lashed to the running board on fire.
  • My fifth-grade teacher’s heaving bosom as she sang Gilbert and Sullivan in the gym.
  • Brass spittoons among the ferns at the barber shop.
  • Crawling out over rafters holding up the tin ceiling of study hall at school, poking a balloon through a rust hole, bending down, braced between taut arms and legs, blowing it up for all to see—except nobody looked up.
  • Stealing a bike adornment with five flags from the dime store.
  • Peeing in a jug for a week to put on the neighbor’s porch.
  • Kicking a soccer ball on an icy sidewalk, legs flying out from under me, landing on the back of my head.
  • My tongue freezing to the metal steering bar of my Flexible Flyer.
  • Poking sticks into muskrat traps set in Payne Creek, the trapper yelling at me on the street.
  • Breaking into a barn, stealing an upright telephone and jewelry, wearing the pins under my sweater at school until my mother found out.
  • Mother spanking me with a canvas stretcher for yelling “I’m going to murder you” at my little brother for knocking down the tower I was building with wooden blocks.
  • My father making me give back the jackknife I stole from Dickie Wet-his-pants in second grade.

Was I ever young? Which tells you why I am now an empiricist, studying my own mind by direct observation and personal experience, shunning theories and mathematical models like dengue fever, dwelling contentedly in my subjective black box, taking full responsibility for my engagements with the world. Learning everything I know from my mistakes.

At birth, we are naïve about the ways of that world. The point of memory is to free us from our ignorance that we might have some chance of survival. Childhood is given us to learn as much as we can by trial and error in a somewhat protective environment. Now I know that pottery breaks when I drop it. Splinters lie in wait for me to rub my hand across rough wood. In the days when tires had inner-tubes, and I was old enough to drive, I was sure to get a flat tire if I didn’t carry a jack in the trunk.

It isn’t the taming of fire that gives humanity an edge on survival, spoken language, or even humor. It is memory that lets us learn from careless mistakes so, if we’re lucky, we can eventually work our way around them.

 

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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.

416. Natural Wonders

January 27, 2015

So what does nature do? It has an arsenal of nasty tricks: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, mudslides, windstorms, snowstorms, ice storms, sandstorms, firestorms, floods, droughts, avalanches, sinkholes, pandemics, and the rest of the worst that we think of as natural catastrophes. Nature’s destructive side often makes headlines.

At the opposite extreme is nature as shown on monthly calendars: scenic, subtle, serene, colorful, majestic, calming, dramatic, inviting, exhilarating, glorious, beautiful, cute, adorable, and so on. Nature is inherently neither one nor the other. It is what we make of it, depending on what we want it to be in a given situation.

Dead squid on Ellsworth schist.

A dead squid does its best to match the pattern of the rock beneath it.

Largely, nature is a high-level abstraction built up from our cumulative experience in natural settings over a lifetime. Yes, it is subject to seasonal and daily variations. It has a lot to do with flowing water, both fresh and salt, hot and cold. And sunlight, which depends on clouds and where the sun is in the sky.

The topic of nature brings wild animals to mind—birds, snakes, salamanders, fish, marsupials, mammals, dinosaurs, whales, insects, spiders. Too, nature is a hard and gritty place, full of rocks, cliffs, mountains, boulders, pebbles, sand. Then there are the stars, which are so remote as to form a special class by themselves, in the company of asteroids, meteors, comets, planets, galaxies, nebulas, and much closer to home, auroras.

Lentil-shaped Clouds

A few of the shapes and colors of nature.

For me, nature brings to mind experiences I’ve had outdoors in the fresh air. The first such foray I can recall is looking for mayflowers with my mother and two brothers by peering under leaves released by melting snow. My mother was from Maine, so she knew about such things. That was near Hamilton, New York, almost eighty years ago. Where we also went outdoors in winter to cut a balsam fir that we took indoors and hung with decorations.

About the same time, when I was four, I remember jumping off the bow of a lobster boat in Maine, landing on rockweed, slipping, hitting my knee. On that trip we tented in Acadia National Park so we could explore my mother’s nearby homeland around Sullivan. I remember running through woods, finding a deer antler, which I had no idea you could just come across as if it belonged right where it was. That experience hugely expanded my view of “outdoors.”

Edge of the sea.

The protective coloration of a least sandpiper matches its native habitat.

I also remember eastern cottontails sitting still behind every stump and standing tree on a small island that had recently been cut-over for timber. That and raspberry bushes scratching my legs.

