… or the nature of consciousness
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein
Inthe northern stretches of a nearby national park lies an immaculately pine-lined lake that proves an excellent reprieve for numerous visitors throughout the summer who are drawn to its fresh, emerald green waters as though they were migratory birds. Despite it’s somewhat remote location, the artificially installed beaches on the southern shores swell with people during the hottest months — campers, hikers, spelunkers (there are caves nearby), beach bums, bird watchers, you name it. Unbeknownst to most summer enthusiasts, however, is that the lake is traced by a snowshoe trail, quite active in the winter and discreetly tucked away by the vegetation in the summer. Other routes, leading to more immediately enthralling points of interest, divert attention away from this sleepy and unadorned trail.
I spotted this haggard route with satellite imaging of the area while snooping around to try and gain entry into the Prime Minister’s lake, and so it made for some excitement when I finally stumbled upon it last summer. It involved the tantalizing prospect of circling the entirety of the lake, a total of about 13–18 kilometers in circumference, and I had expected to come to at least two or three ideal swimming spots as the trail zig-zagged and danced along the edge of the water.
The hike didn’t truly begin until I had turned a few bends and began to hear the shouts of children and volleyball players fade into obscurity, increasingly obstructed by drooping pine branches and quivering oak leaves. Once I was met with the true silence of the woods, I knew I had been in for an exceptional experience.
“The key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness.” Lao Tzu
Nature is not generally anthropomorphized to an extent that we begin to credit it with the capacity for consciousness. In other words, we may refer to mother nature or envision the ecosystem as a living organism that is susceptible to the deleterious effects of humankind, but this doesn’t mean we attribute any real sense of intelligence to it.
Though, we know it has certain qualities. We know that it can persist, it can overcome, it can invade or defend, it can thrive, it can symbiotically benefit other organisms. We stop short, however, of affixing too much intelligence to it because we figure that wouldn’t be practical, or conversely, it may undermine our own progress and development as a human species.
It’s an interesting phenomenon — a double standard if you will — to consider the limitations of flora and fauna but fail to consider our own. Simply because we’re more expressly intelligent, doesn’t mean we’re able to perceive everything. In fact, there are many things going on in the natural workings of the world that we don’t understand. We know this with dark energy, for instance, which provides a jarring realization that we know substantially less about the world around us than we lead ourselves to believe, but that’s getting far and away from nature for the purposes of this post.
Nature is full of intelligence, from bacterial viruses, genetic sequencing and adaptation, to the sensing of things that are imperceptible to humans. This we know, and need not create a new rabbit hole where many already exist. But what of consciousness, of self-awareness? It seems silly to ask but, to ask these types of questions in the first place, and to explore these possibilities is human nature after all.
“If you really want to study evolution, you’ve got go outside sometime, because you’ll see symbiosis everywhere!” — Lynn Margulis
As the trail led me deeper into the woods and away from the lake, a familiar sense of discomfort grew within me; the occasional pile of bear scat had my nerves on edge as the sun became more and more hidden behind the ever-thickening canopy. It was only only several months prior that my fiance and I had been chased out of our tent (on the other end of the lake) by a family of bear. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before my focus was redirected away from that of potential threat and towards that of inconvenience – to relentless swaths of mosquitoes that considered me a sprinting lunch bag as I entered the dark and dank flooded areas of trail.
This brings me to my first point regarding nature and consciousness, that of symbiosis — the inter-connectivity between organisms. We can look at fungi, for example. Fungi exist atop an underground network they create, known as mycelium — masses and bundles and veins of thin strands that can be likened to an internet linking the roots of various plants and other fungi together. These networks allow for the transfer of information, the transfer of nutrients, the conveyance of signals to sabotage unwelcome threats or even, in some cases, the distribution of toxic chemicals throughout said network. It is rudimentary, yes, but it is nonetheless a form of awareness towards surrounding environments and of communication, a remarkable response mechanism that evidences self-preservation and an active pursuit to maintain a convenient status quo. Are we fundamentally that different?
This part of the trail exuded symbiosis as it did life. Ferns dominated the forest floor, insects buzzed triumphantly in the moist environment. Reptiles — snakes and turtles and frogs thrived under the shelter of vegetation, feasting on the abundance that is larvae and embracing the sheltering canopy from predatory birds. I’m sure the ferns and mosses somehow benefited specific types of other vegetation that propagated in this environment and vice versa — that everything reciprocated and contributed to a collective chain of mutual harmony that was well beyond the scope of my comprehension.
Eventually, my sprint led me to the base of a winding incline that I welcomed, as it meant elevation, and elevation meant an overdue change in my own environment.
“If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick.” — William James
Words can’t effectively capture the feeling of finally emerging back into open sunshine after spending a few hours in a constricted, soggy and saturated chunk of woods, with clouds of deerflies and mosquitos in pursuit, effectively preventing anything longer than a five second respite before catching up in full force. Suffice it to say that I welcomed the dry air and, better yet, the victory over the deer flies that seemed to turn back immediately upon encountering a curtain of sunlight, apart from a one or two brave stragglers.
