Thinking Plants

Consider your sources.  As an erstwhile professor I grew accustomed to repeating that, and this was before the internet started up, making claims of all kinds.  Certain news sources—think New York Times, or the BBC—earn their reputations slowly, over many, many years.  That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but it does mean they’re often on the mark.  So an article on plant consciousness on the BBC is worth considering.  Consciousness is still something we don’t understand.  We have it, but we can’t always say what it is.  Many, if not most, people tend to limit it to humans, but it’s become very clear than animals share in it too.  Why not plants also?  A few years back I read a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.  He made the argument that human consciousness must come from somewhere, and as we look down toward animals, and plants, what we see are smaller pieces of the same thing.

I’m not stating this as eloquently as Nagel did, but the idea has stayed with me.  The BBC article  notes how plants seem to react to human interaction.  And they seem to communicate back.  We lack the natural range to hear their responses, but some experiments indicate that plants at least communicate among themselves.  Being the BBC, the story reports but doesn’t necessarily advocate this point of view.  Still, it makes sense.  For too long we’ve supposed human beings to be the only intelligent creatures on this planet, taking the arrogant view that animals are automatons with no thinking ability.  To give them that would be to make them too human-like.

That particular viewpoint still exists, of course, but more and more scientists are starting to consider whether consciousness isn’t emergent from, as Nagel put it, smaller building blocks.  I tend to be on the more imaginative end of the spectrum—consider your source here—but it seems to me that plants could well have a consciousness too.  Trees move.  They do it too slowly for our species to notice it, fixated as we are on our own brief time in the world and our human affairs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t move.  It simply means that if we want to see it we need to shift our perspective.  Communication, it would seem, pervades nature.  If it does, isn’t consciousness somehow implicated?  Plants may respond when we pay attention to them.  To me that makes the world an even more wonderful place.


The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


One, two, three

The danger of statistics is that they turn an individual into a number.  A few days ago an article in the New York Times addressed the rare blood clots that some women develop after receiving the Johnson and Johnson covid vaccine.  The response of the cited physicians was telling.  Many praised the decision to halt use of the J&J vaccine immediately.  Others, however, point to the numbers.  If a vaccine is halted many more could be exposed to and contract Covid-19.  It is better, they aver, to take the statically smaller risk and use the vaccine.  While I understand the logic here, I do wonder if the side effects occurring primarily in women has anything to do with the reasoning.  Why not save this vaccine for the men instead?

This raises once again the specter of consciousness.  Statistically the odds are small that a woman will develop a clot.  What if you are the woman who does?  This dilemma always bothered me while camping in the woods.  Statistically black bear attacks are rare.  How does that help you if your tent is one that looks like a candy wrapper to a bear of little brain?  You become a statistic instead of a living, breathing, feeling, blogging person.  Statistics.  There’s a reason some of us identify with the humanities, I guess.  I can imagine what it would be like to have your doctor say to you, “Sorry, this is rare, but look at the bright side—you now become a statistic!”

Photo credit: HB, via Wikimedia commons

The fact is we’re all statistics to strangers anyway, the government above all.  We are vote-bearing numbers to be gerrymandered and prevented from voting.  Beyond that we’re merely annoying.  This pandemic has introduced Stalin’s accounting with a vengeance.  542,000 is a big number.  Unless you know one or more of them personally.  Then the statistics seem to melt.  Life is full of risk, of course.  We’ve barricaded ourselves in our homes for over a year now, eating things that are likely more dangerous for us than a rare complication.  The virus, and perhaps some vaccines, are among various killers on the loose.  Nobody can declare with any certainty the correct course of action.  Actually doing something about the virus when it was first a known threat would’ve helped, of course.  We find ourselves on the brink, it seems, of getting Trump’s disease under control.  Would that we all could do so, without having to worry about lying down to be counted.


Growing in Intent

Balance has become a desideratum.  Ours is an age of extremism.  Black and white instead of shades of gray.  One of the unnecessary polarizations is that between science and religion.  Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the labels we insist on using.  Science is shorthand for evidence-based research—it is a way of understanding the physical world.  It doesn’t necessarily discount a spiritual world but its methods can’t engage that world, if it exists.  Religion is a poorly defined word, often one of those “you know it when you see it” kinds of phenomena.  Often it is characterized by blind adherence, but that isn’t necessarily what religion is either.  To me, balance between the two is an authentic way to engage the world and other human beings.

