15. It’s Only Natural

I couldn’t click the mouse anymore. My arm hurt too much. There was nothing I could do but try switching to my left hand.

It was awkward at first. But it wasn’t like I was trying to write with the left hand—just click. Soon I was clicking along. And my right arm was having a glorious rest.

That lasted about a couple of months, if I’m remembering correctly. Before long, the left arm started to hurt. It wasn’t as strong as the right because, being right-handed, I hadn’t asked it to do very much. The muscles hadn’t had as much of a workout over the years. Oh, well. My right arm had been resting now for a while; I would just go back to it.

But soon enough, the right arm began to hurt again. I went back to the left.

I went back and forth like that, with the periods of painless clicking growing shorter and shorter—until there weren’t any, and both arms hurt all the time. The situation encroached on my life at home, too—I couldn’t pull weeds or open heavy drawers.

But this was about my job, the way I paid my bills and bought food. (Dictation programs didn’t exist yet.) So I grabbed a big ol’ track ball, like we had back then, put it on the floor, and took off my shoes and socks. I began learning to control the cursor with my toes—surprised at their dexterity. It was a bit uncomfortable, and slower than using the hand, though I hoped to get up to speed before the boss noticed that. How long I’d be able to work that way I didn’t know, nor did think much about it.

Not long, as it turned out. A couple of weeks into this strange adjustment, I was hit by a turning car while biking. Its bumper connected to my leg just below the knee. A four-inch difference in the pedaling cycle would have meant a direct kneecap hit, and a more serious injury. I felt lucky. But the two bones under my kneecap were shattered to bits (I saw the X-ray) and needed to stay motionless to heal, so I got to wear a cast.

With my left leg immobilized and my arms now feeling a different pain—from managing my weight on crutches—I spent a lot of time in bed, thinking. I had to appreciate the irony of my leg getting smashed so soon after starting to work with my feet. I might have succeeded. But toes probably weren’t made to move a ball around in a socket like that. My coworkers had laughed and doubted the idea.

But then it occurred to me: My pointer fingers weren’t made to click a button repeatedly, eight hours a day, either. Mine weren’t, anyway. Maybe people in general had stronger pointers than I did, but I wasn’t the only one having problems. There were actual diagnoses—carpal tunnel, repetitive motion syndrome—so there had to be other sufferers.

Posture was said to be important, too, for the arms. I’d read articles, looked at posture-perfect pictures, and learned new concepts, like ergonomics. Nothing really helped. Thinking about it now, I’d also say that my back and arse were not meant to sit in a chair all day.

White peppered moth, or “Darwin’s moth.” When the lichen is whiter—that is, in the royalty not-free images—the moth’s stunningly effective camouflage is even more apparent.

When I say “meant to” or “made for,” I’m not necessarily thinking of a Maker, or of what happened In the Beginning. I’m thinking of the process of evolution that’s still going on. The classic example of this is “Darwin’s moths.” The story goes back to the late 1800s in England. Some fat-bodied white moths, with a sprinkling of dark “pepper,” were perfectly camouflaged to blend in with some whitish lichen that grew on the trees there. Birds just couldn’t see them. That changed when industry came in, blackening the tree bark with soot and even killing the lichen. Suddenly it became advantageous to be one of the rare, dark variants of this moth species. The dark population grew, outnumbering the white moths, which couldn’t hide any more. Evolution happened. Natural selection.

I read this story in a science class many years ago—maybe you did, too—and thought this was The End of the Story. It wasn’t! When clean-air activists succeeded in getting the heavy pollution reduced, a lichen resurgence again gave the lighter moths the advantage. Their numbers returned.

But wait! There’s more!

In 2018, researchers at the University of Exeter used some up-to-date approaches—ultraviolet light (because birds can see it), field studies using museum moth specimens, even fake moths (I hope they weren’t plastic)—to confirm and quantify earlier results. They found that lighter moths now had a 21% chance of surviving predation.

No one related the study to human origins or the biblical book of Genesis. It’s just one observable phenomenon exemplifying what I call evolution.

Last week I heard another radio piece on the benefits of intermittent fasting. Most of it wasn’t new to me; I probably first read or heard someone advocate for this eating regimen five years ago. Periods of hours or a couple days where you voluntarily don’t eat are supposed to be good for you. Apparently you can lose weight, even eat whatever you want when off the fast. You can improve your health, it says, by giving your digestive system some time off, freeing your body to make cell repairs. You might reduce your likelihood of getting cancer. And the claims continue. (I tend to believe them, though my personal test isn’t scientific. I lost weight right away, though I soon gained it back.)

