Sunday, September 4, 2011

Some Background Writings About Place

Before I get into my newest reflections on place and human potential I thought I'd re-post this entry from my simplicity journal as background food-for-thought:

September 7, 2008

In one of Paul Shepard’s essays he talks about the research of a woman named Edith Cobb. She believed that the external terrain of childhood forms a model for internal cognitive development.

Perhaps the most remarkable document on childhood in this century is Edith Cobb’s Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. Surveying the lives of geniuses, she noticed a common thread—the return in moments of creative meditation to the place of childhood in imagination or sometimes physically, a trip that helped toward a solution to a problem. The original meaning of the term genius loci referred to a unique sacred power. What was it, Cobb asked, about the original experience that made it useful to the psyche in a recapitulated travel across the juvenile home range; in what sense was it an organizing force?

She concluded that the adult faith and intuition that order permeates the cosmos, that no bit of data or bizarre idea was truly disparate, that searching would be rewarded, extends from the singular imprint of an intensely inhabited space about thirty-five acres at a crucial time of life. Played through, the child’s transit, time and again, locked this literal, objective reality into an unforgettable screen, through which other, novel objects of the mind would be envisioned by the questing adult as though they were details of a landscape. Just as the mnemonist studied for thirty years by A.R. Luria ‘placed’ images for later retrieval along a path in the mind’s eye, at some less conscious level a holding ground is absorbed. The juvenile home range is a tiny universe, whose trees, rabbits, culverts, and fences probably register some kind of metaphorical series whose branching, skittering fleetness, subterranean connecting, and boundary-marking function in relation to a speculative field of half-formed and elusive ideas follows a paradigmatic system of relationships. An anatomical model for this unlikely neural representation of place is seen in the fundus of the eyes of vertebrates, where the colored oil droplets in the cells of the retina, differing according to the frequencies of light in different parts of the visual field, form an eerie landscape that can be seen with an ophthalmoscope. Edith Cobb’s own genius has given us insight into the primordial meaning of coherence as a function of a specific, tangible, ecology, swallowed by the nine-year-old in repeated excursions.

What excites me about this line of thought is the possibility that part of our minds exists outside of us, in the landscape. While it seems that Cobb was saying we build up internal neural networks in childhood that replicate the external environment, to me it almost seems like our neural networks extend out from us into the environment. It is as though the whole earth were brain, or mind. I find it especially interesting that Cobb found geniuses to frequently use landscape as a means of gaining knowledge or insight. They’re tapping into the larger mind we’re all part of. I’ve said before, I believe that tapping into our full human potential means tapping into our larger identities--identities that extend out beyond the boundaries of our skin.

Cobb talked about geniuses who returned to the landscape of their childhood. This implies that they left that land at some point. But what if you stayed put?  What might be possible in a lifetime of building up internal and external neural networks?  Of enlarging the self, extending more and more deeply into the environment?  Until we become rooted in the land once again I don’t think it will be possible to reach our full human potential.

Shepard, in a related essay, mentioned that the classical definition of genius was “the spirit of place”. It’s by tapping into the spirit of place, the larger mind, that we can achieve “personal” genius. All knowledge is out there. None of it is personal. It simply waits to be located. When I’ve said “Place holds potential”, I mean that very literally. There’s a very visceral way I’m sensing that place holds unique knowledge. We become who we are by our unique interactions with the land. We can’t become the same person in a different locale. We don’t gain the same knowledge.

These days the line between nature and nurture have blurred for me. It’s all one seamless experience of responding to nature. I think I can begin to see the next phase of our evolution. Instead of consuming matter in the childish way that we do, we will begin to convert matter into spirit. By knowing the land we will expand Mind and eventually begin to know who we are--Gaia. And once we recognize ourselves to be this entity, Gaia, then maybe we will shed the idea that Gaia is an isolated dot in the universe, and begin to extend our identity and mind out into the cosmos. Eventually we will recognize that we have always been the Mind of God.

But if we can just reach Gaia-Mind, that would be hugely transformative. Our human potential could begin to unfold and it surely wouldn’t be tied to consumption. We would stop trying to make the ego look bigger. Instead we would grow our Mind.

I think we would regain a more fluid way of being and perceiving, as in our primordial days only with deep conscious awareness. The egoic, rational brain which is so clumsy and a hindrance, could recede in importance. Direct experience would again be primary.

I’ve often found the rational brain gets in the way. I hate the fact that I always have maps in my head; always have a name for the place I’m in or the place I’m going. I don’t want a representation of place. It interferes with my ability to know a place. I have enough “past life memories” to remember the older, more fluid and direct way of experiencing. The rational mind, while so important for building consciousness, really dumbs down reality.

Intuitive, fluid, spiritual beings--that’s our destiny if we don’t kill ourselves off first.

