Eastern Phoebe

Tim Goodwin

I’m at the cabin this morning sitting on this screen porch I wrote about a few years ago in my book Within These Woods (2015) Riverfeet Press. An Eastern Phoebe is flitting around and talking to me as it had been five or six years ago. I’m assuming it is an offspring of the one I wrote about in this essay. Sometimes it is hard as a narcissistic species sitting as the self-appointed pinnacle of creation to forget that no matter what is happening to us, with us, or because of us, the rest of the natural world within which we are deeply embedded just trundles right along.

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all things as they must live together like one being.
-Black Elk, Oglala Lakota medicine man

The air is cool this morning. The screened porch faces the lake on the northern side of the cabin and is ten feet above the ground, and the lake surface is at least thirty feet lower down the hillside, giving me a false sense of elevation. I put on a second layer and set my book down periodically to warm my hands around my coffee mug. The sun has just risen, but the phoebe is already up and active. “Fee-bee” he calls, announcing his presence. His voice is raspy as if he still has sleep in his throat. His call is similar in duration and rhythm to the chickadee’s two-note “spring-time,” but without the clear tone. Sitting above the brush layer of the forest but below the canopy, I’m at eye level with the phoebe’s preferred habitat. This level above the ground cover and the mammals inhabiting those niches and below the thick canopy of the trees, belongs to the flying creatures.

He moves from branch to branch around the deck. My presence this morning has roused him from the nest built earlier this spring on a support beam on the underside of the deck. He attracted his mate to the nest site with flying displays in which he spread his tail to show his genetic fitness. She must have been sufficiently impressed to choose him and his nesting site and, incidentally, to build the nest
without any help from him. Their chicks have yet to fledge, so both parents are busy feeding them.

I presume that feeding the family is his purpose this morning. He is “hawking,” sitting perched at the end of a branch, waiting to nab passing insects. When an insect comes within range, he quickly uses his aerobatics to catch his prey. These are the skills that his mate was selecting for when she looked at his tail, the key tool for these aerobatic maneuvers. She was not making a conscious choice. The females have evolved to prefer the male with the best tail for flying simply because the more females who chose good hunting males, the more offspring they produce that survives because of adequate food supply provided by the male. And since the chosen male had a good tail for flying, so did many of his offspring. This is an example of a positive feedback loop that is a basic principle in natural or sexual selection. In this case, sexual selection and natural selection pressured the evolution of the trait in the same direction. Sometimes the pressure works in opposite directions, which is often the case in songbirds, such as the bright red male cardinal, who sacrifices camouflage to attract the female.

Every now and then the phoebe reminds me of his name. “Fee-bee” he calls, flicking his tail to further express his annoyance with my company. Quite frankly, I do not understand his complaints. Our presence here has not deterred him from a nesting site. In fact, the opposite is true. The phoebes, like barn and cliff swallows, have not suffered from human intrusion into their habitats. Phoebes traditionally nested in the recesses of cliffs and rock ledges along streams. Looking around the cabin, I am not sure what natural site would have attracted a phoebe to these woods before cabins and other structures were built. There are hills, but the terrain does not offer cliffs, cuts in hillsides, or other natural nesting sites. Maybe they followed settlers into new habitats.

Phoebes are now equally at ease building a home in man-made recesses and ledges. It is good to be adaptable, especially as we continue to intrude into each other’s
space—though I would never consider him an intrusion into my morning reading time. “Fee-bee” he calls again. I am tempted to answer, “Timmm-eeee.”

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Why is it so Hard to Change Someone’s Mind? (part 3 of 3)

This is the third in a series of three. The Collection of a person’s knowledge and experience is an interlocked network of specific packets of information and memories each being what I am calling a “schema”. These are stored in an interlocked set of neural networks, which are stored in the human brain, which is yet another system nested inside the human body system, nested inside the ecological and social systems in which that body resides.

