December 2010


Sorry to moan, but I’ve got flu.   At least that’s what I think I’ve got.   It could be the return of the auld trubble – the malaria, but it doesn’t quite fit the pattern.  I begin to feel wobbly and shivery about dusk every afternoon, not every other day like I did with malaria.   My back and the muscles of my shoulders ache and I have a fairly superficial pain just above my nose where the sinuses are.   I’m coughing thick yellow phlegm and expelling the same gunk through my nose.  And I feel so tired I just can’t do any more.   No, let’s call it flu.  That’s what a lot of medicine is, after all, informed guesswork.   And before you ask, I didn’t take up the government’s offer of a flu jab this winter. 

I went to see the quack this morning.  The snow had all but thawed, but the wet ice outside the surgery was treacherous.   Was this an opportunist way of creating new business by a new entrepreneurial NHS?   Anyway, Dr Watson agreed enthusiastically with my deductions and I now have a bottle or crimson and custard minibombs to assist my waving immune system, a caution against unwise excursions into the mountains and more concern that the stress may have aroused dormant histiocytes.  I get the blood tests back tonight.   

It’s amazing in a way how a non specific infection like flu can bring on the gamut of unexplained symptoms; the exhaustion, fatigue, depressing muscle ache, the anorexia and early satiety, the bowel aches and pains, shortness of breath, the lot.   It’s like the virus switches on a non specific pattern of illness not unlike that induced by trauma, grief or disappointment, the chronic loss of hope that erodes life force.  I didn’t hear from my daughters this Christmas.  Maybe that’s what’s got to me

I came across a lovely few lines by Emily Dickinson on hope

Hope is that thing with feathers,

that perches in the soul,

and sings a song with no words

and doesn’t stop at all.

 

Only that particular yellow bird had gone off to feed in another garden. 

Time to re-stock the feeders.

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The east coast of England is being washed away.  Tidal currents sweeping down from the north are gradually eroding the coast from Flamborough Head south to Suffolk, moving shingle and silt down into long narrow spits as at Spurn Head and Orford Ness,  collapsing the shingle banks in front of the wetland reserves of Cley and Minsmere and eroding the soft sandy cliffs of Dunwich.  Accelerated by high tides and strong winds, the topography is changing.  Acres of agricultural land are threatened along with scores of coastal communities. 

To some extent, the erosion is predictable.  Computer models can factor in tides, currents, geology, bathymetry, and they provide an rough idea, but what actually happens often depends on politics and local interests.  As, my brother Simon, who is an artist interested in environmental issues, told me, ‘The situation is very different on the impoverished Holderness and Lincolnshire Coastline compared with the more affluent Suffolk Coast where there are major amenities like a nuclear power station, a world famous nature reserve and big coastal communities of Lowestoft, Southwold, Aldeburgh and Felixstowe.’  Down there, the coast is being protected by blocks of Norwegian granite and sand dredged up just off shore, but such measures are short term solutions.  Over the longer term, usch measures are counterproductive.  The granite blocks can sink and the tides find their way round the back of them while dredging offshore sandbanks can remove the first bulwark against erosion. 

‘What the land means varies from place to place’, Simon explained. ‘Such meanings are political  and local and their cumulative effect cannot be easily factored in.  Decisions on whether to allow arable or to allow the river to break through to the sea (as at Aldeburgh) are often made by local councils without reference to the bigger picture.  So what you can have is some local amenities protected, a golf club here, a ferry terminal there at the expense of desolation at bigger areas up and down the coast.’    

As an artist without the restrictions of commerce and local politics, Simon is free to use his imagination to create what might happen in the future.  He is not confined by the physical constructs of the computer modellers, he can bring in concepts of politics and meaning to gain a more realistic understanding of what might happen.  It’s a chaotic system but like the weather, not entirely unpredictable.

Not for the first time, have I seen comparisons between what Simon is doing and what I am interested in.  We think about things the same way.  Most illness is more influenced by the meaning of what happens to an individual; diet, infection, gender, contamination may be able to be factored in but are only part of the story.  For both coast and the disease host, you need to get up front and personal.