I’ve been trying to encourage a more fluid way of being to take hold in me. For one thing, since reading the Temple Grandin book, I’ve been trying not to censor my imagery. I’m becoming aware just how ever-present my imagery is. It is always flashing up, probably in every moment, if I was just aware enough. My “haunting” may just have been me moving into that more fluid way of seeing. There are layers of reality here, always. I want to get a handle on what I’m seeing, why certain imagery wants to be connected with certain thoughts, actions, or places.

One example (I know this sounds bizarre and psychotic but I think there’s legitimate knowledge here): lately when I look in the mirror I see a flash of an image overlaying my reflection. It’s a bird, probably an eagle, but maybe a hawk, with its wings outstretched in flight.

I’ve also had tons of "past life" images arising as I read and write and think. I see the land before all this manic human destructiveness and development took place and it makes me so sad.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Going Home Again

You can go home again, apparently, because I've done it.  I came to my parents house in Pennsylvania in June for an extended visit (extended meaning--to me--about two months) and I'm still here.  Events have been conspiring against me (or with me--I'm still not sure) to keep me here.  Almost as soon as I got here both my mom and my dad were diagnosed with cancer.  My dad's is a slow growing cancer of the prostate which only needs to be watched at this point.  My mom has cancer in both breasts and she has opted for chemo followed by surgery.  All of that has been put off until after my mom and dad go to Ireland for a week next month.  Meanwhile Mom is taking what amounts to mini-chemo in a pill.  My gut sense is that she doesn't have an aggressive form of cancer and will be just fine, but I will be sticking around to see how the chemo goes next month.  And as if all of this weren't enough, in the past two weeks my mom managed to amputate part of her index finger.  *Sigh.*

So I am here in Pennsylvania after a fourteen year absence (aside from a few very short visits) and back in my home town after a twenty-four year absence.  In other words it's the first substantial amount of time I've spent here since I left when I was seventeen.  And wow what a time I'm having!  I've stated previously on this blog that I believe human potential is tied to the land and that place holds potential.  Much as we pretend to be creatures divorced from the land we're really created by the environment that surrounds us.  So it's been a fascinating journey to revisit the landscape that created me.

I'm going to get into all of this in more detail in my next few posts, but for today I just need to ease back into writing.  For some reason I haven't been able to write at all this year.  It's like I can't string two sentences together, can't form coherent paragraphs.  Instead of fighting it I've taken it as a sign that something else is needed, some other way of making sense of the world, something other than words--and so I've written next to nothing all year.  But I think I feel a shift happening now and perhaps I'll be able to string some posts together in the next few days and weeks.  I miss blogging.

Here's a photo of me with all of my siblings and my parents, taken over the 4th of July weekend.  I'm the one on the left.

From Where Simplicity Leads

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Moneyless World?

Moneyless World--Free World--Priceless World is a blog I've had listed in my blogroll since back when I first started this blog. It's one man's account of living without money (since 2000, I think). Suelo is not a very active blogger--partly because he doesn't often have access to a computer--but when he does post, his accounts are always interesting. Mostly his posts stress me out, but that's just me. I'm not a nomad or a gypsy; I like to be rooted to a place. So his accounts of standing by countless roadsides with his thumb to the wind, or sneaking into and out of rail yards (and sometimes getting caught) I find exhausting even to read. It's not my idea of a life!

But I don't say that to be critical. I hugely admire what Suelo is doing and his efforts to document his lifestyle. His philosophy is beautiful and right-on in my opinion. Nature operates as a gift economy and we humans should be able to as well. If you've got some time, check out his website (in addition to his blog)--he's got some great essays there that delve into the philosophy behind his lifestyle.

I admire Suelo for living his convictions, for modelling a different (and healthier) philosophy of life. Many of us have noble convictions, but how many of us get out there and actually live them? Suelo is following the path he was put here on earth to follow. That earns him hero status in my book.

I hope to soon (and finally) be living my convictions as well. And when I do, the new world I'll inhabit will be largely moneyless too. It won't look the same as Suelo's world, but that's because it'll be my unique path and not his. My unique path involves becoming rooted to a place, becoming an inhabitant, part of an ecosystem, a participant.

Money has been a huge obstacle for me all my life. I'm missing what other people seem to have--a link between money and the reward centers in the brain. Money just doesn't do anything for me. The prospect of acquiring money doesn't motivate me. I can't make myself care enough to do whatever it takes to earn wads of cash. Intellectually I understand that to make it in our current society, to be functional here, you have to know how to earn money. And I most decidedly am lacking in that skill. I am most decidedly dysfunctional in this society. But, it was Krishnamurti who said:
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
What I am adapted to is the way we lived in earlier times. What I am adapted to is the way we will live in future times, in all likelihood. I am not adapted to living in this sick society.

