A Review: First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human, by Jeremy DeSilva

by Howard E. Friedman

“What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening?”

Ever since Sophocles wrote this riddle for the Sphinx to pose to Oedipus around 429 BCE the answer to the clever riddle has been tinged with a sad reality:we humans who begin life crawling “on four feet” before we advance to “two in the afternoon”, can expect infirmity and a cane to walk on “three in the evening” if we are lucky enough to live into old age. To Jeremy DeSilva, paleoanthropologist and expert on foot and leg bones, the fact that we are so vulnerable is in fact one of the reasons that we upright walking humans are so interdependent on one another. Four legged animals can still get around well enough if they lose a leg. Not so for us bipedal humans. Even a minor foot injury can disrupt daily activities and losing a leg can forever change a person’s life. As a podiatrist, I have seen this time and again.

Is walking on two legs then really such a good idea after all? First Steps grapples with this question as well as issues related to the history of bipedal ambulation, tracking its origins in the fossil record, probing how walking upright has affected us as individuals, as communities and and a species.

Professor DeSilva, who studies ancient hominin foot and leg bones around the world and teaches at Dartmouth University, begins by questioning the value of walking by noting that the fastest humans are still so much slower than many four legged mammals. (“Hominin” refers to those species related to or close to humans”. ) Walking on two legs then is not a speed advantage and it is even less energy efficient than the gait of certain long legged mammals. While there is no definitive answer, DeSilva mentions the most common suggestions: walking on two legs freed up our hands to carry food or children or throw objects like rocks as weapons or use tools like sticks for digging up roots. But as an anthropologist, DeSilva cannot accept a theory without proof. And therefore he takes his readers around the world to learn first-hand from the most important fossils found so far that yield some clues as to when and where we Homo sapiens began our upright walking journey. It is these up close and personal visits to famous anthropological sits where First Steps is strongest.

First stop is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to see and hold the 3.18 million years old bones of the oldest most complete skeleton of an upright walking hominin, a female named Lucy. DeSilva writes tenderly about this ancient being, stating that if he had a time travel ticket he would “go to Ethiopia and spend the day with Lucy…to see how she moved, to measure every detail of her walk…”. Both Lucy’s pelvic, ankle and foot bones are consistent with upright walking. Her ankle bones are a similar to modern Homo sapien bones and her toes bones “were long and slightly curved, they had an upward tilt, indicating that she pushed off the ground with her toes like a human does while walking,” DeSilva writes. While Lucy’s knee was crushed when it was found, a fossilized knee found nearby of a similar age had an angulation of the end of the femur, called the bi-condylar angle, that is only found in bipedal walkers. Of particular interest to anthropologists however, is that while Lucy’s skeleton supports the fact that she walked upright, her skull size is still associated with a quite small brain. This is evidence, DeSilva writes, that walking on two legs preceded the large brain size we find in modern humans. And therefore, he concludes, “Lucy is the starting point for all we think we know about human evolution.”

To DeSilva’s credit a one-page very understandable evolutionary tree is printed at the front of the book for easy reference. Lucy, an Austrolapithicus afarensis, is on a limb that branches off of the main trunk that ultimately leads to Homo sapiens. Before and after that branch are other hominins with names less familiar such as Sahelanthropus, Ardipithecus and closer in time to us, Homo naledi, Denisovans and Neandertals. Branching off the main trunk toward the beginning of evolutionary time are chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.

But fossilized bones can only tell part of the story. Footprints are the image that is worth a thousand words.

In June 2019 DeSilva together with a colleague and a team of students discovered a hominin foot print in the Laetoli region of Tanzania near the Olduvai Gorge, a site famous for discoveries made by Mary Leakey in 1976. Other human like footprints had been found nearby and these newest footprints were further evidence of a bipedal gait now dating back over 3 million years. Heel toe. Heel toe. Some of the footprints found at Laetoli are of what appears to be a group of both adults and children walking together. It is tantalizing to imagine a family walking together millions of years ago like families still do today.

In the first half of First Steps, DeSilva details the hardware of walking, the ancient foot and leg bones and other skeletal modifications we have that facilitate walking on two feet. In the second half of the book, he writes about the software of bipedality and here he relies on various behavioral experts and other scientists. He begins this section looking at how babies learn to walk and the cultural variability around the world of what we consider a normal age to begin walking. In Western countries we expect toddlers to begin walking somewhere around 12-15 month or even a bit later. The Ache peoples, indigenous to Paraguay, carry their infants for the first two years and the children do not begin walking until that time. In contrast, in parts of Kenya and Uganda, DeSilva writes, infants begin walking around 9 months, due in part to their diligent mothers and grandmothers who massage the infants legs to help “improve motor coordination and strength”, he writes.