My take-away is a person’s worldview (all they know and how they make sense of it in the context of their life) is an extremely complex set of interlocked systems nested in complex interlocked systems. The more you can visualize the complexity of these interlocked systems, the easier it is to understand why changing them is difficult as they are all interconnected.

All systems “prefer” to stay at a stable, unchanging state and only shift to a new state of equilibrium with the input and use of significant energy. Systems don’t “like” to change–be they human mind/body systems, mechanical systems, or social systems. This includes what we know and how we learn. But, why is this so?

The concept of learning and the learner as being “Tabula rasa” is incorrect. Human’s are not a blank slate. Or, to use a more modern metaphor, a blank hard drive to simply be filled up with new information. Everything that is taken in by the learner is filtered through, and eventually connected, to the interlocked network of existing schema in the human brain. This impacts how the learner understands that new experience or information and what one does with that new schema. They can take it in as presented and adjust their worldview, modify it to fit their pre-existing worldview, or simply dismiss it.

The story of how the human brain receives, stores, catalogs, and then recalls and makes sense of new information (so changes its mind) is a story of two brains: The lower, or unconscious, and upper, or conscious. Information enters the lower brain and immediately the thalamus makes a judgment of validity of the input. Is it worth paying attention to considering the current situation of the mind/body? If yes, then it goes to the amygdala and hippocampus to determine if it fits in an emotional or factual context.

At this point, however, if the learner is in an emotional state of distress, the amygdala short-circuits the rest of the pathway, limiting your ability to form long-term memories with that particular schema and instead puts you into flight or fight mode. The lower brain has a much longer evolutionary history than the upper brain, so it’s first fight or flee to survive, and only then analyze and learn from it. I think it is safe to say, that a significant portion of our population are currently living in a state of extreme emotional distress. Here’s a flow chart mapping out the pathway of that “schema.”

I like to think of the process of forming new or changed memories with this metaphor. Imagine that there is some mold and mildew that has appeared on the ceiling above the shower. If you simply paint over that spot with new white paint, within a couple of weeks the mold and mildew will grow back through the new paint in a couple of weeks. When you learn something new, if you do not purposefully and properly correct previous misconceptions and place that new schema into the right context of your evolving worldview, the new will eventually fade away and be forgotten. The prior knowledge will simply come back and retake its place in your long-term memory. When you repaint a bathroom, you must use primer that adequately kills the pre-existing mold and mildew.

To understand why the emotional memories and context so often override new “factual” information, I like another metaphor from Jonathan Haidt. He likens the operation and decision-making process of the human mind as like an elephant and a rider. The rider is the controlled processes–the analytical or upper brain. The elephant is the automatic processes–the lower brain. You can already see who’s really in control of this situation.

Now, imagine you are leading a group of tourists riding elephants (but please don’t ever do this) and one of the elephants and rider continue to go down a different path. The reality is that when riding an elephant, no matter what the rider wants or thinks it should do, a stubborn elephant who has made up its mind will choose the path to follow. So as the rider, or the leader of this voyage, you must appeal to the elephant first. You must provide subtle nudges and incentives for the elephant to choose the path you want, or simply change the pathway itself so the elephant wants to choose the desired path (for the rider). The rider is simply not strong enough to just make the elephant do what it is told.

Such as it is with a person’s established worldview. Appealing to the rider is progressively less and less effective the more agitated and stressed the elephant. I think that most of us are riding around on pissed-off elephants. The more we yell at each other’s elephants, the more obstinate they become, until it is all just indecipherable noise further agitating the elephant. We’ve locked ourselves into a positive, self-reinforcing feedback loop. Eventually, our elephant/rider combination arrives at decisions about the economy, the pandemic, foreign policy, immigration, a candidate, etc., that others simply cannot understand how we would ever make such a choice.

Therefore, I think the key is to first focus on developing and building empathy for one another’s worldview which requires less talking at people and more listening to people.