The economy I participate well in is not the global economy. The economy I participate well in is very tiny--it's a single ecosystem, a single homestead integrated with the surrounding landscape, where a human gives and takes and participates and interacts. There are many, many exchanges, but no money changing hands. There's value created. There's abundance. There's reciprocity. There's balance. There's health. This economy is centered around a single spot, yet it has tendrils that reach out and connect it to other economies and to the larger whole. Most of the exchanges happen on that one spot; fewer and fewer exchanges happen the farther out you go on a tendril. It's a place-centered, intensively local economy.

On that one spot, all exchanges operate on the gift economy. All is freely given and received. A little farther out into the neighboring economies and exchanges are more likely to involve bartering, and farther out still they are likely to require some form of money. I don't believe money is evil or unnecessary. It serves a genuine purpose--facilitating transactions that occur at a distance. At a local level, however, money is unnecessary, perhaps even a hindrance.

I've stated before on this blog that there's a big difference between transactions and interactions. Transactions are distancing and de-humanizing while interactions create bonds, trust, and accountability. Historically, transactions occurred at a distance. They were exchanges with people you didn't know, people you rarely encountered, people with whom you had no opportunity to build trust. Money was the perfect way to exchange goods in those circumstances--it had a very well-defined value so it prevented conflict between strangers. Among your own clan however, transactions were never needed. Your clan was its own ecosystem, with all parts (you and your kinspeople) freely contributing to the healthy functioning of the whole. No one kept tabs--that would be like your heart keeping tabs on how much oxygen your lungs are contributing.

In between these distant transactions and these local interactions was a fuzzy middle ground. Here is where barter took place, or elaborate and often ritualized gift-giving traditions. These were your distant neighbors. You were probably remotely related to them, so there was an accountability to them but it was a bit tenuous. Bartering ensured fair trade practices. Because you might not see these people again for years, an immediate reciprocal exchange made sense. Or, in some cultures there were elaborate and lop-sided gift-giving rituals among distant tribes. If you were the visiting tribe, you flooded your hosts with gifts. That tribe would do the same whenever it visited other neighboring tribes, and whoever visited your tribe would do the same. Thus bonds were maintained, even though it was never immediately reciprocal.

Do you notice something here? The gift economy and to some extent the bartering economy are both based on trust and the building and maintaining of bonds. They build cohesion and harmony. The money economy on the other hand is based on distance and distrust; it's based on remaining at arm's length from potentially dangerous strangers--those mysterious "others". A major part of the sickness of our society today is the fact that we've forgotten how to do anything other than transacting. We've turned everyone into a stranger. No one is worthy of our trust. And so we become these islands, in the process losing community and connection and robbing ourselves of a whole bunch of love, laughter, and joy.

I'm naturally gifted at interacting. I suck at transacting. For me immediacy is what counts, what's right in front of me. That's why I'm so perfectly geared towards living an intensively local existence. I can't handle abstractions, especially that one called money, but I can handle what I can verify with my senses: what's under my nose, what's under my toes, the people, plants, and animals that surround me, the wind and rain, stars and sunshine, rocks and rivers, clouds and sunshine. And those things fill me up in a way that money never will.

Edited to add: My apologies if this post is impossible to read. There's some kind of blogger glitch whenever I use the "blockquote" feature--it screws up the line spacing from that point on. Since it doesn't show up in the html, there's nothing I can do to fix it. :(

Saturday, February 26, 2011

AmeriCorps on the Chopping Block

AmeriCorps and its umbrella agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service, might soon be no more, and that would be a very sad way for the program to end. Now more than ever we need this sort of program. Americorps was originally VISTA--Volunteers in Service to America--a program first envisioned by JFK as a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Back in the early 90s I served as a VISTA volunteer for a year at a non-profit in my college town. We ran a mental health hotline and offered short-term walk-in counseling for mental health and drug and alcohol issues. Like most AmeriCorps projects, our clientele were among the neediest and most underserved in our community. In fact, the overarching mission of the VISTA program was to alleviate poverty. Today AmeriCorps volunteers serve in many capacities--helping to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, serving in inner city schools, teaching English and literacy, working on infrastructure improvement projects, cleaning up streams, building low-cost housing, etc.

AmeriCorps is a brilliant program, especially in our current economy. It gives people jobs while costing very little. The pay might sound insulting--it's sub-minimum wage--but there are plenty of people who would jump at the chance to have some income rather than no income at all, and have a chance to do something truly useful, and gain real skills. In fact, there are always more applicants than there are spaces to fill. If anything, this sort of program needs to be expanded.

I'm convinced our economy is not going to recover--not in a time frame that's meaningful, anyway--and inevitably we all will have to adapt to fewer hours of work and less pay. AmeriCorps could be the poster child for this new reality. Earning $5.80 an hour is going to sound more and more appealing to people as time goes on. As I said, some income is better than none at all.