Field Notes and Local Culture
"A common man marvels at uncommon things; a wise man marvels at the commonplace." Confucius
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The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a masterpiece of world art. Michelangelo spent four years working on scaffolding up to fifty feet from the floor, lying cramped on his back, straining in dim light to depict the cosmos as people of his time understood it. In scene after scene, he interpreted important events from the Bible: the separation of light and dark, the creation of humanity, the expulsion from innocence. Each scene is powerful on its own, but each is also related to all the others, and to understand this mural is maybe to understand the intellectual and emotional framework of the Renaissance itself.
How did he imagine such a large and complex work? How did his thinking become powerful enough to bring “the big picture” into focus? According to psychology professor Merlin Donald, even a disciplined genius such as Michelangelo could not possibly hold the complete work in mind all at once. Human brains lack the working memory for such feats. (1)
And, like all of us, Michelangelo had things to think about besides his work. During the time he worked on the painting, he also dealt with severe financial and family problems, as well as an assortment of physical ailments. His accomplishment was not merely completing a great work of art; it was doing so while besieged by other problems. I find it easy to imagine him getting back to his work some mornings, sore and stressed, his thoughts about the painting fuzzy and unclear. When we turn our attention to issues such as money woes or that worsening back problem, we activate neural structures throughout the brain that we’ve constructed to handle such problems, and the structures associated with other areas of thought, such as our creative work, necessarily recede.
How did the artist remember what he had done, what he was doing, and what ideas he had for moving forward?
He looked at the painting.
He examined various figures, and what their gestures brought to mind, and what the quality and color of light evoked. He looked sometimes at the overall scheme, and how a scene in one place enlarged and changed the meaning of a scene in a different place, and he looked sometimes at details, how the line of a finger could evoke either passivity or power. Sometimes he pondered conceptual issues on a cosmic scale; sometimes he experimented with his materials to get the right texture. He could only concentrate on one or a few things at any given moment, but he could move his attention around, and the painting stayed where he had put it, allowing him to make progress.
No matter how complex things sometimes seemed, at some point in his looking, the next step became clear. His health and his money problems faded like the house lights when the play begins.
To imagine into existence the entire mural, Michelangelo had to rely on memory fields outside his brain. The painting itself was such a memory field. Michelangelo did what every artist or writer or engineer or architect does to complete large works. He made notes and drawings.
As he worked, the painting itself became an extension of his memory, as necessary to thought and imagination as the neural circuits of his brain. In effect, he had two memory systems: one inside his brain, made of chemicals and neurons and electric impulses, which scientists call engrams, and one outside his brain, which scientists call exograms, in this case made of pigments and oils and plaster. His mind constantly accessed both memory fields.
As he examined the painting in progress, he came alive again inside a place of his own creation. Neural structures lit up and the artist again entered the drama of the whole of creation--a majestic narrative of the great round of time from first creation to final judgment. He could not have imagined or thought what he did without putting “out there” an extension of his consciousness in symbolic representations.
It is much the same with all intellectual work on a large scale. Writers seldom if ever “figure it out” and then write it down. Most often writing it down is figuring it out. Or rather, writing it down and then reading, re-reading, adding, changing, removing, rearranging, re-reading, and re-writing is figuring it out. Without the writing, many of the connections, insights, ideas, and conclusions could not have occurred.
The painting itself was an aspect of Michelangelo’s mind, as necessary to his thought as the brain cells themselves.
He used the painting to hold thoughts and impressions in place, so his limited working memory could move forward. By representing his thoughts on a durable medium outside his brain, Michelangelo could return to them over and over giving them prolonged attention, revising what was there and building on it. He could not have imagined the vast mural--except in a vague and general way--without having painted it.
Michelangelo said that his unusual creative power had as much to do with persistence and hard work as with raw talent. Accomplishment takes time. Much of the secret, according to many people of great accomplishment, is the capacity to continue paying attention long after most people have turned their attention back to their chores or their pleasures.
This power of persistent attention can be magnified many times through writing, drawing and calculating. Without a ceiling or a wall to paint on, or a sketchbook to jot in, or a notebook to scribble in, or a website to tinker with, the human mind is quite limited in what it can imagine. One of the most astonishing things in the biosphere is how humans have extended their minds through external memory fields. These memory fields are important because our conscious minds, where we govern and plan our work, can only hold a few things at a time.
About seven. Seven, plus or minus two, to be more precise. The psychologist George Miller in a famous paper “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” published in 1956 pointed out that the number seven appears frequently in the literature of psychology as the limit of what we can store in short-term memory. The bandwidth of human consciousness is very narrow. You can remember a seven-digit number long enough to dial it. But to remember two or three seven-digit numbers, you need to jot them down.