Prior to walking however, we need to be born and for that we need to be able to pass through the limited space available in the birth canal, itself limited by shape of the pelvis. Since human women are bipedal, the size of the pelvis has to be not so large as to impede normal walking yet large enough to facilitate birth. Four-legged animals do not have this restriction. Since the appearance of an influential article in Scientific American in 1960, anthropologists have posited that the fetus had to be born undeveloped enough that the large brain size could still fit through the pelvis, creating evolutionary pressure to favor smaller newborns and the women who gave birth to them. And furthermore, women with wider hips were thought to require greater amounts of energy when walking and certainly when running due to their anatomy. This theory though has been disproven thanks to a nearly complete pelvis found in Kebara Cave in Israel, a Neanderthal skeleton dated to about 60,000 years ago. The large size of the hip did not support a compromised gait, according to Cara Wall-Scheffler of the University of Cambridge, who studied the pelvis. Separately she noted that women of the Hazda hunter gatherer tribe walk about 6 miles a day. How could they do that with an inefficient gait she wondered? She ultimately proved that the energy required for a woman to carry a baby sized object is reduced in women with wide hips who can carry the child on the side of their body, resting it on the hip bone. Furthermore, the wide hips allow women who typically have shorter legs than men to have a longer stride. Further disproving the notion that women’s wide hips impair their gait, DeSilva cites the increasing frequency with which women continue to beat men in ultramarathons like in the 135 mile Badwater race through Death Valley and the 240 mile Moab ultramarathon. Women with wide hips, it turns out, can give birth and run fast for long distances.

DeSilva explores the uniqueness of individual human gait and interviews some of the researchers who are developing software for gait recognition. Professor Oscar Costilla-Reyes of MIT, for example, has developed an algorithm to identify people with over 99% percent accuracy by analyzing their footprints. And while gait analysis as a means to identify individuals may be too expensive or difficult for governments to implement, subtle changes in an individuals gait can indicate neurological changes signaling for example, dementia or Alzheimer’s. Intriguing as well is research by professors Ari Zivotovsky and Jeffrey Hausdorff in Israel who showed that middle school girls when walking together synchronize their gaits and do so even more when they hold hands!

In the final chapters of Foot Steps, DeSilva explores just how walking benefits us physically and mentally. He cites research that a daily walk can reduce the chance of developing breast cancer, possibly by reducing estrogen concentration in the blood. And he cites evidence that a daily walk of 30 minutes can lower the risk of coronary artery disease by 18 percent, writing that “coronary artery disease is all but unheard of among hunter-gatherers”. DeSilva further cites research that correlates increased daily walking to improved health in a group of 17,000 women with an average age of 72. The women who walked at least 4,400 steps a day had lower mortality than women who took 2,700 steps a day. And health benefits climbed as women walked even more. Walking has a long history of improving cognition too as DeSilva lists famous writers who took daily walks to help their creative process. It worked for William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau among others. Brain MRI studies back up these findings. In one study, regions of the brain associated with creative thinking showed an increase in connectivity in the people who walked regularly. Another MRI study showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus in people who walked regularly compared to those who did not. The hippocampus is involved with learning and memory.

Of course, the news is not all good for us bipedal humans. Ask anyone who has torn their ACL ligament in the knee, had a total knee replacement, ankle fusion or sprained their ankle badly. The last injury is uniquely human as our primate cousins do not even have the anterior talo-fibular ligament which is the one we usually tear. Overall, however, Dr. DeSilva concludes, “The advantages of bipedal locomotion obviously outweigh the cost. Otherwise we would have gone extinct long ago.” But since we are among the few species that walk upright, “what tipped the scales toward survival rather than extinction”, he asks?

To answer that question DeSilva returns to the hardware of walking on two feet, a fossilized tibia from the Lake Turkana region of northern Kenya, dated to 1.9 million years ago. The tibia shows a healed fracture in an adult hominin. The fact that this ancient hominin survived strongly suggests, DeSilva writes, that her community supported her quite literally while she convalesced. And other ancient fossils also show healed fractures from serious injuries suggesting that this was not an isolated event. Having only one good leg to stand on made a limping individual dependent on other community members, and it seems their fellows rose to the occasion. While DeSilva argues that empathy was a prerequisite for our social species to develop as it did, as “the last bipedal ape on Earth” he writes, we should embrace “our capacity for empathy, tolerance and cooperation” and appreciate how those human attributes are intertwined with our most basic activity, walking on two feet.

Howard E. Friedman

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Elevating Fungus:‘Entangled Life, How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures’

A Review: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House 2020

The northeastern United States is now covered in a blanket of snow. Under the snow is a layer of frozen grass. Under the grass is a layer of dirt and within the dirt is a network of roots supporting the grass and surrounding plants and trees. And intertwined within the vast number of roots is an endless network of gossamer thin fibrils connecting root to root and one tree to the next, built by the true unsung hero of the world’s terrestrial ecosystem: fungus.

Yes, fungus.

Emerging research has shown that our forests are supported by a large underground mycelial entanglement of fungal fibrils that enable trees to communicate with one another, shifting molecular resources from tree to tree as needed and serving as a communication network to help one tree alert another of impending danger.

