Chapter 18. What Do You Read?

After a few summers of roughing it in tents at Sechelt, we began to consider providing a little more personal comfort and convenience for ourselves. A long hard day of slugging it out at the rocks, and my weary bones called for better support than the rolling ridges and billowing bumps of an air mattress. If it rained the bedding and clothing in our tents would get damp. When we were leaving the place at the end of our holidays, we had to decide whether to cart our major tools and equipment back to Vancouver or to hide them away somewhere in the woods. During the winter prowlers could easily walk off with them.

The obvious solution to all these problems was to build a smallish sleeping cabin that could double as a storage shed while the place was deserted. So up the hill over toward Carsons’ place we built one, with a translucent yellow fiberglass roof but no windows. Kay and I were happy to be able to sleaep in there on a proper mattress at last. No more expecting our bed to deflate during the night. No more waking up on the hard boards of a tent platform. We looked forward to delicious nights of luxurious and sweet, peaceful sleep.

Very early one morning, however, we were sharply awakened by an alarmingly harsh and loud “BANG!” Somewhere on our cabin some projectile had hit hard. Kay and I immediately sat bolt upright, our eyes and mouths open.

“WHAT, in heaven’s name, was THAT?” We hadn’t a clue.

After waiting in silence for a while, listening in vain, we lay down again, completely baffled. Just when we had begun to relax, “BANG!” It happened again! Enough to make our ears ring. What’s going on here?

Probably a stone. Someone must have thrown a stone at our cabin. Maybe Robin had come over from Vancouver on the earliest ferry and was waking us.

Or . . . ah! That’s it! Herb’s up extra early. He’s playing a trick on us. A pretty warped sense of humor, that. Waking people up out of sound sleep! The rat!

I climbed quickly out of bed and rushed outside in my pyjamas. All was silent. I looked all around the cabin into all the bushes. Nobody behind any trees. I shouted, “All right, Herb! You can come on out. I see you!” But nothing moved anywhere in the dawn’s early light.

My brow knotted in bewilderment, I went back inside and sat down on the edge of the bed. Then, “BANG!” Not AGAIN!

I jumped up and tore outside. But in every direction out there all was as calm and silent as ever.

Then out of the corner of my eye I detected a slight movement away up in the big fir tree high overhead. I moved off the end of the porch and peered up over the cabin into that tree. An orange-bellied Douglas squirrel was up there holding a big green fir cone in its arms. While I was watching, it pushed the heavy cone away from its chest and let go. It arced down through the air and landed with a terrible “BANG!” on our fiberglass roof. So that was it! A squirrel harvesting cones!

Kay ran out in bare feet and nightie. I pointed up. We shook our heads and smothered a relieved laugh. We watched the frisky-tailed rascal up there plucking its cones and throwing them down. I think it delighted in hearing them smack on our roof.

Sometime later, when the Carsons were up, we went over to their place. We shared their breakfast coffee and told them how a squirrel had almost spoiled our beautiful friendship. Herb—if you’ll pardon the expression—got a big bang out of the story.

But what if those cones had actually been thrown by Herb and not by the squirrel. The noise might have been much the same, but somehow it would have had a different meaning for us. The squirrel didn’t really intend to waken anybody—at least I don’t believe that it did—even though it enjoyed that extraordinary racket. Somehow there’s a big difference between just any old noises and intentional human communication by means of repeatable patterns of sound.

The downs and ups of progress

When Carsons eventually retired from their work at the Hall, they moved permanently up to their comfortable cabin next to our place. For the winter season with its long nights they needed electricity. In their isolation, if some sickness or accident occurred, they would be glad to have a telephone. Far back up the hill, power and telephone lines ran past our lots. A big real estate development was proceeding up there, so Carsons applied for electrical and telephone service.

Somehow neither they nor we really realized what would be involved in being hooked up to the power lines and the telephone system.

Kay and I came up to Sechelt for a few days during one Easter vacation to check out how our installations had wintered. As we rowed over from the boat landing, we could see a big column of smoke going up from behind Fido Bay. We landed and ran up the hill past our cabin.

A crew of hydro men was at work cutting down the trees in a wide swath along the back of our lots diagonally across and down the hill. Just as we arrived, somebody yelled, “Timber-r-r!” and yet another giant of the forest came crashing down. Men in yellow hard hats and vests quickly attacked it with chain saws, stripping off its limbs and throwing them onto a big fire. The green needles on the boughs hissed and crackled as they went up in hot, smoky flame, while the fallen trunk that had so proudly held them aloft was sawed into short logs.