A few years later, I hiked with my family to the fire tower on top of Schoodic Mountain, near where my mother grew up. We climbed through stiff summit winds on a rickety ladder to talk with the fire ranger in his tower standing over his plane-table map of surrounding terrain, a man who wouldn’t look us in the eye because he was so watchful of the forestlands stretching around us in every direction, on the lookout for faint wisps of smoke.

For almost 500 million years, these trilobite descendants are still going strong.

Wave-tossed horseshoe crabs mate in Taunton Bay, Maine.

As a boy in Hamilton, I spent many Saturdays in March and April roaming surrounding hills, drawn by meltwater forming little rivers rushing into the valley. I dammed those rivers by poking palisades of twigs into damp soil, got sopping wet head-to-toe, and had the time of my life.

In summer, I explored creeks flowing from those same hills, looking for fossils in the black layers of slate that formed the walls those creeks had dug into bedrock. Crinoids. Fluted mollusks. Trilobites of all sizes. I learned to take hammer and chisel with me to break into natural cracks, freeing the wonders within.

Ancient birch with one last limb.

An ancient birch extends one last limb into the canopy to catch a few rays.

That’s who I still am today, Steve from planet Earth, poker of twigs, launcher of leaf boats, pryer-loose of fossils, staunch defender of watersheds and the life they support.

Later, just after the war when I was fourteen, I stood looking from the shore of Lido Key in Sarasota out over the Gulf of Mexico, and saw without warning a great manta ray lift from the gulf, hover above the surface of the water, and glide back into the depths, something I had never imagined before and have never seen since, that single experience alerting me to the possibilities offered by a lifetime of curiosity, exploration, and discovery.

Which I am living to this day in exploring and writing about my own mind. I take the sight of that manta as the very emblem of who I was then and still am, an Earthling to the core, alert to the natural wonders of my home planet.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Recently, I attended a talk in Hancock, Maine given by William Crain, professor of psychology at CCNY. He spoke on reclaiming childhood, which has been depleted if not lost due to inroads by modern media and demands of modern education, so-called. We are depriving our children, he said, of many of the fundamental benefits of childhood on which their subsequent maturity will depend. Crain touched on childhood arts, play, and sensitivity to nature. A spirited discussion ensued, addressing issues in modern parenting and early education. At one point I found myself saying something to this effect:

What unsupervised outdoor play and exploration stimulates in young children—beyond adventure and discovery—is a sense of personal ease in being one’s self. Confidence and self-assurance flow from owning your own self-directed experience. That is, from pleasing yourself. Which is very different from what happens in schools where teachers dole out praise for desired performance, and children become fully dependent on someone else deciding when they are doing the correct thing the proper way in the right spirit. Pleasing others makes you socially acceptable; pleasing yourself makes you a real person. The two are not the same, and lead to wholly different personalities later in life.

I am reminded of what happened after the Russians lofted Sputnik on October 4, 1957. As a nation we were aghast that the Ruskies had gotten so far ahead of us in space technology. Educators panicked and vowed that the elementary school curriculum had to be juiced up with more math and more science. Set theory became the thing, along with exercises in concept formation. Grade school was given a shot of grad school ideas, and childhood itself was sloughed off as . . . well . . . childish. The result is homework and burdensome backpacks in grade one, but not children who are smarter or any more competent.

Crain’s slides took me back to Depression era days in Hamilton, New York, where I roamed springtime hills in search of runoff flowing from rainfall and melting snow. Using twigs and pebbles, I built canals and dams and boats for hours on end. I suppose it was play, but it was my job at the time—what I did for a living—for I was actively building my life by developing an intuitive sense of flow, gravity, energy, and progression of the seasons. Yes, I came home sopping and muddy—but wiser and more accomplished than when I set out. Happier, too, in being intimately engaged with my native habitat, my particular place on this Earth. My folks had no idea where I’d gone, and didn’t worry about my coming to harm. My father had grown up in rural Vermont, mother in coastal Maine. After-school surveillance wasn’t an issue. True, they didn’t know where I was, but they understood nonetheless.

As I got a little older, my experiential approach to hydrology soon led to major discoveries in paleontology. It made sense to go home by following the intermittent streams I played in as they joined other streams coming off the slopes, growing larger, cutting channels then gullies into the local bedrock, rushing toward the valley where I lived. From time to time I’d pick up a rock from the stream, turn it over, and find the shallow form or impression of a creature looking like a giant sow bug. My eyes turned from the streambed to the black walls of the gullies, which were built up in layers of shale. On Saturdays, when I had more time than I did after school, I’d pack hammer and stone chisel with me, and go at those walls of shale, and the secret life forms they held—shells, sea lilies, trilobites! My friend Norman’s father was a biologist who knew about such things.

