What is your comfort zone?

Today, I took out the trash. I may or may not have taken the trash out last week, but I can tell you that the last time I did take it out, whenever it was, I had to drag the trash barrel across ice. Yesterday I went to the gym without a coat or jacket. That made me have to decide if I wanted to go to the locker room to stow the contents of my pockets (car keys, etc.) or just keep those things in my pocket. The grass outside is green. We expect snow on Friday.

Where I grew up, in what is now known among gardeners and cooperative extension agents as Zone 5b (though a short drive from a Zone 4b) everyone knows that in the Spring, crocus spring forth first, then daffodils, then, third, tulips. Where I live now, the people here think they all pop out of the ground at the same time. In fact, they do, springing from just-thawed earth within a few minutes of each other a few days after the last snow melts (there may be some snow left in fact) and a few days before it becomes unbearably hot.

Cooperative Extension Agent:

Of course, it never really gets unbearably hot here. Again, I can make the comparison: A heat wave where I grew up is when the temperature hits 100 or more during the hottest hour of the afternoon and the nights do not cool off much. Here, where I live now, a heat wave is where it hits 90 or more every day but it will still go to 70 or sometimes below during the coolest part of the night. People in Chicago and New York will complain about their heat wave to about the same degree as people in central and northern Minnesota will complain about their heat wave, but there is a difference. People in Chicago and New York die during their heat waves. Not all of them, but some of them.

Heat Wave:

Of course, people in northern Minnesota die by falling through the ice more often than people in New York or Chicago do.

Typical Day On the Ice:

My feet can be wet, and even muddy and sandy inside my shoes and I don’t care. Glynn Isaac could not stand wet feet. He grew up in arid country (South Africa and Kenya) while I grew up spending time in a temperate moist forest (the Adirondacks). Had this not been true, I would have never done my PhD on what I did it on. Glynn wanted to work in the Ituri Forest but what he ended up doing is sending his only student who did not care about wet feet. You would be surprised as to how many archaeologists ended up specializing in one area or another because of something utterly tangential to archaeology. Jack Harris studied the Karari Industry because he could back up a truck with a trailer on it. Lew Binford got into archaeology at all because he had time off while a soldier in Korea and ended up bumping into interesting tombs. J. Desmond Clark took an interest in Africa (and, essentially, founded and shaped African Archaeology) for similar reasons; He was assigned to positions with trenches, dug across interesting stratigraphy, while with the British Army in North Africa.

Archaeology:

I once new a graduate student in anthropology who went into graduate school to study a particular system. She was very excited about this system because it had to do with genes, and genes were (here words…) “The Truth” as opposed to, I guess, bones and stuff. That system didn’t work out. She tried another one. Didn’t work out. She tried a different one. Didn’t work out. Finally she discovered an interest in monkeys. Monkeys have genes, interesting ones, and that worked out. Funny how “The Truth” can be such a problem.

Interesting Monkey:

I can’t remember the first time I was ever in a house with air conditioning, but it might have been when I was 13 and my parents moved to a place with an air conditioner. It was not on all the time and it kept the downstairs absurdly cold if the upstairs was cooled at all, so it had little effect on me (living in an uninsulated room over the garage extension and all). My wife, my daughter, my son, lots of people in my wife’s family, others that I know these days all grew up in houses with air conditioning. When my daughter was growing up she did not like wearing coats or sweaters. Her mother always wanted her to do so, because she, the mother, was always cold. Same old story, you’ve heard it before. “I’m cold, put on a sweater!” I conspired with Julia often so she did not have to wear the uncomfortably warm clothing. So, even though she grew up with air conditioning, she grew accustom to cold. So one end of her range of comfort is more open ended than the other. She is skinny and lanky but the heat bothers her. An Inuit trapped in the body of a Maasai warrior.

Air Conditioning:

Speaking of Inuit, a friend of mine is an Aleutian (they historically live on the same end of the planet) and while he grew up in a run of the mill middle class home on a reservation, the home was in Alaska and he spent a fair amount of time on boats in the Bering Sea and on land doing archaeology and stuff on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Then he went to live with reindeer herders in Siberia (the Eveny or Evenki, not the Sámi). I thought it was funny when the first thing he said to me when he returned after his first season of working with them as an anthropologist was this: “I can’t believe how COLD it is there!” And he got to sleep with the best reindeer!