If you want to dig a little deeper, or hear something in a bit of a different way, I suggest going to the educator section of my web page and watch these short videos:

  • Systems Theory Basics
  • The Consider, Construct, Confirm Learning Cycle
  • Applying Systems Theory to Constructivist Learning Cycle
  • Trust and Gratitude

And like always, if you appreciate this blog, subscribe down below and/or share on social media platforms you frequent.


Goodwin, Tim (2020). Consider, Construct, Confirm: A New Framework for Teaching and Learning. Kendall Hunt. Dubuque, IA.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. First Vintage Books. New York.

Why is it so Hard to Change Someone’s Mind? (part 2 of 3)

This post is second in a series of three. In the previous post I provided a paradigm for life using a “living systems” model. I want to expand that paradigm beyond explaining how a living system (a human in this case) is interlocked with its physical world, to how one understands and makes sense of their world. I will use the same systems theory model used to understanding life to understand the “life” of one’s evolving (or static) worldview—their aggregate understanding of the world around them. So, let’s return to the model I previously used (modified from Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 135) in an attempt to answer the second part of my question: How does a learner incorporate new experiences and information into his or her prior understanding or worldview?

  1. The individual makes sense of the world as best they can with the information and experiences they’ve had, creating their “worldview.” However, everyone’s worldview is invariably incomplete, flawed, or of limited scope. No one is omnipotent! Though flawed, they are at equilibrium, which is a comfortable “resting” state for any system, requiring no energy use. Remember, that a living system uses resources from its environment to exist at a stable state (homeostasis) far from equilibrium. It is worth pointing out that a living system is at complete equilibrium with its surroundings only when it is dead and no longer taking in energy or matter from its surroundings and using for any life functions.
  2. New information is put into the system. These could be spontaneous experiences or planned lessons from a formal teacher, or even self-selected information by the learner. You can probably see the danger here. I’m using the term “learner” to describe anyone exposed to new information, ideas, or experiences. So, anyone interacting with their world.
  3. The learner takes in that information and works with it. The degree to which they work with it, as opposed to watching someone else work with it, will determine both their ultimate depth of understanding and the longevity of that understanding. Will they just rent the information, or will they “own” it?
  4. Using prior knowledge and experiences as a foundation, they will begin to make sense of this new experience or piece of information. If they have what I call a “lived” experience or authentic experience with it, they are more likely to attach it to an existing memory, which increases likelihood of building a long-lasting understanding. If it is completely new, they will construct a new metaphor to permanently house that information or experience, which will then become the foundation for new memories. One cannot live in a world that is “un-metaphorical.” I’ll call this new packet of information a “schema*.” As a photon is a packet of light energy, a chromosome is a packet of genetic information, a schema is a packet of information/experience. You can begin to see that our knowledge (memories) are stored in a complex system of our brain neurology as a series of interlocked systems themselves.
  5. Now comes the most important part—embracing “cognitive disequilibrium,” as Piaget labeled it. This new schema will have an impact on one’s worldview, causing the learner to experience disequilibrium as the new schema will upset the previously existing the system of his or her “resting” worldview. This is often uncomfortable. Recall that for living, growing, evolving lifeforms, a state away from equilibrium, but utilizing outside resources to maintain and fuel that stable state, is actually the homeostatic state for a living thing.
  6. At this point, we can fully embrace and embed the new schema and lean into our cognitive disequilibrium enough to own it and use it to push us to a new or modified worldview—where we will “rest” until a new schema is input into the system of our worldview and brain.

A systems view/definition is needed to truly define the nature of life, as a living thing itself is a set of complex systems nested together within a larger ecosystem/environment. The human brain is a system (made of smaller systems of cells) nested in the larger system of the human body. Therefore, the complex nature of how it works, meaning how it takes in, makes sense of, stores, and then recalls new knowledge, must also be understood through the lens of systems theory.

Okay, still with me through this first crack at understanding learning from this paradigm?

Next, I’ll take a first crack at the third part of my question of why it is so difficult to change someone’s mind once it is set.

