Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ocean Etching

Photograph taken at Kittery Sea Point Beach, 12/29/10

I took this photograph at Seapoint Beach in Kittery Maine a few days ago. It is of a natural etching cut into the sand by ocean water flowing back down the beach after high tide. To me, it looks like a row of plants, some with long, luxurious roots.

Self-similar things in nature are fascinating. That’s what sparked my interest, years ago, with Benoit Mandelbrot’s work with fractals. Because fractals appear similar at all levels of magnification, fractals are often considered to be infinitely complex. Natural fractal objects include clouds, mountain ranges, lightning bolts, snowflakes, and coastlines. [1]

The Maine coastline is a good example of the self-similar nature of fractals. Whether you view the Maine coast far above from an airplane or up close walking down the beach, the shape remains the same.

It defies the imagination, doesn't it?

Mandelbrot’s theory became popular after he published a paper in 1967 entitled How Long is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension. This paper investigated yet another amazing fractal property: that the measured length of a stretch of coastline (because it is a fractal) depends on the scale of measurement.

Empirical evidence suggests that the smaller the increment of measurement, the longer the measured length becomes. If one were to measure a stretch of coastline with a 12” ruler one would get a longer result than if the same stretch were measured with a yardstick. This is because one would be laying the ruler along a more curvilinear route than that followed by the yardstick. The smaller the unit of measurement the longer it becomes until, carried to it's extreme, the length of the Maine coastline becomes infinite! [2]

This is exciting stuff, not just about fractals but scientific discoveries in general.

Contrary to conventional thinking, science doesn't necessarily lead to a loss of freedom through newfound abilities to predict and control. Neither does science necessarily lead to a secular life style that is amoral and non-spiritual.

Instead, as I have tried to show in this small essay, science has the ability to make us grow by shaking us up: reminding us that we live in a mind-blowing place of unfathomable mystery. The only constant in this brave new world is that we all are connected. The human embryo as it develops repeats the history of the evolution of life on earth–ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny–part of Mother Nature’s master plan: whether an image in the sand, a plant with fractal roots, a puppy dog or a human being, we are all the same.




Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chaotic Maelstrom

My father was a weather nut. He especially got excited by hurricanes, blizzards,big storms of any type!

The amped-up, monster storms of the 21st century wouldn’t have fazed him a bit. I think I take after him.

I couldn’t help myself tonight: I had to go out and play around: Here’s a photo I took with my tiny pocket camera: the flash illuminates the snow and the garden scarecrow in the foreground with our house fading into the chaotic maelstrom of swirling snow and darkness.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Hiking in the Ossipee Mountains the day before Christmas

Waiting for the Light...
Seitan mountain goose,
Soft and silky down,
 Evergreen pin feathers.

Return of the light!
Rejoice in the return of the sun,
 Longer days,
A new turn of the wheel,
The pagan New Year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hiking on the Winter Solstice

Hiking over North Mountain on Winter Solstice
The sun like a cold LED light, dead in the sky.
My legs leaden, every step a chore
I stop before an imposing ledge, 
Much too high to scale,
Too tired to go on.

Three stone sentinels offer me sanctuary
Ushering me into a secret cave:
A safe haven to rest and reflect
with none of Plato's shadows
to play games with me 
about what is really real.

This sacred space resolves all doubt:
Winter Solstice is what's real.
I submit to it's power.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just Being One With the Sound of My Skates

Just Being One With the Sound of My Skates
Skating on Jenness  Pond 12/17/10*

Rosy glow of sunset and fuzzy three-quarter moon rising
Both reflected on the glossy anthracite transparent ice.
Seeing the underwater rocks and weeds speed by
As if I were a bird, beyond time and space
Speeding effortlessly by

A sudden, sharp crack of ice expanding
Sounding like Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle
Breaks the spell
Causing me to seek safe passage
Around the gushing brook
Where incoming water makes the ice unsafe

Reminding me of my father’s tale
Of the farmer on the hot day in August
Who brought his workhorses here,
Still in harness, to drink.
Who could have guessed,
They would sink in the quick sand,
Never to be seen from again.

Life is precious, Life is short:
How better to celebrate it then
Just being one with the sound of my skates.

