17. Regroup and Begin Again
I look up and all of a sudden, seven months of my sabbatical are behind me. It’s half over. Ever since the middle of December, when I stopped working on Rosen, Ulanowicz, and going beyond the Newtonian world-view, I’ve been pulled in different directions, first by the holidays, then by a trip to Italy with Vaughn and her mum. I’m not saying I haven’t read books – especially Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature, which I read twice and about which I have so far written twenty-seven pages of notes. That book might be the one I hoped I’d read one day, that would make a radical difference in the way I think about all this. But I haven’t written about it in a way that’s more than notes. Something else needs to happen. I’ve come to some kind of fork in the road of this project and I’ve got to get my bearings.
For what feels like a long time now, I haven’t been able to figure out what the question is that I need to answer before I can go on. I’d like to one day wake up knowing the shape of the finished product this will become, but I don’t know if that is the question. It feels like I could go on forever in a stream-of-consciousness way, chasing whatever happens to interest me from book to book, but is that really a good idea? And yet I don’t want to impose a shape too soon, or arbitrarily. I’m circling, I’ve lost my forward momentum and now I need a restart. I know these uncertain patches are crucial to the writing process, but it doesn’t make them easier in the moment.
Bateson’s thinking is truly radical, and part of me wonders if I’m just trying to digest it and justifiably, it’s taking a long time. Maybe that’s what’s stumping me. Meanwhile I have to ask what I’ve accomplished up to this point.
The argument I’ve been interested in recently seems to be one of dragging assumptions (dead metaphors) up into the light, seeing them again as metaphors, seeing the consequences of believing in them as descriptions of reality, recognizing that there are other available metaphors out there. Much of the work I’ve done seems to be about replacing the particle-interaction vision of reality with one modeled on ecosystems.
I know that I’m trying to write about how there is no clear line of demarcation between the humanly constructed and the natural, how the exact placement of the pink tape tied to a branch that reads WETLAND DELINEATION is ultimately a fiction. How we are not separate, nature is not “the world without us,” and we can be in collaboration with it when we remember that the river owns itself. In fact, we have no other viable choice.
I know that I’m thinking about how various people, starting from different assumptions and data, thinking in different ways, writing in different terms (history, science, philosophy), seem to be converging in the vicinity of certain ideas, and therefore there must be something to them. These ideas all resemble properties of ecosystems: spontaneously emerging order, ceaseless evolution of new forms of harmonious relation. The crucial role of formal cause. Causal loops and “indirect mutualism.” The notion that the reality we live in is neither fully explainable, nor mechanistically determined. The understanding that constant self-creation is the essence of life, that creativity is not only a human attribute, but is all around us. All these ideas have been asserted about ecosystems, and all of them, I’m arguing, have wider application as potential descriptions of the basic nature of our reality.
I know, too, that I have wandered far away from the literal liquid subject of all this, water, the magical substance that we must have to sustain life.
I can say all that about what I’m up to here, and yet something remains naggingly unsaid. There’s a pebble in my shoe, mentally speaking, and I can’t seem to get it out.
I’ve become used to hearing myself say that mind is part of the ecosystem; what exactly does that mean? Given that we act upon the environment, given that “the environment” for each of us is our idea of it, given that the feedback we receive from it is to some great extent influenced by our mindscape, given that this feedback shapes our actions (“that worked,” “that didn’t work”), I think it becomes fair to say that mind is part of the ecosystem. Imagination, epistemology, mindscape is one of the players in the complex system, and a powerful one to the extent that we are powerful. We bring forth a world, as Maturana and Varela would say; we create the reality we find ourselves facing. If we imagine ourselves collaborators, we’ll treat the river very differently than if we imagine ourselves in control of the planet and on a God-given mission to perfect it. And what we do can transform even the Columbia River.
