421. Watersheds

February 2, 2015

Watersheds are land basins that often contain large amounts of soil. Soil, by definition, is porous. It consists of particles of rock and organic material nestled more-or-less closely together (more closely in the case of clayey soils, less in sandy or gravely ones). Spaces between particles invite water to flow in-and-around them, picking up air and dissolved nutrients and minerals, which that underground water conveys to thirsty roots and microbes on its relentless journey downslope toward the ocean.

The early stages of that journey do not take place across the land so much as within it, by winding routes between soil particles of remarkable complexity leading on to more and more of the same. We are fascinated by the wonder of ocean depths and outer space, while the wonder of the soil beneath our feet eludes us. The French peasant who held up a clod of soil from his field and exclaimed (in translation), “This is France!” had it almost right. He might have said, “This is life!”

The local transport system of individual plants is an extension of the watershed in which it grows. Powered by evaporation through the surface of leaves, a lifting force draws water taken in from damp soil upward into the presence of chlorophyll, where it intercepts energy from the sun, ionizes, and frees a hydrogen ion that triggers the process leading to the production of glucose—a form of sugar containing energy in a form plants can use for maintenance, growth, repair, reproduction, and defense.

With roots in the soil, leaves in the air, vascular plants such as trees have the best of both worlds. If they were not able to rise aboveground to spread their leaves in the sun, or able to draw water up to those leaves, plants would exist only in areas where water, air, and sunlight come together at ground level—humid places such as where nonvascular plants like mosses and liverworts grow in glens and at the bases of cliffs, or in bright and shallow wetlands, streams, and ponds.

But by enabling the aerial, sunlit world of wind and leaves to combine with the dark, subterranean watery world of soil and roots, plants bring two aspects of a watershed together, the upper and lower, light and dark, in a way that radically expands the biosphere’s potential for growth, producing the lush world of sap, fruit, seeds, and leaves where every meadow vole, weasel, hawk, person, fungus, and bacterium lives today.

Plants are the creator of this modern world, and watersheds throughout the biosphere are their patrons, mentors, supporters, and protectors.

In a very real sense, brains, too, are watershed extensions, elaborate expressions of damp soils and sunlight. They take in energy from two sources, food (including drink), and sensory or molecular stimulation through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Food fuels bodily life-support processes, sensory stimulation provides the signal that activate the components of consciousness such as perception, memory, understanding, meaning, thought, judgment, and subsequent behavior.

Sensory stimulation sends ions across brain cell boundaries, causing currents to pulse toward axon terminals, where neurotransmitters carry those signals to others next in line, creating sensory patterns of activation and inhibition that spread across groups of neurons, and those patterns can be compared point-for-point with other patterns, creating consonant or dissonant signals, such as those that provoke consciousness.

Consciousness, then, is an extension of the engagement between a mind and the watershed that provides it not only with life, but patterned sensory stimulation in addition. To even partially understand consciousness, we must consider the life-sustaining environment in which it occurs, the patterned stimuli impinging on the senses within that environment, as well as the actions with which particular minds respond to that evocative sensory stimulation, so constituting a particular engagement between our minds and their surrounding worlds.

In my thinking, a mind interprets or translates patterned sensory stimulation as a situation laden with meaning in light of previous experience (sensory stimulation such as one or two lanterns shining from a tower is not meaningful in itself), and organic intelligence in that situation judges what response to make that would be most appropriate to that (perhaps unique) situation.

Minds, then, convert watersheds, sensory signals, and actions into meaningful life situations, and it is those interpreted situations that minds respond to, not watersheds, signals, or actions in themselves. We all develop repertories of situations we are familiar with, and courses of action to take in responding to just that range of situations. Our world at any given time is a construct composed of such situations as delimited by their specific mix of dimensions to which our intelligence responds, the situation serving as the psychic environment standing in for the “real” environment consisting of watershed, stimulation, and appropriate action.

I assume that watershed, sunlight, and gravity contribute to the context within which consciousness exists in the natural world. In watershed I include a sense of the natural resources available in a given situation. In sunlight I include climate, weather, season, wind, and other natural phenomena. In gravity I include the unstated but assumed background of forces to be dealt with, including mental habits, routines, rituals, prejudices, and other psychic influences.

If I were to hold up a clod of soil today, I might well say, “This is consciousness!”

I carry on like this because I think we often overlook the natural influences that affect everyday consciousness and behavior. Even in a cubicle in a skyscraper in a modern city, we depend on water and food that undoubtedly come from watersheds we may not be aware of. Without such unacknowledged watersheds, urban civilization would not exist, as ancient Rome would not have existed without its roads, baths, and aqueducts. Such hidden dimensions of experience are implicit in our modern-day engagements with artificial intelligence, the internet, drone strikes, and covert security operations.