Kay burst into tears at the sight, and my own heart sank. Such devastation! We had never before seen loggers at work. That mossy green forest floor we had loved so much was now a mutilated shambles of logs, sawdust, overturned stones and trampled-down shrubbery. The sun burned down into ferny grottos that had never before known direct sunlight. The desecration wreaked by that callous invasion was too, too obscene. The delicate woodland beauty that had taken so many years to build up had been violated, slaughtered in that ferocious foray by the steel saws, tramped down by heavy boots. At the end of the day the logs from those big trees lay silently where they had fallen, in broken lines of blocks stretching out from their stumps. A few scattered heaps of glowing embers sent their last wisps of smoke from the ashes up into the night—and the stars looked down.

Heartsick at the price of “progress,” we mourned. Most of it had to be, I suppose. But even if we had been told what was about to happen, in no way could we have been prepared to look upon that terrible scene.

What seemed at first to be an unmitigated tragedy for us turned out, however, to be a source of great joy. We made the most we could out of that wide and long clearing they had slashed out southeastward on the hill. By digging out stumps and moving rocks we turned that devastated place into garden plots. The stumps were burned. The rocks became low walls between garden terraces one above the other like steps up the hill. We gathered leaf mold and good soil from all over the clearing, filled up our terraces and leveled them out from wall to wall.

Later we added the crushed shells of clams and mussels to help neutralize the natural acids in the soil. Each year from the sea Kay harvests kelp and eel grass to be added to the soil, along with leaves and kitchen refuse as compost.

Each summer the sun shines down into that long hydro slash upon terrace after terrace of productive gardens edged by little walls, trellises and paths. The shadows of the wires overhead have never discouraged Kay’s pole beans from climbing into the sky. Her tall raspberry canes produce berries as big as the end of my thumb—and I have a big thumb. When I think of her salads, made from fresh buttercrunch lettuce, onions, radishes and other greens, my mouth just can’t help watering.

Due to that real estate development back on top of the hill, a road was put through not far above the rear line of our lot. Now we park our car up there instead of over at the boat landing. To climb up to the car, we needed a path with an easy grade. Back and forth across the long hydro slash down to our gardens and buildings, Herb and I constructed a first-class footpath, switchback-style. No more clambering over, around and through the tumble of rocks below the cliff. The village of Sechelt now seemed to be ever so much closer.

The heartache of seeing our secluded retreat ripped open and laid naked by the rough, prurient hands of “civilization” gradually subsided. It all eventually turned out rather well. We were glad to have access to electricity and to the telephone each summer, courtesy of the Carsons. As we grow older, we appreciate more and more the roads, conveniences and services that link our Sechelt place with the big city.

But we still look back with nostalgia to those earlier summers when for a few weeks of each year we were entirely cut off from the rest of the world. We escaped most of the bad news that developed during our absence in isolation, but we also missed out on the good news. Since we didn’t have to make any public appearances, I could wear out my old, disreputable pants and shirts, and even go for several days without shaving. But on the other hand, when I was proud and happy about having thought up an ingenious solution for some really difficult mechanical problem, only my own family and Carsons were around to share my delight.

We had never really been at a great distance from the road that led to the supply stores, the post office and health services at the village five miles away. We were only playing at pioneering. In the fall we could always go back to our schools and regular work. But after roughing it for a while, we did learn to appreciate what the real pioneers had accomplished in turning a rain forest jungle into a convenient, well-serviced place to live.

Despite the possible complications created by laying our place open to other people, we wouldn’t really want to be cut off permanently from the great networks of human communication which keep us in touch with the achievements and the problems of others. Just as communication between the cells of an organism makes life itself possible, communication between people makes human society possible. Human beings need each other.


A good deal of human communicating takes place in immediate contacts between persons, through handshakes, miscellaneous squeezes, pats, slaps and strokings. Most communicating, however, clearly takes place from a distance, small or great. Signals must be sent from person to person: patterns of signals that must travel to their destination through lights, wires, the air, or any other medium that will carry a signal.

