It Begins with a Tiny Dot of Information

When the tiny dot of the fertilized human ovum begins to unfold the formula of the double helixes, one-fifth of them falter and fail. They are resorbed by the mother’s body and she may not know that anything has happened. Another percentage may achieve birth, but then fail because of faulty development or a harsh post-birth world. If the mother had been secure and happy, the mix of hormones in her blood will share her pleasure with the unborn human. This orientation to the world is a great joy and often a key to happy life.

Beginning at birth and possibly in the last months of gestation when the formation of sub-thought is possible, the infant forms a template of the world from its growing ability to receive and sort sensory electromagnetic code through newly developing sense organs that relay to the brain de-coding what they are learning. Part of this becomes temperament as the brain builds connections and sets organ modes of reaction. Identity is beginning to form in reaction to the environment outside the borning individual, a conclusion about whether the world is welcoming or dangerous. A big part of that environment is first the womb of the mother and next the arms of the caregiver.

This account applies to mammals and their survival depends upon it. Birds are a little different. In the Sixties we had a pet golden eagle who came to us as a downy chick and grew old enough to lay eggs. But eagles daringly perform coitus while gliding conjoined very high in the sky, so her eggs were infertile. Bob, my husband, felt sorry for this and bought a fertilized goose egg for her to hatch, which she did. But there are two kinds of birds. If the species is one kind, like a robin, the newly hatched babies are not finished and must be kept in a nest until they grow to maturity. But geese and other ground-nesting birds break out of the egg covered with down and can walk fast enough to keep up with mom.

The eagle’s nest was no more than a scatter of sticks on a shelf. The goose egg hatched, the chick jumped up and walked over the edge of the shelf. The end. Next egg season, Bob bought a new fertile egg but had built a little wall along the shelf and rigged a gangplank down to the ground. This gosling successfully flat-footed down the gangplank and discovered with glee the eagle’s cherished pond of water, shallow enough for baths and splashing. The odd couple thrived until it was time for the grown goose to join a group of geese.

This is something like the same events in the life of human child — at first as helpless as a baby songbird and then as a toddler graduating to the adventures of poultry. I suppose their identity may eventually solidify and grow into the role of an aviator if their gestation and early years create a suitable person in a family with resources for training.

One of the characteristics of mammals and land-living birds is that of attachment, which is necessary to keep access to the nutrition and protection of the adults. It is the embracing/enfolding/embedding by caregivers that is survival for mammals and reinforces in them the beginnings of an instinct we call “attachment.” It is the first seed of what we later call “love” and “loyalty.” By flowering through sensory experience, caring adults make humans glad to be alive and to reach out to more people and places they care about.

It is also a key to identity as memories of experience form in the new mind, a library of theories about who the person is and what evidence they believe. The body is enclosed in “skin” that defines the creature, but just beyond that is a different boundary with the rest of the world, a border between what is known, which is inside that line, and what is unknown or even unsuspected. The formation of this is shaped by the kind of attachment the boundary with surrounding others will allow.

Theories exist about what it does to humans later in life if their early years are firmly attached to parents, or too attached, or attached sporadically and undependably. If attachment is refused or missing, the result is mirasmus, failure to thrive, and the child may not survive at all. This shows up in old-fashioned orphans who are raised in batteries of cribs and in children born to drug-using parents. But attachment may take hold even with bad parents. This strong instinct may be displaced or distorted.

I know of a person who had a split attachment to two mothers of opposed styles and has spent life trying to reconcile the values of one who believed in exceptionalism, meritocracy, and aristocracy and another who saw life in terms of safety, withdrawing from all threats such as change or leaving.

Managing ones boundaries can be a necessary but problematic aspect of life. Too strong a boundary can be narcissism but too weak or leaky a boundary can be neurotic at best and possibly insane. Experience shows us how to manage in different environments, how private to be, how much to be aggressive, how to accept what is good and promotes growth.

Attachment leads to one person being attracted to another, possibly to the kind of love that grows out of shared memories between identities that fit. My paternal grandparents had that kind of bonding between them after a lifelong struggle as educated and aspiring people in an economy based on agriculture (raising potatoes on prairie homesteads) and progressing through acceptance of the industrial revolution (inventing machinery) until WWII ended the last effort. No matter how strong and rewarding relationships may be, the larger world environment can be stronger and more tragic. The other risk of two bonded people is the death of only one of them. leaving the other despairing.

When teaching junior high classes I used an exercise about a ball of yarn. We sat in a circle and — as we expressed something we knew about someone else sitting there — we threw the ball, paying out the yarn to that person who did the same until there was a web of yarn among the people representing the ties of their specific community. Then I brought out a big pair of shears and advanced to cut through all the yarn lines, saying “this is death.” Usually people sit appalled and then begin lively discussion.

In this set of Blackfeet kids they simply refused to accept the scissors and rose en masse to carry the yarn web intact out of the classroom, fleeing death! Individuals cannot run away from death, but cooperating communities can if they stick together. Their attachments were strong and their identities remained amskapi piikuni, southern Piegan, part of the Blackfoot Nation.

Since these kids lived in a kind of nest, a small village at the foot of Heart Butte which is part of the Rocky Mountains, and were only rarely tempted out because it was before satellite reception of television, they were able to maintain what they took for granted — themselves and each other. Today the world is shattered and we must work hard to maintain identities, boundaries, and attachments. If we do, we maintain the beauty of our planet so that it can birth and shelter a future full of life far more than humans alone.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.