 

The image, Sand patterns, Isle of Eigg, by Dudley Williams  was the winner of the classic view, adult class, in this years Landscape Photographer off the Year competition.

Human beings don’t just adapt to their environment, they create and control it.  Ever since the early hominids developed an opposable thumb that enabled them to grasp and manipulate objects, they could make things happen.   The ability to throw missiles is a metaphor for how we could influence events at a distance, not only in space but also in time.  The use of tools to make shelters, to control external sources of energy allowed us to escape the urgent prerogatives of survival and find time to think.   Within the space of a few generations, humanoids endowed with the magic of manipulation,  could create the future by intention .   

Evolution does not happen by the gradual accretion of advantage,  it is jerked forwards by a change in environment.  That is what is thought to happen with our ancient ancestors.  A change in climate in eastern Africa constricted the forest, concentrating the apes that lived there and creating a niche on the edge, where the tall grassland encroaches, a space where only those apes with upright postures and opposable thumbs could hunt in.  Within the space of few generations,  certain humanoids have developed a specialised way of life; they became upright savannah apes that hunted in packs with spears and missiles.    

One advance creates the space of opportunity for other adaptations to occur. Using tools and  throwing missiles required a big, strategic brain to imagine, plan, predict and create.   Up to a point these abilities could be learnt by the small chimpanzee-like brain of our early ancestors, but those who had bigger and more clever brains were quicker and better at it, would survive at the expense of the others.   No longer did the strongest and fiercest inherit the earth by fear, the ability to create the future at a distance allowed the development of a meritocracy based on intelligence.  All that was required was the ability to project, not just physically, but literally throw one’s mind forward,  to imagine the way things might be, how others might think, to create a world out of our own mind.  Discovery always favours a mind, prepared by imagination and necessity.    And with imagination comes  strategy, planning, forecast, insight, hope, anticipation, and meaning; all the tools needed  to build a civilisation.

Survival on the savannah needed teamwork, the ability to work together as a group.  The maverick and loner would just starve.   Teamwork requires empathy and identification, the ability to project our wishes and desires onto others, to inspire them and create a group identity, based on meaning.  If people share the same meaning, then they will stay together and help each other.  So tribes stayed together and developed into larger communities not just because of a practical need, but because the tribe could preserve  the word, the identity that held them together.  Having an imaginative brain allowed human beings to derive meaning from things to make sense of their environment, to interpret, tell stories, invent Gods.

We begin to see the enormous advance the upright posture and opposable thumb, how these features allowed humans to project their minds into an infinity of intellectual space, rich in possibility.   

Godlike, we have produced a world in our own image and become adapted to that world.  We have determined our own evolution;  narcissism on an universal  scale.   No longer the tough stone age survivors, fighting to stay alive, dependant on the exigencies of the external environment, constantly on the move to where it is warmer and there is food,  we have tamed the wilderness and created a society, in which we can produce all we need, shelter, energy, food, water, entertainment. 

But in order to do this, we have had to forge ever more complex collaborations.  We have outgrown the narrow self centred confines of the tribe to develop much larger societies with different values, different priorities.   The ever increasing size of our communities from tribes to villages, to towns, cities, countries and finally a global community linked electronically, not only required a major logistic exercise in providing basic human utilities to everybody, but also created the need for civilisation, laws, morals and manners to keep such large in control.  Only those whose behaviour is compatible with the customs of society, will be allowed the freedom to live and breed in that society. Those who are more assertive and aggressive have been weeded out, killed, locked up, exiled. 

So we have we inbred domestication and passivity by our civilisation and laws.  We have selected out dangerous characteristics such as aggression,  ruthlessness,  physical strength and activity, and bred in other characteristics like laziness, passivity, dependency and overeating.  We have tamed ourselves.  And since aggression and physical strength are male prerogatives,  the new man has become more feminine. Civilisation means that men no longer seize their women by force, the power of selection is in the arms of the women, who arguably have a greater grasp of human nature.  And women are more likely to seek out sensitive, caring men to breed with.  They in turn will rear more sensitive children.     