This is him:

Without going into details, it is more or less true that your body adapts early in life, but for the rest of your life, to the range of temperatures to which it is exposed when you are little, after infancy but through toddler years. The way your skin gets configured, with blood vessels and sweat glands and so on, and some things having to do with neurons, adapts to control heating and cooling, and as an evolutionary aside, comfort for a certain range. Lots of things adapt as we grow, but these things are sorely understudied. The assumption that you are a product of your genes right down to the details is too pervasive. For instance, how well you see detail in various conditions adapts. If you grow up in Arizona you will have a different way of seeing than if you grow up in the Pacific North West. Well, not if you grow up in Phoenix vs. Seattle, but if you grow up in the wilderness in those two areas. Colin Turnbull has a story about this in relation to Pygmies which I will not relate because I think Colin put the Bull in Turnbull and I don’t trust most of his stories. But I have an Efe Pygmy story that might relate and is true: If you give some Efe Pygmy men a mammal identification guide so they can pick out a picture of some animal they just saw, so you can relate the observation to Western Linneonormative Classification Schema, they hold the book upside down as often as right side up. That is what we might expect from people who don’t read at all, they hold the book randomly. But then, they’ll start rotating the book around so they see the picture of the monkey “right side up” and “up side down” and everything in between. Then they’ll make their ID. I never see Westerners do that, but it makes sense. A western book held by a western person shows a picture of an animal sitting or standing there, and you hold the book up in normal book position and you imagine you are up in the tree staring at a monkey standing on a branch ten feet away. But in real life, you almost always see monkeys that are above you or nearly above you. In a rain forest, the arboreal mammals that are not above you are too far away to see well, and behind too much vegetation. They are shadows crossing distant gaps. Efe not only see correctly in a forest, but they know how to adapt the book to use it to represent that way of seeing.

And they see better. As I mentioned above, I spent a lot of time in a forest growing up, so I may be better than some Arizonan guy at seeing detail in a forest. But not like the Efe. One time I was talking to my friend (in the Ituri) about a particular species of snake.

“I’d like to see one of those,” I said. We were sitting right in our research camp. He chucked. “What?” I said.

“Come over here,” he stood and walked away beckoning me to follow. I followed.

“There,” he said, pointing.

I looked. I saw nothing but branches and leaves. “What am I looking at?”

“Your snake.”

“Really? Where?” raising my hand to point at the bushes that lined the path down to the water from our base camp. He grabbed my hand to stop it from going near the bush.

“Right in front of you. You almost touched it.”

Now, this is a snake he had seen from about 100 feet away, a snake that I was now in reaching distance of, apparently, but could not see. The snake in question, by the way, was a “boomslang” a.k.a. “green tree snake” … the are small, green, and blend in very nicely with the green trees. Nasty venom. Apparently, this one was perfectly camouflaged.

“I still don’t see it.”

“OK, stand back,” he said as he raised his bow, arming it with a monkey arrow. Efe men always carry their bow and a few arrows with them.

He drew the bow, took a breath to stop himself from giggling (at me), and fired.

And the arrow went through the snake in at least three places, so the now squirming reptile could not extricate itself from the branches it was effectively pinned to. I could finally see it. At first I felt bad that the snake had to die to teach me a lesson, but then it occurred to me that my friend was surely going to kill this snake on his way back to his camp anyway. He had seen it, after all. And, a snake an Efe sees is a dead snake. They do this to keep the chances of being bitten by poisonous snakes down, and since his uncle had lost a leg to a viper in his youth, one could understand this especially in his case.

Boomslang:

But the point is, to him, seeing an 18 inch long green snake in a green bush over 100 feet away was like me seeing my bus coming down the avenue. On a hot day, which I would not think of as too hot because I grew up without air conditioning.

One’s comfort zone, one’s path in life, one’s personal history. A lot of people call it free will, but it’s not.

Sorry for going all Philosophy on you:

Comments

  1. #1 tenine
    April 13, 2011

    I don’t know; I grew up in the subtropics, mainly without air conditioning, and still can’t cope with summer’s heat. Admittedly summer’s heat is usually more severe, post global warming.

  2. #2 Russell
    April 13, 2011

    I don’t mind wet feet, and take off my shoes when walking on well-kept sporting fields. I wear sandals when trekking through rain forests. I like the heat. We spend many summer weekends on a little sailboat in Corpus Christi, where night time lows oft never break 70. And still humid enough to dew the decks. (Both of us were raised in Texas, and spent early years in some homes without AC.)

    But I’m not fond of cold. I can handle it. I commuted to Rochester, NY for two winters. Walked to work through the snow. I just put on shirts under shirts under coat.

    So, yeah, I was cheating when I challenged you to an endurance walk on the hot, humid gulf.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    April 13, 2011

    Chickening out?

