Leaving the land: perception and fantasy


I want to start by trying to talk about land in a simple way that remains connected to what land is in childhood -- I'm going to try to speak as if I were still there, in some ways.

I haven't lived there since I was eighteen, when I left to go to university, but I think my relation to a particular piece of land is the core of what I do, and what I look for and what I go on being related to as a central value.

For anyone who has grown up in the country, I think 'the land' is always some particular piece of land, their piece of land -- what land means to them. The particular piece of land I see is a farm in northern Alberta, three miles from the nearest village. When I think of it, there it is. There's the ridge of hill in the east; there's the slough in the south; there's a poplar bluff behind the house in the west; and the feeling of north is always as if it goes on as bush forever.

To me this word 'land', I realize, has a kind of shine. It is a shine that has something to do with love. When I think of land, in the childish root of it, I think land loves me, land is something that loves me. Community, not necessarily.

Land loves me by extending all around and shining and being beautiful. It never fails to be beautiful. And it's something else which is hard to name.

When you are connected to a particular piece of land it is as if every summer you go farther into it. You start out and you don't go any farther than the yard. After that you get as far as the neighbour's creek. And after that you might get into the neighbour after the neighbour's creek. And so there is a way that the space becomes real, and it becomes real in that progressive way. The parts you see on the horizon you eventually get to but you don't get to them immediately. And so all of it is very particular. And then you have that particularity built into you as a kind of order.

The sense that I had of the community wasn't like that. It wasn't as if there was a natural way to begin close to home and keep going without limit. The limits were there very quickly. The community was a place that was uneasy. There was rivalry, there was bullying, there was oppression, exclusion, betrayal, failure.

When I was asked to give this talk the image that came to me first was an image from probably midsummer of the year that I was maybe eight or nine. It's an image from sitting in church on a Sunday evening. The church I had to go to was a small Mennonite church three miles out. It was on the main road, which was a gravel road. It was right next to the road and it had two big windows which looked west onto it. In northern Alberta in summer the evenings, as you know, are very long. What I remember is sitting there in the pew and a pickup truck went past. It went as fast as it could, and what it left behind was this cloud of gravel dust. The dust was backlit, so there was rising into the bottom of the window frame this wonderful cloud of luminous dust with all the curls and swerves in it. You know the way dust gets kicked up and it slowly rises and expands and it lingers and hangs there in the air. It was completely lit up.

So the memory I have of it was of siting in this cooped-up congregation looking at what I wouldn't have know to call but what I certainly felt to be the real thing. Because, in church, there we were, the men in the back on the left side, the boys in the front of the left side, the women in the back of the right side, the girls in the front of the right side, and there was this guy always in front of us. The feeling that I certainly had was that this guy was unentitled. He was unentitled to be preaching at me because he couldn't see me, and he had never been interested in seeing me. And, moreover, he was telling lies, because he was saying that what creates and sustains us is a father in the sky. This did not make sense because obviously what sustains us is where we are -- the world itself. The vegetables are coming from the garden not from god. And my mother made me.

So I was at odds with the creation myth of my community, let's put it that way. Correctly so, because that was not a creation myth that had any place for me. Or for what I loved and believed in.

There was the congregation singing about staying near the cross, or the blood of the lamb -- what seemed to be peculiar displacements of the facts. There were people who suffered; we didn't have to look as far as the sky to find them. Our parents suffered, and we were suffering. We suffered at school, and sometimes at home too. And it was our mother who bled. Where was the mention of real pain, and where was the love and praise for what was really wonderful and beautiful around us? I remembered the hymns as having more in them about the world than there was; I remembered things about green hills and golden waves of grain and holy nights and starry skies. But when I went back to the hymn book recently and combed through it, those few mentions were just about it.

The gods I believed in were creek, poplar, willow, road, hill, moon, snow. The gods I feared were the Hereford bull and my father. And the lifting dust -- although I couldn't exactly know this, I could feel it -- the lawful motion of the lifting dust, the universality of that motion: that was true, visible cosmology.

