Imagine two big bins. One is filled with rubber duckies, pottery shards, space shuttles, DVD’s, playbills, books, skyscrapers, electronic gadgets – stuff like that. It also has an annex full of intangibles like symphonies and TV shows and stories and ideas like democracy, altruism, truth etc. The other bin brims with feathers, pebbles, some pond muck, twigs, clam shells, stars, leaf litter and the like. Its annex of intangibles contains things we don’t really have words for – undiscovered natural laws, the arrival of a thunderstorm, Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the green fuse through the flower”, etc. Now put those bins inside your head. Sometimes I think that’s the way our minds are divided.
Popular brain science has long told us that our right and left brains work differently – one side more devoted to things like perceiving emotion, appreciating art, recognizing faces; the other side more devoted to reading text, speaking, math and logic. Predictably, this is being proven a gross oversimplification. No matter. In the thought experiment I’m proposing I’m using mind as opposed to brain. Think of brain as your computer and mind as its program. Hardware vs software. iPhone off the shelf vs apps. Brain is where stuff is stored, sensations are processed and body parts are made to do their thing. Mind is – well, nobody really knows for sure. Its where we experience things like meaning, identity, attention, memories, associations, ideas, emotions. And maybe even conceptualizing it as a place is off the mark.
So back to our bins. They’re in the mind, not the brain. And it has probably already occurred to you that bin one contains only man-made things; bin two contains everything else. The man-made stuff has all cycled through at least one mind – sometimes many – before it became what it is. It started out as an idea. Then it was mulled over, reconceived, perhaps talked or written about – then eventually became transformed from the idea to a “realer” reality. The stuff in bin two – well it’s there with no help from us. And we often dig into bin two for the raw materials to make the stuff in bin one.
I imagine everyone’s bins being different – different in what they contain and how big they are. And I imagine the two bins get different amounts of people’s time and attention. Take Aldo Leopold.
Back in the early twentieth century, Leopold was a bureaucrat working for the US Forest Service who later became one of the founders of the modern conservation ethic and author of the ecologic masterpiece A Sand County Almanac. I imagine Leopold had a huge bin two – full of hills and partridge, sandhill crane tracks in the mud, carcasses of white tailed deer brought down by winter starvation, the smell of March. Of course, like the rest of us, he had plenty of stuff in bin one as well; firearms and fishing poles, typewriters and directives from his boss in the forest service. But his bin two was the really big one – about the same size as Rachel Carson’s.
Now for the questions. Are the bin sizes of each of us fixed or expandable? Is the way we divide our time between the two something we’re born with or does it evolve? If it changes, what causes the change?
My mind wanders. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond rigorously documents thriving civilizations which imploded in response to abuse and neglect of natural resources: think Maya, Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenland Community. I imagine that many of those citizens, as things were falling apart, spent more time rummaging around their bin two – trying to figure out what was happening and doing their best to cope as their world collapsed around them. And I can imagine an inner city youth – one whose experience of nature in the commonplace sense has been limited to grass growing between the sidewalk cracks and pigeons cooing on his tenement window – discovering on a school field trip to a nature preserve that he has a big but almost empty bin two. But it seems that usually – by the time we reach our productive years, we’ve pretty well established the ways we look at things and what kind of stuff gets our attention. For some, the best way to relax is an afternoon reading a book or watching football. For others, it’s a hike in the woods or an afternoon in a duck blind. And for many, of course, it’s something of a toss up.
So what? People differ. In matters of taste, there can be no disputes. Problems crop up, though, when one kind of taste overpowers; when the taste for bigger houses or ivory jewelry or snowmobile access to National Parks means disappearing forests or the loss of a chance of anyone ever seeing an elephant in the wild or disturbing the experience of silent wilderness snowshoeing. That’s one reason it becomes useful to know if the bin sizes can be changed – and if so, how to do it. But there are others.
Consider that rubber duck bobbing in a bathtub. When 15 month old Julie points to the air-filled yellow blob and utters for the first time something that sounds vaguely like “duck” her parents cheer. How could anyone be troubled by that? Well, what if Julie never has the opportunity to get up close and personal with a family of precocial anseriforme hatchlings chasing emerging mosquitoes over the surface of a woodland pond? What if if her idea of “duck” remains for the most part in bin one even if, as she grows older, it is enriched to include the idea of a delicious piece of protein covered in orange sauce. If things go like that there’ll be some pretty important voids. There’ll be no wondering how that newly hatched ball of fuzz can emerge from its shell already knowing how to chase mosquitoes, no appreciation of the fact that those webbed feet – so effective at motoring the hatchling through the water – collapse with each forward movement to minimize resistance, no sense of the timescale involved in accumulating and sorting through all the DNA changes that led to the feet doing that. In short Julie’s view of the real world will be greatly impoverished and, if one is prone to exaggeration, potentially dangerously so.
And one more thing, though it’s difficult to articulate. Since everything in bin one has already cycled through someone’s mind, it’s meaning – what it has to teach us about the reality outside ourselves – is already framed, simplified, reduced and focused for clarity of human understanding or singularity of purpose. The stuff in bin two? That’s the last frontier. And it happens to have been the first one too.
But this thought experiment has run way amok. Just about every Julie will soon enough realize that there’s a lot more to “duck” than the thing in her bathtub. She’ll come to distinguish between artifice and the reality it is meant to represent. Nonetheless, I’ll wager there are orders of magnitude more people today that have held a yellow rubber duckie than have held a warm, feather-light squirming fuzzball while its mother, naturally, quacked hysterically nearby and maybe even risked her life to retrieve it. And it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t have important implications.