alone in the otherness

26th August, 2007

or, what i didn’t do over my summer vacation…or, this is what happens when you stew over things.  i’ve been talking about and mulling over what follows since june.  i need to put this down and keep going.  i’m very interested in the ideas.  i’m just not going to practice stew no more.


my father called to tell me that he heard something on NPR about how insects emit frequencies that resonate sympathetically with the plant life around them in such a way that certain plants become transmitters of specific frequencies emitted by bees and other insects.

i’ve been spending much more time in the woods this summer and, around the time of my father’s call, had been climbing trees.  the tree climbing began when it was necessary for me to use a tree to get over a fence in a park i frequent.  once in the tree i realized that without much trouble i could ascend further and, well, now i enjoy climbing trees…

anyway, i noticed that when my body is pressed onto a limb (in my case, often holding on [er…hugging] in fear), how much i could feel the movements of the trees, the leaves, and, by extension, the vibrations from the surrounding air and earth.

while in a tree i remembered a deep listening exercise i learned from pauline oliveros i’d practiced with my students that involved focusing one’s attention on the nearest and then farthest perceptible sounds. deciding to adapt this exercise by focusing on the movements within the tree, i closed my eyes and, after a while, felt an increase in the lower frequency rumblings. i realized that i was about fifty feet from some lightrail tracks and assumed that a train was about to pass.  looking up i glanced out and waited for what felt like too long – and i momentarily thought i was sensing something else when the signal increased dramatically and the train finally passed.  i estimate that i sensed the train about three minutes before it arrived.

later, i saw a flock of birds lift off from a neighboring field and quickly get into formation and realized that the medium of air, for them, offers an awareness of and palpable connection to the group, a collective, essentially ‘haptic’ data stream, that is similar to what fish must experience underwater.

i climbed down from the tree and looked around.  i saw a lot, heard a bit less, smelled even less, and felt very little.  the souls of my shoes impeded the vibration around me – i had been cut off from the complex,  infrasonic percolations and patterns that the tree seemed to connect me to.   i walked back through the woods and returned to the paved path, walking while thinking deeply.  within ten minutes or so was almost hit by a cyclist who was trying to pass me that i didn’t sense coming at all.  i remembered a friend telling me how hunting was meditative because hunters need to become utterly still so as not to reveal their presence.  i thought about all the layers of insulation we put on all the surfaces we interact with and how those layers are complicating so many necessary and persistent interactions.

i thought about the tsunami from a couple years ago and how the vast majority of deaths were human. from what i’ve read,  most other animals retreated from coastlines and headed for higher ground hours before the waves hit.

i went home and did some research and found out that most terrestrials use the surface of the earth as we use our vast communications systems.  elephants (Vibration as a Communication Channel: A Synopsis, Peggy S.M. Hill), for example, have what amounts to water beds on the souls of their feet that amplify the earthly rumblings.  their proboscis feature a sensitive infrasonic transducer near its’ end.  other terrestrials, frogs for example, can inflate their chests to amplify vibrations rippling across the surface.  still other species use their lower jaw to receive the same signals. i thought about how essential it is for all ectotherms (‘cold-blooded’) to be on the surface as much as possible.  birds and insects seem to be tightly coupled with their environment as fish are to water.

i thought about myself, at that moment, standing in my shoes in the woods and surrounded by sights, sounds, and scents, i felt numb.  it occurred to me that, as walkers on the surface, we’re in between crawlers and flyers – who both seem holistically integrated into the environment via sophisticated physiological attributes that allow them to ‘outsource’ much of their ‘understanding’ of the world to the world itself, and exist in a state of collaborative interdependance.  not so for us. we see the world as a collection of discrete particles and objects, and understand our experience as the intersection of these discrete components.

i remembered some research i’d done on walking, and how to build robots that walk, and how inefficient the ASIMO is, for example, and how some researchers were using passive dynamics (Steve Collins, University of Michigan) to make walking machines efficiently (no batteries required), and how one researcher wrote that our gait is, essentially, a controlled fall.  another friend, working a design job for a shoe company, shared with me the fact that higher the shoe lifts the body off the ground the greater the skeletal distress it causes.

to me, we seem alone in the otherness.  we seem cut off from the complex interactions, the array of causes and effects, that regulate and balance most life on this planet. where other tree dwellers developed tails to help them maintain balance and connection, we descended, stood up on two feet, and grew a huge frontal lobe, and have been in a controlled fall ever since.

as endotherms our senses are tightly integrated for survival.  endotherms, often hunters, need an accurate picture of their environment in order to eat.  as endotherms with huge brains and a physiological disconnection from the feedback relationships other species live in, our models of the world seem often to have the specificity of dreams or hallucinations – and are just as effective as those figments of the imagination, especially in the long term.  our  inevitable  ‘data processing’ within  our peculiar physiological system and environmental relationship contributes to this ‘otherness’ by adding what seems to be a significant delay in our interactions, causing us to value our mental model over that which is being modeled.  we are a sort of endothermic apotheosis.  a radical and extreme form of an endothermic organism.

we have evolved to this point.  and evolution is the sum of all the complex interactions that comprise this reality and is far bigger than any ‘one’. in other words, our form is just as natural as any other form on this planet, yet we are so poorly integrated and so profoundly ‘othered’, i wonder how it is that we have survived?  well, we haven’t been here for that long….

it occurred to me that we have a fixation and awareness of our own death, and from what we deduce, other species do not share this awareness.  hard to prove.  yet, given our position in this world as the dreaming, giant-brained, odd men out,  it seems fitting that we would be ‘aware’ of our own situation, and, by extension, our inevitable, demise, doesn’t it?  we are fascinated by death, we ritualize and worship it.  it occurs to me that our medical technologies, for example, designed to extend life (stall death) are actually retarding our evolution, and in doing so complicating other environmental systems.  it further occurs to me that much of our technological development tends to complicate and ultimately slow ‘things’ down by elevating levels of energy exchange in trivial developmental areas while producing significant toxic by-products that many of us are unaware of.  mechanized travel, mass-production, the internet, etc. we seem to be actively, ignorantly, and sometimes gleefully accelerating our own demise while telling ourselves that we are either headed for some profound convergence (religious, scientific, technological) or ‘simply’ doing what needs to be done to survive in this world, unaware of the real effects.

perhaps our essence is persistent, inevitable conflict.  i really mean it: inevitable, persistent conflict.  no ‘permanent’ solution is possible.  we are driven (another conflict) to manage (another conflict) every situation yet don’t have significantly detailed models  to see the real causes and effects of our actions on the environment that we are aspects of (but we have the tools to create better models.  john yau said, in the introduction to a film on donald judd, that after the a-bomb metaphor is dead, and what we need are ways to see the world as it really is.  how many of us have responded to the information age by relying on forms and rituals that fall under the category of what kurt vonnegut refers to as ‘persuasive guessing’ ?[your guess is as good as mine]).

does this seem bleak? i’ve been living with these thoughts for about three months now and my stress level has lowered significantly – and i have some ways of measuring. the connection to the all is authentic and natural; our presence and participation are inevitable.  the signal we get is just really noisy, and the interplay of my will to create mental models of ‘my’ environment coupled with the dynamism of the environment and the fact of minimal, individual influence over pretty much anything (when you, and/or your friends make bizarre decisions about something important: relationships, work, etc., ask them why they did it.  you will be surprised how often they say, honestly, ‘i don’t know‘ – i’ve been doing that all summer and it has been very interesting, it suggests to me that there is a sort of brownian emotion at work and even one’s ‘private data’ isn’t under one’s control) makes for some complex, but somehow often pleasant surfing.

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