Merlin Sheldrake in his first book, ‘Entangled Life, How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures’, is an ideal guide to the world of fungi. “For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by fungi and the transformations they provoke,” Sheldrake writes, “A solid log becomes soil, a lump of dough rises into bread, a mushroom erupts overnight-but how?”, he continues. Sheldrake studied plant science as an undergraduate student at Cambridge and received a PhD studying the interaction of fungal filaments (mycorrhizal relationships), going on to study thousands of soil samples to study their DNA among other research projects.

Entangled Life takes readers on a veritable tour round the planet and beyond of the world of fungi, including a description of their ability to survive a round trip to outer space. Sheldrake describes in vivid detail how fungi are “decomposers” whether that be of wood, rock or an organism such as the carpenter ant. The fungus Ophiocordyceps camponoti-nidulantis routinely infects the ants but from the inside out. The picture of the infected ant with white fungus growing out of its body is memorable, trust me. 

The book opens as the author tags along with a professional truffle hunter and his truffle smelling dog in the hill country of Bologna, Italy searching for Tuber magnatum, white truffles . Sheldrake focuses on the truffles, translated in many languages he says as “testicles,” in part because of their rarefied role in the culinary world, partly because of their exorbitant cost and partly because, well, they are just really interesting as a fungus. Researchers have puzzled as to how the truffles communicate their smell from below ground and have suggested it is due at least partly to the odiferous molecule they contain, methyl sulfide. Sheldrake shares scientific detail without overwhelming the reader, sprinkling chemical or latin names as flavoring, like grated truffles, to season the main dish, the story of how intrinsic fungi of all types are to our world.

One chapter focuses on psilocybin, or, what is known in the category of mind bending drugs as a ‘magic mushroom’. In this case, it actually is a mushroom and Sheldrake traces psilocybin’s history from its use in the coronation of the Aztec emperor in 1486 up to 2016 when both Johns Hopkins and New York University separately studied the drug as a treatment for anxiety and depression. Scientists are still not completely sure how mushrooms affect our brain chemistry. As enthusiastic as Sheldrake is for each impressive property of fungi whether it be their ability to create an odor or alter consciousness, he focuses much of his attention explaining how fungi create expansive webs of interactions linking one organism to another and another.

The heart of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter that challenges us to compare the world wide web we know as the internet to the interconnected subterranean network of fungal fibers which shuttle valuable resources from tree root to tree root, a network now referred to by the popular media as the wood wide web. Mycorrhizal networks can shuttle carbon and sugars between the roots of different trees and even serve as “highways for bacteria to migrate around the obstacle course of the soil” Sheldrake writes. The comparisons to the internet are striking and Entangled Life cites research showing the interconnectedness between a stand of Douglas fir trees studied in one small forest plot. The larger trees in the forest plot had more underground fungal connections than younger smaller trees, just as select pages on the web are immensely more connected than other pages. Developing the theme of connectedness further, the author goes on to cite additional research which draws comparisons between fungal networks and neural networks in the human brain.

Not all scientists agree that the wood wide web is crucial to ecological life and in true scientific method Sheldrake is careful to cite dissenting opinions about its actual importance for survival of a forest ecosystem. He steers clear of over simplification of a topic that continues to yield new findings. Yet while it is clear that the author believes the hidden world of fungal filaments has an important story to tell, he remains objective about the questions that remain to be proved. 

“How best to think about mycorrhizal networks then? Are we dealing with a super organism? A metropolis? A living Internet? Nursery School for trees?….All are problematic.”

In additional pages and chapters the author describes the symbiotic world of fungi and bacteria, new research about the multi faceted world of lichens which include at least a fungus and an algae and he dives into the world of fermentation including his experiences making his own mead and other fermented foods. And the book contains amazing color plates of fungi in various forms and magnifications. Each page of Entangled Life shares a cornucopia of information about fungi, almost making the point itself that fungi are indeed dynamic and beckon study and not merely inanimate sessile objects to be only either ignored or eaten. Overall, Sheldrake elucidates the world of not only fungi and their connectedness but indeed awakens the reader to the “polyphonic swarms of plants, fungi and bacteria that make up our homes and our worlds.”

Howard E Friedman

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“Born to Run” Running Strong After a Decade

“Born to Run” is one of the most successful and influential books ever written about running. More than a decade since publication I can make that declaration for three reasons.

First, some of the people featured in the non fiction account of the arcane world of ultra long distance running still promote their association with the book as an important part of their credentials. Second, according to author Christopher McDougall’s web site, best actor Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to star in a film version of the book.

And my third reason is the most convincing evidence of this book’s outsized influence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I have desperately searched the house for new books to read. I found and re-read “Born to Run” and loved it all over again. I urged my wife who is an adamant non runner and lover of fiction books to read this non-fiction book about running. She read it in one day. The very next day, she laced up her vintage white Keds sneakers and went for a run! 

“Born to Run” fueled greater interest in running and a new curiosity about running barefooted or in minimalist shoes. Minimalist running shoes were marketed nationwide in the years following. The book’s popularity also probably helped at least a couple of careers and shined light and Ivy League caliber research on an indigenous people for whom running is a preferred mode of transportation.

