Summer has started, and in my neck of the woods, that means Facebook feeds, email lists, blogs and news programs will be filled with warnings and means to ward yourself from the dangers of the outdoors. In Connecticut, the snow had not even properly melted off my front lawn before we were subjected to dire warnings about a new superdisease being carried by the region's ticks. Nevermind that this disease has been around for a hundred years, and that there have been only 10 cases of it in the past 50 years. No, this is the bug that will sneak into your bloodstream and kill you if you have the temerity to, you know, walk on the grass or something.
Recently, my Facebook feed was briefly overcome by a surge of posts reminding us of the horrible dangers of Lyme-bearing ticks and how to protect yourself from them (naturally, of course). Thank goodness the extra-virgin olive oil "trick" hasn't resurfaced yet. I'm pretty sure that was both messy and expensive for anyone who tried it.
The other day, I inadvertently horrified a couple of patients of mine when I was telling them about my exciting weekend with a like-minded group of treehuggers, camping in the field, chucking spears, and generally having an all-around good time.
My patients asked me what I used to keep the ticks off me. I said, "Nothing, really. Just did a tick check when I got home."
They looked at me like I had told them I was planning to step outside the airlock with a monkey wrench and no space suit to repair the solar panels. They were incredulous. "You didn't use anything?" they asked. Clearly, their estimation of my intelligence had just plummeted, and my abilities as a man of healing were questionable.
But it's not just the creepy-crawlies that get no love. Any intrusion of nature into our carefully-ordered world seems to be cause for anxiety.
When I put up a bird feeder on the lawn of the Center recently, and posted a picture of it online, virtually every response I received was a warning about how the bears would shred it in short order, and that I should take it down now -- NOW!! -- before the Attack of the Claws began.
In the interests of journalistic honesty, I'm going to confess right now that I'm a big bear fan. I've had many an encounter with these creatures, in the wild and in my backyard, and never seen much reason to worry, so long as nobody forgot their manners.
My Affair with the Bear began in the Dark Ages (musically speaking, at least) of the 1980s, when I was backpacking through a particularly isolated stretch of trail in Maine. I had already gone several days without seeing another human, and expected to go a few more in similarly inhuman bliss.
That morning was a pleasant lowland walk among 100-year-old pines, whose needles littered the ground and made the trail feel like a composite running track. I had stopped to take off my pack, swill down some water, and just absorb the beauty for a minute.
Standing there, I heard crunching in the bushes, and spotted an enormous black bear meandering through the undergrowth. I stood there, unmoving, as he wandered innocently closer. I was downwind, absolutely still, and he wasn't expecting any company.
As his path prepared to cross mine, I realized this was the photo op of a lifetime. Ever so slowly, I reached down to my pack and unslung my weighty 35mm SLR camera. He still didn't see me, bears being somewhat nearsighted.
But when I unsnapped the cover, the bear heard it, spotting me in a second.
And then the impossible happened.
From a distance of no more than 20 feet, I stared into the bears' eyes, and he into mine. And I was lost in his presence. I felt that bear, and in him there was nothing resembling humanity. His entire being was wild, feral and fierce and something indescribable in human terms. There was no emotion. Everything was now. Everything was present. Everything was.
And though it felt like an hour, it could only have been a few seconds before I clicked back into a sense of myself, and was once again a man staring at a bear in a forest hundreds of years old and empty of other humans.
I began to rationally consider my options. In my previous encounters with bears, I had simply made some loud noises -- yelled at them, or banged some camp pots -- to scare them off. But he was far too close for that, and he may take that as aggression. I knew I didn't want to piss this bear off.
Running away would be absurd. He would take that as fear, and with a short sprint would be on top of me to take a closer look at this puny, hairless, scared animal.
So, I arrived at the only option possible.
I opened my mouth.
And I said, "Well, good morning, Mr. Bear!"
He didn't give me a chance to invite him to breakfast. In the blink of an eye, he was gone, racing through the ancient woods in a sprint that took him out of my range in seconds.
Since that time, I've never been very disconcerted by bears. A couple of years ago, I came home from work at lunchtime, and found a bear sitting at the bottom of my shared driveway, with the neighbor's trash can in his lap, scooping out melted ice cream.
I looked at him, he at me, I reminded him to clean up after himself, and went inside for lunch.
So when the dire warnings about the imminent demise of my birdfeeder at the hands of nasty bears came pouring in, I was somewhat nonplussed.
I mean, really, who *wouldn't* want a bear in their backyard? Though I would wish that if they did decimate the feeder, they leave a few coins for a replacement.
The warnings, as I suspected, were overwrought. The bird feeder still stands, unmolested, and has brought a number of interesting and beautiful birds to my office.
I have no doubt that shortly we'll be hearing dire predictions of some new near-malaria being carried by mosquitos and the public health risk of bird poop on your car. Not to mention the sure death that will result from sun exposure without being slathered with sunblock.
As a doctor who is concerned with public health, I ought to be bringing these warnings to my patients. But I'm not and I won't, because these are, in fact, anti-health messages.
I want my patients to go outside, get plenty of sun exposure without toxins seeping into their skins. I want them to get dirty, and come eye-to-eye with a nature that we have been taught to fear. This is what will make them healthier, physically and mentally.
You see, when it comes to health, there is no "I." There is only "We." As individuals, we exist in a virtual bath of microbes. There are more bacteria in our guts than cells in our bodies; with each breath we inhale a cloud of organisms. Each time our feet touch the earth, we literally touch millions of other lives.
The same is true on a larger scale. Without the bees, our food supplies would rapidly collapse. Species of plants and insects manage one another, the knowledge which our agrarian ancestors used to their advantage, but we have poorly replaced with simple poisons. Psychologically, we cannot exist without one another, which is why solitary confinement is one of the most effective tortures we inflict on one another.
Thus, the more divorced our food supply becomes from the environment in which it should exist (I shudder at the thought of cloned meat, grown in a lab), the less effective it is, not only in providing nutrients, but in protecting us from disease.
And the more we seek to isolate ourselves from our environment, from the nightmare bears of our imagination, the sicker we make ourselves. Without a healthy intestinal microbiome, we fall ill. Without regular exposure to soil, our immune systems become dysfunctional. Without regular exposure to the sun, the wind, and the rain -- the very environment that millions of years of evolution has primed us to inhabit -- we fall victim to the diseases that we run from.
So take this doctor's advice. Ignore all of the "public health" warnings that will come your way this season, seeking you to herd you away from the alleged dangers of nature. Do your health a favor. Turn a blind ear to the fearmongers. Walk through fields without fear of imminent illness and invite all of nature into your backyard. You will be healthier for it.