420. Water Go-Round

January 31, 2015

Almost single-handedly, the water cycle is responsible for the hospitality of planet Earth to life of all forms, including primates, including apes, including humans. Powered upward by sunlight, downward by gravity, the water cycle tells the story of the vast migration of water molecules from the surface of the ocean back into the air from which they fell a day or a million days ago, returning to that upper realm as water vapor, an invisible gas, from which it will eventually fall again as rain, hail, sleet, or snow.

Watersheds are the domains where the water cycle interacts with the land that conveys it back to the ocean, picking up mineral and organic nutrients, making photosynthesis possible in algae and green plants, which in turn make animal life—including consciousness—possible in every clime around the Earth.

In engaging with nature, we are truly engaging with the flow of water in its various forms. We were born in a primal sea; now that sea lives in us. What is the womb but an inner ocean of life? An unbroken stream of water connects us through the eons to our primal selves.

We don’t engage the water cycle all at once, but more typically one stage at a time. We admire clouds in the sky. It rains on our tent. We stomp puddles to make them splash. We kayak down streams and rivers. We sail on the ocean. On steamy days we sweat and return our bodily water to the air.

I divide that continuous flow into fifteen different stages that collectively add up to what we call the water cycle.

  1. Water falls from the sky in one form or another.
  2. It collects in puddles on the ground (or as ice on glaciers flowing to the sea).
  3. Those puddles percolate into the soil or cracks in bedrock.
  4. Drop by drop, soil water flow downhill through porous soils.
  5. Soil water flows from banks into wetlands and small streams.
  6. Small streams join to form rivers.
  7. River water (and glacial ice) mix with salt water in a bay or estuary.
  8. Salt water flows out with the tide to form currents.
  9. Currents flow at different depths to join local seas into one global ocean.
  10. Cold currents are warmed by radiant energy streaming from the sun.
  11. Surface waters evaporate, becoming water vapor.
  12. Water vapor rises into the air.
  13. Where it condenses into droplets to form clouds.
  14. Droplets join into bigger drops too heavy to stay aloft.
  15. Those big drops fall toward Earth, starting another round of the cycle.

Watersheds are one of the primary ways the natural world organizes itself. All life on Earth depends on water, and watersheds are systems for distributing water across time and space, making it available on a reliable enough basis for individual plants—and life dependent on them—to survive.

Watersheds take water from large areas of higher ground on their peripheries and distribute it to ever-smaller, concentric areas lower down, conveying a flow of water, soil particles, and nutrients downward toward a central focus in the lowlands below.

Almost everything we take for granted on Earth stems from the cyclical movement of water from the surface of the ocean into the air, from air into soil, from soil to stream, from stream back to ocean.

In that sense, the water cycle is a huge pump that floods the fields of plant and animal life on Earth. What are we but individual tributaries of the flow from that pump? Every drop of water in the soil is a delivery packet to the roots of plants and trees. Every glass of water, bottle of wine, can of beer or soda is a packet of water to be delivered to our gullets.

Each of us is an integral part of the water cycle. The water cycle is us. If Earth’s great pump ever falters and stops working, we falter and stop working. The pump runs on gravity and sunlight; we run on gravity and sunlight. Our minds run on gravity and sunlight. Heaviness and lightness—there we are again, caught exactly in the tension between them. Made possible and kept running by the pull of our planet in concert with the loft of sunlit-water turned to vapor and rising through warm air.

This puts consciousness in a new light. Consciousness is not in our brains as neuroscientists today so firmly believe; it is in our engagement with our home planet, and only half of that engagement is in our brains (leading from perception to action via meaning and judgment). The rest is in what we engage with in the world beyond our skins.

Consciousness is as much a product of gravity and sunlight as it is of the flow of ions through our neural networks from one neuron to the next. Put differently, that flow of ions is an extension of the water cycle through the flesh-and-blood neural tubes and synaptic junctions that make up the bulk of our brains.