In a very real sense, modern consciousness rests on basic factors such as watersheds that many of us are oblivious to, yet support our minds in everything we do. To the extent that we might mindlessly undermine those natural factors, such unstated assumptions pose a potential danger to our well-being and security.

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

(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)

My freshman year in college, I learned about what were nicely called “fudge factors” in math class. You’d do your homework, of course, and compare the answer you got with the one in the back of the book. If they were different, you’d simply adjust your answer by a fudge factor that would make it come out right.

Fudge factors are as old as the hills. And as new as today. When I feel lightheaded and can’t think, I say it’s the new or full moon, or low atmosphere pressure, or something I ate, or I’m having a bad day, or I’m just not myself, or I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever is not going right can be explained by one kind of fudge factor or another that when applied, helps me adjust to the circumstances I’m in.

In the Second World War, when airplanes didn’t perform as they should, it was blamed on gremlins, ill-tempered little  beings who loved to gum up the works. Gremlins were fudge factors that marked problems until an explanation could be found. Kilrokilroywasherey played a somewhat similar function during the war as Allied Forces advanced through Europe, showing up in the damndest places as a little face with a big nose peering over a fence drawn above the slogan, “Kilroy was here.” Wherever you went, Kilroy always got there first, making foreign parts feel almost familiar to troops far from home.

Fudge factors are some of the first principles of consciousness. We are so earnest in wanting things to turn out right, we enlist them to do the heavy lifting of making events as they turn out conform to our hopes and basic assumptions. If we believe in a supreme being, then everything that happens expresses the will of that being. God hurled Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans to punish the city for its errant ways. Nothing is neater and tidier than that trick. Or for good or ill, whatever happens is a matter of luck. If you luck-out, you win; if you don’t, you lose. Either way, the assumption holds. Similarly, if you believe in astrology, you can’t go wrong. Whatever happens in life is a function of alignments and relationships between planets at the moment of birth (or conception). The system is so complicated and subject to subtle shadings of influence, everything ends up being a function of every possible effect, proving the worth of the system. Astrology works particularly well in hindsight so once knowing the effect, you can give proper credit to whatever cause you select.

Consciousness comes fully equipped with the latest fudge factors. Whatever you believe, you can justify; whatever you justify, you can believe. I believe ecosystems run all life on Earth. Wherever I look, there be ecosystems. Interfere with ecosystems, you interfere with life in that place. If life goes wrong, look to the ecosystems that support it. Neat, simple, and maybe even partly right. But ecosystems are never the whole story; they are the rationale by which I make sense to myself, my personal fudge factor in reconciling my understanding with the facts. “Ecosystem” is shorthand for a complex biological system beyond my comprehension. “Watershed” is of the same order in, as I say, receiving, storing, and distributing the water on which all life depends. When I look on a landscape, I see watersheds. Ah ha, see there! Moisture flowing through the land, bringing it to life—just as I said it would.

Or you could say of an event, it was fated to happen. In northern climes, snow generally melts in March or April, so the landscape seems fated to restore itself shortly thereafter. Fate is one of the oldest fudge factors because it explains everything. Whatever happens is fated to happen. Thus it is written in the great book of time. You don’t need to understand biological systems to give all credit to fate for how things work out. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be—as if it was all written out beforehand, as somebody or something knew it would turn out.

Mother Nature is also a common fudge factor. I’ve heard a great many fishermen credit her with masterminding the migrations of fish, the relative abundance of species year to year, ups and downs of thermometers and barometers and tide gauges, and so on. Mother Nature works through natural cycles of dearth and plenty, bad years and good. Exploitation of resources has nothing to do with it. What happens is what she wants to happen. If a fishery gets depleted, you just turn to another—usually lower in the food pyramid. If a fishery recovers somewhat, you say “I told you it would, you’ve got to have faith in Mother Nature.”

Of course Mother Nature is the female counterpart of God the ultimate Father. We seem to like our fudge factors to take on a human guise so we can relate to them up-front and personally. Instead of seeing God as a creation of the human mind, we turn the notion on its head and see God as the creator of the universe—including the human mind—who controls everything that happens. On that assumption, there are no mysteries anymore because God is the ultimate cause, and you just trace everything back to him. That way you feel you understand everything when in fact you understand nothing. God is just a manner of speaking—a verbal figment whose only meaning is the ritualized suite of behaviors we perform when we mention his name. That, and the attitude of submission we assume in abandoning our quest to understand the workings of the world. Those who pose rational arguments against claims for God’s existence are wasting their time. The concept of God is not rational. Like any fudge factor, God is an expedient to deploy when you haven’t done your homework. God is a cop-out, not an answer to a serious question.