All of this has created a different strain of human being, passive, a civilised, comfort seeking, intelligent and inventive creature.  Experiments conducted in Novobirsk, Eastern Siberia has shown that selective breeding over 50 generations has succeeded in domesticating Silver Foxes.  They become tame like dogs. The strange thing is that in breeding out aggression, other characteristics change too, like the colour of their coats and the shape of their heads, their ears and their tails.  In fact, they become like puppies.  Selective breeding for domesticity favours juvenile characteristics.

Has the same thing happened in human societies?  Has sexual selection succeeded in breeding out aggressive characteristics?   Are we all just big babies?   Have we bred domesticity in ourselves and in doing so become passive, lazy, needy and child-like?   And like the domesticated foxes,  have these social characteristics of being tamed, altered our appearance and the diseases we are predisposed to?    Has it, for example, caused us to become fatty and less hairy.  Has the combination of neediness and passivity predisposed to a plethora of diseases of civilisation; obesity, diabetes, heart attacks as well illnesses related to depression, such as Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Obesity and depression are the two most common illnesses of western society, affecting more than half the population.  Obesity is a disease of passive overconsumption and insufficient exercise.   We are consuming more than we need and we no longer need to work to get it.  There is an abundance of high energy food in infinite variety in our supermarkets.  Most of it is ready prepared and cooked and just requires reheating.  And without the basic requirements to hunt and fight, there is little need to exercise.  We travel to work in our cars and trains, we get our entertainment from the television, we do not even need to go out to work; we can work from our homes.  We don’t even need to get out of bed. 

In fact, we can exist without ever having to meet other people.  With personal computers, many people have their office at home.  No wonder we become quite isolated and depressed.    

If we remove the need to hunt, to build our own houses, to fight and compete, then we remove personal initiative.   And without human contact and something to strive for, life has little meaning.   We just exist, eating, drinking and sitting in front of the television,  rendered inert by the trappings of our own civilisation. Chronically bored, eating becomes less a necessity, more a displacement activity.  Many obese people are depressed.          

A few years ago,  I walked out from Malleleuca along Tasmania’s South Coast Track, carrying all the food I needed for 9 days on my back.  Meals were rationed; just enough for sustenance and no extra. I walked continuously from dawn to dusk across traversing precipitous mountain ridges interrupted by boggy valleys.  I felt more alive than I had for years and lost over nearly a stone in weight.

It was all going well.  Catherine had assessed her last week and said she would give it a go.  Mum had enjoyed her afternoon at Abbeyfield.  They had made a fuss of her, given her fish and chips for lunch, played dominoes.  It was just right; such a friendly, caring environment.  I felt sure that mum would feel at home there.  And it would mean that I didn’t have to stay in Sheffield to look after her.  I would enjoy visiting her there.  

The staff at Silverdales had agreed to write a letter and pack up her belongings and medications.  There was a slight hiccup when the Primary Care Trust demurred over funding her continuing health care, but Catherine reassured them that Abbeyfield also cared for some patients with dementia and after a delay of just two days they agreed.  I could scarcely believe how smoothly it had gone. 

We even had a window on the weather.  It had snowed the night before but the roads were passable and no more snow was forecast until the day after the move.  It was a little icy on the hill to mum’s flat, but I quickly gathered together her favourite pictures and ornaments, found her shoes and a warm blanket and set off to collect her from Silverdales.

The ward had been transformed into Santa’s grotto.  The staff were all in fancy dress.  An elf in stripey red stockings told me that mum wouldn’t come until she’d finished her coffee.  ‘Twas ever thus’, I said.  So I took her stuff down to the car and when I came back she was in the toilet and there was a queue of reindeer forming outside the door.

Betty was a little tearful.  I needed to explain to her several times that ‘No, Doris was not her mother in law and I was not her husband.’  It was all a bit too much for her, but she kissed mum and wished her a happy Christmas.  And so we took our leave of Santa’s helpers, the elves, the reindeer and the gnomes. 

The rather serious lady on reception was dressed in white with wings and a gold tinsel band round her head. 

‘Are you the fairy on top of the tree?’  I asked her as we went out.

‘No, she said, without a hint of a smile, ‘I’m an angel.’