Take plants, for instance.  And take consciousness.  While consciousness isn’t always associated with religion, it is one of those things that falls out of the ability of science to measure or quantify.  We don’t really know what it is, but we know we have it.  We know some animals have it, but rather arrogantly assert it is only the “higher” animals, as if we comprehend the hierarchy of nature in its entirety.  We dismiss the idea of plant consciousness.  For many years I’ve been pondering intent.  Without it no life would be possible from sperm germinating egg to heliotropes following the sun.  There’s some kind of intent there.  Will.  Recently The Guardian ran an article about scientifically measured intent in bean plants.  Although many have been left scratching their heads, or pods,  over it, to me it makes perfect sense.

I planted an apple seed a few months back.  It finally sprouted in late December.  I carefully watered it, and put it by a south window to get sunlight.  It grew quickly for a few days and then began to wilt.  I watched helplessly as it gave up the will to live.  I’m no botanist, but I suspected it was the coldness of being set on a windowsill.  (Ours isn’t the best insulated house.)  December had been mild, and it sprouted.  January took a sudden shift to chill, and I realized that new plants outdoors wouldn’t sprout in winter.  The seed had germinated, but the plant had no will to survive in temperatures chillier than its genes told it that might be safe.  I’m not a scientist, but I observed this scenario carefully.  Is it possible that french bean plants show intent?  I think it would be more difficult to explain if they did not.


Watery

Having watched What the Bleep Do We Know? a few weeks ago, I became curious about Masaru Emoto’s The Hidden Messages in Water.  The book is highlighted in the film, and in a world where money decides truth, the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller must count for something, right?  I am of a skeptical bent, but I like to keep an open mind.  This itself is a delicate waltz at times since just about anybody can make truth claims and find a following.  Curiosity, as they say…  So instead of critiquing Emoto’s obviously slipshod methodology, I want to reflect on whether he really might have been onto something.  Many people around the world thought so, after all.

What it comes down to is water.  If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I owe you a brief explanation.  Emoto suggests that water crystals reflect the influences to which they’re subjected.  For example, water frozen as classical music plays forms beautiful crystals.  If heavy metal is played, it doesn’t.  Water frozen in beautiful surroundings forms beautiful crystals.  If that’s not controversial enough, Emoto suggested that emotionally freighted words typed on paper wrapped around the water bottle as it was frozen would reflect the emotions on the paper.  There are lots of problems here, but what I wonder is if water might not somehow be related to consciousness.  Emoto makes that claim, but since science can’t yet explain consciousness there’s no way to test it.  Could it be that water is a recording medium in some way?  Without raising the woo factor too far, some ghost hunters (it is October, after all) suggest moving water has something to do with “recording” spirits.

Like most critical readers, I left Emoto’s book not at all convinced.  I also left thinking that we shouldn’t throw the bath water out with the baby.  There are crazy ideas in the book, for sure.  But there may also be just a hint of insight as well.  That insight comes in the recognition of spirituality as an important aspect of human life.  The book was a bestseller.  Not all people are credulous.  We are, however, spiritual.  Many deny it.  Some violently rail against it but still have feelings along with their rationality.  Water can lift spirits.  The negative ions of breaking water tend to make people feel at ease.  We visit the coast where waves break against beach or rocks.  We visit waterfalls where cascades scatter water particles.  Even a fast-flowing stream will do.  Emoto clearly went too far with his ideas, but I think, deep down, he might’ve been onto something.


Kind Animals

How many people could it be?  That’s the question a pandemic naturally raises.  Last weekend my wife and I ventured to a Vegan Festival in Easton.  Since we vegans are a rare bunch anyway, and since we tend to be socially conscious, there wasn’t likely to be any dangerous behavior.  That, and how many people would actually show up for what is often considered a somewhat wobbly crowd who don’t like to “rise, kill, and eat.”  It felt like a safe place to be with socially distanced kindred spirits.  Everyone was wearing masks and there was no Trump bravado going on.  For a moment it reminded me of the kind of accepting country the United States used to be.

Veganism, you see, isn’t just about not eating and not exploiting animals.  It’s about honoring the wonder of life in all creatures.  I realize some of the issues—believe me, I try to think things through thoroughly.  It’s all about consciousness.  We’re still a considerable distance from being able to define it, and some people, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, believe it might go all the way down and through the plant kingdom as well.  Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science.  We hardly know what it is, and how are we to know where it stops?  If we assume other people are conscious (with a few notable exceptions) based on their words and actions, might we not suppose at least some of the “higher” animals are as well?  Or are you just being a fool when you talk to your dog?