*One last note about the word “schema.” The most appropriate word choice to describe this “packet of information/experience” might actually be the word “meme.” Richard Dawkins created this term in 1976 to define the “unit” that carries cultural ideas, symbols, practices, knowledge, etc. from one person or generation to the next. As a gene is to physical traits, a meme is to cultural “traits.” Unfortunately, this term has been hijacked by internet kittens. Though, it may not be a perfect fit for my needs either, so I’m not going to try and take it back from the internet kittens. Instead I’m using “schema”. However, I’m open to suggestions for a better term to define the “packets of information” we take in and incorporate into our worldview.

As always, if you like or appreciate this blog, subscribe below and share on social media platforms that you frequent.

Capra, Fritjof & Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom.

Why is it so Hard to Change Someone’s Mind? (part 1 of 3)

This post is the first in a series of three. I have been studying a “systems view of life” as a component of a larger three-part goal:

  • First, become better able to leading students to explore their “ecological identity” (their self-described place/role in the natural world).
  • Second, from a systems theory perspective, how a learner incorporates new experiences and information into his or her prior existing understanding or worldview.
  • And then, lastly, explain why once someone has learned or believes something, even if a wild misconception, it is so difficult to change his or her mind or perspective.

So, what is our place in the natural world (which is all the world by the way) and how do we make sense of it? I’m swinging for the fences here.

This has lead me first to understanding living systems as being “autopoietic,” meaning it “is a system capable of sustaining itself due to a network of reactions which continuously regenerate the components—and this from within the boundary ‘of its own making’” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 134). In other words, it not only maintains itself, but it can also regenerate from within itself all its own components using resources from its surrounding environment.

Living systems have their own boundary and then are embedded in larger living systems. A cell is bound by a membrane, but interacts with other cells to form and organization into tissues, which create systems of tissues organized into an organ, which are organized into organ systems, all of which are interlocked in feedback mechanisms to maintain the whole of your body’s living system. The body interlocked with the ecosystem in which it lives, taking in molecules and energy to self-maintain and regenerate your living system (autopoiesis) and then contributing what our body considers waste in the form of molecules and heat energy back into the larger ecosystem.

Using a graphic, I adapted from Capra & Luisi (2014, p. 134), we can illustrate step-by-step a living cell interlocked with its environment to self-maintain and regenerate (be alive).

  1. The cell is a
  2. self-contained living system which is in
  3. a larger ecosystem that gets
  4. inputs from that ecosystem. Those inputs determine
  5. how the metabolic processes in the cell react. In so doing,
  6. it produces needed molecular components, used to
  7. self-make and regulate as a bounded system. It then expels waste product and heat
  8. back into the ecosystem.
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The cell uses negative feedback loops to maintain its internal homeostasis. That internal homeostasis is continuously out of equilibrium.  To maintain this constant, balanced state out of equilibrium, requires an input of energy and molecules from the environment. So, what is occurring, is that a living system must cycle matter and energy through itself to fuel its own self-maintaining and self-regenerating functions (being alive).

This is like a thermostat regulating the temperature of a house. What we as the inhabitants of the house deem as comfortable might very well be far different than the conditions that would exist if no energy was used to heat or cool the house and the system was allowed to settle into a “natural” state of equilibrium—so temperature same inside as outside of the house.

However, to keep it constantly comfortable for us living in the house (a state of homeostasis), we set the thermostat at 72 degrees and then the heating system uses a negative feedback loop to keep the house at 72 degrees. In the winter, when the temperature drops below that set point, the furnace is turned on until it reaches that set point. The heat, once detected at 72 degrees by the thermostat is used to shut down the very system that was creating the heat. This is a classic example of a negative feedback loop. The house is using energy and molecules from outside the system to maintain the preferred homeostatic state within the boundary of the system.

