Planetary Intelligence

If I asked you about “planetary intelligence,” you might sarcastically say that there doesn’t seem to be very much of it. So, let me adjust your definition.

I came across the book, Ways of Being, which is about the different kinds of intelligence on our planet. That includes plant, animal, human, and artificial intelligence,

What does it mean to be intelligent? A typical answer to that from most people might be a discussion of people being “smart.” There might be some distinction between the knowledge ones acquires from reading and school and another kind of intelligence that seems to be natural or acquired outside school. But the focus would be on human intelligence.

Is intelligence something unique to humans? I’m sure that in centuries past, the idea that plants and even other animals could be “intelligent” wouldn’t be accepted. That has changed in the past 200 years and the much more recent advances in “artificial intelligence” have made the definition of intelligence itself much broader.

A dictionary might define intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. Is that what plants and animals are doing when they adapt to changing ecosystems or communicate with each other? The intelligence of animals, plants, and the natural systems that surround us are being more closely studied and show us complexity and knowledge that we never knew existed.

The book’s author is James Bridle who is a technologist, artist, and philosopher who uses biology, physics, computation, literature, art, and philosophy to examine Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence. His goal is to find what can we learn from other forms of intelligence can make ourselves and the planet better. Maybe this new way of thinking about intelligence can even improve our technologies, societies, and even politics. Can we live better and more equitably with one another and the nonhuman world?

I listened to the book on audio and had to stop and rewind a few times. It can get pretty far out from what we normally think about intelligence.

One concept that stands out is “emergence.” That is a word used in many fields today. The shape of weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals within a natural environment is another example of an emergent process. Crystalline structures and hurricanes are said to have a self-organizing phase. Are they intelligent?

Water crystals forming on glass demonstrate an emergent, fractal process.

A few years ago, I read Bridle’s earlier book New Dark Age. It is indeed a dark look at the Internet, information overload, conspiracy theories, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. The latter seems to have grabbed hold of him and, though there is some optimism in the new book, his vision of AI is still dark.

While proponents of artificial intelligence still portray it as our friend or companion, AI often seems to be something to fear as it is strange in ways that seem like science fiction. Bridle doesn’t say it but AI sometimes seems to be more of “alien intelligence” than “artificial intelligence.” Not that it comes from other places in the universe, but that much like the sci-fi tales where aliens came to conquer our planet, AI might be an intelligence that will try to supplant us.

Okay, I’ll stop there because now I’m venturing into conspiracy theory land myself.

Darwin’s Worms

Darwin with earthworm in Punch’s Fancy Portraits, 1881

Charles Darwin is best known for his book The Origin of the Species which people commonly think of as “the book about evolution” and “survival of the fittest.” That makes sense since that book is considered to be the foundation of modern evolutionary biology. Darwin explores the scientific theory of how populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. That’s the part that gets known as “survival of the fittest” but Darwin said it as “Survival of the form that will leave the most copies of itself in successive generations.”

But his last scientific and most successful book was The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms in 1881. It’s a bit harder to find on a shelf or in a bookstore than Origin which has many different editions.

I have not read the book but in reading about it a few things stuck with me. First off, just the idea that the ground we walk on has passed through the bodies of worms and emerged as castings. He estimated that there are more than 53,000 worms at work in any given acre of land. He reported (based on observations at his uncle’s house) that worms could turn a rocky field into smooth soil over the course of many years. He called the earthworm an “unsung creature which, in its untold millions, transformed the land as the coral polyps did the tropical sea.”

I love to garden and I keep several compost piles. I do love seeing the worms in my soil. But I have never made a study of them or bred them as some composters do. I let nature take care of that.

Is this at all connected to evolution? It is if you think of the work of earthworms to be one of the inexorable processes of nature that, over long spans of time, can bring about dramatic changes.

In 1842, Darwin spread a layer of chalk fragments over a pasture near his house and observed the worms’ effect on it for almost 30 years. He placed a large, flat stone — which he dubbed the worm stone—in a field and measured the movement of soil as the worms digested the earth beneath the stone. He also kept worms inside the house, examining the effects of bright light and sound. He figured out through trial and error that the worms’ favorite food was carrots.

