An iceberg universe

Image by Uwe Kils Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Image by Uwe Kils

Fat little fingers hold up the toy as she peers at her reflection, laughing at herself. That she is, at two years old, very self-aware is evident in the way she plays with her own and her family’s reflections in the big, night-darkened windows. It is evident too in her naming of people and creatures, differentiating them from herself and recognising their unique individuality. She has already learned who to turn to at any given moment to have her needs and desires met and twists her father round her tiny finger with no more than a smile. She knows her own mind, there is a real and distinct personality and a playful sense of humour developing and showing in her offering and withholding of kisses and objects… and in the very definite ‘no’ with which she has established both her right and her ability to make her own choices.

She kisses her reflection and passes the little toy mirror to her father, quite obviously expecting him to look. I wonder… does she think her image will still be there for him to see? Or does she realise that he will only see his own reflection?

Her language skills are still too limited to discuss such a complex concept, so the question goes unasked, but it is interesting and delightful to watch her emerge from the cocoon of babyhood and become a person. This infant Eve, whose hair matches my own baby locks perfectly and whose look of mischief mirrors certain treasured photographs and her big sister’s mischief, is bidding fair to become a force to be reckoned with. Watching her and sensing the dancing echoes of the future, I am glad I only had sons to raise…

But it left me wondering… when do humans become conscious of selfhood? How do we know? We can see and measure certain reactions… like the recognition of the distinction between object and reflection, for example. We can put an age to various calibrated steps that show self-awareness. But I got stuck on the word ‘show‘…

Just because we cannot find an understandable way to measure a demonstrable self-awareness, does that really mean that there is none? A coma patient, locked in an unmoving body may be unable to communicate the activity of the mind, yet we are beginning to realise that often that mind is active and conscious. Like the case of Rom Houben, and, for a time, my own son. It is only now that our technology allows us to see and confirm this… it is no new phenomenon, only our methods are new.

The mirror test is the standard for assessing the awareness of the self. Very few other creatures have passed this test. Magpies pass it and are accredited with self awareness, even though they do not actually possess the bit of brain where it was supposed to reside… the neocortex. Dogs, on the other hand, fail and have officially no self-awareness. I and millions of dog lovers would strongly disagree. So would my dog.

She is not officially self-aware. But she does understand a ‘foreign’ language… mine… and chooses whether or not she wants to do as she is asked. She creates games and remembers them and expects you to do so as well. She has distinct tastes and preferences, feels and expresses emotion, including empathy, understands people very well and can communicate her needs and desires quite effectively. But her prime mode of communication is subtle and non-verbal, including everything from pointing with her eyes, to the rate of breath, her stance and facial expressions. But she has no self-consciousness… according to a vision-based test on a species for whom smell and hearing are the primary senses and far more acute than our own.

Maybe the tests we created half a century ago, when our view of the world and its creatures was somewhat different and rather more limited, need to be reassessed…

Perhaps the definition itself is vague… or flawed… or just plain wrong…

How do we know that a newborn baby is not aware of its own being? Because it doesn’t have the tools to define and demonstrate that awareness in a manner we can understand? Because we can’t measure it? Is that really a sound basis for such a judgement?

If we were to accept that a thing cannot exist because we cannot see, measure or replicate it, then we would live in a poor universe indeed. Can we measure hope? Quantify empathy or dissect kindness? They are just as abstract as self-awareness yet their results in the world are just as concrete.

We live in an iceberg universe, where most of our home, and even our understanding of ourselves, is still hidden from our view. In evolutionary terms, we are little more than babes… exploring a room where the cupboards are too high for our infant hands to reach or our eyes to see.

I would like to think we can preserve a childlike sense of wonder at the magic and mystery we encounter every day without giving it a single thought… and see what still waits, unknown and undiscovered, beneath the surface of our current knowledge as an adventure to be embraced. If the library of creation is written in a language we cannot yet understand, the inability to comprehend should not make us dismiss what we find there as being without value or existence… it should only encourage us to learn how to read.

