Leaf Litter and Rubber Duckies

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 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.

 

 

 

Tilting at Windmills

I was discussing renewable energy a while back with a neighbor.  His politics are a bit more to starboard than mine, but he’s a thoughtful fellow and has reached the conclusion, as have I, that climate change is a significant threat.  We both agreed on the need to develop a portfolio of non-fossil energy sources.  As we enumerated the costs and benefits of each type, we got to wind.

“Now there’s a technology that has a lot of promise.  Cheap, clean, and plenty of it to go around.  But I read the other day that there’s a noisy lobby against it.  Seems there’ s a bunch of people afraid that windmills are going to kill too many………” he paused dramatically and then his face contorted into a look of astonished disbelief   “……birds!   Can you imagine?  Holding America’s energy needs hostage because windmills may knock off some…….birds!”

Here was a tough choice.  Take on a set of values very different from mine and risk ruining the conversation, or move on to solar.  Coward that I am, I chose the sun.  But it got me thinking.

What is it, after all, that made the tradeoff such a no-brainer for my neighbor.  Was he unaware of the mountainous havoc our species is inflicting on Earth’s biodiversity?  Should I tactfully suggest he might enjoy reading  The Sixth Extinction in which Elizabeth Kolbert makes a powerful argument that our impact on the planet’s flora and fauna  is comparable to the asteroid collision of the Cretaceous–Paleogene era which wiped out three quarters of earth’s species and, irony of ironies, allowed Homo sapiens to evolve and flourish in the resultant vacuum?  Might information like this shift his values?

Or is it more a matter of religion?  Is he following his God’s directive to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”  If that’s the case, I should have steered the conversation towards what “having dominion” means.  Common parlance would have us think of mankind lording it over the rest of creation but there is clearly an element of husbandry and protection in that word.  After all, if rulers fail in their responsibility to keep their charges safe they don’t remain rulers for very long.

Or perhaps an economic argument would have appeal.  One of the things taken for granted about birds – bats as well – is the prodigious amount of pest control they perform – at no cost to farmers and no increase in the health risk or the price of food to the consumer.   An article in the March 2013 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin, researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimates the number of birds killed by wind turbines in the US in 2012 at 573,000.  And in the December 2013 issue of the Journal BioScience researcher Mark Hays, in a peer reviewed article, calculates current bat deaths from wind turbines in the US to be between 600,000 to 900,000 individuals.  That translates into a lot of boll weevils, corn borers and fat green tomato hornworms still munching away.

And then there’s  the contribution to the national economy of all those birdwatchers buying binoculars, birdhouses, spotting scopes and sunflower seeds.  That might have some sway, especially if my neighbor has some stock in Nikon or Bushnell

Of course none of these pragmatic considerations gets at the heart of what bothers me about  those half million plus birds getting smacked out of the sky each year.  For me and, I think, a good many similarly-wired folks, it’s a bit as if a bunch of Van Gogh paintings were tossed in the dump, or copies of The Sun Also Rises got burned, or the Olympics got cancelled one cycle, or TV programming was reduced by a couple of hours a week – stuff like that.  If one of those batted birds happened to be the brilliantly sun-struck black and gold oriole whose bell-clear note sails down at me from a tall tree as I walk out my door in May,  my world would definitely lose some of its richness and beauty.  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d even be willing to pay a couple of cents more on my electric bill each month so long as that oriole keeps coming back.

There’s an interesting difference between the paintings, the books, the sports accomplishments, the programming coming from a big flat screen TV and that oriole.  Those first four things are all creations by us, and their subjects, for the most part, happen to be……us.  The oriole, on the other hand……. but that’s a subject for another blog.

Thoughts on Catching a Fish

In a reflective moment I asked a close friend why we so loved to hunt and fish. “It’s just anachronistic,” he said, as though that explained it.

Both of us relish our time out of doors – away from cement, asphalt, glass and steel – and especially those priceless moments of intimacy with a fellow creature not of the human race.  The partridge bursting from brush beneath our feet.  The hare zigzagging away at full speed.   And not just during hunting or fishing seasons. The school of bluefish brushing our legs as we swim in the surf also thrills.

He’d rather row the boat while I cast, provided I hand him the rod every other time a fish is hooked.  Once on the line, we are connected to that other being, that beautiful product of evolution, or design – whatever.  And the connection is as intangible as it is material.

The fish has beaten the odds – floating as a defenseless egg on a hostile sea, schooling as a fingerling, evading sharks and gillnets for years in adulthood. It has plumbed dark depths, migrated in response to mysterious forces, felt the draw of mates.  It has a will, to survive.  We feel it directly in each jump and run. We too have a will,  however redundant or anachronistic, to bring it home to feed ourselves and our families in a way so much richer, at least to us, than the finest meal at the finest four star.  And in so doing the fish becomes us, at least in a materialistic sense.  The fact that its will does not brings us face to face with the Great Mystery, though our perhaps-wiser forebears thought it did.

Bringing home a piece of plastic-wrapped chicken from the supermarket has none of that.  Eating it, we sustain ourselves with a nearly synthetic product of our civilized economy.  Hens bred with breasts so huge that their legs give out, raised in warehouses with manufactured food delivered by conveyor, mass slaughtered with Henry Ford stainless technology, quick chilled, aseptically wrapped, transported, presented with Madison Avenue-designed aesthetic.  Is that what we become?

Let me gut my fish barehanded on a rock and toss its roe to the hungering gulls, knowing that in doing so I have sacrificed some of the next generation of bass.  Let me keep fresh in my mind the will that fueled its jumps and runs, and wonder if that spirit is now no more or has instead returned to some larger source from which it was simply borrowed or shared.  Let me ask if my own will may not come from and eventually return to a similar source or maybe the same.  Meanwhile, all those ineffable drives and desires and even thoughts are translated into concrete action by the sparkling synaptic machinery laid out by our DNA.

Anachronistic, yes, but there’s more to it than that.