Symbiosis had been evident here too — the opened canopy complimented the heat that coiled itself around sumacs and exploded into updrafts, updrafts that hawks rode as they scoped prey below. But there was something more. From up here, I had a decent vantage point of my position. I could see the way that the trail I had just ran departed from the shores of the lakes but, ahead, the shimmering waters invited it back. As the sun pressed down on me, I stumbled onto another perk to the elevated, open air: wild raspberries.
This brings me to my second point — that of potentiality. Just as I had the potential to keep running, to stop, to turn back, to plan a different course, nature too has an uncanny ability to make decisions. It can be argued that all organisms are just a generational hop away from achieving some previously unimagined or unprecedented potential — and we tend to lose sight of this because of time. In other words, we look upon other species with an intrinsic sense of impatience. We, who have been self-realized for several millenia or several dozen millenia, consider inferior species of flora and fauna limited even though we’re not that far ahead out of the gate by comparison.
The more we examine the intelligence of our supposedly subordinate organisms, the more we see how erroneous this logic may be. Numerous plant species possess electrical and chemical signalling systems, which allow them to store memory, be receptive to conditioning, and to exhibit other brain-like function. Species of ferns that demonstrate defense mechanisms have been successfully conditioned to overcome a fear of being dropped — where is that memory stored? Animals exemplify this to an exponentially greater extent; some marine biologists will argue that dolphins are smarter than humans, they’ve simply just evolved along a different path that does not lead to a need for technology.
In another way to phrase it, the potential is there. Nature is able to make decisions and to learn, albeit in a seemingly primitive way. Full consciousness shouldn’t be that far off, should it?
After stuffing my face for several minutes, an accustomed feeling arose as a new thought struck: bears love raspberries too. And so unease crept back in, for the vasts field of wild berry bush around me would surely be a coveted spot for the Canadian black bear. Enticed by direction of the trail — leading towards the water — I cut my snacking short and kept going. Covered in sweat, ineffective bug spray, bites of all kinds, and now scratches from the thorns of raspberry bushes, the thoughts of jumping into the cool waters of the lake kept my feet moving better than the insects ever could.
Self-Purpose and Progress
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” — Carl Jung
It was a welcome change to be back in the shade of the woods and, even more so, to finally have some declining trail. Every now and again I would encounter a rest area for snowshoers in the winter — a fire pit with heaps of wood, a bench and an axe — which shone a light on not only human ingenuity but it’s reliance on nature to subsist. Then things clicked.
We are the same thing as nature. Why do we presuppose that we’re entirely different? Are we simply not an advanced form of something that crawled out of the primordial swirls of life? This can illuminate an answer in the debate over whether or not there exists some measure of consciousness among trees and shrubs, ecosystems and oceans, amongst the biosphere in general.
It didn’t take me long to find what I had been looking for in constructing this article —
“…You see, it depends on what kind of attitude you want to take to the world. If you want to put the world down, you say ‘oh well, fundamentally it’s only just a lot of geology, it’s a stupidity, it so happens that kind of a freak comes up in it which we call consciousness’… on the other hand, if you feel warm-hearted towards the universe, you put it up instead of putting it down, and you say about rocks ‘they’re really conscious, but a very primitive form of consciousness.’” — Alan Watts.
Turning a few more corners, I could smell the fresh waters ahead. It’s a funny thing that only a few hours in the woods will tune and heighten all senses to this point — of smelling water, of sensing an open field, of feeling the nearby presence of stagnant ponds. Having come to a brilliantly overgrown side-trail, as if nature intended to reveal it only for those with desperate eyes, I had finally found what I had been looking for.
Peeling back several branches and coming upon a large boulder sitting atop the edge of the lake, it was with self-proclaimed triumph that I eventually dove into the piney-cool water. After shedding layers of grime off my skin, I crawled back onto the rock in a manner not dissimilar from the way Watt’s described above, having no idea at that time how symbolic the gesture had been. Cracking open my lucky-hike beer and embracing the anticipated eruption of foam (hike pack tends to shake), I lay sprawled upon the rock, admiring the scintillating glints of sun that had been captured by the crests of waves, as though capturing the secrets of nature and carrying them before me.
Everything seems to have a purpose. Whether that purpose is to evolve, to exist, to persist, to replicate, to harmonize, to sacrifice — we know this much. We are part of nature. We’re weaved into this inter-dimensional fabric of space, time, life and, I would go as far as to say, consciousness.
I hadn’t encountered a bear along the rest of my hike around the lake but, looking back, I’ve come to see that the bear can symbolize something: uncertainty. More specifically, that uncertainty leads to assumption. We know far less than we ought to know in order to make any conclusive determinations regarding what is and isn’t conscious, so why should we assume in the first place? Quantum physics has shown us that certain states of existence and matter are only possibly upon our observation of them. Can the same not be said for consciousness? As Alan Watt’s dictated, it really depends on the kind of attitude we take towards the world.
“Nature does nothing unnecessarily and is not extravagant in the means employed to reach it’s end.” — Immanuel Kant.