So there was the land and there we were in the midst of it, in most direct daily contact with it, and yet living in unremitting effort to base community on something else. There was something mysterious to me about the fact that my community was organized around what I would now call a shared fantasy. Why was the community putting so much effort into being unreal?

It was partly that it was an immigrant community. Even the people who'd been there longest had only been there since 1912. In the fifties, that was only forty years. And the people in my church community had come from Russia only twenty years before. Maybe if you are a displaced people it takes sense to base your community on something other than where you are.

But it wasn't just them, it was us too. There were three of us kids and we had to walk a mile and a half to school. We would often do the whole mile and a half from the school bus with our heads in a story book. So I have to think, since I did it too, that there must be some good reasons for doing it. One of them of course was hurt feelings. You don't want to spend your whole time feeling the insults of the day and the ways in which you're being kept out of things, and so on. Another reason is boredom. The land is just lying there and shining.

When my brother and sister and I were walking home from school with our heads in storybooks we were like kids in any of the small places in any of the parts of the world discovering that cool things are happening somewhere else. It's right to want action and creation and learning and newness and virtuosity and even fantasy. We wanted to be part of the best human possibilities going. Our hunger in story books was escape and evasion, but it also had something to do with looking for those best possibilities. We were wanting out in order to get in.

We grew up and left the land as fast as we could. We left because we were looking for better company. The company we had didn't love us and it didn't love what we loved. We didn't have any real scope. We couldn't tell the truth and be honoured for it. We couldn't make what we'd like to make and have other people like it. We had to leave because we needed to find better community. But we were attached to the land, and so we were in trouble. Could we go on living in true relation to land we hardly ever saw? Can there be grounded community among landless people?

The three of us partly solved this trouble in different ways. I'll just talk about several of my own.

Land isn't the same thing as landscape. A real community in land has something to do with common work, land held and loved in common, through work with that land. A beautiful form of community I've found has been the group of people who've made and look after Strathcona Community Garden. These are inner city people, people without backyards, who have attached themselves to three and a half acres of scrub in a warehouse district, and have loved those acres so passionately, so energetically and so cunningly that they have given themselves effective ownership. They are no longer landless.

There has been another way, too, that has to do with friendships of a certain kind. Leaving the farm had to do with finding people who could teach me, or be interested in learning with me, always specifically also in relation to the feeling I had about the land I grew up on. I wanted to find people more capable of being where they were.

There are such people, who are communities in the sense that they have found each other and are friends. The ones I know are mostly women. These are communities based on a sort of unspoken common project. The project is this: they work every day and in very disciplined ways to find and enlarge something like an art or science of perception. Some of them are artists, but what they think of themselves as working at is not necessarily the objects they create. It is as if they have a sense of building their own brains. There is technical exchange: people say, have you read this, have you seen this. People show each other photos or videos, or listen to tapes. They study their dreams. They do yoga. All of these really, in some informal way, are for the purpose of learning to perceive -- I'm including feeling with perception, here -- as if perception is a resource they believe we haven't learned the full resources of. All of this is informal and intuitive and in no way institutionalized, it just strikes people as the right thing to do.

When these sorts of friends are together looking at something, they sometimes really do notice they're in heaven. Driving in silence down a road whose ditches are flowing with every color of grass. Sitting together seeing every shred of a cloud. Looking each other in the face.

Wanting this kind of attention often begins with attachment to a particular piece of land, but people who learn it have given themselves an ability to be quickly in touch, anywhere. A puddle in asphalt can be their land base, when there's nothing else.

I have a friend of a different kind, a computer programmer, who to me is a parable of a certain temptation. Jim made his fortune in software and then lost it again, and when I met him he was spending his days on the net looking for ways to abandon his body and get himself jacked into the net permanently. He wants the scientists to download what he thinks of as his brain code onto the web. He wants to live there. He believes it's possible. He doesn't expect to be immortal he says, but he'd like to live five hundred years.