McDougall introduced his readers to a running niche unknown to the general public and not well known even to most recreational runners in May 2009 when “Born to Run” was published. While most people were familiar with the New York and Boston marathons, fewer people knew that runners were meeting almost every weekend somewhere around the country to run 50 and 100 miles races some lasting more than 24 hours.  During these ultra marathon events runners made brief stops to shovel food in to their mouths, change out of blood stained socks and have their weight checked to make sure they were not dehydrated and risking kidney failure. Runners were lining up in California, Colorado and Tennessee to name a few, not to mention at Badwater 135, the self proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” starting in Death Valley and crossing through places like Furnace Creek. The asphalt along the route was hot enough to melt the rubber off your sneakers.

But that was not even the most interesting part of “Born to Run”. The primer on the world of ultra marathons was merely a necessary backdrop for the true crux of the book. McDougall takes us on a wild ride to a place most of us have never heard of to meet a motley collection of colorful eccentrics. To tell his story he introduces us to a middle-aged lanky bald runner who Hollywood could never have made up: Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, also known as Micah True.

And that was just chapter one.

“Born to Run” brilliantly weaves together the true story of how the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an American who re-located to be able to live and run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, created one of the great running races you never heard of. The book deftly tells the story that brought together the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people who use running for transportation, recreation and sport and a disparate group of American runners, including a professional with product endorsements, some relative unknown college students, personal trainers, the author and someone who actually defies categorization, Barefoot Ted.

Along the way, McDougall introduces readers to an assortment of physical therapists, athletic trainers, renowned running coaches, a Harvard evolutionary biologist and a New Zealand professor all of whom have devoted themselves to the study and art of running.

The story follows McDougall’s quest to finally resolve his own struggles with recurrent running injuries and his attempt to train and run a 50 mile race through the Copper Canyons. But the book is not an ego trip for McDougall, as many books written by runners turn out to be. In fact, McDougall’s running plays a minor role since he shines the light on those who have mastered the art. He brings us as close as he can to Micah True. He introduces us to the world of the Tarahumara which leaves you kind of flabbergasted that this community lives about 270 miles south of El Paso, TX and is not a lost tribe in the middle of the Amazon.

Tarahumara men running. credit:https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/skeleton

Much of what makes “Born to Run” inspirational is the author’s uncovering of how running is innate to humans and the role it has played in our development as a species. And for that he cites Daniel Lieberman a Harvard professor who studies human anatomy with a focus on anatomical features unique to humans that allow us to run distances longer than any other species. He tells the story of David Carrier, now a professor of Biology who with his brother tried to prove the ‘Running Man’ theory by attempting to run down an antelope to exhaustion over the course of several days. We are also introduced to a South African mathematician who became so obsessed with the idea of humans as persistence hunters that he left college to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to learn exactly how they used running as their primary hunting tool. 

As McDougall discovers that the Tarahumara, the Bushmen and even Barefoot Ted can run just fine in flat sandals or, in Ted’s case, bare feet he questions the need for our modern over engineered running shoes and the multi national industry behind them. McDougall proceeds to take down modern running shoes and in the process the industry leader Nike. He draws support for the idea from physical therapist Irene S. Davis who’s treatment for injured runners evolved to recommend that they strengthen their feet, not their shoes. Cushioned over built shoes have existed only since the 1970s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman brought the world cushioned Nike running shoes. Nike provided their shoes to competitive runners than marketed them to a growing number of recreational runners as the jogging boom began to ramp up.

The story concludes with an epic ultra marathon pitting modern running technique and technology against an ancient one as Caballo Blanco managed with difficulty to bring together some of the best ultra marathoners in the United States to race against the best of the Tarahumara runners over 50 miles in the Copper Canyon.

“Born to Run” has not only inspired people to run and still ranks among the best selling running books but the book likely had an influence on the running world. Barefoot running had a moment after the publication of the book with introduction of stripped down shoes which tried to mimic the unstructured sandals worn by the Tarahumara. I saw a young man trail running in New Jersey with a home made version of the ‘hurrache’ sandals the indigenous runners would make themselves and I saw a woman hiking steep terrain in the Catskills barefooted. Even today running races of various lengths and terrain will often have at least a couple of barefoot runners.

Corporate money capitalized on the barefoot running phenomenon too. Vibram, an Italian leading manufacturer of rubber soles for shoes and boots, launched the Vibram Five Fingers, a ‘shoe’ that looks like a glove but for the foot with shaped toes. The rubber bottom provides some protection for the sole of the foot. Vibram was sued for allegedly making some claims that running in Vibram Five Finger shoes “reduces running injuries” based on how the shoes changed a person’s gait. Vibram settled the lawsuit putting aside up to $3.75 million but denied fault and liability. The shoes are still sold. And as for Nike, “Born to Run” did not hurt the world’s leading shoe brand. Nike has gone from selling shoes that give you more support to their now famous very engineered Vaporfly that give you even more cushioning plus a carbon fiber plate to propel runners faster.