When you jot them down, you are augmenting the memory available in the neural circuits in your brain with symbols on a piece of paper. The paper becomes the brain’s external storage, a new medium for extending consciousness. In many ways, such media work better than the neural circuitry we get from biology. We can’t hold words or images clearly in our working memory long enough for detailed study or reflection. “Natural memory is poor, lacks definition and detail, and is notoriously unreliable,” the scientists tell us. “The external memory field gives us sharper and more durable mental representations. This allows the conscious mind to reflect on thought itself and to evolve longer, more abstract, procedures.” (2)
The shift in consciousness that occurred with our development of external memory fields may be the most stunning occurrence in the history of the biosphere. This was done mostly through the emergence of written symbol systems and it occurred very recently--maybe less than ten thousand years ago, scientists now believe. We may be biologically no smarter than our stone age ancestors, but we have developed new memory media that greatly expand what we can achieve with our minds.
Field notes are a form of such media--they are the basic building blocks of many or most large projects. They are a good place to begin community self-study projects because they are located, for many people, in the “zone of proximal development.” This is psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s term for a theoretical space that skilled teachers identify and use in planning their teaching. It is made up of those skills that are just beyond what the learner can currently do. When we try to learn things that are too far out of reach, it’s easy to conclude we can never “get it.” Conversely, when we do only what we are already good at, we tend to get bored.
But we learn with maximum efficiency and excitement within the zone of proximal development. It’s a stimulating space. We are, after all, created to learn--informavores,” Merlin Donald calls us.
If you want to create something like the Sistine Chapel, an extension of your own consciousness, a place you can go to clarify and strengthen your thoughts, a refuge from a world of chores, you can begin by sketching your own hand, or writing a detailed set of notes about what goes on in the corner supermarket.
Writing polished articles and essays requires many sub-skills, among the most important of which are making and organizing notes. Novice writers can learn what they need to know largely by concentrating on making careful notes. Done well, such notes can have real historical value. You can think of the field notes you jot while observing some aspect of the world as the first draft of culture.
When we make field notes about people we interview, the history or ecology of sites we visit, actions we undertake, meetings we attend, adventures we have, and how things seem at various moments, we are in a sense on the front lines of culture, converting ignorance to knowledge.
Every family and neighborhood needs its Sistine Chapels: spaces transformed by human intelligence and labor into places that interpret where we are in the cosmos. The innate capacity to create such places is not rare. It is abundant, deeply ingrained in our nature and broadly fostered by literate culture.
You may as well get started.
Art and Local Culture
You may think that you are not Michelangelo, you are not creating a great masterpiece, and so what you do does not much matter. If so, you are quite wrong. You are likely developing considerable artistry in some area of your life. In truth, great artistry is not rare. It is only fame that is rare, but fame is a different and a lesser thing than artistry. Fame is an artifact of large-scale, centralized societies, and more often than not it is unrelated to greatness.
Artistry is something else. In a nutshell, art is about making and doing, and our world is held together by ordinary people scattered broadly among us who live as great artists. Anyone looking for them will meet them continually. A teacher who learns an important discipline while interacting deeply with younger minds, seeing what they know and can do, arranging projects to keep them moving along the path toward greater intelligence, is doing something as difficult and important as what Michelangelo did. A police officer entering hundreds of tense social situations each year, balancing keen perceptions of people and events with a continually growing repertoire of moves to get people to act wisely, to defuse trouble, to maintain a workable order, can be as great an artist as those we read about. A farmer or gardener who comes to know a particular place and what it offers and does not offer to life through the changing seasons, not to mention what life in its diverse forms might need, and learns how to bring that place to a robust form of health we call beauty, is combining labor and meditation in an artistry worthy of our fondest respect.
Such people learn more deeply and live more fully when a regular part of their work is documenting and reflecting on what they see and do. And if enough of their words were easily available to other interested minds, this alone would sponsor a flowering of human culture beyond anything we have yet seen.
Our destiny is to become a race of artists and scientists and scholars, and we are far along this path. We usually think of these as specialties, reserved for the few, but access to knowledge and tools to work with is spreading rapidly. It is no longer necessary, for example, to be affiliated with a university to have ready access to higher learning through books, journals, conferences and informed dialogue. It is no longer necessary to be certified by some authority to teach, learn, or publish.
We have mostly (though not completely) succeeded at a crucial step toward universal literacy: today, most adults in America can read a newspaper, decipher a letter from the bank, or read an email from a son or daughter away from home. This is no small achievement.
The educational goal for today must be to move beyond simple literacy and to develop ourselves into highly skilled writers--people who master their own words and meanings enough to defend against being mastered by other people’s words and meanings. We keep responding to school failure by lowering our aim and making threats, but we won’t make much progress until we begin talking to people about hope and joy and power.
Even after technologies such as the printing presses drove our progress toward universal reading by making books less rare, publishing was still limited to a very few. Now newer technologies are making access to publishing cheap and easy. Any small group that want to create and preserve its own literature can now find the means to do so.
The writing habit is a kind of meditation, akin to what any artist does along the way to making a masterpiece, and making good field notes is not a trivial skill. When you enter a situation intent on seeing and documenting it as fully as possible, that purpose prepares your mind to use its resources to the fullest.
There are many ways the note-making or journaling habit can help you think more powerfully. I’ll mention three.
You probably won’t remember the facts and details you need to write well if you don’t jot things down immediately. The usual process of making field notes is to do jottings as things are happening, and then to write up more complete notes as soon as possible, preferably later the same day. I generally do something in between, making jottings when things are happening quickly, and writing more finished passages as I can.
