The Mom and Pop Team

From time to time, I think we all need reassurance that we matter. That our seat at the game has not been taken by someone else. Could not be taken… Maybe that’s why we’re given names -so there’s no mistake. And if we’re not there all the time, it’s only because we sometimes have other duties to perform.

In many species, the male role in procreation can seem like that, I suppose: a postal service that’s only charged with delivering letters, not reading them, not dealing with the contents. At least that’s how it looks from across the street. On closer inspection, though, it would seem that the delivered mail is far more complex than it first appeared. It’s almost as if whoever reads the letter not only sees the blueprint, and the construction manual, but much like reading a newspaper, also learns of other important things which, at first glance seemed unrelated, but in the end, profoundly affect the building.

These processes would obviously be difficult to study in humans, so often we have to model them in other species and extrapolate the results to our own kind. Two articles in the Smithsonian magazine outline some of this information.

There are at least two time frames when the male influence on the resulting offspring was unsuspected: before conception -in fact, even before meeting his potential mate- and during growth and development of the fetus, and even its neonatal care. The how is interesting, but equally so is the why, I think.

First, let’s consider the production of sperm in isolation from its immediate need. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dads-pass-more-genetics-their-sperm-180969760

Sperm are produced in the testes, and then travel to a storage area via the epididymis -a long, wriggly 6 meter long tube in the human. It’s in the epididymis that the sperm mature and become motile. ‘As sperm traverse the male reproductive system, they jettison and acquire non-genetic cargo that fundamentally alters sperm before ejaculation. These modifications not only communicate the father’s current state of wellbeing, but can also have drastic consequences on the viability of future offspring.’ Sperm contain genes, of course, but simply having the instructions doesn’t mean they will be carried out. Genes can be turned on, off, or down, by other mechanisms –epigenetics. ‘One of the most powerful members of the epigenetic toolkit is a class of molecules called small RNAs. Small RNAs can conceal genetic information from the cellular machinery that carries out their instructions, effectively ghosting genes out of existence.’ The father’s previous diet, stress levels, and so forth can all have an effect on these small RNAs, and the small RNAs are in turn shed or reacquired as the sperm continue their journeys along the epididymis.

And then, as I mentioned, there is an effect on the developing embryo whether or not the male is actively involved with the female during her gestation or in the subsequent rearing of their offspring. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-dads-genes-can-prepare-mom-parenthood-180969793  Although the data is from mice, it turns out that ‘The paternal genes a fetus carries can impact the maternal brain during pregnancy, priming her to allocate more or less of her time to tending to her kids.’

‘A child that procures as many nutrients as possible from mom can secure a father’s lineage at no cost to him—but a mother still needs to prioritize her own wellbeing during pregnancy and early childcare.

‘This sexual conflict is well exemplified by a gene called Igf2, which drives the rapid growth of fetal cells. Like most of our genetic material, Igf2 is inherited in pairs—one copy from mom and one copy from dad. But in contrast to other genes, only the version from dad gets put to work. The Igf2 from mom, on the other hand, is stifled through a chemical modification that acts like a muffler on an engine. Mom’s Igf2 DNA undergoes no changes—but the gene’s instructions can no longer be heard over the din of the cellular milieu. […] If an error occurs that also switches on the mother’s copy of Igf2, the baby quickly balloons in size. This could be good news for dad—a big baby is more likely to survive—but mom can get in serious trouble if she has to carry and birth an unmanageably large fetus.

‘To guard against this possibility, females have developed their own failsafe: another gene called Igf2r. The “r” stands for “receptor”: the product of this gene can sop up free-floating IGF-2 proteins before they exert their growth-promoting effects. Unsurprisingly, dad’s copy of Igf2r stays quiet. Such is the phenomenon of genomic imprinting—a form of non-genetic inheritance in which both copies of a gene exist, but only one parent’s version is left intact. Over 150 imprinted genes have been confirmed in mice, about half of which have conserved counterparts in humans.’

Suffice it to say that there are several other paternal genes that code for growth or neonatal behaviours that can affect the mother’s response and subsequent care of her offspring -a kind of effect that evolution has decided would be in the best interests of all concerned.