While mass enthusiasm for barefoot running has waned, the notion that our feet are stronger than we realize lives on. Physical therapist Irene S. Davis who was at the University of Delaware at the time of the book and now heads Harvard’s Spaulding National Running Center encourages patients to strengthen the muscles in their feet through a series of exercises and not to rely on over built shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman, at the time of publication already an established professor at Harvard and author of the idea that humans are anatomically adapted for long distance running, began studying the running biomechanics of the Tarahumara in 2012 adding to his research on natural barefoot runners in Kenya and attempt to fully understand just what our feet are capable of.

Some of the runners featured in the book went on to further success. Jenn Shelton who was in the early days of running ultras at the time “Born to Run” was written  went on to compete around the world and win various marathons. She now is a running coach. Scott Jurek was already one of the most winning ultra marathoners at the time he was featured in “Born to Run”. He went on to set a fastest known time running the 2, 190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail and for running 167.5 miles in 24 hours. Jurek’s bio on his web site proudly proclaims in large font Born to Run.

Other runners featured in the book openly promote their association with this juggernaut of a running book more than 10 years after publication. Eric Orton, the author’s running coach during the build up to the first ever Copper Canyon ultra and an author himself advertises on his coaching web site that he was “a featured character in the worldwide best selling book Born to Run”.  Barefoot Ted mentions his “Born to Run” bonafides in the first line of his web site and he mentions his appearance in the book multiple times. He also sells his own line of minimalist running sandals and leads running trips and races in the Copper Canyon. For that matter, Christopher McDougall’s web site also mentions “Born to Run” in the first line above the titles of his more recent books. But he is the author after all.

And the Tarahumara continue to live and run in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, with their health and safety challenged by environmental threats and the risk of violence from drug cartels. The first ultra marathon organized with great effort by Micah True featured in “Born to Run” continues as an annual event, drawing runners from around the world. And as for the Caballo Blanco, several years after publication of the book he collapsed while running in his beloved mountains where his body was recovered. His spirit runs on.

Howard E. Friedman

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‘Walking to Listen’: a well written cross country quest for meaning.

9781632867001Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles across America one story at a time, by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury Press 2017)

Who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Rogers, a  73 year old cowboy and preacher in Melrose, New Mexico has plenty of advice for living to whomever may listen. Author Andrew Forsthoefel met Rogers during his walk across America.

“And time goes by like, like cross ties on a railroad track just chh, chh, chh, chh. These days are gone. So while you got it, use it. Your mind. Your strength. Your agility. Use it.”

But you and I would never ever cross paths with Otho if it were not for first time author Andrew Forsthoefel who met and recorded dozens and dozens of conversations like this one with Mr. Rogers during a 4,000 mile cross country ‘Walking to Listen‘ journey in 2011. Forsthoefel began his odyssey about 6 months after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in environmental studies and just after getting fired as a deck hand on a lobster boat.

“A week after I got fired I hatched a desperate plan. I started wondering what it would be like to walk out my back door and just keep going.”

Though unemployed and basically directionless, Forsthoefel’s plan to walk across America does not come across as a desperate plan by a desperate man. Rather, it seems like the inspired idea of a new college graduate who lives life seriously and thoughtfully with enough empathy to imbue his trek with a noble theme boldly written and hanging from a sign on his backpack: Walking to Listen.

Andrew Forsthoefel started honing his listening skills as a college senior interviewing people about what it means to “come of age”. His walk was just an extension-an 11 month extension of that deeply seated need to listen and learn from whomever he could.

Forsthoefel’s empathy for others, his ongoing struggle to find meaning in his own life together with his fluid, light and insightful prose are the three ingredients which make this debut work of non fiction so much more than just another cross country adventurer’s travelogue.

Indeed, Forsthoefel does not hover on the details of his backpacking gear (except for a jogging stroller he eventually used to transport his pack-he named the stroller Bob). He carried the essentials, mostly, a tent, clothes, food plus a mandolin. He camped wherever he could, often in people’s backyards with their permission and he bought food often in gas station mini marts. Frequently however, Forsthoefel found himself the guest of people he met on the way, people who opened their homes to put up and feed a complete stranger.

And it is the writing about the people he meets and how that experience shakes his consciousness where Forsthoefel’s prose shines the brightest. Many folks he met briefly and recorded them on his Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, like college seniors at Sweet Briar College in Virginia or a grandmother working at a gas station who also belongs to a nudist colony or an artist in Cerillos Hills, New Mexico recorded in her kitchen. But the author often spent several days with some of the people he met, people who took him in, fed him, showed him around their communities and shared their stories-of joy, of sadness, of dreams realized or broken and always, the simple day to day stories that begin to give some definition to what it means to be human.

Walking to Listen is poignantly written. In addition to short one page vignettes that separate chapters, Forsthoefel treats the reader to full course servings of some of his more memorable and life changing experiences. He spends pages sharing his experience as a white man walking through Montgomery, Alabama where he met and listened to the descendants of slaves. He recounts over several pages his walk into and out of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, his memorable walk across Texas including a brief meeting with a former president and perhaps the longest section devoted to his time trekking through the Navajo nation reservations in Arizona.

