Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Finding Fossils In The Dark

The River Evenlode
By the age of about ten I knew every path in every wood in the square mile around the small ancient northern Oxfordshire hamlet on the edge of the Wychwood Forest I was born and grew up. The hamlet where Romans had built a villa and named the footpath Via Dessica which we still called Viziker.

I knew not just every path, but practically every tree, spring, badgers' set, rabbit burrow and briar patch. I knew where the wild gooseberries and strawberries grew, which nut trees had the best nuts, where the cleanest spring water was and which crabapple trees had the sweetest apples in autumn.

I knew the woods well enough to walk through them at night, in that strange ghostly light of night when the world turn to shades of grey and black and you feel the texture of the path beneath your feet and know it well enough to know when it's firm or soft, bending to left or right. You pick up the clues between the trees from the patches of sky if you can see it, so you know where you are and where to go.

The River Evenlode
Your senses are heightened, not because there is anything to fear in an Oxfordshire wood where the worst you can get is a nettle sting and even a badger wouldn't dare try a nasty head-butt against a human leg. You need real stealth to see a badger and have to approach it from down-wind. Quite simply, we have eradicated anything of real danger long ago. No wild boar, no bears, no wolves, no lynx, no wild cattle. We ate the last one or hunted them to extinction long ago.

And yet you still can't help walking in stealth mode. You talk in hushed tones. Your ears are pricked and your senses are alert for sounds. Just the crack of a stick or the sudden rustle of a nearby bush and you startle. It's not that you're afraid, it's just that you have a set of reflexes evolved to protect you or alert you to a possible meal or to the possibility of becoming something else's meal.

Just a snap of a twig is all it takes. Your brain sends a signal down your nervous system to your adrenal glands sitting on top of your kidneys. They squirt a burst of adrenaline and nor-adrenaline into your blood and seconds later your heart rate and stroke volume increase. Your breathing rate and volume increases, your nostrils flare slightly to allow you to breathe more and to smell things better, ignoring the fact that you have one of the weakest senses of smell in the mammalian order. Your skin blood supply increases so you can better lose the extra heat your muscles are about to produce. Even the pupils of your eyes dilate if not already fully dilated in the darkness. The hair on your neck, arms and back stands up in a pathetic attempt to make you look bigger and more powerful from a residual reflex which still thinks you are a hairy ape. You feel that slight knot in your stomach as your gut shuts down to divert blood to your muscles, brain and heart.

All this happened without any conscious thought, in the few seconds before you remembered you are in a small wood in northern Oxfordshire, where there are no leopards, pythons, bears or wolves, and nothing to fear from that scurrying rabbit or frightened stoat responding to their own fight or flight reflexes in a far more panic-stricken fashion that you are.

Then you laugh to release the tension and your skin flushes briefly, and you walk on.

For a few seconds you behaved as though you were still in Africa where these senses and reflexes evolved millions of years ago before you had a large enough brain to tell them not to be so silly and calm down. Where that would probably have been the worst thing to do, where the survivors who passed these reflexes on to their descendants were the ones who didn't stop to think but ran away, and had a physiology which made it possible to run fast and far. In fact, our African ape forebears only perfected and adapted reflexes which had evolved much earlier, maybe even in pre-mammalian ancestors. That scurrying rabbits and stoat still have good cause to keep their wits about then in an Oxfordshire wood in the dark.

So we carry within us these fossil relics of an earlier time, when a leopard in a tree was a very real threat and looking bigger, running faster, pumping more blood and radiating excess heat all helped us survive and pass on these inheritable functions to our children. Those in whom they worked best produced the most descendants by being naturally selected for survival by not being naturally selected for dinner.

Fossils are not all made of stone. We carry many of them with us still.

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