My real schooling in those days took place outdoors, not in closed rooms with blackboards, flags, clocks that had Roman numerals, and cloakrooms in back. Earth was my classroom and teacher, aided by anybody who could put what I’d found into some kind of perspective. Sixty-five years later, I’m still the same kid in hot pursuit of horseshoe crabs, sandpipers, wildflowers. Now I think more in terms of watersheds than small streams, the progression of the seasons than fixed days of the week, but I’m the same child whose consciousness has grown large in the never-ending flood of personal adventure and experience that is my life and no other’s.

What a difference it makes to follow your own course of study instead of having to fulfill others’ ideas of what you should be doing with your life. Whatever I am, I am my own person, so respond my own way as best I can. Schools fill your head with what other people want you to know, so you become an agent for a sector of society that henceforth has dibs on your body. It’s like a credit-card debt you will never be free of because you unwittingly took it on when you were too young to realize what you were doing. Graduation is the beginning of payback time when you are expected to perform at the job for which you’ve been trained. Getting a job and supporting the economy have become so routine in our culture that we have come to believe that’s how life is meant to be lived. You are made to feel selfish and unpatriotic if you even dream of plotting your own course. To be a good citizen is to devote your life’s energy to fulfilling the dreams others lay upon you. Forget your own bliss and get on with what you have been programmed to do. It’s that simple. And that crazy.

Sanity lies in taking your own consciousness back from those who have stolen it from you. In being your own person in your own life in the place where you are. The price you pay is in being responsible for your own actions because you can’t blame your boss, your folks, your spouse, or your kids for your being who you are in doing what you do. If you aren’t comfortable with what consciousness presents to you, you can always change your ways—it’s your call, as long as you do it without inflicting harm on others in the process. This is the opposite of the jihadist way based on such a narrow under-standing that all blame for things going wrong can be cast on designated enemies you are entitled to blow up in self-righteous fury. No one in his right mind would fight in a war if he didn’t believe those he killed were lesser beings than himself, deserving of slaughter like so many ants. This requires adjusting consciousness to think in terms of the good and the evil, those deserving to live and those begging for death.

But if you are on good terms with your own mind, you know that others are striving to be on good term with theirs as well, and all face the same struggle in achieving a life that is considerate, fair, just, and the equal of all others. No one can hand you such a life, you must earn it on your own, and support others in striving to earn theirs. Do they teach that in school? They pay lip service to fair play, but the hidden agenda is always the home team’s got to win. If the umpire calls a foul against your side, he is clearly blind. The other side is always at fault—it’s their nature. But by being on your own, you realize others are too. If you take advantage of them, they will return the favor fourfold. If you treat them fairly as equals, ditto because they identify with you, as you have shown you do with them.

Give and take is the nature of a mutually beneficial society. Fixed minds and ideologies are a curse upon the collective consciousness of the whole. Schooled as a group to believe the same doctrine, we lose sight of truth itself. Educated (led out) as individuals each on our own, we share our respective excitements and learn from one another as equal participants in the adventure of life. Individuals contribute to society as they are uniquely qualified to do, enriching it by giving the gift of one self to all, which the all will reciprocate, each in his or her manner.

Reclaiming childhood means taking the risk of reclaiming consciousness for each individual. That encourages each one to be his or her unique self all the way. It means giving up the myth that under the skin all are identical. We are valuable one to another precisely because we are unique and have something to offer that no one else has. Genetically we are distinct, as we are situationally, experientially, and existentially. No one is more essential than another, all are equally valuable.

That is where this riff on reclaiming childhood for ourselves has taken me. Equality itself is attainable through our diversity, as are fair treatment and true social justice. In thinking all must be educated the same to be treated the same is a fundamental error because it cannot be true. No two of us are alike; each is unique. A true education would address our personal constellation of interests and abilities, and nurture them to find where they lead. An education that closes a person down for the sake of group unity is no education at all. We all need encouragement to open ourselves up so we can blossom in youth and come to fruition in maturity. As our individual if imperfect selves, not clones of some perfect—and wholly fictitious—ideal.

We’ve tried no child left behind and it hasn’t worked. How about moving every child to the fore of his own life and see how that goes? Children are unique individuals when they are born, and are such in school. Respecting and nurturing that individuality just may be the key to facing the growing number of problems our numbers and lifestyles are causing in today’s world. It’s time for a new take on education. I suggest we place our trust in the expansion and development of individual consciousness and see where it takes us. That is, base education on who and where our children are at the time of learning and not impose lessons despite who and where they are as we so often do now. The sandbox, playground, back yard, and stream gully are all places of learning. How about retiring the school board and trusting our children to show us what they can do on their own as their budding consciousness means them to do?

Herring in a Bucket