Little miracles

“It’s a wild violet. A bit scruffy… it has lost a petal… but still…” The tiny purple flower peeked out from between the stones we had piled up at the base of the weigela to cocoon the roots that had sprouted from its stem in the old raised bed.
“Where did it come from?”
“It self-seeded…”
“That’s amazing…”

My son, with his nascent interest in gardening, has a lot to learn and is learning fast. Every day, the garden offers new miracles, details that would pass unseen as part of the bigger picture of spring to anyone not inspecting each plant minutely and daily. Growth points and leaf buds are being monitored, unexpected colours are appearing and the mysteries of Nature are revealing themselves to eyes full of wonder.

Tiny,  scale-like leaves top each little branch of the heather, crowning last year’s faded flowers with pink and vibrant green. A clematis catches hold of the branches of the climbing rose, wrapping its fragile stems around the green wood, pulling itself higher every day. Spires of tulips, their outer leaves wrapped tightly around the inner to protect the half-formed bud, begin to unfurl as the flower grows towards the sun.

Bud casings swell and slowly burst open as the baby leaves they contain seek their freedom. Folded, pleated…Nature’s origami… finding their way into the light.

But it is the roses that really fascinate my son. He planted a host of bare-rooted specimens in the autumn… lifeless, dead-seeming wood that is now coming to life. He watches the growth buds turn from brown to pink, green and red before the new growth emerges… leaves and stems that are not merely green, but deep red, hot pink and lime.

He already had some mature roses too, that I pruned severely either when they were moved or disturbed last autumn. My son was concerned that they would look bare… even though I had shown him that I cut the branches above an almost invisible growth point. He has been amazed at how the sparse branches are filling out, completely covered with new shoots.

I am taking great delight in his wonder, as it is reminding me to see and appreciate the miracles happening just outside the door, instead of just knowing that they are there. And, as we tour the garden every day, we are seeing life in action.

Every growing thing is a channel for an invisible but determined life-force.  Watching the garden grow, it seems that how much of that force can be channelled is determined by the natural form of the plant. A rose, for example, that is pruned, thus diminishing its natural form, will put out many new shoots to replace the one that is cut as if to compensate and provide a vessel for the unstoppable influx of life.

One of the old roses did not survive being transplanted. Even its skeletal remains, as the dead wood  begins to decay, is a vessel for life. Insects, fungi and algae have moved in to colonise the vacated form. Life, observed my son,  always seems to find a way. When you consider the innumerable life-forms on the planet and the almost infinite number of ways they can reproduce and replicate themselves, there is no arguing that statement.

It begs the question, though… is life-force itself an infinite or a finite thing? If infinite, where does it come from? Is it in a constant state of cosmic recycling or is it being continually replenished as it is spent? If finite, is every life on the planet simply part of the planetary being? An exuberant expression of earth’s inner life? Either way, the artistry that creates the incalculable diversity of forms can only be a source of amazement.

I thought about how much money local authorities spend on municipal parks and flower beds… planting trees, covering roundabouts in floral designs and generally creating green spaces. With budgets so tight that essential services often suffer, you might think that landscaping might come low down the list of priorities, and yet we continue to make space for nature within our urban developments. Perhaps it is a very deep-seated need that is being acknowledged by the town planners.

Watching the tender, fragile leaflets and stems burgeoning in a suburban garden has opened a doorway to a vast realm of wonder. The sense of connection, of being part of a single stream of life, is acute and beautiful. The sense of kinship with every other living thing in existence, on this world and beyond, becomes unshakeable. And the knowledge that, with or without us, life will find a way is rather comforting. Watching the garden grow brings home the human part in a vast dance of life, where we are but one of myriad dancers. And that we have the capacity to be conscious of that can only be seen as a gift.

Sowing warmth

There was a road closure on the way to work, so, to avoid the build-up of traffic, I took to the back streets, wending my way through a residential area and passing the house in which we had first lived when we moved south. To let oncoming cars pass, I pulled to one side, almost outside our old home, and was able to see what had become of my garden.

It had been a blank canvas when we had moved in, with nothing but grass and a bedraggled jasmine, struggling to survive in the concrete near the door. With little money, but lots of ideas, we had set about making a family garden. At the back of the house, surrounded by high walls and fences, we made a little wonderland for the boys.