Mum was quiet in the car and I put the radio on.  Every so often she would reach out, squeeze my hand and smile. Two hours later as we approached our destination,  I turned the radio off.  Almost immediately, she became fretful.   ‘I can’t get my breath.  Where’s my hanky.  I’m so hungry.  I want to go to the toilet. 

I explained again that she was going to Abbeyfield  House for Christmas and Simon and I would be just down the road.  I wasn’t sure she’d taken that in; she was much more concerned about lunch and going to the toilet.

 While Catherine got her a glass of sherry and some fish and chips for lunch, I went upstairs to personalise her room. I was going through the inventory with Kirstie when an agitated Catherine came in.  ‘Your mum is having an eppy.’

Close on her heels, mum appeared at the door, face as black as sin, but then she recognised me and smiled.  I showed her the pictures, the photographs of me and Simon, her chocolates and her musical lamp. 

‘What’s my stuff doing here?’

‘You’re staying here over Christmas. It’s really nice. Simon and I will be just down the road’ 

‘I’m not staying here.  I don’t like these people.  So you can just take all this stuff down and take me home.’

Then Catherine tried to persuade her.

‘And who are you?   You want to get rid of me too, I suppose.’ 

I tried a more robust approach.  ‘I’ll take you back to Silverdales, mum, if that’s what you want, but Simon and I will be here for Christmas. And it’s going to snow again.’ 

At that she started thumping her fists against my chest.  ‘Oh, so I’ve got to come to you.  Well, I’m not .  You –thump – can – thump – come – thump – to me!  Big thump!

Ok mum, we’ll take you back.  Let’s just hope the snow stays off.

I rang Sheriott.  Her room at Silverdales was still available. The journey back was a repeat of the  morning’s expedition.  She was quiet and we listened to the radio. 

Santa’s little helpers took her off into the day room to join the elves still preparing for Christmas while I went to put her stuff away.  

A few minutes later, she appeared at the door.  ‘Nobody is talking to me in there.’

‘Never mind mum’

‘Do you want a chocolate, dear?’

‘Oh, yes please, mum. Then I must go before it snows. ’

‘Well, it’s been a lovely day.  Thank you so much darling!’

Isn’t it tragic when fear forces people into actions that you know will harm them and you can’t do anything about it?   

 ‘How very kind of you to come.’  Molly beamed at me, her face creased into a page of tighly packed script, from which words  and phrases seemed to escape  to join the grey whorls and coils that formed a nimbus around her head.  I told her it was nice to see her and  the sentences at the corners of her eyes and the paragraph across her forehead, etched themselves more deeply into her skin as, putting her face just inches from mine, she replied with theatrical emphasis,  ‘And NICE to SEE YOU TOO!’.  

‘I’ve only come in for a few days rest’,  Betty announced quietly, her countenance vacant with worry.  ‘I came from Dore.’  Then after a pause she added,   ‘And where do you live?’   

‘Bakewell’, I said.

‘Oh Derbyshire.  Nice there’.

Mrs Tang stared,  her eyes red rimmed and her mouth  just a shrunken hole towards the bottom of a face in which the skin seemed pulled too tight.  She held out her hand.  I took it and held it from a few seconds as with a sigh, she withdrew it.  Harry, sporting a depression the size of a h’penny where  they trephined his skull,  completed another lap,  ‘Can you tell me?  Are they going to call me up? They’re still fighting over there, you know.’       

And Doris, her once so delicately curled hair pulled back off her face and held by a clip, glared at the women, who sat hunched in their emaciated bodies, picking at their skirts.  ‘Look at those sexy old ladies, they’re pulling their skirts right up above their knees  again.  It’s disgusting.  Tell them to stop.’  Then she swivelled her searchlights and  announced with disdain, ‘Old saggy arse is off again,’ as Gilbert, his trousers hanging loose, hands straining on his frame, limped to the toilet.  Finally she focussed through the mist at me;  ‘Colston!  I haven’t seen you for years.’

‘And where do you live?’  Betty asked pleasantly.

‘I live near Bakewell.’  

‘Oh Derbyshire!  Nice there.’