For example, ‘expression of an imprinted gene called Phlda2 in a fetus hinders the growth of hormone-secreting placental cells. These hormones recruit nutrients to support early development. Unsurprisingly, the offspring’s paternal copy of Phlda2 is kept under wraps. But mothers want their copy to remain switched on. […] Other researchers had noted that these hormones weren’t just working in the placenta, however. Throughout pregnancy, they were actually spreading throughout the mother’s body and accumulating in her brain—leading John [professor of biology at Cardiff University] to suspect that they could also be encouraging a mother to care for her young. […] The team’s work lends credence to the idea that fathers don’t dictate the health of children through genetic inheritance alone. In cases like these, they can even utilize the fetus as a chemical envoy in this battle between male and female, swaying a mother’s priorities towards more attentive childcare.’

During many of the years when I was in active practice of obstetrics, I often felt I needed to be an apologist for the father who did not have to suffer the many exigencies of pregnancy, not to mention the difficulties of labour and delivery. Clearly, after fertilization, his role in the process seemed merely supportive, and often peripheral.

Were I to start my career over again, though, perhaps I could put in a louder word for the importance of our male side -although I’m not at all sure mom would be listening as intently at the end.

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Thy wish was father to that thought

I’ve been waiting for something like this -expecting it, in fact, although not holding my breath: an exploration of the neurochemistry of fatherhood. I mean, it seemed obvious to me -a man, a father, and also an emeritus obstetrician- obvious that there are changes in many, if not most fathers with the birth of their child. And obvious that there must be some advantages to this.

Somewhere around 10% of mammals provide regular paternal care to their young, and this apparently leads to larger litter sizes, with shorter lactation and hence more frequent breeding opportunities. The issue is arousing increasing interest, as reported in an article in the Smithsonian Magazine -albeit with a lot of emphasis on the process in bat-eared foxes and clownfish, for some reason. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/neurochemistry-fatherhood-180969635

As for the foxes, ‘These furry fathers play a role in nearly every aspect of child-rearing: grooming cubs’ silky fur, engaging them in play and teaching them to stalk terrestrial insects with their bat-wing-shaped ears… And this commitment pays off: The amount of time bat-eared fox fathers spend monitoring their young is an even bigger predictor of pup survival than maternal investment or food availability.’

‘What drives fathering behavior in the first place? It turns out that, even without pregnancy and childbirth to prime them, the brains of new mammalian fathers undergo many of the same changes as their female mates’. Some of this may be triggered by being exposed to maternal behaviors and hormones even before the arrival of offspring. In other cases, the birth of an infant can stimulate the brains of new fathers via touch, smell or sight… These changes include increases in a few hormones that have massive effects on the brain: oxytocin, estrogen, prolactin and vasopressin… [T]he male body will actually repurpose some of its existing resources to achieve these attentive effects. Testosterone, which occurs in abundance in most male bodies, can be converted to estrogen through the actions of an enzyme called aromatase. During their mates’ pregnancies and in the months after birth, the testosterone levels of new fathers—including humans—will actually plummet as estrogen builds up in its stead, encouraging fathers to nurture their young… Mammalian fathers who pack on “sympathy” pounds, collecting extra fat in their bellies and breasts, may actually be pumping out prolactin themselves.’

And, turning to fish, ‘It’s true that most fish don’t parent their young, which are typically liberated into the vast wilderness at the egg stage, but of the 20 percent of species that do, less than a third exhibit female-only care. A whopping 50 percent of parenting fish are raised by single dads—including the clownfish of Finding Nemo fame… After a female clownfish lays a clutch of eggs, her partner takes over the majority of the workload… [T]he male clownfish spends most of his day meticulously fanning and nipping at the eggs to keep them clean. Meanwhile, the larger, more aggressive mom circles their anemone home, defending against potential invaders and predators.’

Of course, it has been hundreds of millions of years since there was a common ancestor of both fish and mammals, ‘But much of that original brain chemistry is still pretty much intact, according to Rhodes [a biologist and clownfish expert], and the brain-behavior connections in clownfish likely have enormous bearing on our own evolution.’

Interestingly, ‘Nearly 60 percent of mammals who choose long-term mates have shown evidence of males caring for young.’ And, ‘In several mammals, male investment increases offspring litter size, survival and sociability. Fatherhood may not be ubiquitous, but it appears to have evolved independently in many different lineages, lending credence to its importance in the diverse communities it pervades.’

This all takes me back to something I remember from my days as an obstetrician -probably because it seemed unusual, even for the time.