Bateson, in Mind and Nature, goes far beyond saying that mind is part of the ecosystem; he says that ecosystem is mind. When he talks about “how we can know anything” he goes on to say “In the pronoun we, I of course included the starfish and the redwood forest, the segmenting egg, and the Senate of the United States.” And later, in the same vein: “that wider knowing which is the glue holding together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human committees.” (p. 4)
Bateson has six criteria for mind, the first of which is that mind is “made of parts which are not themselves mental. Mind is immanent in certain sorts of organization of parts” (199). Though this may sound weirdly abstract and even far-fetched on first reading, it actually is a description of how our own minds work. Somehow the organization of billions of neurons into an astronomically complex, self-organizing system brings about mind. Mind is the product of formal cause (the relationships of all those neurons to each other), not of efficient cause. If mind were brought about by efficient cause, there would have to be some thinking-agent within us; for example, one might have to posit that neurons and neurotransmitters are thinking. But no one believes this. A synapse is not “having a thought” when a neurotransmitter is released. There is no miniature me at the controls within me, like Captain Kirk on Star Trek, watching the video screen, hearing the radio transmissions coming from outside the spaceship, calling out his orders. Considering this, learning to take this seriously, makes it easier for me to entertain the idea of mind existing outside me, in some network, some structure (like a forest) that is made up, like my own mind, of parts that are not themselves mental.
If mind is a “wider knowing” much bigger than one person’s mind, if it is “extracranial” as Bateson would say, if thinking is going on in a larger sense of which I’m a part . . . what does this tell me about how to proceed?
“No doubt deeper levels of the mind guide the scientist or the artist toward experiences and thoughts which are relevant to those problems which are somehow his, and this guidance seems to operate long before the scientist has any conscious knowledge of his goals. But how this happens we do not know.” (“The Science of Mind and Order,” Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. xxiv)
I know this is true of writing novels, even if I don’t know how it works. I’ve experienced it again and again in fiction. And if I try to locate mind outside the boundary of me, in a system of some sort, it might fit this project too: I could say that mind is working on it when Josh recommends Rivers of Empire to me, when Vaughn or any other reader asks a good question, when I “stumble upon” the wetland at the Bangor Mall or see a heron wading at Combined Sewage Outfall No. CAM401A. When I find a website that has a link that for some reason “looks promising” and then discover an article that seems crucial for me to have read. When I come to the spot where adjacent to Sickle Brook and its marshy border are, first, a trellis with vegetable vines on it, and then a parking lot full of tow trucks, towed cars, and wrecks. When I first have the far-fetched thought that love is a functional component of the ecosystem, and later discover that’s what Maturana and Varela have concluded, too. When it just so happens that on the day we go to photograph the stream at Bangor Mall, there’s an article in the paper about how that very mall has changed the brook downstream. When Stewart sends me the clipping about the people who feed the white geese. Perhaps larger mind wants this thought to develop and I am an available channel for it. Definitely not the only channel, but I, like any other person, will give it my distinctive spin.
Maybe Bateson has framed the question for me, after all:
The question ‘What am I trying to discover?’ is not as unanswerable as mystics would have us believe. From the manner of the search, we can read what sort of discovery the searcher may thereby reach; and knowing this, we may suspect that such a discovery is what the searcher secretly and unconsciously desires. (Mind and Nature p. 81)
Given that truth for him arises in the process of causing two or more different perspectives to intersect, it makes sense that when Bateson is searching for mind he will find it in some sort of “both.” Both inside me and outside me. Both conscious and unconscious. Both human and not. If comparison is always the method, it makes sense that what he will find will be a relation, not an object.
And what is the manner of my search? My method doesn’t seem so different. In a way that’s not entirely explainable, books, experiences, articles, ideas swim into my field of view. I take these new thoughts, new data, new ideas, and try to integrate them into a rolling synthesis. My approach is what Maruyama calls “poly-ocularity”: a belief that understanding will emerge from bringing together multiple points of view. In the process I must also be tolerating an accumulating amount of contradiction, or material that refuses to integrate – the “overhead” of my project’s intellectual ecosystem; synthesis is the increasing ascendency. If Bateson’s right, my method reveals that what I seek to discover is a unifying insight that brings together as many as possible of the seemingly disparate truths.
But as soon as I write this, I remember the crucial warning that comes from Ulanowicz’s work: beware of creating a brittle system. Beware of the too-perfect synthesis. Remember that the overhead is your safety margin. Don’t get too cocky. So the conclusion, for now, must be not to conclude. Wu wei is affirmed yet again. “Those who are good at controlling water give it the best opportunity to flow away.” And though I’ve let the actuality of water flow away from me in the course of the recent abstract thinking, maybe that’s all right, maybe it needed to happen for reasons that will become clear later. The dialectic has gone far in this epistemological direction, farther than I ever expected; much has been learned, I can hope that more will surface as a result, and now maybe it’s time to let the pendulum swing back.