Suppose you interviewed a retired farmer, Ed Smythe, two weeks ago, and now it is time to write up your findings. You might begin with a description of the interview setting. “The old man met us in the driveway, outside his garage,” you might begin, hoping to communicate what you experienced at the interview.
You were quite impressed with the elderly gentleman--his habits of meticulous work and his commitment to keeping his part of the world in order through his own labor, despite his age and frailty. You could just say that: “He has a commitment to keeping the world in order despite his age.” But that seems a little flat.
Since you want to communicate the impressions he made, you want to describe what you saw and heard, to give the reader the same chance you had to experience the event.
So what did you see and hear?
If you’re like most people, the events of two weeks ago are now quite foggy.
You may remember conclusions you reached during the interview but your recollection of specific details--what the speaker did with his hands as he talked, what birds were singing, what objects were in the room--will fade quite quickly. Our memories don’t work well for vivid writing.
One of the tricks of remembering things is simply to hold them in consciousness long enough for them to make a more durable impression. Can you draw a Lincoln penny, getting all the design elements in the right places? There are four design elements on each side. If you are like most people, you may remember two or three of them, although you’ve probably seen pennies hundreds of times. The problem is that we tend not to pay attention to them long enough to make a durable impression.
If you take a penny out of your pocket right now and draw it, holding it in your awareness for a bit of time, you probably won’t have any trouble sketching it again tomorrow from memory. You can easily remember that on one side is Lincoln’s portrait, with the motto “In God We Trust” at the top, the word “Liberty” on the left, and the date of coinage on the right. The other side, you will remember, has an engraving of the Lincoln Memorial with “The United States of America” across the top, “E Pluribus Unum” under that, and “One Cent” at the bottom.
When we jot impressions down, we magnify the time they are in our consciousness, making it more likely we will remember them. Many students know that if they take careful notes of a lecture, they can remember it without reviewing the notes, but that if they don’t take notes, they won’t remember it. They take notes with no intention of studying them, but simply as a way of paying attention, of holding thoughts and impressions in mind long enough for them to register in memory.
Of course, if I test you again on that penny a month from now, you’ll probably have forgotten much of it again. What’s on a penny is not, after all, of great importance to you. You don’t much care. The mind is designed to be very good at forgetting things we don’t care about. Forgetting is very important. If you remembered everything you learnedԢthe phone number where you used to work, what you wore to school on the third Monday in October your sophomore year, the precise location on a map of all the countries you have never visited, the prices of all the items you purchased on your last trip to the supermarket—you would drown in data. Though your brain’s resources are vast--your neural pathways may represent a network a million times more complex than the entire global internet--they are not unlimited.
So we discard information quickly to make room for new information, staying attuned to the world changing around us. This discarding of information occurs vividly when we are startled. An unexpected sound or image in our sensation field triggers a startle reflex, forcing us to focus on what is happening. When saber tooth tigers growl or seatbelt warning alarms beep, the thoughts we were thinking vanish, freeing up our mental resources. This occasionally has survival value.
Even when we are not startled, sensations fade from consciousness rapidly. We can keep vivid sensory impressions in our conscious minds for only ten to fifteen seconds. Our thoughts are similarly ephemeral. We can’t think long and complex thoughts without some way of stringing together brief segments. Our conscious thought is a stream of two to ten second moments, mostly occupied with what is happening in the world around us. One poet observed that it was hard to tell the difference between thinking and just gazing out the window.
“Until you have words in front of you to edit,” says anthropologist Harry Walcox, “words can jump around forever in your head in so abstract a form that they can neither be communicated to others nor sharpened to your own satisfaction.” (3) The poet Patricia Goedicke says she is “rich” when she has lots of unfinished drafts on hand, but “poor” when her projects have been mostly finished. Having something down on paper, even if it misses the mark, puts us much farther ahead in the thinking game than having nothing.
Without something like writing our thinking tends to be fragmentary and incoherent. The main joy of reading, for me, is simply the experience of sustained, coherent, complex thoughts. My mind alone is seldom so much fun as it is when it is following some other mind’s carefully constructed experiences—viewing Michelangelo’s painting, watching plays and movies, hearing intelligent lectures or epic poems or liturgies, or following symphonies.
Since forgetting is an essential survival skill, we do it in many ways. One is to simply summarize a lot of data into a conclusion, then throw away the data and keep the conclusion. You may have noticed that sometimes you remember an opinion without having a clear memory of what led you to it.
Science writer Tor Nørretranders uses the example of the checker at the supermarket. He enters the cost of each item until he gets to the sum, then he forgets all the other numbers. If you ask, “How much was that bottle of mayonnaise?” he’ll probably have to look it up. It’s only the total that is important. “That’ll be $21.38,” he might say. The amount of information included in the total is dramatically less than that included in the printout that lists each item and its cost, but unless there’s a mistake, the total is the information both of you are interested in. You write your check for $21.38, promptly forgetting the details.