If we disconnect from sensory input by being put in solitary confinement in a bleak cell, or by otherwise depriving ourselves of stimulation from our surroundings—in such cases we shut down to the extent our consciousness shuts down from lack of input. A mind by itself is not enough. Every mind needs a world to engage with in order to thrive. It needs to take part in the larger flow of gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, dissonance and consonance.

I am trying to fit the flow of thoughts through our minds into the larger context of the flow of water through the surface of the Earth. I firmly believe there is a connection between the two flows, an intimate and vital connection that makes my writing this blog, and your reading of it, not only possible, but essential. By that I mean you won’t find this discussion anywhere else.

After all, we and our progenitors have lived on the Earth for a long time—some three-and-a-half billion years. It would be incredible to claim that we are not an integral part of the basic processes that run Earth’s every system. We are not above the Earth or below it; we are creatures of it. We are constituents of the biosphere as made possible by the cyclical flow of water within the limits set by inner Earth and outer space. That biosphere is implicit in our every thought and engagement. It is the true medium of consciousness, of which the brain is but one part.

 

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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.

 

415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

Beyond serving as citizens of four great worlds at once (nature, culture, community, family), in the end each of us stands on her own legs as his own unique person. So many factors make up our identities, no other person on Earth has a mind like the one in our private, mysterious, and, yes, figurative black box.

In that sense, each one of us is an experiment to see what we can make of the gifts the universe sends our way. Since evolution cannot predict what fixes we will get ourselves into, it gives us the makings of a mind we can fashion into the very one we need to serve our widely varying purposes.

It is hard to tease out the separate influences of nature, culture, community, or family, so it is easier for us take responsibility for ourselves as agents in charge of our own perceptions, judgments, behaviors, and engagements as a result of the lives we actually lead. We can apply this approach to whatever level of activity we are operating on at the time.

This does not make evolution into some kind of genius with universal forethought. Rather, reliance on personal consciousness works for us today because it was the only thing that worked in earlier stages of our species’ development. What works, works; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Those who fit the former case will survive, the latter die off. Evolution is that efficient, and that blunt.

So here we are, standing on the shoulders of countless past survivors who in turn met the challenges of their times. As we offer our shoulders to those who come after us. We can’t necessarily provide the support our descendants will need, but at least we can offer what we have in the form of the lives we actually lead.

Which raises a question. What rules of engagement with the natural world might be appropriate for us to live by in working toward a more secure future for the extended family of Earthlings that will follow our faint tracks? Certainly Love your mother is good advice, but no one yet has found a way to forge that advice into a firm rule.

I’ll settle for: Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe. That ought to cover it. Don’t just do as I say, but do what you feel is appropriate in your individual case. And please note that in “our” I include every Earthling of all species.

Think in terms of a water cycle that includes rain and snow, wetlands, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, oceans, and ocean currents, not just your minute portion of such a cycle. Think in terms of watersheds, not political boundaries. Think in terms of natural processes, not products. Think in terms of habitats and ecosystems, not places on a map. Think in terms of quality of life for all species, not just your amassing a fortune in money or possessions. What you “have” is a life in progress, not what we now would call a personal possession. Life is one thing we may have but cannot own.

Could we ever learn to be conscious in such terms? I’ll put it like this: if we can’t, then we’re not long for this Earth. The signs are all around us. Ebola is a clear example of how infectious diseases will thrive among our overpopulated and overcrowded living conditions in the future. It will be with us from now on. ISIS is an example of what will happen if we base our behavior on selectively narrow cultural beliefs instead of a true understanding of the workings of the natural world. And AI (artificial intelligence) is an example of what the corporate-commercial parody of intelligence leads to as a substitute for the authentic intelligence we will need to guide each one of us as an agent of personal freedom and understanding.

My long study of my own mind leads me to entertain such thoughts. We are in this world together, each playing our part in preparing the future of life on Earth. The trends I have pointed to above suggest where we, together, are heading. Taking our planet hostage as we go.

I firmly believe we can do better. And that doing better is up to us as conscious individuals who take responsibility for the lives we lead, not as mindless victims of the most narrowly focused and aggressive among us.

As I said, each one of us is an experiment. Life is a test of our situated intelligence, such as it is.