I’d been on call for several of my colleagues and was asked to attend the delivery of a young mother who had just recently been admitted to the ward. It was deep into the early hours before dawn, and I had been awakened from a brief and fitful sleep after another accouchement just down the hall. The lights in this delivery room were thankfully low, however -the mother, and her mother were obviously trying to set the mood, and an honest attempt was being made to keep things peaceful. Only a single narrow light was focussed on her perineum, and all else was dark.

At first, I thought that only the nurse, the patient, and her mother were present, but when my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see a young man almost huddled in a dark corner on the opposite side of the room to the bed. Except for the nervous movement of his face when I entered, he could have been a duffel bag thrown on a chair. Only he and the nurse seemed to want him to sit beside his partner, but other two seemed oblivious. The nurse introduced everybody -including Brian, the father-to-be in the corner- but both the Linda, the young woman in labour, and her mother were far too preoccupied to notice, I think.

I’m not certain whether words had been spoken before I arrived, but only his eyes were allowed at her side -and except for my entrance, they never left his wife. Not once. ‘This is woman’s work’, the shadows seemed to whisper; even I felt a little out of place.

I wondered whether or not this had been an accidental pregnancy -a welcome, but unintended consequence of a meeting of strangers. And yet, he looked far from uninvolved -not at all like someone who was attending the delivery out of a sense of duty. I could see eager anticipation in those eyes. Wonder. Love.

Maybe I was reading too much from a distance; maybe I was projecting my own passion for my job, my own awe at the miracle of birth, but those eyes convinced me otherwise, and I just had to speak up.

“Would it be okay if Brian sat a little closer?” I asked.

His eyes suddenly blinked hopefully, and he leaned further forward.

“He said he was too afraid of blood,” Linda explained, “But sure… If he wants to come closer,” she added, a little doubtfully.

Suddenly, before I could say anything more, he was there at the bedside, clasping her hand like he would protect her from whatever ensued. And her mother backed off politely, her cheeks now wrinkled by a huge smile.

Another delivery called me from the room once their healthy, screaming baby had been born, but I did see them both later in the morning before I went off call.

Neither of them noticed me at first. The mother had gone home, and both Brian and Linda were lying on the bed staring at the now sleeping bundle between them.

I think it was Linda who saw me first, and tugged at Brian’s sleeve for him to look up from the baby.

“Thank you doctor,” Linda said, with a soft, tired smile on her face. “It was easier than I thought…” But her face belied her words.

She reached over the baby and tenderly stroked Brian’s arm for a moment. “But you know what helped the most?” She glanced lovingly at her partner, then blinked in my direction. “It was Brian…”

I could see her sigh, as her lips brushed the baby lightly. “Fathers are so important, you know.”

It was my turn to sigh, and I smiled and left the room. Yes, fathers are important…!

Full o’ th’ Milk of Human Kindness?

I used to drink a lot of milk when I was a child. It was 1950ies Winnipeg and milk was still delivered to the house in those clear glass bottles with the little bulge on top to hold the supernatant cream. I never much cared for the cream, but my mother always found a use for it. Anyway, most of my fascination was with the delivery system. If I stretch my memory to the earliest days, I can still hear the clip-clop of the horses hooves, and the tinkling of the bottles as the milk wagon rolled slowly down the street, stopping every few hundred feet to make a delivery and carry away the empties we each left on the front steps.

Looking back, it seems a magical time. A time when parents were told that milk was needed for healthy bones, and felt obliged to insist on its consumption at every meal if they could afford it. I didn’t know there was any controversy then. I had no idea that not everybody felt that way -and there really wasn’t any reason to think otherwise, I suppose. Not then, at any rate…

But more recent advances in historical techniques, and evolutionary genetic studies able to find and interpret DNA from far away civilizations in varying times, are allowing us to understand the cultural differences I could never have suspected in my halcyon years.

I happened across an article in an NPR section called ‘the Salt’ which delved into the issue: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/12/27/168144785/an-evolutionary-whodunit-how-did-humans-develop-lactose-tolerance

‘Most babies can digest milk without getting an upset stomach thanks to an enzyme called lactase. Up until several thousand years ago, that enzyme turned off once a person grew into adulthood — meaning most adults were lactose intolerant (or “lactase nonpersistent,” as scientists call it).’ And, it would seem that ancient European farmers ‘[…] lacked a genetic mutation that would have allowed them to digest raw milk’s dominant sugar, lactose, after childhood. Today, however, 35 percent of the global population — mostly people with European ancestry — can digest lactose in adulthood without a hitch.’