Fortunately, there is more to our minds than short-term memory. Some things we remember as long as we live. Some things make it into long-term memory. These are the things about which we have strong feelings. When an image or a statement evokes strong feelings, we are far more likely to remember it. It is probably the case that nothing gets into long-term memory unattached to an emotion. As an aside, this is why teaching without passion is not teaching at all. We remember best the things that are most important to us, and emotion is the mind’s way of registering of importance. Thinking and feeling are not separate activities.
Good researchers are alert to their own emotional reactions. Feelings of disgust or delight or anger or warmth flag the mind, alerting it that something important may be happening. Since we can see and hear faster than we can ponder, events that might move us can slip by before we realize what they mean. But if we feel an emotion stirring, even if we’re not sure what to make of it, and jot down a word or two as a memory cue, we can return to it later, retrieve it and reflect on it.
Writers call those facts that trigger associations with larger patterns or that encode larger meanings “telling details.” The art of poetry frequently revolves around noticing telling details and isolating them on the page to call attention to them. Field researchers can benefit from cultivating a similar awareness. As the afternoon sun moves towards evening in the sky, poet William Stafford notices that a dark shadow moves across the floor toward him. Robert Frost sees that as a boy climbs a birch toward heaven, his own weight bends the tree and he is returned to earth. W. S. Merwin observes travelers flying above spectacular views of the earth, reading newspapers and thinking of money.
Quite often as I’m working up a finished report from my field notes, a few jotted lines or even a single word will remind me of an entire segment of the experience that I had simply forgotten until I reviewed the notes. Since our minds store long-term memories by association, when we retrieve an impression we activate nearby memories as well, maybe from many periods of our lives. As we work on our notes, memories from many years ago, that we haven’t thought about for years, sometimes come to mind. These can help us understand the significance of the event we are thinking about.
Last week I attended an open house put on by a class of high school students I work with. They had completed a project researching the history of notable individuals in their home town. The audience sat at picnic tables under ponderosa pines on the lawn of the local museum which had sponsored their work and would archive their final products. Something in the sunlight on the pine needles overhead and the smell of the grass provoked a fleeting and subtle but very real feeling of gladness. In my notebook I simply jotted “pines, sunlight” then turned my mind back to following the speaker, who was talking about a star athlete from half a century before.
Back at home, as I wrote a report, I saw my jotting and paused and thought some more about that feeling. What came to mind were images of myself as a child, with my family on picnics. The setting of the school event had reminded me of all those times growing up when I felt surrounded by goodness—people who loved me and one another, peaceful sharing of time and stories, abundant food, a lovely place. Most of us, I hope, have memories of Eden, of childhood moments when the world felt right and we felt right within it. It was my personal memory of Eden that the light in the pines was prompting.
I didn’t refer to these memories directly when I wrote my report, but they helped me understand what seemed right about the education program I was describing: it brought people together in ways that made them happy. This was no small part of the motive force that made quality academic work possible, I thought. I needed to at least hint at that possibility to tell the truth about that school event.
What was important was not the light in the pine trees, exactly. I live amid pines and see them nearly every day of my life. The image was a cue that triggered a feeling—re-minding me of similar social situations in my past. I realized that the afternoon with its quality of light in the pines and its aroma of spring grass and with people enjoying one another, sharing thoughts about who they were, “belonged with” memories of childhood picnics. The association transformed that short-term memory into a long-term memory. I will remember that afternoon as an important instance of a way the world sometimes is, a mental resource that might yet serve me in ways I can’t predict.
Of course, passion is not the only thing that improves our thinking. So does learning. As we repeatedly do complex cognitive tasks, we become more skilled and they take less of our working memory. This accounts for the difference between a lawyer quickly scanning a brief looking for significant phrases, completely unaware that he is translating ink marks into words and combining words into thoughts, and a first grader struggling to remember what the mark “A” stands for, maybe having a flash of recognition as he recalls that it is the same as “a.”
“Automaticity” is the word scientists use for activities we have learned well enough, through the hard work of giving them deliberate attention, that we can do them without thinking about them. Driving a car is an common example. Beginning drivers need all their conscious attention to keep the car on the road, miss other cars, move the gearshift in synchronization with the gas pedal and the clutch, read road signs, and so on. When they have practiced enough, they do all these things in heavy traffic with no conscious attention at all, and their consciousness is freed to think about other things.
The first few times we try to create written texts based on experiences, we may be overwhelmed because too much is happening given how slowly we can process it. But things get easier with practice. Many writing problems are simply solved, once and for all, and don’t need to be thought about again. In my early efforts to write up finished works based on my notes, I continually found myself wanting information that I’d simply neglected to gather—biographical information on people I met, descriptions of rooms where events happened. With practice, we develop a better sense of what we are going to need later.
We can even learn to see automatically entire patterns, full of far more information than we could manage if we tried to gather it item by item. We learn to see a bigger picture, and become capable of dealing with larger and larger issues. A child has all he can do to keep track of a bouncing rubber ball, trying to predict and control its delightful behavior. A seasoned politician, on the other hand, may be tracking the interactions of international militarism that involves hundreds of personalities and many thousands of variables, all colored by centuries of history.
