There is nothing like a string of subzero days and nights to awaken the mind to hard core truth. Humans are still tropical animals, molded by evolution for life within a consistent and moderate temperature range under sunny nourishing skies, equipped for a life shaped by ease and plenty. A perpetual cheese and wine party punctuated by afternoon naps, walks on the sea shore, craft time, oodles of festivals and rituals. Naked fun! Art! Music! Jewelry!
We draw smoothly curving lines of human dispersal ‘out of Africa,’ as if any wandering group of humans that strayed far enough north to encounter snow, iced-over rivers and lakes, long periods of darkness, and death by freezing, looked upon the land and unanimously declared: “We like this! Let’s stick around.”
Every one of them would have promptly died of hypothermia or starvation. Homo erectus apparently ran up against a climate barrier and kept to a southern arc across Asia and into the SE Archipelago and Southern Europe.
Humans who wanted to migrate into hostile country had to be prepared first; had to have developed rudimentary technology. Thousands of migrants in the 1800s died when trying to cross the western deserts and mountain ranges of the United States because they were totally unprepared and ignorant of the endurance the trip would demand. There had to have been much seasonal migration to northern lands, with returns, both temporary and permanent, to warm climates, before settlement outside the evolutionary comfort zone could take place. Let’s face it; without fire, food acquisition and preservation, tools and warm clothing, humans could not have broken the climate barrier.
Modern humans face the same situation. Our bodies have only superficially adapted to life outside the tropics. Colonization of cold mountain climates (and desert, and arid plains) has only been possible by means of technology. Fire, clothing and food preservation may seem primitive to us, but the refrigerator in my kitchen keeps food from freezing as well as rotting, and the heater that sits in my living room is little more than a campfire fueled by natural gas. Despite adopting a cocoon of parka, hat, gloves and insulated boots, I’m like an astronaut leaving his or her spacecraft to enter utterly hostile conditions when I leave my house.
I began thinking about this yesterday when I looked out a kitchen window and saw a tiny woodpecker banging away at one of the trees. It looked so vulnerable and lost – as if it should have migrated south with most other birds that summer here. But then I realized, it’s ‘out there’ in sub zero weather and I’m essentially stuck in my artificial environment, in my life support system. And I thought of the deer, pronghorn, elk and moose, of the wild horses scraping the snow for dried grass, of the intense stinging cold that comes at night, which would freeze a human solid as a rock if he or she made a simple mistake and could not get back to ‘civilization’ – which in Wyoming isn’t much, but our human outposts provide what is necessary: warmth and food.
The bad news is that humans today exist in artificial, depleted, or hostile environments, and exist on the chain of energy and products, including medicine, food and clean water, heating and air conditioning, and transportation, that is derived from fossil fuels.
November / A high school in Arizona
I carefully transcribe notes that chemistry and physics students have handed in today in response to a video on electromagnetism. The video weaves together the historical development of theory and technology and demonstrates the effects of electrical properties. While dense with information, the presentation is organized, well-paced and thoughtful. Student work is so uniformly mediocre that surprises come from occasional competent papers; some work has the power to shock and shame.
Four classes have watched the video and handed in their notes and I’ve collected some interesting spellings: eleclisitey, electricuated, elktrick feald, eletic, elecudid, are a few of the variations on electricity, as in, “When Ben Franklin tried to cook a turkey with eleclisitey he almost elecudid himself.”
The spellings of other terms prove equally mysterious: protelter, potianal, caepgy, obvisour, pontechel, actrick, and dervasl. Even these, and mistakes like finominan, phylosifors, and poor Farid Day and Benterm Franklean would be helped greatly by a vocabulary handout, but the teacher prepared none. Torturous thought is another matter. Paper after paper is excruciatingly foreign, as if I’m in a country where only an occasional person has learned to read and write.
“If two charges attract the it attracts but if one attracts and one sudtracts then it will attract then subtracts.”
“The sun near stops or ends in space when a object has postively changed when moist with charge.”
“When to much elet charge attack whe not engugh charge repel.”
“Radio wave ditrabute a electric rate.”
“The core of an apple and the moon had something in common.”
But this is suburban America, the majority of students are white, middle class, and doing no better than the scattering of minority students. The only satisfactory notes, written in a breezy style in a careful and readable script, was handed in by a Latino boy. A few others manage a good sentence or two, but leave me longing for something more. One set of notes is composed of a stanza of phrases that when read aloud becomes a weird cry from some poor ghost trapped on the other side of literacy.