The faith that it's possible to live off-earth, that there's somewhere else to go and it's somewhere painless and deathless, is something Ursula le Guin wrote about in The Wizard of Earthsea. Everywhere on the planet where the story takes place, there is a loss of community and of skill and attachment to place because an evil wizard is whispering to people that if they take his drug they'll be able to follow him into everlasting life.

Our little church dreaming of absent heaven and ignoring the heaven they were in, and Jim's virtual community of cyberspace, are alike in the way they choose to be landless by ignoring the body that is their place on earth. The evil sorcerers here are anyone instructing us to bail out.

I'm thinking also of kinds of cultural theory and philosophy of mind -- ideological communities -- that describe land, perception and community in ways that can't support a distinction between real contact and fantasy. There is something familiar about the way it feels in these arenas. Here again is a community that doesn't love what I love and that doesn't want to see me. Here I am again, looking out the window while someone tries to convince me to bail out of what I'm surest of. This time I'm in a seminar room on Burnaby Mountain looking at the glow of a bank of alders while someone tells me the land is a cultural construction.

So another way I work to stay in touch with my original piece of land is that I work to defend the very idea of it. One of the things that means is defending a description of perception that supports peoples' ability to be and stay in contact with the here and now which is their land.

In the last ten years a lot has happened in neuroscience, and subsequently in the connectionist philosophies of mind that track these findings. We have discovered things about the brain that have instantly revised centuries of error in the ways we've talked about perceiving and about the relation of perceiving to thinking and knowing. There are a number of new ideas that seem as if they can be really helpful, and I want to describe some of them briefly.

The first one isn't new, of course. It's evolutionary theory, which is our form of creation myth. It's one I like a lot, because it says that the universe, rather than being created from outside, by some outside guy or some outside force, is self-creating. It's self-creating from the beginning, and we are part of its self-creation. Human beings have this lively and minutely organized, not at all chaotic, but exquisitely complexly organized, history and actuality as self-structuring entities in a universe which is also that. What it amounts to is that we are made by the land, we are made as part of the land. The implication then is that perception is the complement of the land. It is the complement in human beings, of the land. Perception is how the land itself has constructed us capable of being in contact with it.

The second idea is a correction of the more recent academic fad for talking about perception as if it and every other kind of mental action were a kind of computation. Perceptual computationalism is a new variant of old forms of representationalism. Hume's version talked about perception as involving images "in the mind"; a 1980s version talks about codes in the brain. Both have a kind of brain-in-a-vat feel, as if perception is a purely internal transaction. What they leave out is the sense of a living creature in active contact with a world.

Contact means two things: a person or animal who is perceiving is often acting on the world, going up to something, touching something, poking its nose into something. At the same time it is entered by parts of the world, deeply altered, structured by the world. When we are attending to where we are, we're spatially and temporally entrained by patterned energy -- we're synchronized with what's with us. A perceptual state is a physical state that's relevantly, responsively organized; perceiving is relatedness. It is more like feeling than it is like calculating.

Suzanne Langer and James Gibson were making these points in 1942 and 1956, but they weren't understood. What's different now is that brain science has got more of the detail of what can be meant by saying a sensory system like vision or audition actually resonates with something happening in the world.

Another very old misunderstanding about perception -- it goes back to Plato or before -- says that perception is simple, animalistic and primitive, and that the really sophisticated, evolved and important capabilities of human beings belong to some other faculty, like 'Reason'.

In fact perception in any organism is as complex as that organism is. A human brain in the act of perceiving is probably the most finely organized kind of complex structure in the world. Perception doesn't even have to be specialized to be virtuosic. Think of a day when you drive for twelve hours through landscapes you haven't seen before, sixty miles an hour on two lanes with oncoming traffic, different colors of light and times of day, towns, all kinds of terrain. Think how much you've seen in such a day. Think of how much you've had to do, as an organism, to see so much.