Experts seem to have mental powers the rest of us don’t have—and in a sense this is true but it’s important to remember, with proper respect for talent, that these are usually learned rather than innate powers. What they can do, we can learn to do. A famous psychological study asked both novice and expert chess players to look at chess positions from actual games. Each position contained 25 pieces. People were given 5 to 10 seconds to look at the board before being asked to reproduce the positions from memory. Novices could get about 5 pieces right. This fits the theory that we can store 5 to 9 things in short term memory.
But expert players often got 22 pieces right. How did they do it?
The answer becomes clear when the experiment is repeated, but with pieces placed randomly rather than in positions from actual games. Faced with such a board, experts could remember the positions of no more pieces than novices could. (4)
This suggested that experts were not memorizing the positions of 22 individual pieces. Instead, they were memorizing patterns they had become familiar with through studying thousands of actual chess games. They automatically saw several pieces as parts of a larger whole they were familiar with. They were still only remembering 7 plus or minus 2 things, but instead of remembering individual pieces they were remembering chunks, or patterns, and each pattern contained several individual chess pieces.
As we become more expert through learning and conscious practice, we see more in the situations we face, but we don’t do this by increasing the bandwidth of our consciousness. We do it by increasing our fluency with parts of the task becoming automatic. As we work at documenting and interpreting the world around us, it becomes possible for us to see and do more.
In a very real way, it becomes possible for us to live more.
That being said, it probably needs to be pointed out that the testimony of a great many very good writers is that writing never becomes easy. Though writing field notes is a simpler task than writing novels or poems, all writers share the same plight: it takes effort. As parts of writing that were once hard become effortless, new challenges fill our minds. Real work never gets real easy. Fortunately, we can acquire a taste for difficulty, which is why marathons and chess have their devotees. It can be fun to live what Theodore Roosevelt called the “strenuous life.”
It’s probably the case that making good field notes will always be difficult, in the best possible ways.
I’ve heard that a typical Clark’s Nuthatcher can remember 10,000 hiding places for seeds, but I spent a half hour this morning trying to track down my car keys. Of course, the bird did not need to think about whether all the speakers for a conference it was putting on later this month have the right equipment scheduled in the right rooms, or whether it ever returned the funnel it borrowed from its father, or how much of that trip to Louisiana might really be tax deductible, or whether a chapter about something as common as writing notes would be helpful in a book about community research.
The fact is that I couldn’t remember where I put my keys because “I"—that part of my mind that is conscious of itself, among other things—never knew to begin with. When I laid them on my desk, where I “never” put them, my limited consciousness was focused elsewhere, and though my eyes certainly sent information about what I was doing and though my ears surely transmitted the sound of them clanking onto the oak surface, I was not paying attention. My limited consciousness was busy with other affairs, maybe looking for the notebook I mislaid yesterday.
Many things we can’t remember are things we never “knew” to begin with, even though we saw or heard them. Most of the information available to us never gets to the level of consciousness. While you were standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, the checker might have called out the cost of each item and, if so, your ears certainly recorded the information. But if you were transfixed by tabloid headlines about renegade scientists in Tibet who performed a successful head transplant, information about the cost of radishes may not have made it into your consciousness.
Part of the reason for making field notes is to remember things, but it may be a little daunting to realize that what we forget is negligible compared to what we never notice to begin with.
The memory capacity of our brains is finite, but we are bombarded with millions of impressions. Most of the information that flows into our brains from our senses never makes it to our consciousness. Cognitive scientist estimate that “only one millionth of what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our other senses inform us about appears in our consciousness.” (5)
That’s worth repeating, in case your mind was wandering. We only become conscious of a millionth or so of what our senses perceive. We make jokes about the absent-minded professor who cannot find the eyeglasses perched on his forehead, but in truth we are all mostly absent-minded. Other parts of our brain use much more of this information, but still millions of bits of data bombard us every minute, while our consciousness processes very little of it—maybe as much as forty bits per second but more likely less than sixteen.
Purpose and Desire
Here’s the interesting question: if we ignore most things, how do we decide what to notice? This is important because to learn, we need to pay conscious attention. It’s the only way we ever figure anything out. In fact, most of learning to learn is learning to manage our attention.
Other than instinctive reactions such as our startle reflex, simple desire is the main governor of what we notice. We notice things we care about. This leads to the first rule of thumb of field research: go with a purpose. This doesn’t prevent you from occasionally allowing your attention to drift across the scene or the situation, open to inspiration. But if there isn’t anything you want to learn or understand, you are likely to return as unenlightened as you went.
When you go looking for something, what you see might lead you in a different direction than you thought you would go. You might be surprised, disappointed, confused, or challenged by what you find. But you are much more likely to find something than if you just wander into the situation, without any purpose.
Not only should you go with a purpose, you also need to review frequently whether you are finding what you are looking for. It’s nearly impossible for us to sustain intense attention to anything for a long time, so usually we find at some point that we are “just looking out the window” rather than thinking hard about what we see. The notebook open before us brings our attention back to the task, preparing us for another burst of concentrated observation.
Making notes is a way of focusing our limited attention. It’s a form of self-management.
Writing field notes can help you see things, hear things, think things, feel things, and understand things that would never occur without focused attention. Your notebook becomes part of your mind, increasing your capacity to notice, remember, organize, reflect, and create. The notebook may be an essential tool for the full life.