A small pond, just big enough to attract a bit of wildlife, was lined with sheeting supplied by an undertaker friend. He also brought us a couple of sheets of wood, with an innocent suggestion that we ask no questions. These we turned into a wishing well filled with flowers, making shingles for its roof from a scrap of old roofing felt we found in the shed. Disposable plastic tubs were painted to make wall planters. Tin snips made a flock of painted butterflies up the side of the house and we added a waterwheel to the pond. Strange beings looked out from flowerbeds filled with the seeds, cuttings and wild herbs I collected. It didn’t take long before it was ablaze with life.

The front garden, though not the kind of place where you would spend much time, could be seen through the sitting room window and sloped upwards, giving a good view of the bare grass. I dug borders, planted as many cuttings as I could acquire. While they rooted and grew, I threw in seeds to add colour, and within a few months, the garden looked respectable.

While planting the back garden had been a case of filling space with whatever I could acquire, the front was planned with due regard for eventual height, spread, colour and flowering season, mixing in as many evergreens as I could with summer flowering shrubs and plants, so that it would be attractive all year round.

I have often wondered what became of our little wonderland. I can’t imagine anyone else would have enjoyed it the same as we did, when we had all been involved in its creation. The front garden, though, I have seen a few times over the years. At one point, it was an overgrown jungle. Then someone moved in who took care of it and it began to bloom again.

Today I had just enough time to see that what was left of my winter planting had worked and was still offering scented blooms, colour and texture, even on a cold January day. Many of the plants I had acquired were unlabelled mysteries. Unless I could recognise shoot, bark or leaf, I just planted things and tended them. The handfuls of seed fell where they would and grew how they chose. But the known shrubs had done as I had hoped… even though it is more than twenty years since I planted those first little cuttings.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I drove away after that brief glimpse, how good an analogy a garden can be for aspects of our own lives. I am far from the first to come to that conclusion: the parable of the Sower is well known. We never know if, or how, what we ‘plant’ will grow.

What really struck me, though, was that most of the time, we don’t even realise we are planting ‘seeds’. With every anecdote, every bit of life experience shared, every insight or opinion we offer, every bit of hard-won wisdom we can pass on… even in the lightest of conversations. What seems rather mundane to us, might be exactly what someone needs to hear, even though they may not need or recall it for years to come. When the need does arise, that ‘seed’, unwittingly planted, may just flower and bear fruit.

We may not be around to see it and may never know how our words, deeds and actions affect another’s life. It can be the smallest of things… something we ourselves have not even noticed, from a kind word or a shared smile, that changes a day for someone we don’t even know and may never see again. But it matters. Every time.

Milestones

I came across an old post while I was rummaging through the files. It looked at the decades of an ordinary life…my life… and how the things that seem ordinary to you, while you are living them, can look very different to an observer. As I skimmed back through the paragraphs, I was watching the fish in the aquarium out of the corner of my eye. Two of the little loaches had ventured out to feed. They are shy creatures and I seldom see them, so I stopped to watch.

One of them was the original hitchhiking loach that had survived an almost waterless journey on a plant, the other was one of the juveniles I had procured to keep him company. The original loach has grown, losing the ‘vermisimilitude’ that had horrified me when I found him, and is looking far more like a fish, while the smaller of the two still looks very like a brightly coloured worm. In all other respects, they appear identical… time is the only difference between them.

Together, the fish and the article got me thinking about the process of growth. We never notice it happening, we only notice when it has happened. From child to adult, we grow…some of us more than others and each at our own pace. We notice when we have grown tall enough to do certain things, like reaching the pedals on that new racing bike you were given for your birthday. Or not, in my case; I never did grow into it. But we are not conscious of it actually happening while it happens.

We see ourselves in the mirror and wonder when we got old. Even though we knew the time was passing, the years were stacking up and things had begun to ache that never ached before, we are unaware of it occurring.  The process of growth, be it upwards, outwards or in age, happens behind our back; we are unaware of it, regardless of its known inevitability, until something brings the results of that process to our attention.