We get it right, we get it right in the most complicated circumstances, and the ability to get it right is stable through hunger, sickness, lack of sleep, great changes of locale. We get it right because we're aboriginal to this planet; we're all aboriginal to the real.

The misunderstanding that says perception is simple is usually the same one that says that other capabilities, which are thought to be the truly human ones -- like thinking, speaking and imagining -- or doing math or designing jet engines -- are accomplished by 'faculties' or parts of the brain other than perception.

The recent evidence is that all of these abilities necessarily and centrally depend on structures formed in the processes of perception, for the purposes of perception. What we see in PET scan and magnetic resonance imaging is that when we think, imagine, speak and dream, it is sensory cortex that lights up. When we talk about a bird we're using some of the same tissue we use when we're seeing a bird. Reasoning and imagining, rather than being apices of some hierarchical progression are actually subabilites of a more general ability to perceive.

Another related misconception is that perception is only of particular things, and we need a 'higher' faculty to give us categories and other kinds of abstraction. Kant for instance said categories have to be applied to the materials furnished by the senses by the faculty of Understanding.

But the world builds the brain so we see things immediately as kinds of things. Eleanor Rosch, a perceptual psychologist who was first writing in the 70s, worked something out that has been used a lot since. Her discovery was that, at a base level, which is to say at the level most relevant to the survival of animals and humans, perception is automatically categorical. In other words, we see categories before we see particulars. Categories are the easy part of perceiving. The world builds the brain so we'll run away from all tigers. As we get smarter and more experienced we're able to see differences within a category. As we get to know someone better, we begin to see that although they're still them, they look different every day. It's the same with the land, anything. The deeper we get into something, the more we are able to see the particularity of it, so that the higher function, the more experienced or the more educated or the more evolved function, is to see particulars as particular.

Our notions about the relation of perceiving and abstraction also need to be turned around. The new evidence is that abstraction has to do with using parts of the brain in a segregated or dissociated way -- literally abstracting from the normal completeness of perception.

For instance, the parts of the cortex we use to see are quite widely distributed. Primary visual cortex is in the occipital lobe, right at the back of the skull. Premotor cortex, which controls eye movements, is in the frontal lobe. Color vision and visual object recognition happen in temporal cortex, behind the ears, but the parts that have to do with space perception are in parietal cortex, higher up and more toward the back of the head. So in ordinary vision there is a kind of wide net of interconnected activity, which I sometimes imagine as a kind of tree or 3D lacework made of light. As we see different things the light structures shift.

If we are thinking about space in an abstract way, when we're doing math, for instance, we use the area in parietal cortex that's used for space perception, without using the other vision centers; we're using just one quadrant of the tree. Color field painters presumably are isolating the temporal area that does color perception. We can learn to segregate sensory areas in endless different ways, but none of these ways are 'higher' than perception. They are just culturally supported ways of using parts of what in every day perception is an integrated whole.

Another misdescription of perception -- I think this is number seven -- is that we perceive with our outside edges, that we see with our retinas, feel with our skins, hear with our ears. That isn't how it happens. Perception starts at the sensory surfaces, but goes on being accomplished by structures at all levels all the way up to the cortex and then looping back down into the muscles. And the senses aren't functionally separate from each other on the way up: vision, hearing and muscle proprioception are collaborating as early as the midbrain, and they go on feeding back onto each other all the way to the cortex and beyond. Space perception in the parietal for example is heavily visual but also has converging fibers from auditory and motor cortex -- which is why blind people can do math.

So it's not that there's one place in the brain where it all comes together and perceiving happens. We see and hear and touch with our entire nervous systems, and any moment of ordinary contact with the world will be a standing texture of simultaneous microperceptions, normally integrated but sometimes, transiently, separable.

Another thing that isn't generally known -- this is my last point -- is that our brain can change quite a lot depending on what we do. People who practice playing an instrument, for instance, massively increase the number of neural connections available for fine finger movement. We customize our brains. Someone interested in certain kinds of perception can actually increase the amount of cortical tissue they use for that kind of perception. This explains how people can develop unusual kinds of skill.