Those groups who became lactose tolerant (over the last 20,000 years) seem to be mainly people of Northern and Central European descent and from certain African and Middle Eastern populations. Also, many other societies were able to tolerate at least some milk by processing it into cheese, butter, or yogurt which removes some of the lactose.

And as I discovered in another article discussing a new book Milk, by Mark Kurlansky (see below) ‘[…] milk was a vital symbol in the mythology of the Sumerians, Greeks and Egyptians. The Fulani of West Africa believed that the world started with a single drop of milk, and in Norse legend, a cow made from thawing frost sustained the world in its earliest days.’

There were some differences between cultures, however, perhaps related to much earlier experiences with lactose intolerance. ‘[…] even with these deep cultural connections, milk held a peculiar status among early civilizations. The Greeks castigated barbarians for their gluttonous desire for dairy, and in Rome, milk was widely regarded as low-status food because it was something only farmers drank. Northern Europeans would earn similar ridicule for their love of reindeer milk, and Japanese Buddhists later rebuked Europeans as “butter stinkers.”’

Much has been written about milk over the years, but perhaps the most worrisome recent chapter in its history concerned the fact that it ‘spoiled’ easily and rapidly. Reliable refrigeration was not available in the early days, nor -at least in the cities- were the cows often kept in hygienic conditions. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprisingly-intolerant-history-milk-180969056 Milk is an ideal medium for the growth of many types of bacteria, and so it was a huge risk for the population to whom it was fed -largely children.

In France, in the 1860ies, Louis Pasteur pioneered the heating of milk to high temperatures to kill pathogenic bacteria, but ‘pasteurization proved a tough sell in the United States […]. There was little doubt that the process improved milk safety by eliminating the diseases that led to so many deaths, but consumers complained that pasteurized milk was flavorless. Some officials, including Harvey Wiley, then the director of the U.S. Bureau of Chemicals also argued that pasteurized milk lost its nutritional qualities.’

These arguments persisted despite the invention of homogenization of milk in 1899 by Auguste Gaulin. It was a way of breaking down the fat molecules in milk so they wouldn’t separate out -so you didn’t need that little glass bulge on the top of the milk bottles in other words. It is an entirely separate and different procedure than pasteurization, of course -and added yet another cost.

Then, in 1908, the U.S. Surgeon General under president Theodore Roosevelt, ‘released a 600-page report that attributed most childhood deaths to impure milk and argued that pasteurization was the best way to address the ongoing public health crisis.’ But, in the face of continuing public suspicions about cost, flavour, and even attributions of other maladies such as rickets and scurvy to the process, a more or less universal adoption of pasteurization in the U.S.A. was slow. And, ‘The discussion around how to best prepare milk even continues today, evinced in the growth of the GMO-free products and the resurgence of artisanal industries and local dairies.’

Me? I miss the horses most. And the sound of the gently clinking bottles, as distinctive then as the melody of those little ice cream trucks that still drive around some neighbourhoods even now. It’s a shame that none of this exists in the memory banks of most people nowadays. Like the language of many of our indigenous predecessors, or the receding northern glaciers, it should be enshrined somewhere. Saved. Celebrated.

Yes, I know things keep moving forward -I suppose it’s what happens with Time- and yet am I alone in wishing that it could move sideways for a bit? Not forever, mind you -that’s a long, long time- but perhaps it could just slow down a little. Linger in a quieter space, when it was still possible to hear the snuffling of the horse’s breath, and the quiet hiss of the milkman’s curse as he tripped over the bike I’d left beside the sidewalk in my rush to wash my hands in time for breakfast…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Within the Book and Volume of Thy Brain

Is it naive to mention that there is an almost magical bond between a mother and her baby? A bond that, while certainly not less in the father is, well, different? At first, I assumed it was probably related to the closeness of breast feeding –yes, the oxytocin and its effects on bonding, and the magic of skin-to-skin contact- but this seemed to be a very reductionist way of looking at it –a post hoc ergo propter hoc approach. No, the amount of head-swaying I would see, the purring of the sing-song words barely audible from across the room, the eye contact with the bundles in their arms… All this seemed more like the devotion of religious acolytes than could be reasonably reduced to simple biological cause and effect in the little carpeted area where my patients would sit, waiting for their postpartum checkups. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, as Hamlet observed under admittedly different circumstances.