You see how this naturally suggests consciousness may lessen by matters of degree, but then we learn that even some insects know how to count and can understand a concept of zero (beyond most Republicans).  We like to put insects down at the bottom because we’re bigger and therefore more important.  Veganism suggests that we stop and think about these things.  We don’t necessarily take everything for granted.  It is clear that the largest polluter and environmental problem is industrial animal farming.  Rainforests are cleared for grazing land.  Profits from big agra are staggering.  Wandering through the stalls, keeping our distance from others who perhaps think too much, we partook of the counterculture in our own quiet way.  The street festival was small this year, but I do have hopes that it might grow, along with some serious thinking about the consequences of our actions.  


Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.


Making Memories

I’m a little suspicious of technology, as many of you no doubt know.  I don’t dislike it, and I certainly use it (case in point), but I am suspicious.  Upgrades provide more and more information to our unknown voyeurs and when the system shows off its new knowledge it can be scary.  For example, the other day a message flashed in my upper right corner that I had a new memory.  At first I was so startled by the presumption than I couldn’t click on it in time to learn what my new memory might be.  The notification had my Photos logo on it, so I went there to see.  Indeed, there was a new section—or at least one I hadn’t previously noticed—in my Photos app.  It contained a picture with today’s date from years past.

Now I don’t mind being reminded of pleasant things, but I don’t trust the algorithms of others to generate them for me.  This computer on my lap may be smart, but not that so very smart.  I know that social media, such as Facebook, have been “making memories” for years now.  I doubt, however, that the faux brains we tend to think computers are have any way of knowing what we actually feel or believe.  In conversations with colleagues over cognition and neurology it becomes clear that emotion is an essential element in our thinking.  Algorithms may indeed be logical, but can they ever be authentically emotional?  Can a machine be programmed to understand how it feels to see a sun rise, or to be embraced by a loved one, or to smell baking bread?  Those who would reduce human brains to mere logic are creating monsters, not minds.

So memories are now being made by machine.  In actuality they are simply generating reminders based on dates.  This may have happened four or five years ago, but do I want to remember it today?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on how I feel.  We really don’t have a firm grasp on what life is, although we recognize it when we see it.  We’re further even still from knowing what consciousness may be.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that it involves more than what we reason out.  We have hunches and intuition.  There’s that fudge factor we call “instinct,” which is, after all, another way of claiming that animals and newborns can’t think.  But think they can.  And if my computer wants to help with memories, maybe it can tell me where I left my car keys before I throw the pants containing them into the wash again, which is a memory I don’t particularly want to relive.

Memory from a decade ago, today.


The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?


Thoughts While Flying

Uh-oh!  I seem to be airborne.  All that’s in front of me is concrete.  If I don’t do something, my exposed hands will hit first.  Tuck, and try not to hit your head.  Still, on impact the first thing I do is look around to see if anyone saw that.  It’s embarrassing to trip and fall, especially when you’re old enough to be avoiding that sort of thing.  I jog before it’s fully light out, however, and the sidewalks can be uneven.  Just in case anyone’s watching my Superman impression, I immediately climb to my feet and resume my pace.  I’ll be sore tomorrow.  As a jogger since high school you’d think I’d have this worked out by now, but you’re never too old to learn, I guess.

The amazing thing to me is just how much you can think in those fleet seconds that you’re actually in the air, about to hit the ground like a sack of old man.  That’s exactly what happened, though, from the split second I felt my toe catch in an unseen crack and felt my balance give way.  Taking additional steps while trying to straighten back up sometimes works, but my top-heavy head was too far out of sync and my feet were sure to follow.  Your memory of such things goes out of body and you watch yourself comically flying, without the grace of a bird, toward an unforgiving substrate.  Such is the fate of the early morning runner.  I don’t have time to do it during the day.  What if someone emails and I don’t answer?  They’ll think I’m slacking off.  Remote workers!

Despite the occasional spills, I’ve always enjoyed this form of exercise.  In the post-Nashotah House days while still in Wisconsin I’d sometimes do nine miles at a time.  Whenever I’ve moved to a new place I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood by jogging around.  Even if it’s not fully light you can see plenty.  (Although the cracks in the sidewalk aren’t always obvious.)  I tend to think about these things as life lessons.  Parables, if you will.  One of the deep-seated human dreams is that of flying.  Birds make it look so easy, and fun.  A human body feels so heavy when it impacts the ground.  I suspect that’s why we find gymnasts so fascinating to watch.  As for me, I’m just a middle-aged guy in sweats and wearing glasses.  And even as I head home I’m already thinking how remarkable the number of thoughts are in the few seconds while in flight, somewhere over the concrete.