Equally, growth of a less positive kind can creep up on us too. The negative self image that is imposed or self-generated, the fears and fragilities we are bear, they seldom spring fully formed from the mists…they grow slowly, chpping away at our confidence and self-worth, until we are confronted by the ruin of what we once were and what we still could be. The process of healing such wounds takes far longer than it does for a careless word to cause them.

Change happens, whether we notice it or not. One day we will find that we can reach the cookie jar at last, or our jeans no longer fasten, or, in a land of wishful thinking, they are suddenly too big… We become conscious of change only when its effects are forced upon our notice, not as the process of change happens. We need milestones to measure the progress of process.

There are other growing processes that also need milestones to measure their progress. The acquisition of knowledge is measured by examinations or our ability to apply it to practical situations. A new skill is set against the completion of a project. But how can we measure the growth of more abstract qualities, like wisdom, understanding or compassion?

It serves little to listen to the words of others, be they complimentary or derogatory; for growth to have happened, we must be more than we were, and unless the other person has watched us grow, they cannot know what we used to be.

The loaches are twice as long as the tetras in the aquarium. The tetras are twice as fat as the threadfins and yet the pleco could eat the lot in one gulp. They are all fully grown, and it is simply how they are supposed to be. In the same way, our own nature, and the nature of our personal growth, cannot be measured against that of anyone else.

We are who we are and, whether or not we are aware of the process, we are in a state of constant growth and change. Each day adds something to the sum of our knowledge, each moment offers the chance of a new beginning and every experience may add to the store of wisdom and understanding.

Our physical growth may be finite… we may reach our full height before we reach the pedals of that bike, or end up towering above our parents, but our personal growth knows no such limits and we will always be works in progress. Our capacity for growth, like our ability to embrace change seems infinite, even when we do not notice the ongoing process, but only blink at the milestones.

Forget-me-not

Image Source
Image Source

As I pulled the book from the shelf and opened it, a flower fell from between its pages. Its colour gone, its petals so fragile they cracked and crumbled as I caught the little thing. Still there was enough left for me to recognise what it was… a little sprig of forget-me-nots. My face remembered before conscious memory kicked in, the smile and the tear meeting halfway across my cheek. It was a long time ago, but for a second, imagination painted two hands where there was now one and the soft blue of the flower glowed ghostly blue. At its centre, the golden eye of a distant sun looked back at me. A very long time ago.

How much my life has changed in twenty years! How much the world itself has changed. Children who have grown into parents, people who have moved through my life, taken centre stage then exited quietly, to other lives or beyond life. Technology has moved at a pace that makes my daily life barely recognisable, opening a world of knowledge and communication whilst closing the doors on many more human moments of contact. Twenty years to see the sharpness of youth fade to softer tones. The hand that gave me that flower would barely recognise so much of my life today.

Yet, so much has not changed. People are still people, with the same hearts and hurts, the same dreams, the same problems. The places are all filled, as generation after generation play an eternal game of musical chairs, each taking the place of those who went before. The sky is still blue, the earth still as green and a babe in arms still has that soft, milky smell as every babe ever born. Forget-me-nots still bloom, and seem to tell a story similar to our own.

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Tiny leaflets pierce the soil, barely distinguishable from any other plant, except to the gardener who knows them well. They grow, and buds small and pale, emerge baby-pink and fragile from the protective cocoon of sepals. As the petals begin to unfurl, their colour changes and deepens as they mature and become what they were always destined to be, opening wide to mirror the sun with a golden heart… then, slowly, they fade through the pastel shades of age, setting seeds that cling to everything with which they come into contact. They are carried far and wide and will spread, perpetuating their delicate beauty long after they are gone.

For a moment time stops as I look at the crumbling flower. I am there and then, yet here and now too and the two are not separate but occupy the same time and space within me as, for a scintilla, I am conscious of being outside of the constraints of perceived time. The moments that unfurl like petals in memory have never left; they are not ‘gone’ or ‘lost’ but remain as part of the garden of my own life and from the memories, as much as the moment when the flower was fresh, seeds are continually sown and grow.

I return the papery fragments to the earth and the flower has gone full circle… my hands are empty, yet the smile and the memory remain and will bloom every time I see a forget-me-not. They always do. No experience is ever lost, it only slips from consciousness to take root in mind or heart.