  4. #4 Russell
    April 13, 2011

    Not at all! I’m eager for you to get me over there on your next grant. Chief math guy, second cook, and backup medical assistant. I’m sure you can fit me in somewhere. And I’ve already had most of my shots.

  5. #5 Russell
    April 13, 2011

    And I can put up with most anything. Well practiced in the rules of adventure.

  6. #6 Chelydra
    April 13, 2011

    a snake an Efe sees is a dead snake

    They kill all snakes as a matter of course, or just venomous ones?

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    April 14, 2011

    Chelydra: Good question. It is actually more complex than that one sentence allows. First, there are two kinds of snakes: Snakes that you can eat, and snakes that are your totem. They don’t kill their totem snake. Not all Efe have a totem snake, but many do because, IMO, since you must have a totem and it must be an animal and you can’t eat it, you might as well have an animal you either can’t kill (because it is mythical) or a snake because snakes are a pain to cook and clean and tend to have venom.

    And, there are enough Efe around (with different totems) that a snake is not guaranteed safety by being a totem.

    I could have said “If an Efe man sees an edible animal, it’s as good as dead.” which is similar to a local expression but is of course hyperbole. But it is more true than one might expect. Walking along a path, flushing out a bat or song bird from the bush, and having that animal be whacked with a machete or just grabbed out of the air was not uncommon.

    So, to answer your question, an Efe will kill the snake to rid the danger, and/or to eat it, but occasionally skip that if the snake is of a certain species.

    It is notable, however, that while there are a lot of snakes, you don’t see a snake in a pot that often.

  8. #8 Mark P
    April 14, 2011

    I grew up in Georgia without AC, and I remember noticing the summer heat only once during a particularly bad heat wave. But now I cannot stand the heat and humidity of Georgia and I look forward to retiring someplace where the summers are less humid. Heat is OK, but not humidity.

    The issue of seeing is very interesting. My field involves discrimination of one type or another, and I tend to be fairly aware of that process in the human visual system. Your eyes (actually, of course, your visual system) become tuned to certain things. A friend and his friend once walked over some recreational land near a fairly large city in the Southwest. His friend, who was a pot collector (it was some years ago before that was as frowned upon, not to mention illegal). He spotted pot shards everywhere, but my friend saw none until they were pointed out. I once surprised myself near my home in Georgia by seeing and identifying a broken arrowhead lying on the surface surrounded by many stones of similar color and size. I was not looking for anything except a good place to put my feet as I walked, and it simply jumped out at me. I have no real idea why, since I’m not particularly interested in finding them.

  9. #9 Carol
    April 14, 2011

    Don’t foget to mention the women menopausal thingy. All bets are off as far as hot/cold. It may be freezing outside and a hot flash will make one feel they are a stuffed turkey in a 450 degree oven ready to explode. As far as growing up, California’s central valley is home for me. However, I did spend two years in Athens, Georgia and have never in my life experienced such suffocating heat as a lowly 90 degree F. temperature will bring. Never knew the real meaning of sweat, til then, either.!

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    April 14, 2011

    As others have pointed out, the humidity is a major factor in how we perceive heat. I grew up in Florida (with AC, of course) and now live in New Hampshire (the office has AC, my house does not). As long as the atmosphere is dry, I can handle temperatures up to the low to mid 90s with little difficulty (as long as I have access to water and shade), but let the dewpoint climb into the upper 60s and my body starts to rebel, even in the morning when it isn’t yet all that hot. The problem I have with our occasional heat waves is not as much the highs (I can find places to get out of the afternoon heat, and temperatures here rarely go above the low 90s) as the fact that it doesn’t cool down at night. Humidity accentuates the cold, too: Fairbanks at -20 doesn’t feel as cold as New Hampshire at 35 and pouring rain.

  11. #11 24fps
    April 14, 2011

    I live on the Canadian prairie, and I always chuckle when people say, “Oh, but it’s a dry cold…” Yes, it’s a dry cold. It is because at -30, when the cold wind has blown over about a thousand miles of SFA to slow it down, all moisture has been shed, and then, when it hits your skin, it will suck all the moisture out of that, too, which will then crystalize and fall at your feet as frost, leaving your skin looking like the frozen peas that have been in the deep freeze too long. :-)

    I don’t like the cold and I cope very well with heat and humidity, even though I have lived in a cold, semi-arid place my entire life. I’ve learned to cope with cold by dressing for it. My older daughter has antifreeze in her veins and does not mind cold at all, my younger daughter is more like me and likes to stay warm.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    April 14, 2011

    There is a small difference between being put in a Freeze Dry machine and being …. well, in Canada.