I mention this decidedly apostatic thinking because it occurred to me that some things are difficult to fit into a satisfyingly rational, or secular framework. Many years ago, I remember seeing a woman -Lorraine was her name, I think- who, my day-sheet informed me I had delivered 2 or 3 months previously. Anyway, she was coming in to discuss contraception and she had brought her little baby with her. I could see her sitting on the other side of the room talking and nodding rhythmically to the little tyke. Even from a distance, I could see they were locked in ocular embrace. Then, slowly, she reached into a bag at her feet and pulled out what seemed to be a large picture book. She nestled the baby in one arm and held the book open with the other hand so the baby could see it. From where I stood behind the front desk, I couldn’t really tell what pictures the baby saw, but she was naming what I suppose were animals, and whatever else came up from page to page.

Perhaps the baby was paying attention, but it seemed entirely too comfortable in her arms, and her voice far too much like a lullaby for it to keep its eyes open.

When her turn came to talk to me in the office, she told me that she’d noticed me watching her with the picture book.

“I’m a first grade teacher,” she said, showing me a collection of children’s drawings carefully pasted onto stiff pages and stapled into a folder. “And when the kids found out I was going to have a baby, they all decided to draw pictures for me to ‘read’ to it.” She drew little air quotes around the word. “And I thought, why not? It’s sort of like reading, isn’t it? The kids thought so, anyway…”

I have to confess that, although I always loved reading to my children, I enjoyed it more when they seemed to understand the words. When they reacted to my play-acting voice that attempted incarnation of the characters, painting the scene in words, pretending we could see the story. I enjoyed the immersion as much as they did, I suppose –we were the story, in a way. Each of us.

Now that I think of those times, I feel vaguely guilty that the experience was as much about me as it was about the child sitting beside me on the couch, or lying on her bed with saucered eyes in a room lit only by the lamp beside my chair. Each of us was as hungry as the other to discover what the words would tell us, our imaginations primed and insatiably curious as our minds watched the movie being played behind our eyes.

Sometimes, of course, I would read a book of their choosing, but both my son -and later my daughter- seemed to prefer it when I made up stories for them. No pictures –just verbal descriptions that neither of us could guess beforehand. Word riffs.

But Time moves on, and so does our knowledge of developing brains. It would seem that certain content, particular themes and even types of books, may be more helpful at different ages. I can’t say that it came as a surprise that infants, too, benefit from being bathed in words –it’s how vocabulary begins, after all. What I remain somewhat agnostic about, however, is that there might be a preferred order of progression. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine hoped to disavow me of this skepticism, however: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/babys-brain-benefit-read-right-books-right-time

For example,  the author, Lisa Scott, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Florida: ‘[…] found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood. […]These findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.’

I’m certainly not disputing the findings, nor offering any alternatives –I’m merely wondering whether or not it has that much of an effect on subsequent development of the child as it matures. As she points out earlier in the article, ‘Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development. Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.

‘Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their 4-year-old children.’

I suppose what I’m getting at is that perhaps the best message to get across to parents is the importance of reading to their child –interacting with the child- rather than getting them concerned that they’re not doing it the right way. That they’re using the wrong materials, or in the wrong order. Raising a child is hard enough at the best of times. Indeed, the author acknowledges this at the end of her piece: ‘It’s possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read.’

But, then again, maybe this is just preaching to the converted. Mothers already know most of this –Lorraine did, at any rate.

 

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

Two steps forward and one step back –isn’t that  always the way with progress? Reward coupled with unintended consequences? The Industrial Revolution with worker exploitation? Nuclear power with the Bomb. Nothing, it seems, comes without a price. Even religion, the great leveller, once established brooks no rivals. Life itself, is a succession of survivors outcompeting the other contenders.

But simply to focus on the successes is to miss the important lessons to be learned from the failures. In biology the difference between winning and losing might hinge on a single change in a single gene, or more instructively, on an adaptation of an existing organ for another, more useful function in a different environment –an exaptation. Arms and hands for wings, in the case of bats, or for fins, in the cases of aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.