In our Vancouver house, Martin sometimes used to send waterborne annoyances to Karen when she was taking a shower. He knew that running off hot water at the kitchen sink would so reduce the flow of hot water to the shower that it would suddenly turn cold enough to produce feminine shrieks of protest. Turning on the cold water tap in the kitchen would likewise make the shower water unexpectedly hot. Two, of course, can play at that game, so from time to time Karen took her revenge. Martin got the message.

No one really knows how the various “natural” languages of the human race were developed. How would you go about working up a new language from scratch? Even Esperanto builds on existing language patterns. Perhaps people who have had to develop vocabulary for new technical processes, inventions and products know something about originating new words and expressions that people will accept. Computer experts have originated several “machine languages.” These innovators learned much from studying natural languages. Their discoveries about “information processing” and “communication” have in turn contributed a good deal to our understanding of natural languages.

Whether natural, or contrived for a specific purpose, all languages possess some similar general characteristics.

Language is primarily speech—what is spoken for meaningful communication between humans. What is written, printed, transmitted over wires or by radio waves, should properly be called a “coding.” Before a person’s meanings can be communicated, the spoken sounds of a language have to be “encoded,” i.e., represented in transmissible symbolic patterns. When for the first time a language is reduced to writing, a usable “code” is developed. A visual symbol may stand for an uttered sound. Spoken language may be encoded not only in script or print, but also in drum beats or smoke signals. A written language may be further encoded by blinking lights, electrical signals or flag positioning, as in Morse code. In order to conceal people’s messages from unauthorized readers, all sorts of secret codes have been devised.

Every language must establish a certain set of minimal encoding units which can be sent off as signals in a variety of patterned combinations. Any easily distinguishable form of differing which can be sent intact across a distance may be used as a minimal signal. Surface markings such as brush strokes, lines, dots and impressions on clay or wax have been used. Sounds, visible hand and arm positions, flashes of light and electrical pulses have provided other minimal units. A minimal unit must be small enough to be manipulated conveniently. Its form must be simple enough to be easily recognizable. It must be sufficiently different from the forms of all the other units of the language so that it could not easily be confused with any of those others. Each unit signal must begin and end abruptly—no fuzziness—so that it can stand out in clear contrast with its surroundings. Signals must be strong enough to retain their order and original shape on their way through a medium until they arrive at their intended destination.

How many minimal units are necessary? At least two, a “signal” and an intentional “no signal.” These can be combined in various groupings according to the needs of the language. Computer languages are able to get by with “on” and “off” switching to send signals corresponding to the digits of the binary system of counting. Morse code however has three signals—a dot, a dash and a no-signal space—enough to represent all the letters in many “alphabetical” languages. The number of letters necessary to encode a spoken alphabetical language will depend largely on the number of sounds which are used in that language. Encoded sounds may be arranged in combinations of strings of various lengths and patterns, depending on the vocabulary and the vocal customs of a given language.

Minimal units of communication are sent out in single file, one after another, in a certain marching order: first this particular one, then that particular one, and so on. It is hoped that they will arrive at their destination in their original order of going. T-A-R means something quite different from R-A-T or A-R-T.

Just as minimal units are strung together in primary groupings (words), so primary groupings may be arranged in secondary groupings, such as phrases and sentences. Punctuation may assist by marking off secondary groupings. The order in which groupings may be placed and connected is governed by grammatical rules. Language thus consists of patterns of patterns of forms of differing. New patterns may be developed to name new experiences, to express newly discerned relationships or to make finer distinctions. In America the lately developed practice of using the initials of the name of an organization as its common name, e.g., NATO, has now become acceptable.

From one medium to another

There is no end to the complications of languages and of human inventiveness in the field of communication. Nevertheless, all communication proceeds in the same general way: a patterned process must be physically transmitted from a sender to a receiver through some medium.

Technicians have developed transducers which can translate signals appropriate to one medium into signals that will travel in another medium. These transducers enable the patterned form of the message to travel from medium to medium for amazing distances.

Let’s trace the journey of a musical phrase from the moment of its inception in the mind’s ear of a composer to your ear, thousands of miles away and fifty years later. First the composer writes the phrase down in musical notation and incorporates it in the score of, say, a musical work for a symphony orchestra. The manuscript is printed and distributed to the musicians who play the various instruments of a certain orchestra. Reflected light conveys the printed musical symbols through the musicians’ eyes and optic nerves to their brains. Somehow their brains respond to the incoming information by activating arrays of trained muscles which elicit the right vibrations from the instruments. The resulting sequences of sounds enable musicians and audience to hear as actual music what the composer at first heard only mentally.

