I am ensconced in rattan chair on a screened porch overlooking a marsh at high tide. A bridge over the Harbor River connects this spit of sand to the chartreuse expanse of St. Helena Island, an anchor for the Gullah community, descendants of enslaved Central and West Africans brought to South Carolina to toil on the rice and sea island cotton plantations.
I came to this little cottage with my mom to celebrate her eightieth birthday. We dined alfresco with big bowls of salad on the beach, hers sweet with fruit, mine savory with avocado and tomatoes. We dipped our feet in a warm tidepool and tucked into a beach bag of books. My dad, suffering from late-stage Alzheimers, is back in Charlotte in a care facility. It is bittersweet sojourn, but an appropriate destination to contemplate the ebbs and flows of existence and the expansive web of connections into which our lives are woven across time and space.
The novel I packed, Herve Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” on the recommendation of a friend a few months back, was a good choice. So far it has held a few synchronicities for me – axolotl and physicists in the New Jersey Pinelands (Ong’s Hat, which I visited a few weeks ago). The author raises questions of faith, mechanics, quantum simulations, and many worlds – what is all of this anyway, the hours we pass together?
On the four-hour drive to the coast, we listened to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass.” It’s been awhile since I let her world view wash over me. Her writings on reciprocity and right relationship and the majesty of a responsive, animate world was exactly what I needed to open my heart to this resilient place, bursting with life laid over a history of brutal property ownership in the form of bonded human capital. Thrown into the Low Country mix is a hefty dose of militarism, the Marine Corps Parris Island’s training facility is on the other side of Cowans Reach opposite Fort Fremont built in 1898 during the Spanish American War to protect the deep-water port. Two-and-a-half hours to the west is the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Ecology Lab where Eugene Odum conducted his research into energy exchanges and helped birth the environmental movement.
About six miles up the road from Fort Fremont is Penn Center, a National monument comprising a campus of a few dozen mostly white wooden buildings. Penn Center was among the first freedman’s schools set up by Quaker and Unitarian abolitionists from, where else but Philadelphia? Modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, it offered vocational training to former slaves. As I walked the grounds under the live oak trees past several structures, dilapidated but benefitting from recent infusions of federal money into infrastructure projects, I read about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time spent here in the 1960s planning landmark events of the Civil Rights era and couldn’t help but imagine the tentacles of social entrepreneurship woven into the enterprise. If Penn Center were still functioning today would the northern instructors be offering training in coding and bioengineering instead of leather-work and blacksmithing?
It is early summer, and there’s a cool breeze coming off the water. I’m surrounded by Eastern Red Cedar and acres and acres of spartina grass sucking salt out of the brackish water and offering respite for dainty periwinkle snails. To my left, a smaller bridge offers passage to Hunting Island State Park, a sub-tropical maritime forest of towering pines, live oaks, and cabbage palmettos that embrace an 1870s-era cast iron lighthouse and advance right up to the line of dunes, a habitat for protected shorebirds. On the south end of the barrier island is a boneyard beach, a labyrinthine tangle of bleached tree crowns buffeted by the rough surf. Barrier islands are constantly on the move, at the whim of tropical storms and the banal, relentless nudging of the Atlantic. Despite man’s attempts to contain them; they care not for the legalities of waterfront real estate. As the land moves and mature trees fall, soft piney sprouts and prickly palmetto blades emerge to take their place. It is all about cycles – emergence, growth, peak, decline, nourishing the next generation.
It is morning, and the whir of redwing blackbirds and swallows and the cooing of the mourning doves serenade me as I sip a cup of dandelion tea. Several egrets, their elegant, brilliant white silhouettes punctuate the, decidedly not-magenta, green of this liminal world, standing tall as a mama osprey swoops from her perch of sticks arrayed over a nearby chimney in search of fish for the hatchlings. There is a symphony of life unfolding all around me, as it has for thousands of years. The life of the marsh isn’t governed by man-made time pieces, but by the tides, the moon, a cosmic dance in which the flow of saltwater across the mud guides the antics of fiddler crabs and nourishes the oyster reefs. Here, oscillation is measured by lapping waves, not pendulum swings.