One of the traditional ideals of field work has been objectivity. If by being objective it is meant that you need to be fair and open to seeing things in new ways and sensitive to other perspectives, that’s probably right.
But if it means you should not care one way or another what is happening, then I’m skeptical. We all have biases, which grow out of our desires. When we begin to see patterns and thus to expect certain things to happen, we are becoming biased. Harry F. Walcox regards “bias as entry-level theorizing.” It is, he says, “a thought-about position from which the researcher as inquirer feels drawn to an issue or problem and seeks to construct a firmer basis in both knowledge and understanding.” (6)
Our bias is rooted in our desire, without which we are all but ineducable. Trouble starts not when we have a bias but when we start loving being right more than we love learning. As we pursue inquiries, we encounter details that don’t fit our notions of how the world is and has been. If we really have the spirit of discovery, we are drawn toward these details, recognizing them as beacons marking unknown shoals that do not appear correctly on our maps.
It is only when our bias leads us to dismiss or attack these details rather than to investigate them that it becomes a problem.
Maybe the greatest excitements in thinking come from encountering two sets of information, both seemingly correct, that apparently contradict one another. It is amid such confrontations that we often make cognitive leaps, not simply adding more facts like additional books to our mental shelves, but adding a whole new storey with a better view. Often contradictory facts are both correct, but at different levels in a conceptual hierarchy. To resolve the contradiction, we need to extend our understanding.
We need a theory of some sort to get started at all. The great psychologist William James supposedly said that “you can’t pick up rocks in a field without a theory.”
Our biases and theories shape our purpose. Our commitment to documenting what we observe with the goal of deeper understanding helps us stay focused.
People with the journaling habit sometimes feel they haven’t really experienced something until they’ve written about it. This doesn’t mean that much of the time they aren’t experiencing the world at the primary level of sensory impressions, as alert as a hunting cat to the information delivered by their senses. It just means that they also step back from such experiences, hunting for larger game in the realms of patterns, stories, and theories, focusing on what things might mean.
It’s quite exciting that so simple a thing as documenting your experiences of both inner and outer worlds is the basic stuff of all the arts and sciences, the raw material of human progress. The simple fact that notes are a tangible, durable record is important. Converting experience to symbolic representation is the basis of all the disciplines.
Though we write first for ourselves, from the beginning you should also be working toward communication. If you have the time and inclination to aim at large, national markets, that’s fine, but we really don’t need more bestsellers. What we do need is more work that grows out of local places and is intended for them. Our communities are impoverished to the extent that they have not attracted storytellers, scientists, geographers, and historians dedicated to them. Until every pond has its Thoreau, many of our landscapes will be mute.
As the quality and quantity of local research and writing accumulates, we will enjoy a renaissance of local literature and local culture. Such renaissances are of necessity community events. They don’t occur until groups of readers and writers find one another. This is because a human mind, acting on its own, doesn’t amount to much. It needs community to find its voice.
One of the important insights of the twentieth century—contributed to by James in psychology, Whitehead in philosophy, Dewey in Education, and Einstein in science, to name but a few—was that the self is not an isolated phenomenon. Our bodies are bounded by our skin but our minds are not. We live by incorporating more and more of what was the world around us into our minds.
We cannot separate our minds from their environments or from society. Wendell Berry offers us this formula: mind = brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community + history. What we sometimes call our environment—as much of it as we are aware of, anyway—is part of our consciousness, which is to say, part of our minds. By history, Berry means “not just documented events but the whole heritage of culture, language, memory, tools, and skills.” (7)
Much of this environment from which we cannot separate ourselves consists of other minds and their works. We become human by learning to understand and use those shared aspects of mind outside us. We cannot become human alone. Language itself is a power of mind that human beings isolated from other human beings cannot create. There is no known case of a human child raised without contact with other people who ever developed a language.
The Culture of Literacy
Culture is our name for all those aspects of mind that are stored not inside individual brains but in external memory fields, such as writing but also such as rituals, family habits, songs, cities, dances, architecture, foodways, mathematical formulas, traditions, scientific theories, stories, and painting on church ceilings.
Education is primarily concerned with helping us become more skilled at using external memory fields. Throughout our lives we increase our power to access those memory fields by using reading and writing and mathematics. As we do this, we quite literally “rewire” our brains, building new neural structures that simply don’t exist in people who are not literate. This is hard work, but it’s worth it, because the external memory available to us is unimaginably vast compared to what we can store in our brains, and it is all but impossible to live in the modern world without accessing it.
To give mundane examples, no doctor could remember all the effects of drugs currently available or what research has shown about their interactions with one another. No engineer could carry around in her brain the specifications of all the off-the-shelf components she might use to build a new machine. No gardener could remember all she needs to know about what conditions of pH, moisture, temperature and light hundreds of different plants need at different stages of growth.
People who do complex work live amid and through books. There is no other way. Whether these works exist as ink on paper or as patterns of light on a monitor matters little. To get through the day, we access both our biological memories and the rich store of external memory fields we have invented, including notes tacked on the bulletin board in the kitchen, binders from a recent seminar, tax receipts tucked in the filing cabinet, a website maintained by kindred spirits, or the 518 miles of book shelves in the Library of Congress.