Of course this is a simplified example of a non-living system to help you understand a much more dynamic and complex living system. The house isn’t autopoietic because, while the HVAC system can maintain a temperature once set, it isn’t really self-regulating (since the human is using the tool of the thermostat to do the regulating), and it certainly isn’t self-regenerating–but man would the nice if it could!

With me so far?

This is my first crack at trying to summarize the first part of my question at the beginning. I welcome thoughts, questions, and comments.

Tomorrow, I will attempt a first crack at connecting this to the second part of the question regarding learning.

And then from there, we’ll see if we can figure out some kind of an answer that explains why it is so damn hard to change a person’s mind once they’ve become “set in their ways.”

As always, if you like or appreciate this blog, subscribe below and share on social media platforms that you frequent.

Capra, Fritjof & Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom.

Album Challenge Day 10: Hard Times in Babylon by Eliza Gilkyson

Let’s start be acknowledging the misogyny in my previous 9 picks. Not a single woman in the bunch. During my formative years I did not listen to many (really any?) female musicians. Part of that is due to the era. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for women in the music business, and especially beyond the pop genre, which I was not into at that time, nor did I even acknowledge its value. There were of course female musicians who had made it in the 70s and 80s, but I was largely ignorant of them. There’s the misogyny. Not even seeing them! Fortunately this began to change in the 90s (both for the industry and for me). I’ve grown since then, though there’s still room for growth.

“Hard Times in Babylon” was Eliza’s debut album on Red House Records. This was what brought her into some national prominence in the folk (maybe alt contemporary) genre. She was 50 in 2000 when this record was released and had been working away at writing, recording, and playing (more regionally in the southwest) for nearly 30 years. That is some serious persistence! A friend, Glenn Bourdot, introduced me to her music. He invited me to come along with him and few other people to see Greg Brown at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. I was already a Greg Brown fan at this point. But, who Glenn really wanted me to see was the person opening, Eliza Gilkyson. This seems to be a theme, no? Friends introducing me to music because they know I’ll love them. Once again, a friend nailed it. During Eliza’s first song, Eliza’s microphone was slowly dropping. Glenn got up (from his 2nd row aisle seat next to me) and went up on stage and readjusted and tightened her microphone stand while she continued to play. I’ve followed her career closely since that night.

I think she’s an amazing songwriter, as well as wonderful singer and musician. And having gotten to know her a little bit, I’ve discovered she’s a remarkable person as well. As genuine and caring as her songwriting communicates. This album is not my favorite of hers, but it was my introduction to her songwriting, which has had a significant impact on my music since. Her two latest albums, “Secularia” and “2020,” have felt like just the albums I needed to hear at that time.

I’m sharing with you my attempt at what might be her signature song. I’m guessing it is the most requested. Here’s Sanctuary off of Hard Times and Babylon initially, and then she recorded a different version for Secularia.

Album Challenge Day 9: How Did You Find Me Here by David Wilcox

Year’s ago, a good friend took me to see David Wilcox on tour. I think it was for my birthday. He was playing at the old Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I hadn’t heard of him, but she siad she knew I would like him. I absolutely love this album. It’s a “no skipper” for me. Not a single song that I skip when listening to it. Wilcox’s songwriting is damn near perfect. What I mean is that it sounds as if every note, every lyric, every chord is precisely chosen and placed. He is a phenomenal guitar player. When I saw him live, I’d never seen anything like it. Between each song, hey canged the tuning on the guitar, thus allowing him to play much more complex arrangements and notes than you can with fingerpicking in a standard tuning. It was fascinating to watch. This was before I’d picked up a guitar except to know a couple of chords and that it made my fingers hurt. I was enthralled. Here’s my attempt at “Eye of the Hurricane,” which I am playing in standard tuning, but can manage to get the two key licks in despite my limitations.

