16 December 2008

Meditating on Situational Awareness

For me the most useful term to emerge from the study of behavior – and I am loathe to use buzzwords and generalities, but I like this one – is situational awareness.

I know people who are always attuned to their surroundings and for whom it comes naturally, instinctively perhaps, or arising from a need for vigilance in their developmental years. For me it’s learned. But, being learned, it may put me at an advantage; I am conscious of my situational awareness.

What is it, exactly? It’s the taking-in of all available cues and signs in the environment around me, and processing that information to be prepared for action. Some of it is passive awareness, some of it active.

Being a learned behavior, it is often my conscious preoccupation while I’m out in the wild. For instance, the first weekend of December I was busy collecting poles in the woods to use for a tee-pee over a magnolia tree newly planted this fall next to the house. It was a still afternoon, heavily overcast, in the high twenties Fahrenheit. While scouting for strong, straight poles of the right species, which was chiefly an exercise for the practiced eye, my mind was free to regard the rest of the situation around me as I meandered deeper into a familiar woodlot.

Although I may not have a naturally-heightened sense of situational awareness, I do have a great sense of direction. So every now and then I paused to verify what I thought was the direction back home, and I was invariably correct.

A couple inches of snow on the ground assured that I could follow my backtrack, but I realized after a while that I had a high (natural?) vigilance for the coming of fresh snow. The first flake in the air, resembling a tiny tuft of down far to my peripheral left, made me conscious of my awareness.

Still I carried on. I had decided that eight or ten poles would be enough, and so as I cut and de-limbed them, I carried them to a couple of staging areas I had selected.

So, while I subconsciously paid attention to the danger of becoming lost in a snow squall, I half-consciously used my homing “instinct” while I automatically scanned for the poles I needed.

With the three-quarters of my mind that was relaxed and idle, I “read” the forest. I could looked at the evidence of forest succession around me. Mostly I was traipsing through second-growth hardwoods about 20-25 years old. What had once likely been a property line demarked a clear break into mature conifers. And where I was finding the long poles I needed may have been an abandoned snowmobile trail.

The thin snow cover was crisscrossed with squirrel tracks, but for the time that I was out there that day, I didn’t see evidence of any other wildlife. I heard a chickadee “scree” now and then, and at one point a gray-black mouse-sized rodent scampered ahead of me for a yard or so and then ducked into a crevice in the crust that took it under a mound of snow which may have fallen from an overhead branch a day before.

I was impressed by the amount of standing and running water just below the snow in most places. For my whole trek I was on a hillside, keeping to an approximately even elevation, so it made sense that there was abundant spring water. Since there had not yet been a deep freeze, the ground temperature just below the surface might still have been ten degrees or so above freezing.

My creative mind anticipated how I might assemble the tee-pee, so every now and then I made a mental calculation about pole length, whether to retain a fork or cut behind it, whether to use a species or not.

I believe I am skilled at identifying trees, but I found it unexpectedly difficult to be sure of the species when dealing with two-inch diameter saplings devoid of leaves. Suffice to say I stayed with deciduous trees and managed to avoid poplar.

In addition to my innate sense of direction, I have an acute sensitivity for the odor of burning wood. This awareness is probably wonderfully primitive, for all of my human ancestors would have had a serious need to know where to find fire, whether it was a fire to return to or a fire to flee. For me a wood fire is a soothing pleasure, and over a half hour or so I enjoyed the scent of a someone’s distant hearth.

It occurred to me only once to consider the possibility of an encounter with an unpleasant creature. Since the only creatures one needs to fear in the Maine woods are skunks and humans, I could readily dismiss these; skunks would be napping and humans would announce themselves with a noisy approach. Black bears, which an experienced Mainer knows not to fear, are hibernating by now. Coyotes are ubiquitous but inconsequential as a threat. And the eastern panther, which I have more experience with than most people, quod vide, is sufficiently scarce as to compare with a winning lottery jackpot ticket.

I’m sure my complex neurological system was occupied with other things of which I was mostly not aware – a heavy scratch on my ankle proved most annoying once I removed my socks that night, but I managed to ignore it completely while outside. I was thirsty for quite a while, enough so that I once contemplated eating some snow. But I allowed myself to anticipate for a moment the cold ale in my fridge and the thirst, although not gone, was forgotten.

And Oliver Sachs would probably have a great time analyzing my ability to hear a self-composing symphony at times like this, when there are few demands on my active consciousness and my left temporal lobe can play tricks on my auditory senses.

So for me, a Sunday afternoon in the sedate December winterscape of northern Maine was a respite from indoor confinement in the company of teenagers with domestic electronics – (no one wanted to go out with me). It was a time for meditation of the sort that I devise for myself. It was an opportunity to practice bringing together the information gathered by my senses at different levels. And, even though I wasn’t practicing situational awareness at the level of a military strategist or an African bushman, it was a time to be aware of what I am aware of. In spite of the lack of excitement, it was something worth writing about.