In minds where God holds forth in broad daylight, the Devil frequently lurks in his shadow. God is assigned the job of making good things happen, the Devil of bringing destruction and disaster wherever he can in his capacity as ultimate gremlin. The Devil puts a face on entropy, and makes it intentional in fulfilling a preconceived purpose. Ascribing consciousness to gods, devils, gremlins, elves, and even Uncle Scrooge makes them all agents of ourselves—the projectors—as if we fully understood what was going on. This demonstrates the weakness in Bishop Ockham’s razor by which the simplest explanation is likely to apply. Nothing is simpler than projecting consciousness into fictitious beings—yet even though it makes us feel good, it leaves our preconceived assumptions absolutely intact. Fudge factors mock true learning and intelligence by the shoddiness with which they are applied. We may entertain them with good-humored affection—as Kilroy was held by G.I.s in World War II—but in truth we are kidding ourselves if we take the joke seriously.

Fudge factors transform dross into treasure, which is what alchemists tried to do in transmuting base metals into noble ones. They serve as a kind of philosophers’ stone for rubbing tarnish off one thing, making it shine like something else as if mere friction could turn lead into gold. In that sense, fudge factors are elixirs of the mind for turning the annoying into the acceptable, the bad into the good, the not-so-good into the perfect. Fudge factors and elixirs are underlying principles whose falsity and absurdity are not taken into account because only the seeming results are what matter. They are lies we tell ourselves in striving toward little-t truth.

Science, on the other hand, messy as it is, relies on evidence, not magical explanations. If it has a magic elixir, it is likely a supposed dependence on reason rather than hunches, trial and error, persistence, and sometimes luck in being in the right place at the right time to witness a particular phenomenon. Scientists often employ the human faculty of insight—an exercise in informed imagination—which nobody truly understands, but can sometimes lead the way to discovery. The difference between insights and elixirs is that one comes from inside the problem itself as an organic extension, while the other is laid on from the outside to make it work out in an acceptable manner, so confirming prior belief. Science, then, is capable of moving forward; fudge factors always send us back where we were. At its best, science is progressive, while reliance on magical thinking is regressive, allowing us to think we are moving ahead while we are actually stuck in our tracks.

Attitude is the key to choosing between magic elixirs and true insights. Do we insist on claiming to know, or are we willing to live with the fact that we don’t? If we fall in the first class, pride and rigidity are our undoing. If in the second, disbelief and humility are our burden. The difference is told by the fabled race between tortoise and hare. Hare bounds effortlessly ahead, then sits on his haunches and gloats. Tortoise digs in with each claw and lurches in a direction he can’t fully appreciate—until he crosses the finish line first and discovers where he was headed all along. Those who leap lithely without fully challenging themselves are apt to fall behind; those who pull themselves along by doing the work required to go one step at a time will eventually cover more ground than those who advance by fits and starts.

Either way, the issue is to find a way of dealing effectively with our current situation as we construe it in consciousness. I mean the italics to emphasize the difference between, on one hand, thinking we already know the world as it is, and on the other, assuming responsibility for shaping that world by means of rigorous probing of personal experience. Elixirs and fudge factors provide ready answers as if we knew what we were talking about, providing immediate comfort in a false sense of security; taking trouble to investigate why we see things as we do commits us to a much more arduous path which, in the end, can lead to surprising and even profound insights into our true situation. The choice is ours to make, the understanding ours to earn.

Fudge factors and elixirs are the easy way out. In life, there are no answers in the back of the book because the book has never been written. Lead cannot be transmuted into gold no matter how hard we wish it so. Put differently, each of us must write her own book by living her life as best she can. That’s why I say attitude is so important in exploring consciousness. We can seed it with what we already know—and learn nothing. Or we can live with doubt and uncertainty by questioning everything we do. One way leads backward, one forward.

I opt to move ahead by studying how I visualize my own situation in the world, how I construe it, shape it, formulate it, depict it, describe it, concoct it, characterize it—all on my own. Without resorting to fudge factors, elixirs, gods, angels, devils, or easy answers of any kind. Life, in the end, is the result of how we live. It does not exist as an abstract entity we magically fulfill by being born. Life is neither this nor that—it is precisely what we make it for ourselves from our own inner stuff. Life is the process of making sense under the circumstances we find ourselves in, which we can only interpret as best we can, and then reconsider in light of what happens next. There are no right answers; there is only what we do.

hare-snowshoe_5-89