Album Challenge Day 8: The Grand Illusion by Styx

In the early and mid-1980s, my two best friends and I were kind of stuck in the 70s with our much of our music taste. There wasn’t much of the current pop music that we were listening to, and we were definitely not into the very popular heavy metal, big hair bands of the time. So we reached back into the 70s, and the band we found was Styx. The song of course has to be Come Sail Away. Right after Dennis DeYoung tore the band apart by making them do the heavy concept album “Kilroy Was Here” a live album, Caught in the Act, was released. We pretty much burned that cassette up in John’s Buick Skyhawk. Even though, we listened mostly to the live album, Come Sail Away comes from the 1977 release, The Grand Illusion. I pick this album also because it demostrated making an album with a cohesive theme. They weren’t the first to do this obviously. The Beatles really paved the way for this aspect of popular music with Sgt. Peppers and Abby Road, and Pink Floyd took it to the extreme under the leadership of Roger Waters (which also tore that band apart coincidentally). These are both of course far superior bands and albums, and I considred choosing one of these for this pick as influencing the “thematic” aspect of my music taste, but it’d be a lie. While I will much more readily put on a Beatles album, or Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, than a Styx album, it was Styx that was this influence during my formative years. Which means, this folk singer has to try and record a Styx song. May the God’s of arena rock forgive me for this one. Here’s Come Sail Away. Ugh.

Album Challenge Day 7: Slant Six Mind by Greg Brown

Greg Brown has this deep baritone voice, which upon first listen, one might think is pretty rough. But, the more you listen, you realize that though deep, his voice is quite expressive and delicate with a melody. He writes songs in a wide array of styles from straight up blues to sweet ballads. The songs of his that I like best are those that roll along melodically, which can be quite soothing and relaxing. The album of his I listen to the most is a live album, “In the Hills of California” which is a collection of his various performances at the Kate Wolf music festival. I’ve seen him live multiple times and usually he plays solo, or with just Bo Ramsey on lead guitar. This is when I like him the best. His songs just roll along, floating over you, and often the intent of the song doesn’t reveal itself to you until the very end. For example, the song that I recorded, Spring and All, is about a lost love, though that isn’t revealed until the second to last line of the song. I chose this album, because it is the first Greg Brown CD that I bought after discovering him on the Bill Morrissey album I wrote about on day 5.

Album Challenge Day 6: Full Moon Fever by Tom Petty

Did anybody write better pop/rock hooks than Tom Petty? He just made it look so easy. Full moon fever was Petty’s first album without the Heartbreakers as his band, though Heartbreaker guitarist, Mike Campbell played on the album. Also on the album was Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison. That’ll do. This album is what made me pay attention to Tom Petty. I know his stuff before this album, and liked it, but hadn’t bought any of his albums. This actually isn’t my favorite Petty album. I think Wildflowers is a stronger album, or at least it’s the one I listen to most often. But, I think this one had a bigger impact on my musical taste and songwriting.

Album Challenge Day 5: Inside by Bill Morrissey

I had a difficult time choosing between two different Bill Morrissey albums. I ended up choosing “Inside” over the other consideration, “Standing Eight.” I think overall, “Standing Eight” is a better album, certainly the one I listen to more. However, Inside has a cover of Dave Van Ronk’s “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” on which Greg Brown sings. This album introduced me to Greg Brown, who also has had a significant influence on my musical taste and songwriting.

Bill Morrissey writes songs that are character-driven, and written for a guy who has a limited singing range. Hey, that’s my thing. The song I’m sharing from Inside is one I recorded a while ago for an aborted project of Bill Morrissey songs, “Chameleon Blues.” I choose this one, because it shows the witty, sarcastic side of Morrissey’s songwriting. I’m also choosing this one as it is thematically, and musically, quite different from the previous songs I’ve shared in this series. His albums were filled with songs that ranged from highly sarcastic and witty to downright tragic. “Standing Eight” ends with the saddest song I’ve every heard, “These Cold Fingers.” Let’s just say the dog doesn’t make it and leave it at that.

Morrissey also published two novels in addition to his 9 studio albums before his death from heart disease at age 59 (according to wikipedia).

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