Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Getting My Historical ZZZ's

knitting up the raveled sleeve of care

The “book segment” of a PBS News Hour a couple of nights ago featured a woman named Melanie Warner, the author Pandora’s Lunchbox.  What a great title!—with or without its clarifying addendum, How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.  I, alas, am among those who devour with relish far too many boxed and packaged goods with wrappers requiring twelve or fifteen lines in minute type simply to catalogue their engineered ingredients

            I am almost afraid to pick up the book, though I do intend to read it.  Perhaps it can scare me into going cold turkey on corn syrup.  But general remarks Ms. Warner made to Hari Sreenavasin have already sent my mind racing.  She pointed out that at least in America there has been a dramatic revolution in eating in the last century, as technology has collided with food production in ways previously unimaginable.  But just as our technological progress has outstripped our moral progress in so many other fields, physiological evolution has lagged far behind the brave new world of alimentary invention.  As Ms. Warner put it, “The way our bodies process food is stuck somewhere in the Stone Age.”

          You are what you eat

            As it happened, I had already been thinking along somewhat parallel lines, though I was thinking less about the way in which my body takes nourishment than about the way it finds rest—or doesn’t.  For the truth is that I don’t sleep all that well any more.  The problem of troubled sleep—I flee from the frank pathology of the word insomnia—has become more acute as I have aged.  I don’t think I get enough sleep, and the sleep I do get seldom leaves me feeling well rested.

             I don’t know whether the way my body seeks rest is stuck somewhere in the Stone Age, but it certainly has not gotten too much further than the early modern period.  I realized this last week, in what has  become almost a recurrent marker of spring’s arrival, when I got a really terrific night’s sleep.  I spent about half of a lovely early spring day in the garden doing a number of miscellaneous chores.  We planned to have a family-and-friends lunch al fresco following the baptism of our grandson John Henry on Sunday—a pleasant ambition perfectly achieved, incidentally—and some cosmetic work was needed. 

            As all property owners know, the discrete, free-standing  household job hardly exists.  Everything invites preparation and demands follow-up.  I gave most of the large yard its first mowing in many months, but that task required the preparatory removal of several barrow loads fallen twigs and a little leaf raking.  I did a bit of heavier whacking, chopping, and pruning around the edges.  None of this seemed particularly strenuous at the time, except perhaps for some of the up-slope mower pushing.  But I wasn’t moving all that fast.  The day was bright but crisp, and I never raised so much as a film of sweat on my brow.

            Next morning, however, I knew I had done some serious work—and for two reasons.  First, in various parts of my body I was sore in muscles I had forgotten I even had.   Second—and the real point in this essay—I had a great night’s sleep.  As for the muscles part, regular and reasonably strenuous artificial exercise (jogging, working out, swimming) can do a pretty good job of maintaining the corporal apparatus, but only because it mimics to some degree the varied exertions of the agricultural labors of the Old World.  Such labor likewise produces what might be called “healthy exhaustion,” very unlike the fatigue born of long airplane flights, hours spent bent over a computer screen, trying to coax a sentence into a stoutly resisted perfection, or simply worrying about domestic finances.

The goddess Ceres supervises her devotees         

The salubrious somniferous effects on a geezer of a few hours of light lawn work were enough to recall to my mind the results, for a youngster, of a long day’s haymaking in the sweltering Ozark heat.  In speaking metaphorically of the Stone Age, Ms. Warner is reminding us that a human body is designed to be nourished by what a human body is able to catch, kill, gather, or grow.  Chasing down an antelope was pretty strenuous stuff, and you were entitled to a big steak if you got one.  Perhaps there was such a thing as an obese Comanche brave, but I somehow doubt it.

            Likewise the human body is intended to wake when it is light and to sleep, after significant exertion, when it is dark.  In the Middle Ages ninety percent of the population had to “go to bed with the chickens,” just as I still did when I was a kid. Only the wealthy could afford the considerable expense of artificial lights.  Today cheap electric power has done to sleep what Red Dye #2 has done to food.  Medieval people spoke of “first sleep” and “second sleep”—usually punctuated by a urological trip to the bezunkus (read Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale”).  The brief wakeful period between the two was not wasted.  It had its own special domestic prayers.  It seems also to have been the time when most medieval babies were made.  But sleepers awoke refreshed with the morning light.