Forsthoefel refers frequently, perhaps too often, to his two muses, Walt Whitman and Rainer Maria Rilke, quoting lines from Leaves of Grass and excerpting long paragraphs from Letters to a Young Poet, two books he carried on his walk. But even his frequent citations only underscore the young author’s fervent searching for a universal truth he hoped to find on his walk, an inner North Star he could use to navigate his life.

So who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Not the most memorable character Forsthoefel brings to light, Rogers’ sagacious advice none the less is just one reminder that everyone has something to offer if we only take the time to stop and listen.

Howard E. Friedman

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‘The Road Not Taken’ Revisited

If activities had an official poem like states and countries have national birds and flags and songs, than Robert Frost’s 1915 poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ could be the patron poem of the ouDQMbBQAAQBAJtdoorsman. Deep in the woods, the narrator contemplates the two paths before him, “and sorry I could not travel both” he says. But choose he must. “And I-I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference” concludes this poem with its two most famous lines. And to the tens of thousands of people who have read this poem’s 20 lines, the credo of taking the road less traveled has become an anthem of sorts, a clarion call for rugged individualism, a recipe to how we can be certain our decisions make all the difference’.

In The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong (Penguin Press 2015), author David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, a teacher at Cornell University and a graduate of Yale Law School,  challenges the common interpretations of this poem. He argues in the 172 page book that Frost was not actually exhorting the reader to take the harder or hillier or more difficult path. Rather Frost was exploring what it means for people to have free will to choose.

 

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Mr. Orr calls on his own considerable talents of literary analysis to plum the nuanced depths of this poem but he also cites a number of Frost experts and other scholars to help explain the man and his writing as it bears on “The Road Not Taken”. Orr cites the Frost biographer Lawrence Thompson to explain the roots of this work. According to the biographer, Frost and his friend English poet Edward Thomas would often take walks together in the woods. Thomas however was indecisive and, regardless of which path they took would invariably regret that path not taken. Frost penned this poem and sent it to Thomas who according to Thomas’ biographer Matthew Hollis was “troubled and confused by the poem and might even have read it as a goad”. Whether Frost’s poem had anything to do with it or not is beyond knowing but shortly thereafter Thomas decided to enlist in the British army and was killed two years later. Frost meanwhile returned to the United States. “So the confusion embedded in “The Road Not Taken”is mirrored in the love and misunderstanding between its American author and his English friend”, Orr writes, “an ironic parallel for a thoroughly American poem.”

Robert Frost struggled as a writer and a poet from high school until well in his thirties after he was married and had a family. Indeed, “At thirty five he was nobody even to the people to whom he might have been a somebody”. He was publishing short stories in a chicken farmer’s publication called The Eastern Poultryman. But he had commercial success in 1912 with the publication of “A Boy’s Will”. “The Road Not Taken” followed a few years later  and his success continued. He read his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost died in 1963. And according to the author David Orr,  “The Road Not Taken”  has appeared in more than 2000 news stories and as a subtitle in more than 400 books not written by Frost. The poem was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial.

So, what is ‘The Road Not Taken’ really about?

In an almost talmudic analysis Orr writes about the title of the poem, or, that is the title that is popularly but incorrectly typed into search engines, ‘The Road Less Traveled’. The true title however, focuses on the road not taken, and is decidedly not about what the narrator did, Orr states emphatically but about what he didn’t do. Every phrase and sentence of the poem is up for close reading by Orr as he tries to decipher this oft cited yet not clearly understood most popular of American poems.

For example, the choice of the word “roads” instead of paths or trails.  Although Frost’s traveler is alone in a forest, “which ever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people” as opposed to following some game trail or haphazard path that cuts it way through the forest. Frost’s wayfarer defines his choices, “one path grassier than the other”, with no mention of his destination. Is he in a rush? Is he interested in scenery or is he looking for a challenge. Does his choice really make a difference? And, does he even have a choice?

Orr titles the next section of the book, ‘The Choice’, wherein he probes the whole notion of free choice and what it means to choose:

‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both’ – within two lines, it feels as if we’ve arrived at the center of the dilemma intrinsic to all dilemmas: the necessity of choice itself. If we were to dream about what it means to choose, that dream would look something like “The Road Not Taken”.

Nonetheless, this poem does not address critical elements of choice, Orr explains with several examples. Frost does not address the affect of this choice on others. The decision does not have anything to do with the culture of the place, a forest. It does not reflect on any moral consequences or even present the traveler with so many options, just two. The narrator can chooses in peace without the distraction of the details of daily life yet there seems to be no chance the walker will fail to choose and simply turn around and go back. “So if all these potential dimensions of choice are missing from the poem, what are we left with? A kind of idealized or “pure” choice,” Mr. Orr proposes.

And so the author concludes his thoughtful discussion of “The Road Not Taken” by focusing neither on the poet nor the poem but on the nature of the chooser.