In the early days after the discovery of X-rays, their ability to see through things was thought to be miraculous, and many possible uses were suggested. It was not until much later, after countless reports of cancers, burns, hair loss and worse, that the dangers of its careless use were acknowledged. Then, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of its many unwanted side-effects, grew carefully investigated treatments like irradiation for tumours, CT scans for internal visualizations, or fluoroscopy for placement of medical kit like stents, anti-embolism balloons, etc.

Unfortunately, even nowadays, the sundry complications of progress are often inadequately predicted in advance, probably because most things are multifaceted and changing one parameter has a knock-on effect on the others. Clearing forests for agriculture changes the animals that can survive in the changed ecosystem; monoculture to maximize demand for a particular variety of crop, say, increases the likelihood that the plants –previously diverse- may not be able to withstand the onslaught of a disease or infestation that would otherwise have only affected a small portion of their number. Evolution would normally have winnowed out the susceptibles, leaving only the resistant plants to reproduce. But all of this is Grade 9 biology, isn’t it?

What led me to think about this was an article in the Smithsonian Magazine discussing the effects of making friction matches on the women and children involved in their manufacture: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/friction-matches-were-boon-those-lighting-firesnot-so-much-matchmakers-180967318/ – 6ZQ6WshMH2Ghpoys.03

‘Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children, writes Killgrove [in an article for Mental Floss]. “Half the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.” This gruesome and debilitating condition was caused by inhaling white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average”. The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw. Although phossy jaw was far from the only side-effect of prolonged white phosphorus exposure, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants.’
So much so, that by 1892, newspapers were investigating the problem. ‘“Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma,” Killgrove writes. Eventually match makers stopped using white phosphorus in matches, and it was outlawed in the United States in 1910.’

Civilization is the steady accumulation of successes over failures. Trials and errors –mistakes which perhaps seem to have been largely anticipatable in retrospect- summate to useable compromises. It’s how a child learns; it’s how evolution learns.

But the point of this essay is not so much to highlight the exploitation of workers in the past as to suggest that there can be sociological as well as biological evolution. After all, the etymological root of the word is the Latin evolvere –to unfold.

Occupational Safety and Health -as a distinct discipline, at least- is a relatively recent development stemming from labour movements and their concern about worker safety in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. As Wikipedia explains it: ‘The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.’

Although this provided jobs and undoubtedly improved many aspects of living standards, the driving force was production, and in its early stages, had little regard for worker safety or health. Enter the labour movements in the early 19th century, along with great resistance to their demands. In many instances they were seen as antithetical to progress –antithetical to Capitalism, for that matter. And yet, in the fullness of time, the benefits of a healthy workforce to economic success evolved from an initial, grudging pretense of acceptance in some countries to a legal framework of protection in others.

There is certainly a long way to go along this path to be sure, and exploitation still seems a default that is all too easy to overlook. Especially since it is the poor and vulnerable who are usually the victims –people with little voice of their own, and even less power to resist.

But are things actually changing? Does knowledge of exploitation make a difference? We know slavery is still practiced; we know that refugees are still being brutalized and abused in places like Libya; women are still being kidnapped and sold into prostitution despite the best intentions of agencies like the World Health Organization.

So, do the gains experienced in some areas, offset the tragedies in others? We cannot appreciate the broad sweep of History in the few years we are allotted, and evolution –even social evolution- can be deceptive and disheartening. But remember the words of Khalil Gibran:

You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.

I have to hope he saw something that I missed along the way…

We will build a wall…

It’s humbling to realize that, despite my age, there are still some things I’ve never heard of. Or, is it because of my age…?

I suppose I could be forgiven for being unaware –I almost said uninterested– in things that trend nowadays, the inference being that, lacking in statistical significance, those things which appeal to a segment of the population to which I am not credentialed have been assigned a new category. But what about issues that have been bubbling about for almost a century, albeit far enough away that I am seldom directly affected? And yet, distance excuses nothing. I hear of hurricanes, and distant floods. I am all too aware of the melting of Greenland’s glaciers, not to mention similar changes in Antarctica, so why would Africa be any different? News of terrorism, political coups, and natural disasters there abound in everyday news, so how could anything as filled with potential as a decades long project to arrest the steady creep of desertification into sub-Saharan Africa have crept past me?