It may seem odd to think of that note tacked on your bulletin board as a feature of your mind, but it most certainly is, if you are conscious of it. So are those notes you jot in your journal. So are your family, your house, and your neighborhood. The idea of a disembodied mind is simply inconceivable. Without sensory organs connecting it to the external world, the brain could develop no images, no language, no thoughts-which are always based on differences and similarities, which are rooted in perception.
Helen Keller lacked sight and hearing but had the sense of touch, including internal sensations of her body, awareness of motion, and the warmth of sun and the chill of shade, along with her ability to smell and taste the world. The sense of touch was paramount to her. It was a slim reed, relatively speaking, but enough. Through touch she learned to communicate.
She referred to the creature she had been before her teacher Anne Sullivan brought language and with it connections to other humans as the Phantom. Fortunately, Helen had normal sight and hearing until she lost them after a fever when she was eighteen months old, and her brain had developed normally until then, including her beginning use of language. Without that basis, she would have been lost to us.
Through touch she was able to make contact with other minds, and through knowing others she became herself. This is the process we all follow, from the least of us to the greatest.
Einstein’s mind was composed of features of Galileo’s and Newton’s minds, as well as hundreds of others. By pondering and reflecting on their work, in the same ways they themselves had pondered and reflected upon it, by moving his conscious attention through the writings and diagrams and formulas they thought with, by examining the representations they made on paper (that were often more vivid traces of their mental activity than they themselves could access in their brain’s memory), Einstein was able to see some things they did not see. Without them, he could have accomplished very little—a point about which he himself was clear. He could see as far as he did, he said, because he stood on the shoulders of giants. He understood that a solitary mind on its own doesn’t amount to much and can’t see or do much.
The process of building shared memory fields has been going on for millennia, and has been the basis of the shift from tribalism to civilization. We are in the midst of another great shift, from centralized civilization to more dispersed forms.
Localism and Regionalism
Like all great changes in history, this will involve great dangers. Groups can organize for unwise as well as wise purposes. Of course, the forces of centralization are also getting more powerful, and this too has some good effects and many bad ones. Those who try to contest the forces of centralization head on find themselves forced to organize and centralize.
A stronger strategy is to put our energy into the work of building local and regional cultures. As local groups study, gather, interpret, create, preserve and present local culture, they are, among other things, preserving their freedom. A person or a town whose music comes pre-recorded, whose textbooks are written by distant committees, whose food materializes through unknown processes, whose conversation is drowned out by broadcast chatter, whose politics consists of filling out multiple choice forms, and whose education is planned by bickering factions is living in a fantasy if it imagines itself free.
Towns, farms, families, schools, museums, and local economies are forms of art just as sculptures, symphonies and novels are. To make them well may be the best use we can make of life. At the local level, there can be important work for all of us. At the local level, there can a place where each of us is greeted and understood. At the local level, we can know where we are and who we are with.
We need an abundance of local researchers and writers. We are beginning to understand that being a skilled writer is as valuable to a good life as being a skilled reader. Already many schools create portfolios of student writing that grow and follow each student through the years. This habit of creating and preserving records of one’s experience will for many become lifelong. Every family and town will maintain its archive of words and images that are too important to leave behind. Every town and every family will see the value of thoughtfulness, of paying attention, of hunting for meaning and they will increase their powers of clarity and of understanding by developing their skills as writers and readers.
Interestingly, the best strategy for teaching higher writing skills, both to young people and to not-so-young people, may be to work together on collaborative research projects. Writing involves solving ill-defined problems for which there are no simple algorithms. This makes it hard to teach and hard to learn.
Expert writers think about many things, in recursive processes. Concerns about sentence structure and word choice and clarity interact with thoughts about who the audience will be and what background they have. Analyses of logic or the appropriateness of illustrations and evidence play against thoughts about organization. They need to think about which of the many processes they should follow at any time, and when to let another process interrupt it, and what they were doing before they were interrupted and when to go back to it. Throughout the process, skilled writers think about the rhetorical moves that are available.
The complexity is what makes it so fun.
When we write we are faced with so many demands on our attention, so many things that need thinking about, that we may feel like an air traffic controller who is simultaneously doing his work while carrying on a phone conversation with a distraught spouse and playing a chess game with a colleague.
Cognitive scientists believe we use our working memory for three kinds of processes as we write: planning what we intend to accomplish, transferring our plans into actual texts, then reviewing what we have done to see if it worked. They find that expert writers tend to monitor these processes, always judging how things will work for their audience and their purpose. Novice writers, on the other hand, tend to focus on what they know about a topic and writing it down. They tend to write it down in the order that it occurs to them. They tend to write down everything they think of, without wondering whether it is useful to their writing goals or whether it will be interesting for their audience. John T. Bruer summarizes the difference this way: for novice writers, the task is to “reduce a writing assignment to a topic and tell what you know about the topic.” For a skilled writer, the task “is building bridges between what he or she knows and what others might know.” (8)
Since the usual purpose of school writing is simply to display what you know, it’s easy to get through school with novice writing. Many high school graduates have not encountered writing situations designed to help them learn powerful writing. What students need are authentic writing tasks within discourse communities, groups that are formed around topics of common interest.