No Animals Harmed

Out for a walk after work the other day, I spied a black cat.  Not the superstitious sort, I didn’t let this deter me from continuing on.  Then I noticed that it was a mere three or four feet from a ground hog that was just as large as, if not larger than, the cat was.  They were staring at each other, weighing their options.  The ground hog didn’t appear too concerned.  Then a rabbit hopped up, on the other side of the cat.  A perfect syzygy of fauna that remained still for a moment in a tableau of nature.  About the same time as the cat noticed  the rabbit, the rabbit noticed it back and quickly hopped away.  The cat crouched and slunk after the bunny and the woodchuck ambled off at its own pace.

Not only was this conjunction an odd combination of three species of mammal—four if you count me—but it was such a conscious interaction that I had to think of it as almost human.  Three very different individuals, probably all with eating on their minds, had to assess how to interact, wordlessly.  As far as I could tell the drama ended amicably.  The cat looked well fed, in any case, and the rabbit far outdistanced it from the start.  Chuck was unconcerned.  Although the hard line still exists in science, drawn between ourselves and our fellow animals, I’m convinced that they have a share of consciousness.  We’re told that they’re mere “machines” following instinct.  These three “machines” along the trail were sure acting like they were thinking.

What are they thinking?

As the situation played out, no violence ensued.  Three individuals out enjoying the spring happened to find themselves in a scenario that called for negotiation.  The cat, like Republicans, felt compelled toward aggression, I should imagine.  It had a choice: take on a larger, more worthy foe, or turn its attention to the weaker, more vulnerable prey.  Naturally, it turned toward the weaker of the two.  There were differing agendas at play here, and with a dose of consciousness added in, these critters behaved so like human beings that I felt compelled to share it.   The ground hog and rabbit looked on the situation with some wariness.  They thought about it, and each took the prudent route to safety, for the time being.  Nature, it seems, will find its balance if we let it.  And we, if we would acknowledge it, still have something to learn from nature.


Time Saving

As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.  Life is full of them.  We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.  DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.  This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.  Why did people believe this?  Why did they do this?  What started this whole process?  (Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)

We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.  I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.  A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.  The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.  Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.  Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.  It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.  Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.  And human beings are natural actors.

Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.  The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.  Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.  Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.  Actors.  We’re all actors.  Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.  If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.  Anarchy would erupt in the streets.  We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.  Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.


Truth Is Marching On

A funny thing happens to human minds when they’re in a crowd.  They begin thinking collectively.  We’ve all heard of “mob mentality” and dismiss it as so common that we don’t stop to think how remarkable it is.  Maybe we’re afraid to.  Yesterday I attended my third Women’s March, this time in New York City again.  Being an introvert, I find the prospect of putting myself into a large crowd daunting, and with a winter storm warning posted, worries  about getting home provided a convenient excuse.  My wife knows me well enough, however, to sense when my enochlophobia kicks in and tries to kick out that part of me that’s passionate about social justice.  You see, women are still not counted equal citizens in this “land of equality.”  The Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.  Pay is still based on gender rather than qualification.  And we have an unrepentant misogynist in the White House.

Once I’m in a likeminded crowd, supporting social justice, it’s clear that my thinking is influenced by the activity of all those brains around me.  Scientists know this happens in nature.  Ant colonies, for example, “know” more than a single individual does.  Recent studies have even suggested this “hive consciousness” can exist beyond a lifespan, creating an archive of learning that exceeds the lives of an entire generation.  If only we could teach Republicans to do that.  In any case, being in the crowd of bright, intelligent, hard-working women found me in a good head-space.  The men in DC are certainly doing nothing to make the male gender proud.

Although crowd estimation isn’t an exact science, the media has consistently underestimated the sheer numbers of these marches.  The National Park Service, on duty in Washington in 2017, estimated 1.3 million had shown up for the march.  It’s still not unusual to see the number cited as 500,000.  Regardless, with the sister marches it was the largest single-day protest event in U.S. history.  We have to keep marching as long as men continue to elect the most ignorant of their gender to high office.  There’s nothing controlled about the chaos in the White House.  Fake news, alternative facts, a revolving door of staff, and Fox News’ nose so brown you could grown corn on it is not the way to run a democracy.  I may have been part of a hive mind for a few hours yesterday, and it was a far better mind than those that abound in the federal government seeking only their own glory.  Let’s hope the collective mind outlives this generation.


Mastering Ravens

One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.  That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.  (And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)  Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.  I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.  Who knew?  So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.

Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.  That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.  Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.  We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.  Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.  With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.

Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.  Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.  They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.  I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.  It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.  We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.  When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.  It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.


Real Dreaming

I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?

This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.

Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.