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Watoga Trail Report

Our ancestors faced many hardships that we no longer endure. We live in near-constant comfort, but at what price? Above: a group photo of loggers at Thornwood. Photo courtesy of B.J. Gudmundsson, Preserving Pocahontas

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

The search for constant comfort
What it may cost us
Part One

“What does not kill me makes me stronger.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Unable and unwilling to continue living in a chaotic and alcoholic household, I simply left. I was 16 years old and being homeless for a few weeks seemed an exciting adventure – one I would not relish in my advanced years.

Determined to continue attending my final year of high school, I found an evening job at a discount shoe store at 75 cents an hour in the very worst part of the city. Unable to afford an apartment on such a meager income, I took up nightly residence in houses under construction in a 1960s housing development of look-alike split levels.

It was early spring, and the evenings were chilly. Before getting into my Army surplus sleeping bag each evening, I would start a fire outside the empty homes using scrap two-by-fours for firewood and long thin stakes with words and numbers written on them for kindling. I would warm up before turning in to my sleeping bag for the night in one of the rooms of an empty house.

I had no idea what the stakes were used for, but I was about to find out.

At the crack of dawn one morning, I felt a light tap to my feet, enough to wake me up. A giant of a man was standing over me, staring down with a somewhat bemused look.

“May I ask what you are doing here on this construction site?”  he asked in something less than a stern manner, almost congenial.

I scrambled to my feet and pleaded my case, telling him it was just a temporary arrangement for me, and that I did not intend any harm. He said his name was George and that he was not so much concerned that I was sleeping in the framed-in houses, but that I must be the fellow who was pulling his survey stakes.

“Huh?” I replied, still a bit groggy.

George explained that the numbers and letters on the wooden stakes contained all of the information necessary for contractors to locate the building’s corners. Some of the other stakes were for the excavators to determine grade.

He added that he had to re-survey all of the stakes that I had turned to ash. But, he said, I could work it off on the next weekend by helping him do some property surveys.

George operated a small surveying company, and having nine children required weekend work.

George was part of the Greatest Generation and a survivor of the invasion of Normandy. I cannot help but think that his magnanimous character was wrought in the fires of adversity.

He gave me the first real break in my life. I worked with George for two years, taking college classes at night and getting my foot in the door at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. There, I ran a survey crew for another two years before becoming a park ranger.

All thanks to one man’s generous and forgiving spirit.

The last time I saw George, he shared a piece of advice I have never forgotten and one that would have untold benefits for me. He said, “Don’t spend your entire life avoiding discomfort.”

That simple piece of wisdom has served me well in all stages of my life. As time went on, I found myself stepping into an array of “uncomfortable” situations.

Plunging into countries where I barely spoke the language, embarrassed by my many cultural faux pas, I was the proverbial fool who rushed in where angels feared to tread.

In retrospect, those “uncomfortable” situations were the most important and memorable ones that I would ever have. As the saying goes, they would make me who I am – be it good or bad.

Adversity came naturally to our ancestors – it just happened. If they were to survive, they would have to adapt to changing environments, and those adaptations became part of our DNA.

Total comfort offers little in the way of growth, and as we shall soon see, may even adversely affect our health and longevity. 

Room Temperature is a modern term. Our ancestors would not know what to make of such a notion. Those folks who lived in the Workman Cabin in Watoga State Park would have experienced wildly fluctuating temperatures ranging from bitter cold to “melt the wallpaper” hot. All in a 24-hour day.

A constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit, winter or summer, was simply out of the question for people, not that very long ago. Many of us remember when air conditioning was only found in theaters and hotels. Now artificial cooling is ubiquitous.

Before the invention of fire-making, early man was perpetually at the mercy of the weather. Their bodies’ efforts to acclimatize are still coded into our genome today –  exposure to heat and cold trigger physiological responses designed to protect our core from extremes of temperature.

Research now shows that living a life with constant environmental comfort and abundant food has deleterious effects that we are just beginning to understand. Conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and many more maladies seem to follow such unbridled comfort.

Longevity research has revealed many causes for why we age. Foremost, at the cellular level, aging is not, and I repeat, it is not a biological imperative. That fact alone should grab your attention.

Aging is regarded now as a conglomeration of diseases rather than an inevitable process. Research is underway to mitigate those diseases, in part, through modifying genetics with various procedures, as well as medicine and supplements.

Science is making headway in the search to lengthen the human lifespan. These efforts are not without controversy, many wonder how that may affect the world’s resources when humans start adding decades to the average lifespan.

Others have concerns about who will be the recipients of these life-lengthening drugs and procedures – certainly, they will be expensive. As well, there will be many of us (I say “us” because I include myself in this group) who may not want to live for 150 years.
My passion when I was young was directed at the opposite sex, but in my 70s those same desires are aimed at pies. Yes, pies, you know, the wonderful round pastry cut into triangular slices that release the fragrance of fruits, creams, custards and meringue.

But how many strawberry/rhubarb pies can one eat until one is ready for the heavenly delights? A heal-thy 90 years of being a pie aficionado is good enough for me. You can keep your longevity after the taste buds cease to function.

OK, that was my two-cents worth, now back to the topic at hand.

Several decades ago, it was believed that the sole cause of aging was the accrued damage to our DNA, period. Now we know that aging is more complicated and has vastly more to do with how we live our lives.

Fortunately, there is another form of gene expression called “epigenetics.” These are simply structures that read the DNA and can make changes in gene expression at the cellular level.

You can think of DNA as set in stone and epigenetics as fluid and reversible. Our DNA, even if we are golden-agers, is still intact. Epigenetics represents the hopeful message of “It’s never too late” – never too late to modify our health.

Just as the environment can change our gene expression within a single generation, we can affect this same process through how we live our lives. Epigenetic changes can result in disease or dramatic improvements to our health.

Twins, for example, are genetically identical, but they will likely be epigenetically different. The point is that we are not prisoners of our DNA. We can affect subtle or profound changes in our own lives. Still, if you wish the changes to be beneficial, you must be willing to modify your lifestyle. You may even have to step out of your comfort zone.

In the next Watoga Trail Report, we will examine an instance in Scandinavia of near-starvation for one generation producing epigenetic changes resulting in a reduction of diseases and increased longevity for their descendants.

We will also explore some controversial and dramatic methods of inducing epigenetic changes for better health, including fasting and exposure to cold.

Ken Springer

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