When they are involved with other people in real research that is intended to result in public presentations, the group process itself teaches the cognitive strategies used by expert writers. When various people share their notes, both from library and field research, in a shared data base that all the community members read, and then discuss together what to make of it and how to present it, the group is doing externally precisely the complex balancing and juggling that expert writers do by themselves. A students who has participated with a group that manipulates the information, considers it from several angles, considers what is missing, and so on is unlikely to simply list facts as they arrive from associational memory. The process of arranging the information for rhetorical purposes becomes tangible and visible, helping make clear what is involved in successful writing. People talk their way past the inadequate protocol of simply listing what they know.
This also reverses the traditional approach to teaching writing. Instead of teaching better writing with the assumption that this will lead to better thinking, the community model of doing research, discussing the findings, planning public presentations, and working together to create quality intellectual products teaches better thinking, with the assumption that it will lead to better writing. The evidence indicates that this works. (9)
As better writers become more widely spread throughout the population, more and more literature and science will speak with a local accent. Creating and sustaining local cultures should attract a larger portion of our resources. Our heritage of industrial design and sophisticated machines are freeing us to do other work, if we choose to.
We live in interesting times, when each year we need less of the world’s human energy to produce the goods necessary for a comfortable life but many people nonetheless feel that the wolf at the door is getting louder and bolder. This is a side effect of our culture’s widespread experiment in faithlessness, with its consequent distrust and fear not only of each other but of life itself. With intelligent, self-governing communities weakened, the ever-present forces of both tyranny and anarchy are on the march. More than ever before, young people need to research, analyze, and interpret information and to speak with honest and intelligent voices.
We need young people to develop a personal voices, backed by hard research, and made bold by a faith that one really has seen what one has seen, really heard what one has heard, and really felt what one has felt. My own faith, at least in part, is that honest feeling and clear thinking form a powerful defense against bogeymen that now proliferate like vampires in a budget movie. Without confidence in our personal voices, and a bone-deep belief that they matter, we have no defense against other voices that get louder each year and seldom have our best interests at heart.
It is through the work of local culture that we can shape our destiny. Self-determination is never going to be achieved by begging for it from centralized power-so conceived it amounts to little more than a self-defeating contradiction. It will be achieved by local communities applying their intelligence to the places they live, asking where they are, who they are, what is worthy of their desire, and what they can responsibly do to attain it. And multiculturalism developed as a living consequence of local intelligence responding to local circumstances is far more powerful than multiculturalism understood mostly as a lobbying throng of racial or ethnic identities based on historical categories drawn in worlds that no longer exist.
“Personal experience is the soul of a town,” wrote high school student Desarae Baker from Simms, Montana, as she meditated on the history her class was working on of buildings that have fallen down and are rotting away in her dying rural village. She noted sadly that such places “are part of [people’s] knowledge of each other.” Her study and reflection have brought her to the realization that as the buildings vanish, so do features of our minds and our relationships.
Every family and neighborhood and community would benefit from having thoughtful members writing and preserving their histories. Many towns and families and individuals may face only poverty and loss unless they make, remember, and tell their own stories. Many towns on the Great Plains may become ghost towns, having already been abandoned by the railroads and by the impersonal agricultural economy favored by central planning.
If they do not, I suspect this will be because the people who live there ask and answer for themselves such questions as these: What has happened here? Where are we now? What capacities and abilities do we have? What can we do to take care of ourselves and our place? These are questions groups can ask and answer at the level of family, neighborhood, town, and region. Only in the asking and answering do possibilities emerge beyond those imagined by merging corporations, whose directors find it harder and harder to understand reasons deeper than profit, broader than careerism, or higher than winning.
After repairing a fence his grandfather built, high school student Zeb Engstrom from the small prairie town of Chester, Montana, paused to write about what it meant. “The barrier of time between me and the man who built it thinned and shimmered in the summer heat. . .I can almost feel the old hired hands sitting around the stove in the bunkhouse telling jokes and stories, and the air smells faintly of the soup that boiled on the stove,” he said.
It moved him to see himself as taking his place in a larger picture, wanting to make himself a strong link in the chain of generations. “It was on that day that I stopped complaining about fixing fence or building buildings. Without my grandpa’s work and my dad’s work, my life would be a lot harder.”
Young people like Desarae and Zeb are helping create a local literature, based on local history, local folkways, local geography, and local science.
Their work raises questions, of the sort asked by Wendell Berry:
“Suppose that the ultimate standard of our work were to be, not professionalism and profitability, but the health and durability of human and natural communities. Suppose we learned to ask of any proposed innovation the question that so far only the Amish have been wise enough to ask: What will this do to our community? Suppose we attempted the authentic multiculturalism of adapting our ways of life to the nature of the places where we live. Suppose, in short, that we should take seriously the proposition that our arts and sciences have the power to help us adapt and survive. What then?” (10)
The answer cannot be provided ready-made like a tv dinner.