Yesterday, a comment was left on my blog with a link to the proceedings from the, 11th Annual Conference on Living Machines, Biomimetic and Biohybrid Living Systems, held in the summer of 2022 at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. A few days earlier I’d found a website about the EU’s Plantoid Project, in which researchers had been theorizing new forms of soft robotics that hijacked the capabilities of root tips to sense environments through distributed cognition. Leo then found a related paper where researchers were modeling robotic “plants” that were designed to “explore” underground soil conditions while “growing” in the direction dictated by sensor mechanisms through the use of autonomous 3D printing. It seems we’re moving closer to self-replicating machines, as long as someone / something is on hand to refill the printer cartridges.
Stephers forwarded me a 2018 paper about the merging of biology with soft electronics made of flexible crystalline polymers that aim to sense and regulate electrical signals. I know in my heart that crypto-currencies and smart contracts will be vital to the ongoing coordination of signals for inter-species (where some species are mechanical, artificial “intelligence”) communication – social physics, econophysics – biophysics. Here you see signs warning people to turn off outdoor electrical lights and draw their curtains after dusk, lest baby sea turtles just hatched be distracted by man-made lighting and get lured inland, away from the water that is crucial to their survival. It seems an apt lesson in the potential treachery of electrical engineering.
It’s clear to me that what is unfolding is an attempt, in the name of “sustainability” and “resiliency” to co-opt the wonders of the creator’s cosmic dance and lure biological life into a system of cybernetic circuits. I see the goal as an attempt to craft a globally-networked hybrid superintelligence be controlled by profane forces I do not understand. I hung up the phone a little while ago with Jason, and he, too, expressed incomprehension. Why? What is driving this obscene parody of “intelligence” based in bio-mimicry that can only ever been a shallow approximation of the sophisticated interplay we are graced with, the beauty that is right before our eyes?
As I walk the shady trails of Hunting Park Island, formerly a game preserve shared by plantation owners, urged on by insistent mosquitos the glory of the interconnectedness of these beings in communion with one another cannot be overstated. There are multitudes of conversations arising from the sandy soil. At my feet were countless ant hills, pinecones displaying the mathematical beauty of fractals and Voronoi patterns, a shoreline laced by iridescent seafoam containing biochemical, bacteriological, and fungal elements, the building blocks of life. High above my head were expanses of epiphytes commonly known as Spanish Moss that harmlessly drape from the graceful branches of live oaks, Mother Nature’s own green-gray “neural network” offering countless tiny creatures sustenance and shelter. There was a calling osprey and banks of clouds mirrored by the river.
For the past few days, I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to have a front row seat on the marsh symphony, even as “real world” mechanical machinations have tugged at the edges of my consciousness. Herve Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” posits we may be in a simulation, perhaps of the kind dreamed up by the Nvidia and Cesium programmers. I’m not so sure that matters all that much. I know that our soul and spirit extend beyond material reality, which helps when I think of my dad’s mind and my mom’s frailty. What we do with our time, what lessons we learn, how we give thanks, the connections we make (outside the blockchain smart contract protocol layer) is what matters.
This perhaps was a rambling post, and I’ve spent more time on it than I intended. A day out of the sun was probably needed given my fair skin and lack of diligence with the sun block. It’s time to take my mom out for her birthday dinner. On the way to Beauford I’ll drive her past the tomato farms and live oaks and doublewides and ruins of an Anglican church and Penn Center. The people here are fighting off gated golf communities. The signs are all over – preserve Gullah culture. I wish them the best. This corner of South Carolina still feels like an authentic, real place. I’ll go ahead and share some images I took of this special place to give you a feel for it, and maybe you can draw out more of what I was trying to say. A soft-electronics, bio-hybrid system of blockchained micro-payments can’t hold a candle to the magic of a marsh and the time it keeps among the mud and reeds.
PS: My friend and collaborator Cliff Gomes had a fall this week and found himself unexpectedly hospitalized for a hip replacement. He’s strong and healthy and will be fine after having time to mend, but prayers or good wishes sent in his direction would be much appreciated.