The sound waves generated by the orchestral instruments set up vibration patterns in the microphones of radio broadcasting equipment. Each sound alters the form of the radio carrier wave in a specific way. The waves modulated by these specific differences can be transmitted over long distances by electromagnetic radiation. Radio receivers which are tuned to the proper frequency and/or amplitude can read the specific differences off the carrier waves, amplify them and, through loudspeakers, reproduce sounds amazingly like those that were actually heard in the concert hall. These reproduced sounds vibrate any exposed eardrums, and listeners hear the symphony miles away from the concert hall.

The same sound patterns that were heard in that concert hall could also set up vibration patterns in microphones connected to recording machines. The vibration patterns can be transduced into magnetic variations which generate patterns of magnetic differences on a moving ferromagnetic tape. Or they can be turned into needle squiggles cut into a spiral groove around a rotating disk. The resulting forms may thus be “frozen” on tape or disk, not traveling any farther for many years. When they are “played back” by the proper pickups, the standstill forms come to life again and resume their long journey toward the ears of people who were not present, maybe not even born, when that orchestra played in that concert hall years ago, far, far away. Defying space and time, high fidelity stereophonic equipment can reproduce with incredible realism the original sounds of the orchestra and even the relative locations of the instruments. In the comfort of your own home, you too can hear that great music which was born in the mind of the composer thousands of miles away and many years earlier.

That a composer’s original mental patterns could be so faithfully preserved while journeying through such a long and complex series of media and transducers is a major technical achievement.

All for the message

The greatness of the expense and trouble taken to broadcast and record such a concert indicates the importance of the composer’s message. All that apparatus and paraphernalia existed for the sake of the message, not for its own sake. When a young woman receives a letter from someone dear to her, she seldom kisses the letter carrier. She doesn’t care much about the quality of the paper, the color of the ink or the width of the pen nib. It’s the message that matters.

Physicists, who had become obsessed with the way Galileo and Newton approached the world, found themselves coming under severe criticism by clergy and humanist thinkers. The physicists appeared to have become so entranced by masses, forces and measuring that they paid little official attention to other important matters. Having described the great mechanism of the world, they had nothing to say about what it is all for. The physicists knew a great deal about the medium, but what was the message? Although Newton himself wrote messages about mathematics, religion and many other subjects, no proper place could be found in his mechanical physics for human or divine messages, not even for his own. This strange blindness affected most of his followers for the next twenty decades.

Perhaps devout mechanists may be forgiven if we recall that, during those years, the minds that were more humanistically inclined were sending out all sorts of messages, while neglecting almost entirely the practicalities of the materials and motions involved in transporting and carrying their messages. The ancient dualism between mind and matter, between soul/spirit and flesh, still bedevils relations between the “spiritual Marys” and the “practical Marthas.”1

Although both the humanities and the applied sciences are always manipulating and transmitting forms, they don’t seem to realize that their activities have anything much in common. But it is clear to me that both mentalities are engaged in communicating forms by means of other forms. If they are interested in rapprochement, communication-related ideas can {provide the means. A philosophy of information based on traveling forms offers lively and hopeful possibilities of bridging the great gap between humanists and engineers, as well as that between theologians and technologists. Much better understandings and working relationships could be quickly established if traditional prejudices which are based on outmoded philosophies were abandoned and the philosophy of information taken seriously.


Because messages are so important to people, and because the traveling patterns that convey the message must retain their distinctness and order of going until they reach their destination, the integrity of those patterns must be protected. Communication lines must be well shielded, i.e., isolated from intruding, undesirable, irrelevant information (usually called “noise”). High quality ink and paper are important for preserving a written or printed message over a long period of time. A conservative tendency, therefore, is inherent in communicating, however transient the process may be. Messages must be protected until the purpose for which they have been sent has been accomplished.

Because messages depend upon a medium, they are always vulnerable. Media may shift, disintegrate, absorb communicational energy or be taken over for other purposes. Existing messages on chalkboards must be erased to make space for new messages. Printed pap}er these days is discarded at a fearsome rate. The energy that keeps a message going may be shut off or peter out. The informing process must overcome the resistance of whatever other forms it encounters throughout its journey. Transducers can break down.