But what interested me about this particular report was that it mentioned why all these benefits flow from not eating: Our ancestors did it. Not for the many reasons we can list, but because they couldn’t always get food. Their bodies were adapted to sporadic eating, based on when food was available. And, we might assume, this physical trait, this pattern, was passed down to us moderns. We’re still evolving, yes. But it takes thousands of years for a single change to spread through a human population. Which means we’re stuck with the bodies of cavemen and -women, even as we clatter on computer keyboards and fly into outer space.

At least we know this. We may not always have precise scientific explanations as to why intermittent fasting and other Stone Age ways—living in nature, contacting the soil, walking, doing physical work, fasting, following a Paleo diet—turn out to be helpful. We’re still commanded by Paleolithic DNA.

Our lives, of course, are light years away from those of our ancestors. So we have to make sense of this—though most people don’t think much about the mismatch or make a conscious decision about how to approach it. This is a world of stuff, soon to be controlled—if commercial forces have their way—by the Internet of Things. Recent inventions have become necessary for survival: AC and furnaces, cars and jets, modern buildings and skyscrapers, high-tech agricultural machines and substances, the machinery involved in food production and packaging, mining and extraction systems, sewers, water delivery and plumbing, medical technology, advanced infrastructure of all kinds, cell phones and computers . . . you can add to this list, I’m sure.

We’d die without some of these things. If something renders them unavailable—a climate disaster, a job loss, a personal disability—it’s scary. Even the possibility of losing one of these necessities generates fear. Don’t we carry around at least a small amount of that fear all the time? And it becomes a greater fear when the loss is imminent.

I believe—backed up by some experience—that getting as far away as possible from this modern stuff, these traps, is both healthy and happy-making. I know, “good for you” never sounds like fun. But isn’t it fun to win a race? Get into your first-choice college? Fit into your old jeans again? Lower your blood pressure? Real achievements take effort. But effort doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Early stages of the mud house staircase: hardened earth, old bricks, scrap flagstone.

Nobody’s gonna go all the way to primitive—it isn’t possible, and it would be a ridiculous goal. But to head back in that direction, well—it’s fun. At least it can be. It has been for me. The two-plus years I spent building my mud guesthouse (mostly without power tools) were maybe the most enjoyable of my life. Spending time in the sunshine, working up endorphins, enjoying the beautiful results of my “work.” Gathering the desert has been delightful, too. Tasting new flavors, learning the best preparations, avoiding the garbage of food packaging. Selling the car and biking—I could almost fill a book with the pleasures and benefits of that. So many people I know have done this, and they’ve all expressed surprise at how much they love it and hope that they don’t have to go back to driving.

It’s all because we were made to live more like that. The Man, for profit, wants everyone to embrace new stuff. New needs. He’s pretty good at setting effective traps. I held out against getting a cell phone (or rather, a mini-computer) until pay phones disappeared and there was a problem connecting with my daughter on the land line. (The old networks and the interfaces are falling into disrepair.) And she herself pleaded with me to get a device that would let me text, because that’s what she does. The younger the generation, the more hopelessly caught they are in these traps. But they’re real for all of us.

Nothing I do guarantees my survival in the face of an unknown crisis, especially with the unpredictability of climate today. Crises will no doubt always bring surprises. But I’ll continue doing what I can on the road back to the highly evolved physique of my ancestors. (Yes, scientists believe they were in top form.) Back a little farther to their simple ways and toughened selves.

Are we getting too civilized? (Illustration by Bruno Guerreiro.)

No, I’m not idealizing Stone Age lives or people. I have a good picture of them, I think, from a thoughtful book I read a couple years ago, Civilized to Death. I’m sure it’s not the last word on the subject, but I trust it, and the picture on the cover made me laugh. (See my Pick of the Week on the homepage for more details.)

And if you’re wondering whatever happened to my sore computer arms and my career, well—everything fell into place. I quit the job with the jeering coworkers and took a part-time job at the Tucson Weekly. My arms got better with my clicking cut in half. And not long after that, I quit the intensive clicking (the graphic design programs) and switched to writing, which uses all my fingers. It’s more “natural.” (Wink, wink.) And it has resulted in the blog you’re reading at this very moment.

Once again: Thank you for reading!

4 thoughts on “15. It’s Only Natural

  1. Delightful! I, too, am hardening back to a simple existence – living IN nature, walking barefoot on the earth and letting the connection nourish my body and soul. Happy to find a kindred, and look forward to your next piece.

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    1. Hello Jan,
      What a nice comment. Yes–always good to find “kin.” They are rarer and more precious than I used to think.
      May I ask how you found my blog?
      Thanks so much.
      Kay

      Like

  2. What a rich, intimate, complex piece, and with satisfying closure at the end. I had to wait a few days and read it again.

    I disagree only with assuming that what was healthy living in the Stone Age is necessarily healthy for us today. Life expectancy then was 25 at most. Now it’s triple that. How well would the Stone Age lifestyle have worked for 75-year-old troglodytes?

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