“One of the less remarked features of “The Road Not Taken” is that it offers a portrait not just of decisions but of deciders-or,to pick a more helpful word, of selves.” Orr brings several examples of how this notion of choice has been embraced by a community of self help authors and valedictory orators, urging us to choose the difficult path and challenge ourselves as a means to discover our true selves. Orr suggests that we can not precisely define ourselves wholly by our choices and their consequences:

“But most of all, we see the centrality of the junction itself. “The Road Not Taken” never mentions what the speaker finds on the path he eventually takes; instead, the poem concludes by echoing its own opening lines, “Two roads diverged in a wood,” as if to return us to the forest in which we started. What matters  most, the poem suggests  is the dilemma of the crossroads.”

We all make choices in our lives and no one can really ever know what would have happened had we veered onto the road not taken. Do we do ourselves any justice by trying to peer back into a past that never became reality? Frost’s traveler does indeed look back at his moment of decision with a sigh. But in a remarkable poetic irony his thoughts turn not to the road not taken but to the ultimate choice he did indeed select, the road less traveled.

Robert Frost has created a most challenging duality where one can be both “sorry I could not travel both” but assured that his choice “has made all the difference.” Something to thing about at life’s next crossroads.

Howard E. Friedman

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(http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536)

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

 

 

The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

Book Review

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A. Knopf 2015)

51fN0mD37nL._AA160_ Anyone on the trail either hiking or running invariably wonders at some point, “How far could I go if I had the time?”. With a subtitle of “How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”, Christopher McDougall attempts to answer the question of just how much we can endure, both physically and psychologically, when put to the challenge. And in answering those questions he aims to understand “the art of the hero”, and to explore the “foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.”

The book, which follows his 2011 best-seller ‘Born to Run’ about endurance running, retells a war story that occurred in April 1944 during World War II on Nazi occupied Crete, an island known for its isolationism, spirit of rugged individualism and adherence to what resembles a “paleo” diet since they eat mostly home raised meat plus vegetables which were either grown or foraged in the surrounding mountainous forests.

McDougall opens his book with a retelling of how a band of British Special Operations soldiers together with Cretan resistance fighters kidnapped the Nazi General Heinrich Kriepe. The kidnapping occurred near the general’s Nazi headquarters with a daring display of “chutzpah” on the part of the kidnappers. Once the general and his car had been commandeered, the British-led team than spent more than two weeks navigating the very rugged Cretan backcountry on little sleep or food while they transported  the general to a point where he could be conveyed off the island as a prisoner of war.

The journey was arduous and required truly superhuman physical skill and nerves and resolve of steel. And the mission proved fatal for some of the resistance fighters as well as Cretan citizens of the town of Anogia who were massacred by the Nazis as they struggled to re-capture their general. But it is the endurance of the soldiers that McDougall explores in the book and the topic of endurance in general often in a zig zagging manner darting between the main narrative and long diversions into ostensibly related topics.

Weaved between the narrative, McDougall details a history of military survival training and takes a questionable detour to look at the world of Parkour, and finishes with several chapters devoted to a history of nutrition especially as it has been practiced by endurance athletes. McDougall contends that the gods of Greek mythology learned to survive adversity while dealing with human scale challenges even as they inhabited a godly abode. Some of those gods such as Zeus originated on Crete and they created a Grecian zeitgeist of heroism that was embodied in Crete during the war where men, women and children of the Crete countryside embodied paideia, arete and xenia (skill, strength and desire) but understood that “heroes are protectors” but, “your’e only strongest when you have a weakness for other people”, McDougall writes.

And he discusses the ancient Greek military technique of pankration, a type of free form wrestling, which has its roots in Greek mythology and dates to the Olympic games of 648 B.C.  He touches on ancient martial arts and “The Natural Method of Training” published by Edwin Chekly in 1890, among other techniques, after introducing us to suburban English women who have mastered the art of Parkour. Named for the French parcours,  Parkour acolytes learn to turn an urban landscape into a playground in which they have taught themselves to scale brick walls by running up them, balance and jump off of railings, landing in a somersault, only to spring back up and over the next obstacle. Parkour, McDougall posits, proves that humans have an innate ability to overcome physical obstacles tapping the ‘elastic coil’ stored up in our tendons, ligaments and even our fascia. (see a video of these Parkour moms here).

McDougall strains at times to make the case that the British special ops and Cretan resistance fighters were successful because they harnessed the skills and spirit embodied in these ancient techniques that have some Grecian roots. But one of the main focuses of the author’s thesis rests in his theory about the benefit of the Cretan diet, essentially a paleolithic meat and vegetables diet. McDougall interviews and visits with world renowned  South African exercise physiologist  Timothy Noakes Ph.d as well as tracking down the enigmatic chiropractor turned nutritional  consultant both to the stars and to star athletes, Phil Maffetone D.C.

Both Noakes and Maffetone eschew our mainstream carbohydrate laden diet as unnatural, unhealthy and down right dangerous. They both explain that from an evolutionary point of view humans have evolved to eat meat and plants and if those plants contain carbohydrates, then they are at least complex carbs, not the simple sugars that appear in almost all of our processed food, from Ketchup to soda to breakfast cereals and even packaged bread. Our consumption of large amounts of sugar, they explain, stimulates our body to release insulin, which stores the sugars in our bodies as fat and than drives us to consume even more sugar laden food to repeat the cycle.