For these reasons, communication always involves an element of risk. Successful communication may be considered as a kind of victory in conflict. The pen and the sword actually have much in common. The assertive briefs submitted by lawyers, the orders issued by commanding officers, the authoritative instructions laid on by teachers, the persuasive productions of advertisers and propagandists: all such communication demonstrates its “overpowering” aspect. The apostle Paul knew that the Word is the sword of the Spirit.2

In moving from the sender to the receiver, an informing process always takes some time. If it travels slowly or has to go a long distance, its information will obviously be out of date on arrival. A jet plane flying high overhead is no longer where its sound appears to come from. Sometimes in the sky a star flares up extremely brightly. It is likely a “nova,” a stellar explosion that actually took place centuries ago at an inconceivable distance from us. The information from that explosion has just arrived at Earth. When astronomers peer into space, they always have to remember that they are also “peering through time.”

Specific information about the state of anything at a distance is always a little out of date. It describes the way things were some time ago when they actually happened. This implies of course that events which are happening right now somewhere else in the world all unknown to us may sometime in the future enter our experience. Emissions from factory smokestacks or nuclear accidents in one country yesterday may come down as acid rain or radioactive fallout upon other countries today. By the time an informing process reaches a distant time or place, its source may have died, radically changed, or otherwise ceased to exist.

Information, therefore, always tends to prolong and perpetuate the past in a world which is forever changing and becoming new. People who don’t communicate frequently with each other soon lose touch with actualities. Their long-held ideas about other people may be quite out of date. Some aunts and uncles simply can’t believe that their little niece has just been promoted to be a bank manager, or that their dear little nephew has gone through a divorce. Students who violently disagreed with each other during university days may later in life discover that they now hold fairly similar points of view. Because of the inevitable time lag inherent in communicating, nations that have isolated themselves may appear “quaint,” “backward” or “outmoded” as they assume poses on the international stage which are unrealistic.

During the sixties a “now” generation considered that the past was totally irrelevant to the future which they would shortly build. They distrusted and despised history. Where are these “now” people now? How many of them have joined the ranks of generation after generation of idealists who also found themselves frustrated by cultural momentum as they too attempted to transform the world quickly? Some earn their living working for institutions that came down from the past. All are making use of languages that were developed before they were born. The cells of their offspring bear an accumulated genetic inheritance from a broad segment of the human race. They react to surprising turns of affairs with the same instincts as their prehistoric ancestors. When a heavy “Bang!” hits their fiberglass roof, their adrenalin glands shoot action into their system as did those of Stone Age people when some dangerous beast roared close by.

I always think of myself as being “here,” “now,” in this particular way—and I am. Nevertheless I am what I am largely because my past was what it was. To a marked degree my internal constitution and external relationships were shaped by materials, energies and information that reached me from the past. In a way the past has made me what I am. This most present, most immediate, most “now” thing of all—myself—is thus partly a product of the ages past. If I try to change myself, I have little but my past as incorporated into my present being, with which to accomplish that change. Those who despise the past must despise themselves.

When I came into this world I inherited both the achievements and the problems of the past. I have spent my days working at the problems with my inherited tools and equipment. But am I entirely stuck with my past?

I think not. Everything in my particular makeup that did come to me out of the past must have originated back there in the past. Everything had to occur somewhere for the first time. There have been new starts and there can, of course, be many more of these “first times.” I believe that I can contribute something new to the future.

Even if everything about me did come from somewhere in my past, those things never before came together anywhere else in exactly the way that I am. I may be my past, but the combination of information from all those sources, as it has come to reside in me, is nevertheless entirely new and utterly unique. There’s only one of me—and only one of you.

In a way, the whole universe at this moment in time is a message from the whole past to the universe-wide moment that is about to come, the one which is presently called the “immediate future.” I am only a syllable, as it were, in one of the words of the world’s long and complex story—little more, I suppose, than a minimal unit of differing. But a change of even one letter in a word or one symbolic stroke in an ideogram can make a big difference in meaning. The differences between “grate” and “great,” between “hit” and “fit” and between “log” and “flog” are minimal, but the changes in meaning couldn’t be more maximal.

The world will have a different meaning because I have been here today. Watch out, tomorrow! If I only knew what I am at this moment and what my total situation actually is right now, I might make a much more appropriate difference than the one I’m about to make. But anyway—here goes! Read on!


1. Luke 10:38-42.
2. Ephesians 6:17.