*Unfortunately, I forgot my camera when I was skating this evening. The best substitute I can provide is this photograph I took of an icy puddle in November '07– with a shape similar to Jenness Pond.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oceanic Feelings

Photograph taken at Old Orchard Beach 11/13/10
“There on the beach, with no sound but that of the ocean waves…I experienced dreams of a new sort–soft and shapeless things, marvels that made a deep impression, without images or emotions, clear like the sky and the water, and reverberating like the white whorls of ocean rising up from the depths of a vast truth: a tremulously slanting blue in the distance that acquired glistening, muddy-green hues as it approached, breaking with a great hissing its thousand crashing arms to scatter them over darkish sand where they left dry foam, and then gathering into itself all undertows, all return journeys to that original freedom, all nostalgias for God, all memories (like this one, shapeless and painless) of a prior state, blissful because it was so good or because it was different, a body made of nostalgia with a soul of form, repose, death, the everything or the nothingness which – like a huge ocean – surround the island of castaways that is life.”[1]

Many sections of The Book of the Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa are beautiful and evocative, but because the book is built on shifting fragments, it never coalesces into a coherent whole. Instead, the book is filled with disparate parts and voices, “all swirling and uncertain like the cigarette smoke through which Pessoa…watched life go by.”[2]

I was particularly drawn to the passage I quoted above of being “there on the beach, with no sound but that of the ocean waves.  It resonated with me because his poetic description of the ocean is, for me, a perfect metaphor for mindful meditation: being there on my cushion, with no sound but that of my breathing, watching disparate thoughts and feelings, rise up and fall away, all swirling and uncertain like the smoke from the incense, none having any independent reality. Often, during meditation, I become enveloped in a warm glow, and without any forethought or volition on my part, a smile will magically appear upon my face, growing wider and wider until my cheeks hurt, as I make, what Pessoa calls, that blissful return journey to original freedom, or what religious people call finding God, or what the Buddha calls becoming awake.

Pessoa wasn’t the first one to equate this feeling of spiritual limitlessness with the ocean: no doubt the two have been paired since the first human stood in awe of the ocean’s roar. However, it was a contemporary of Pessoa, Romain Rolland, who first coined the term – oceanic – to describe this primal spiritual energy in a letter to his friend, Sigmund Freud in 1927.

Pessoa was a contemporary of Rolland. I wonder if they knew each other, corresponded, or read each other’s books. They seem to me kindred spirits.

Both were humanists sharing the same spiritual outlook.  While Pessoa wrote in poetic terms, Rolland wrote in prose, asserting that the oceanic  feeling is the primordial source of all religious energy, defining it as an indissoluble bond. In Rolland’s view, a person may justifiably call herself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, regardless if he renounces every belief and every illusion.[3]

Practicing mindful meditation has convinced me, beyond doubt, that Pessoa and Rolland are correct in their assertion that the oceanic feeling is a profound, ‘lived experience’ and, indeed, the basis of all spirituality.  It’s too bad Freud, wrongly, got the credit for coining the term, oceanic, especially since he distrusted it’s validity, trying – as he did – to pass it off as merely a leftover fragment of infantile consciousness.


[1] From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (text 198)., published by Penguin Classics in 2003.
[2] Quote by Richard Zenith, the editor and translator of this edition of The Book of Disquiet.
[3] The Ontology of Religiosity: The Oceanic Feeling and the Value of the Lived Experience

photograph taken at Old Orchard Beach 11/13/10

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Winter Solstice Trilogy, Part III: Winter Solstice Reflections

Winter Solstice Reflections

Twenty-five years ago, I took a photograph of my son, Ian, at the lake in front of my parent’s house, the house I grew up in. It was in the beginning part of December, right after Jenness Pond had frozen over. This year, Jenness Pond is right on schedule: it froze over for the first time two days ago. 

I've always loved this photograph, not just for the composition but because it connects me, simultaneously, back to my roots and into the future through Ian.  

This year I reworked it in photoshop and entitled it Winter Solstice Reflections.

If you are interested in the reveries this photograph stirred in me, you can read about them in my Novermber 3, 2010 blog entry entitled Be Careful What You Wish For.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter Solstice Trilogy, Part II: Observations from my back yard

Back yard photograph, 12/3/10
It's long overdue...  
Anxiously waiting for that soft blanket of snow

Pale sun radiating no heat even at noon.
The bare garden soil exposed to the cold
like a hand without a mitten.
Leaves rustling loose, still unraked.
The woodpile’s once comforting bulk,
evaporating to wispy chimney smoke.

The deer skeleton Coco found,
now mounted on the barn,
stares down from empty eye sockets,
reminding me
that you don’t always get
what you bargain for –
as if one needs reminding
at this time of year.

Winter Solstice Trilogy, Part I: A coiling darkness

Photo of a Laconia Church as seen from the river, taken at 3:30 on 12/2/10
A cold, bleak, blustery day
Light already fading at 3:30 P.M.
A coiling darkness tightens it's grip
Threatening to engulf the spirit.

A person I respect told me I needed to post entries in my blog more often if I expect to draw readers. So, Dave, I hear what you are saying and I am going to try, starting with this 3 part trilogy.