When you retrain your body to burn fat as fuel, and not carbohydrates, you can increase your endurance and remain more satiated for longer periods of time, the experts explain. When Dr. Noakes adopted the eating lifestyle he professed, he lost weight and cut his time in the famous South African Comrades 56 mile ultra-marathon by two hours and reduced his time to run a 5K race by more than 20%, all that at the age of 56. Even the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team finally cut sugar out of their diet, began eating grass-fed beef, nuts and  kale chips. The exercise and nutritional guru Phil Maffetone went a step further and maintained that not only was the no carb or very low carb diet healthier but combined with some training tips, the eating lifestyle changes would reboot the subject’s metabolism to start burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen and sugars.  And since the body stores much more fat than sugars, endurance will naturally improve. He is even beta testing an app to help make the switch.

Overall, Chris McDougall presents a compelling argument that anyone could probably push themselves much harder, set higher standards and tap in to inner resources. You hiked 10 miles today? You could definitely push on. You ran a marathon?  Start training for an ultra. The key to ‘mastering the lost secrets of strength and endurance’ then, would be to understand human evolutionary history and make a course correction in one’s nutrition. Assiduous training and having resolute confidence in your abilities like the Parkour moms would also help. And having a tantalizing goal like kidnapping a Nazi general right from under the noses of his hapless soldiers would help as well.

Howard E. Friedman

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H is for Hawk – rediscovering humanity

jpegI have only another 20-30 minutes or so until I turn the final page of “H is for Hawk”, the acclaimed prize-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald. And that thought makes me feel the way I do in the waning hours of a most rare soul-nourishing, mind-cleansing vacation. And it is not because Macdonald writes in detail about her interesting and unusual avocation of falconry and in particular, takes us on a journey as she acquires, trains and bonds with a goshawk, a fierce hunter of the forest floor. And it is not because she has such facility with words, making her prose so pleasurable to read it almost hurts.

Rather, “H is for Hawk” is so gripping and difficult to let go because in it the author shares the painful journey of healing from the depths of despair and loss after the unexpected death of her father.

“My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of the lives we have lost.”

Macdonald is certainly not the first to counterpose her personal grief and loss against the backdrop of raw nature. Cheryl Strayed wrote her memoir “Wild” about her attempt to heal her battered soul while she through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and that story was memorialized last year in a Hollywood movie. But while Strayed’s story was 2-dimensional, her angst and the trail, Macdonald’s writing takes the reader into four dimensions: the very painful loss of her father, the story of her experiences with her goshawk, the odd, sad and compelling story of author T.H. White (known for the children’s classics “The Sword In the Stone” and “The Once and Future King”) as detailed in his work “The Goshawk”, and the fourth dimension, time, as she takes the reader into the rich history of falconry through the ages.

Ms. Macdonald, a historian by education as well as a writer and poet, chronicles her experiences rearing and training a goshawk to hunt rabbits and pheasants, spending day after day with the bird, feeding it, weighing it, bonding with it and almost becoming it. The goshawk, affectionately dubbed Mabel, is not the first raptor that the author has trained. Fascinated by birds of prey since childhood, and with extensive experience working with and flying them, the author now decides in the wake of her father’s death to train one of the most challenging birds flown by falconers.  Goshawks have a reputation for being difficult to work with and their hunting style is different from other hawks as well; they fly low to the ground, preferring to hunt in the forest as opposed to the open field. That challenge is what she needs while she is in mourning.

But it is the loss of her father that Macdonald comes back to as she shares her feelings and her observations about losing and aloneness and temporality. And she contrasts those feelings against the inner life of the emotionally scarred T.H. White, an outsider and loner, and the life of her goshawk and its “conversation of death”, the unspoken communication between the hunter and the hunted:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

Though her writing is often lyrical and a pleasure to read, Macdonald is so much more than a mere lyricist. She is a realist who can stomach talons in a rabbit’s head and she can snap its neck if needed to end the animal’s misery. And it is her acceptance of the brutality that exists in life in the wild that makes her more the clear-sighted naturalist than Emerson or Thoreau or John Muir. She is unapologetic about nature, which, while sublime, is, as Tennyson wrote,”red in tooth and claw.” The fog on the meadow in the early morning sun-rise and the blood and feathers among the grass and nettles after the kill. And it is all natural. Through her hawks, Macdonald eventually saw through the romanticized view of nature that casts all woods and streams and ferns and dales as a  balm for our suffering souls:

“Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Macdonald’s truths are difficult to hear for romantics like myself who have indeed looked to the woods as an escape. But ironically I have of late come to the same conclusion. It would be nice if the deep forest truly cared about us and could offer a consoling embrace, but a towering oak tree casting a cool shade under its leafy canopy on a steaming hot day would just as soon fall upon and crush me than shade me. Nature is implacable, reflecting back only what we bring into it, if that.

“H is for Hawk” tells a story we each are likely to confront at some point in our lives if we have not already. Without the hawk, though, leaving us to find comfort and solace and healing among our own species. A discovery and a story that Madonald tells so so well.

Howard E. Friedman

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