The Sahara is the second largest desert in the world, after Antarctica and throughout the history of the region, it has undergone millennial climatic oscillations. From about 11,000 to 5,000 years ago (during the early Holocene epoch), trees, lakes, grasslands once covered the arid Sahara. ‘The Green Sahara was the most recent of a succession of wet phases paced by orbital precession that extends back to the late Miocene. When the precessional cycle approaches perihelion during boreal summer, the increase in insolation drives a strong land-sea temperature gradient over North Africa that strengthens the African monsoon, bringing rainfall deep into the Sahara,’ according to a paper authored by geologist Jessica Tierney of the University of Arizona and published in Science Advances http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/1/e1601503.full

The last few millennia, however, have been dominated by aridity and a fear that the desert is slowly creeping southward. And while, apart from the Nile arriving from much further south, little was felt to be able to reclaim the desert itself. So, the idea of preventing further encroachment along its southern borders –the Sahel- was proposed.

As the Smithsonian Magazine reports, ‘The Sahel spans 3,360 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, a belt stretching across the southern edge of the Sahara. Rainfall is low, from four to 24 inches per year, and droughts are frequent. Climate change means greater extremes of rainfall as the population skyrockets in the region, one of the poorest in the world. Food security is an urgent concern. By 2050, the population could leap to 340 million, up from 30 million in 1950 and 135 million today.

‘In 1952 the English forester Richard St. Barbe Baker suggested that a ”green front” in the form of a 50km wide barrier of trees be erected to contain the spreading desert. Droughts in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel from the 1970s onwards gave wings to the idea, and in 2007 the African Union approved the Great Green Wall Initiative.’ https://qz.com/1014396/the-plan-for-a-great-green-wall-to-beat-back-the-sahara-needs-a-rethink/

The idea was that a green ‘wall’ from from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east would not only halt further desertification, but the people in this area would benefit with jobs, increased arability of the land, and maybe even tourists.

As it was originally conceived, however, it seems retrospectively naïve. Perhaps the Smithsonian magazine summarizes it best: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/great-green-wall-stop-desertification-not-so-much-180960171/ ‘”If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia,” adds Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute who has been working in Africa since 1978. “Essentially 80 percent or more of planted trees have died.” Reij, Garrity and other scientists working on the ground knew […] that farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso, in particular, had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms. Slowly, the idea of a Great Green Wall has changed into a program centered around indigenous land use techniques, not planting a forest on the edge of a desert.

‘The African Union and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization now refer to it as “Africa’s flagship initiative to combat land degradation, desertification and drought.” Incredibly, the Great Green Wall—or some form of it—appears to be working. “We moved the vision of the Great Green Wall from one that was impractical to one that was practical,” says Mohamed Bakaar, the lead environmental specialist for Global Environmental Facility the organization that examines the environmental benefit of World Bank projects. “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing.”’

I like metaphors, especially wall metaphors… Edge metaphors in particular. There is something intriguing about what happens at boundaries when things alien to each other, let alone inimical, meet. There is usually a testing of one another, a probing for similarities, weaknesses, and then often as not, attempts at breach. And if both sides absorb the assaults, the wall then becomes a compromise –not maintaining a separate identity, but melding, as it were, into a new entity. A new creature.

So, although it may be true that what lies far away on either side stays true to itself, the wall is a relationship -a neither-nor that exists as a bridge to each. Walls, are like skin: it separates us from the world beyond, but it also joins us to it. The Green ‘Wall’, in a way, highlights this. Rather than artificially planting trees, the farmers allowed the tree roots still in the ground to regenerate –these, presumably, were already adapted to the local conditions. ‘Tony Rinaudo, an Australian with Serving in Mission, a religious nonprofit, working with local farmers, had helped the farmers identify useful species of trees in the stumps in their fields, protect them, and then prune them to promote growth. Farmers grew other crops around the trees.’
For example, ‘One tree, Faidherbia albida, goes dormant during the wet season when most trees grow. When the rains begin, the trees defoliate, dropping leaves that fertilize the soil. Because they have dropped their leaves, the trees do not shade crops during the growing season. Their value had long been recognized by farmers […] but they were never encouraged to use them.’

So, far from being a wall, the Sahel is more of a chain, with different parts linked together, however tentatively. However unlikely.

You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link.
This is but half the truth.
You are also as strong as your strongest link.
To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean
by the frailty of its foam. Kahlil Gibran…

Metaphors are powerful things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-great-green-wall-of-africa