They sat around the room, dressed in an odd assortment of might-have-beens and cast me downs,  each with a coloured paper hat on their head.  Some rocked backward and forwards.  A few were asleep.  Most just stared.   Marjorie, her face a tragic mask, reached out to anybody who passed, and kept up a constant cry of ‘Nobody loves me’.  It was true.  Few relatives had bothered.  Those that were there looked round in panic, trapped, desperately seeking rescue but having to endure the tragic chaos of second childhood, the hopeless stench of stale urine and cold gravy.          

Bright plastic musical instruments, tambourines, castanets, drums, bits of a xylophone, lay abandoned next to the oranges and sweets, the arrangements of plastic holly and poinsettia.  A large Christmas tree had been erected in the corner,  its dark green plastic bottle brushes hung with angels and stars and flashing desolation.  The bus stop in the hallway was decorated with imitation holly and fake snow.   More plastic holly was wedged above framed photographs of Vera Lynn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Flanagan and Allen,  Winston Churchill, the Queen’s Coronation and the posters advertising Guinness, Fry’s Five Boys, Ah Bisto and Ovaltine.   There was a large card pinned to the notice board. ‘Merry Christmas to all our residents from the staff at Silverdales’.   A big bunch of imitation mistletoe was suspended from a hook on the ceiling, but nobody kissed.  There were no paper chains or loops of folded crepe paper.   ‘Health and Safety Regulations!, the carer declared with an upward tilt of her head.  Then she announced, ‘Shall we play some carols?’  There was a little response.  Most just continued to stare, rock, pick at their noses and shout out.  Only George repeated ‘Carols’, with any enthusiasm,  mimicking  the carer’s jolly tones.

‘Oh so you’d like that, George.’  And with that, she turned the music up loud and Crosby’s honeyed voice thickened  with mock sincerity, entuned a familiar commercial sequence, ‘Jingle Bells, White Christmas,  Winter Wonderland’ – all the old favourites.   Some banged, rattled or tinkled an accompaniment.   Others just beat time with their hands on the arms of their chairs.  Most just sat and stared.  A few joined in with an occasional phrase and word.    And then the chords started up for Silent Night and Deborah lifted her head, took a deep breath  and sang, her voice high and clear, a note of hope that swelled and filled the room, perfectly pitched above the desolation and chaos.    The rattling, banging, shouting all ceased;   even Harry halted his patrol and listened.  John leant forward and stroked Beryl’s face with the back of his hand.  I looked across at Marjorie, her worried frown had softened and at the corner of one eye a tear glistened , filled and slowly ran down her cheek.

It’s our ability to control fire that made us human.  This is the message of Richard Wrangham’s new book, ‘Catching Fire’,  which was published last year.  It’s the latest big idea in evolution, the one that Darwin ignored.    

Wrangham approaches the subject from the perspective of an anthropologist and primatologist; he has worked at Gombe with Jane Goodall.  His hypothesis extrapolates from three sets of observations.  First, when food is cooked, nutrients are more easily digested and assimilated into the body.    Cooking softens meat, loosening connective tissue and allowing enzymes access to muscle proteins and fats.   Cooking also breaches the rigid cell walls of plants, exposing starches and sugars and vegetable fats to digestion.  Cooked meals require less work and less time to eat them.  Less effort needs to be spent in finding food that can be easily digested.  Cooking saves us time; time to think, to plan, to bond and it has to be said, to eat more food. 

By comparison, other mammalian species spend the majority of their time hunting, feeding and digesting their food.  Sheep and cows would never get enough energy to reproduce if they didn’t eat all day.  A male tiger needs to spend nearly all its waking hours hunting.  Only when it has had a big blow out, can the tiger afford to rest up and digest.   

But for humans, it’s different. They had time.  People gathered around their fires in the evening to tell stories, to sing, to drink, to plan the next day’s activities and to make love. It was around the hearth that tribes forged their identity in mythology. Fire became the focus of the social group, the hearth, the forge of civilisation. Cooking expanded the range of foods that could be eaten.  This meant that people didn’t have to hunt and gather particular foods; they could cultivate and herd them in farms.  This allowed people to settle in villages, towns and cities.  