And one more thing. If we live in a realm of formal cause, if the relations between things are the crucial powers at work, if “‘Mind’ is immanent in certain sorts of organization of parts” (199), then a rule of how to proceed becomes clear:
Don’t just look at the things that are there.
Look at the shape of the spaces between them.
Can I remember to do this, can I make it the way that I see? We’ll find out.
In the words of Bateson, “epistemology is always and inevitably personal. The point of the probe is always in the heart of the explorer: What is my answer to the question of the nature of knowing? I surrender to the belief that my knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits the entire biosphere or creation.” (82)
Good advice, I think. What is my answer (for now, always “for now”)? I search back through what I’ve written here, because I believe there are always clues hidden in your own work, perhaps in plain sight, trying to tell you what it is trying to be. The clue that I find, ultimately, is the image from one of my novels, of the narrator lying stretched on the earth, hidden, at the base of a fence, waiting to see what he can spy out from that unlikely vantage point. I said that beauty lurks on the boundary line; in that scene, my narrator also lurks there, in search of the truth. In the story, it’s the truth about his best friend’s dad having an affair, but now I think the application is much wider, that this is my personal answer to the question of the nature of knowing. It is my job to hide on some boundary line in the conviction that there, what I want to understand will come clear. My chosen spot is in the between – on the boundary between what and what, would be a good question. Between the verifiable and the imaginable, between theory and water, between what I can understand and what I can only guess at . . . it’s not going to be possible to complete this list.
Another chunk of my writing comes distantly to mind, buried somewhere in the notes for one of my novels, or in the stuff I periodically write to hear myself think. It takes some searching, but I know it’s what I need right now, and eventually I find it.
So. Truth, as well as beauty, lurks on the boundary line, in the edgeworld, in the hedge as Loren Eiseley would say with factual accuracy – literally in the hedge, among the stems and the brown leaves which have caught there and will remain until they crumble or are eaten, until whatever unremarked and invisible process transforms them into other aspects of this world. Yes: the invisible process, the invisible workings, the unknown means of transformation, the action which is so humble, so unspectacular, so tiny, so gradual, that no one notices, no one knows, yet it works a magical conversion, a disappearance.
Truth, life, is at the margins, is in the hedge. Within smallness. Within the unnoticed. It lies in those places to which few pay attention and where almost no one resides. It lies in the unexpected, the just slightly off, the not quite acceptable, the hope against hope, the weaker argument. It lies in the glimpsed, the fleeting, in that which cannot be grasped and held.
There: that’s my answer to the question of the nature of knowing. It’s been there in a file on my computer since 1999, waiting for me to dig it out and look again. It explains why I have never been, in the professional academic sense, much of a scholar: because academics aspire to be definitive and right, to be intellectually, if in no other way, the overdog. Whereas something in me does not. I identify in some strange way with the weaker argument. Not that I believe I’m wrong, not that I don’t try in good faith to understand, and to write what I understand. But there is some part of me that says I don’t know. This must be why I am so ready to accept Popper’s view that the universe will always remain “open,” forever in some aspects unexplained.
Even more oddly, I feel intuitively that some part of me, like the narrator in that scene from my book, is hiding in order to think. That is in some sense true about my way of thinking, but how?
Because hiding is a form of freedom. Because in the unseen hiding-place I can think anything. And oddly, this has more than a little to do with continuing to write unpublished novels; they are answerable only to art, only to literature itself. When anyone reads them, or reads this, I let the reader into my hiding-place, I try to let him share the experience of being the one who brings forth a world in this idiosyncratic way. I offer this thinking or this imagining, not to say “You should think like me,” but so that the reader may put it beside her own. What happens after that is out of my hands.
How, then, shall I make use of this message in a bottle from 1999, that I sent myself about how to pursue this project, long before I knew such a project would exist? It doesn’t seem to be possible, by definition, to search for a fleeting glimpse – only to be open to one. But there are some positive instructions here. Lurk on the boundary. See what’s caught in the hedge. If this message is pointing me the right way, then things that matter for this project may seem, at first glance, unimportant; or they may seem like mistakes; or they may seem marginal. It may appear, even to me, that I’m focusing on what’s in the periphery of the picture, instead of what “should” obviously be the center of attention. But do it anyway. Don’t try to be right, try to be awake in the moment. In the between.