A physicist called Evelyn Fox Keller wrote a wonderful book called A Feeling for the Organism, which is about a corn geneticist, Barbara McLintock, who got the Nobel a few years back. It is the story of the development of McLintock's ability to perceive the genetic structures she was tracking. Out in the field, she knew the plants individually. She knew the shapes of their leaves and their growth habits and the colors of their kernels and so on. So then, when she looked at slides under her microscope, she got so she could see the individual genetic components of a plant. She could tell which plant the slide was from.

McLintock did science by working up an always more informed integration of theoretic knowledge and eyesight. Keller called it erotic science, because it was science based on contact. It was not science done as if by aliens: it's science as done by someone who knows the land has made scientists as well as corn plants, so a scientist can adapt herself to a corn plant well enough to be able to really know it.

The world exists and we're made to perceive it. We're also made to act and make. One of the things we can make is our own ability to be with where we are. We begin instinctively, but then we can work at it more deliberately. The perception of a mature, smart, brave, adventurous, experienced person has great virtuosity, great idiosyncrasy, and also great contact. Such people can be in community because they have formed themselves to be deeply in contact with a common world.

And, since it's the perception-built brain that's used for everything else -- even for dreaming, which is fantasy at its limit -- people who are or have been in good contact with land will also be well-founded when they're making it up -- writing novels or designing jet engines.

I have often dreamed about the land I grew up on. I've thought its layout is built into my brain as a kind of basic orientation. When I dream that something happens in the south, in the slough, it always seems to have to do with sex or birth or prebirth. When something in a dream happens in the northwest, it seems to have to do with a spatial sort of intuition or quest It's as if the arrangement of land around the farmyard has been taken as a kind of basic map both of my own body and of its psychic capabilities. And presumably also of the body I lived in before I was born.

Sometimes, and I think it might be times when I'm deep in theory, I'll dream that I come up the road to the home place and find it's completely overbuilt with high rise towers. In these dreams I don't like not being able to see the land as I used to know it, but I'm not sure it's a bad dream.

If original contact with the land -- whether it's ongoing or historical -- is our cognitive base, then sanity, cognitive virtue, has to do with building correctly on that base. That is, with building on as complete and accurate a perceptual capability as we can make. Building towers coherent with their ground. And not building crazed theoretical towers on a non-base of evasion, trauma and alienation.

The more I read in the history of the philosophy of mind, the more I read of what my tradition has to say about perception and thinking and mind and rationality, the more I feel what an early civilization we are. We are living in the vast penumbra of a hideously primitive religion which lied about our origins and which had some vested interest in doing do, and which is being perpetuated in obscure ways in many theoretical disciples that think of themselves as secular. There doesn't seem to be any way to make it change quickly. I don't feel there has ever been a culture that was adequate to the land. I feel as if we are at the beginning of the beginning of the beginning, and maybe if we manage to make it for many more thousands of years we'll have communities that know how to live with the land and still be the other things that I think we rightly want to be, -- the things any kid growing up on the farm rightly wants to be.

So what I want to say about going to the land is that I really do not think it is going back. There is a sense of backward connection -- it would be wrong to forget how much of childhood and even pre-birth there is in our feeling for the land. But I don't think we should be naive or sentimental or in any way backward-looking: we are required to understand what I call our mammal fantasies, for instance that there is a father in the sky, because when we were in the womb there was a father who came from outside and banged around.

My feeling about it is that perception goes on not being the first thing, but the third thing. We leave the land and we go on a long adventure to find out how to be with the land.

But for the time being what I also know is that it's always safe to measure my brain against the land. If I'm in a good state the land is going to look beautiful. If I'm in a good state my connection with it will feel like love and bliss and rightness. If I'm not in a good state I'll be thinking ..no, I can't get it, I'm not there.


That's it. Thank you Sandra, thank you Karen and Maria.