Fire also led to a division of labour. Women were the cooks, the keepers of the fire, the gatherers and of course the mothers, whereas men were the hunters, the farmers and the protectors.    

Not only has fire enabled human beings to evolve socially, Wrangham believes that they have also adapted anatomically and physiology to eating cooked foods.   Our jaws are much weaker than our closest cousins, the chimpanzees; not at all equipped for cracking hard nuts and seeds or for tearing meat.  Our large intestines are nowhere near as commodious and efficient at extracting nutrients from uncooked vegetable matter.  People can live on raw food if they spend time seeking out and preparing foods that are sufficiently soft, but they lose weight and tend to become infertile.  Thus it seems we have evolved into a culinary ape.   Perhaps even our hairlessness was an adaptation to the control of fire.  Did fire allow us to dispense with fur and become the naked ape.        

The important thing about a good hypothesis is not that it’s right but that it makes you think.  Wrangham’s hypothesis certainly makes us think , but it is probably not entirely accurate. 

 We are not the only species with small guts.  Carnivores,  dogs, cats have much smaller guts probably because they don’t need a big fermenter to break down complex plant material.  Perhaps the early homonids were predominantly hunters and scavengers; they ate predominantly meat and were strategically adapted to hunting and trapping animals.  But their poor dentition may indicate that they lived on soft body organs or even on food that was half rotten with some additional fruits and leaves.     

 Cooking is not the only way of softening food, acid in the stomach does it too.  After they have made a kill, lions and tigers need to rest for several hours for acid digestion to occur.  The acid in human stomachs is as strong as that in other carnivores.  The thing is, we can survive without cooking.  We can all eat raw food though we may not have much time for anything else.  Cooking saves time.          

But is there any evidence in the fossil record that links the development of humans with fire?   Humanoids with the characteristic shape that we have now,  Homo habilis and Homo erectus,  appeared about two and half million years ago, but the earliest evidence we have of hominids  controlling fire is 750,000 years ago.     

So was cooking the big breakthrough that allowed human beings to evolve into a more physiologically efficient mammal by relying on an external source of energy?   Did we develop our human shape and physiology because our ancestors had learnt to harness fire?   Or was  cooking an evolutionary accelerant rather than an instigator? 

According to Darwin’s deductions, evolution of species does not tend to occur gradually over millions of years, it is jerked forwards by environmental change;  only certain individuals were sufficiently equipped to survive and breed under the new conditions and they produced more individuals with the same improved adaptations. 

The accepted wisdom is that human evolution was instigated by climate change in sub-Saharan Africa.  Less rainfall led to a dying back of the rainforest and its replacement by savannah.   Certain of our ancestors could survive at the edges of the forest.  They learnt how to trap and kill the grazing animals for food.   Some had a more flexible thumb that could be opposed to the other digits allowing them to grip and manipulate tools.  These better equipped individuals could make and use tools, they could fashion weapons, they could throw things;  they could project into the future.  These adaptations led quickly to others.  Only those with the most efficient weaponry and skill, would survive, the rest would be killed off. 

Genetics provides the potential, the environment brings it out.   The brain develops according to experience, though some brains are more adaptable.  In a rapidly changing environment, only those apes able to adapt, survive.  So, over relatively few generations, a sub culture is selected out.  Seen from this context, fire is another tool, something the advancing ape learnt to control, but it rapidly became indispensible. Hominids adapted to it and indeed could not survive without it.  Fire now does so many other things besides cooking, it drives engines that make things and get us places.  And now we have discovered enormous supplies of fossil fuels, we are totally dependent on the energy it gives us, so much so that few of us would survive without it.  And yet, supplies of fossil fuel are finite.  They will be depleted in 30 years.

0645 GMT  07/12/10

Successful expedition.  Grytviken basking in balmy zero.   Back on shelf at minus 14, well stocked with lamp oil, whalemeat, blubber, pickled cabbage and two bottles of aquavit!!  Freezing fog.  When we speak, the words stay in the air and hang around outside the tent.  Voice message from Oates there last night.  Unrepeatable, poor chap! 

Scott

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