By 1881, Darwin’s health was failing, and he told a friend that he wanted to complete his book on worms before he joined them in the local cemetery. As with The Origin of the Species, this was the work of many years. 44 years, in fact.

Darwin concluded, “It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures.”

Darwin received as much criticism for the concept of evolution as he did praise. The “worm book” also generated some ridicule, but maybe Darwin had the last laugh because the book was a runaway best-seller. Despite its scientific yawn of a title, it sold more copies than his earlier books, probably due to England’s serious obsession with gardening. Darwin received a surprising amount of fan mail for it. He died six months after the book was published.

Stream of Timelessness

An episode of On Being that was inspired by James Prosek asked the question: What activity gives you the sense of “standing in a stream of timelessness?”

This is part of their “Summer of The Pause.” The host of their Poetry Unbound podcast, Pádraig Ó Tuama, writes that “Rather than going for the high moment of drama, the high moment of the erotic, the high moment of the extraordinary, poetry will choose the small moment of pause just to look at what’s really happening, to look at a few layers deep and to let that small pause, that ordinary moment, open up with all the fullness of its being to us.”

I haven’t had a “pause project” this summer. James Prosek is an artist, fly-fisher, author, and environmental activist who has always, as he puts it, “found God through the theater of nature.” My theater of nature might be my frequent walks in the woods, working in the garden, sketching and painting, or writing in my journal. But are those pauses? Am I standing still in the stream? Maybe it was standing in a field of lavender in Provence with my wife this summer, or sailing down the Rhône River and just watching a world I’ve never seen before pass by.

The site invited people to share their #StreamOfTimelessness from summer with a short video or photo on Instagram. I took a look there trying to figure out how people interpreted the pause and standing in the stream of timelessness. This one makes some connective sense to me – though I still don’t know what is my answer to their question.

Listening To Stones

labyrinth
Desert Rose Labyrinth

Some years ago, I discovered the work of Dan Snow. He builds with stone things practical and artistic. He builds stone walls without using mortar or other binding material. They call that ancient method “dry-stone.”

A few decades ago, I built a twenty-foot stone wall along my own driveway with the help of one of my sons. It is nothing like Snow’s work and I make no claims to “art.” I bought my stones;in six unnatural sizes. I secured them with adhesive cement.

It took me more than a week to dig out the bed for the wall from a small slope. Then I had to create a base. The most enjoyable, frustrating, and almost artistic part was arranging and rearranging the stones for balance, aesthetics, and strength.

It was the kind of process that some people might describe as a “Zen” experience. I have spent some time studying Zen, and I don’t really like it when people attach the word to other practices, such as the Zen of tennis. But I know why people attach Zen to certain experiences. It means that they find some mindful, insightful, almost spiritual connection to the practice.

This gives us the Zen of: writing, gardening, running, building a wall  etc. John Stewart had The Daily Show’s “Moment of Zen” video clips. CBS Sunday Morning does a concluding ambient sound video minute that might be described as a moment of Zen.

I bought two of Dan Snow’s books. In the Company of Stone is full of photos of his landscape projects. Many have an “ancient” look, and if you passed by them, you might think it had been there for a century or more. I couldn’t find any images that I can reproduce here but look at the gallery on his website.  His “Star Shrine” recognizes that people in the past sometimes made places for the worship of celestial objects that had fallen to Earth. I like some of his phrases like “heaving and hewing” stone and “gravity as glue.”

My friend, Hugh, has a cabin in Maine on a pond (in New Jersey it would be a lake) that he bought decades ago. I remember the first time we visited the place many years ago (before I built my driveway wall) he showed me a winding stone wall he was working on that led from the cabin down the slope to the water. He had been working on it for several years and it was still far from done. He told me he worked on it every summer while they were there – collecting stones in the woods and from the pond and river. I didn’t understand at the time why he was making so little progress. I understand now. Hugh is a real artist and I doubt that Hugh ever wants to finish that wall.

Dan Snow is a good writer too. He writes about the natural world and our relationship to it well. His prose is sometimes compared to John McPhee and Annie Dillard. I like both of those authors and they are worth posts of their own.

Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is still in the top five on my non-fiction list, but the book of that comes to mind today is Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read it more than 25 years ago and I found the meditations there both enlightening and frustrating. It contains essays written about the arctic, the jungle, the Galapagos, and one of my favorites about a cabin in the woods. For me, Annie Dillard’s writing is all about close and mindful observation. Take this excerpt:

“The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightness and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th century tinted photograph from which the tints have faded… The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”

Writing is like building with stone. You set the words one against the other trying to create the strongest structure and still have some beauty. I find writing poetry to be much closer to that mindful building than writing an essay or a blog post. Still, I hope my essays and posts occasionally enter that place.) Revising is like sculpture where you subtract and carve away at to reveal the form.

Dan Snow likens his process to alchemy. I find his second book,   Listening to Stone, more poetic and thoughtful. His work goes far beyond walls – stand-alone sculpture, fences, pillars, staircases, arches, grottoes, pavilions, and causeways. He also combines stone, wood, and metal into many of the sculptures.

Snow started back in 1972 working on an Italian castle restoration, and his stone wall career began four years later. In 1986 and 1994, he apprenticed (a sadly lost word and practice) with Master craftsmen “wallers” in the British Isles. It took thirteen years fo him to achieve his Master Craftsman certificate.

I may need to have some formal study in all this. I definitely need to listen more often to the stones.

Further Reading
Dan Snow’s “In the Company of Stone” blog
Annie Dillard’s quirky official site

The Magic of Monarchs

Butterflies
Migrating monarchs – via Flickr

This past week I saw on the news footage of millions of monarch butterflies arriving in California and into the forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

It is wonderful in the true meaning of the word – something filled with wonder. I am filled with wonder and awe whenever I look up at the night sky and consider the universe. I get that same sense sometimes when I am walking through a forest, watching a river or at the ocean, or standing on a mountaintop looking at a faraway horizon.

Those butterflies swarming like a swirling paint palette of orange and black also seem magical.

Cooler temperatures make the monarchs cluster together until it warms and they can fly again. 

Their migration began in the northern U.S. or Canada and they have traveled as far as 3,000 miles to reach more temperate winter homes.

Migration is pretty amazing. We know some things about how species make the journey. We describe it in human terms sometimes – they have built-in “GPS.” They have the knowledge from parents who passed along the knowledge. With monarchs, it is not parental knowledge. Their short lifespans preclude that. Only about one out of every five generations of monarchs migrate. Birds do back and forth migrations, but monarchs are the only butterfly species known to make a two-way migration.

The Sun has played a role in human navigation and also for monarchs. We don’t understand exactly how it works for these butterflies. I kind of like that it is still a mystery, but scientists do want to know. After all, the Sun moves, and to use it to navigate you also need to know what time of day it is when you are looking at it. How do monarch butterflies keep track of time?

Researchers have discovered that most monarchs take to the skies when the Sun is 57° to 48°. That is their window of opportunity whether they are leaving Canada or Kansas. They don’t seem to have some built-in clock but their antennae do seem to play that role in some way.

But all the science takes some of the wonder out of this. As much as I love science, the idea of researchers putting microchips on butterflies and painting or clipping antennae to study how their brain reacts in captivity to a false Sun seems cruel.

It is also sad how climate change and deforestation are negatively affecting monarchs and their migration. A recent report from the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund states that the amount of forest occupied by hibernating monarchs in Mexico went from nearly 15 acres in the winter of 2018 to 7 acres in 2019 to only 5 acres in 2020.

Going Nowhere

brick street

Can going nowhere be a journey?

The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.

It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”

Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing  The Lady and the Monk.

He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.

So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.

All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.

There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.

In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.

He does not promote or reject attaching a  religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.

I have written here about a good number of things that seem to fall into this non-category, such as forest bathing, Internet sabbaths, and lots of meditation and spending time in nature.

I will go in the woods near my home this week. Maybe I’ll read there a bit. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll just bathe and observe. All good.


More about Pico Iyer’s journeys at picoiyerjourneys.com