Under the skin: Is our love of nature innate?

On the occasion of the George Findlay Memorial Lecture at the Unity in Dermatology Congress, Century City, Cape Town, South Africa: 17th August 2016.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since this is a memorial lecture, I shall start will a brief citation.

George Hudson Findlay was not only a preeminent dermatologist, but by all accounts, an extraordinary human being. His interests and passions ranged the full gamut of a truly civilized person, which is rare in the focused scientific community of today, and he obviously was a master of the rare gift of being able to deal with the two things that define such sophisticated people: the ability to deal with time, and the ability to deal with information. His life was deeply enriched with friendships, his highly advanced musicality, mastery of his medical craft and, above all, his capability to fit all these into a full and satisfying life. An obituary concluded: “I shall not look upon his like again”.

My skin separates me from the living world, and the non-living. It allows me to navigate through life with the additional aids of sight, hearing, taste and smell. I say non-living since this oft forgotten dimension is so crucially important to our spiritual survival. In his groundbreaking book “The spell of the sensuous”, David Abram writes:

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an inanimate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

On a more personal and intimate level, Alberto Manguel, in his beautiful book “A history of reading”, also explored human tactile dynamics as a form of reading the “other”, where he writes:

“...the lover blindly reading the loved one’s body at night, under the sheets…

To touch and be touched is essentially human, and, as Nina Jablonski in her wonderful exploration of human skin, “Skin – a natural history” rightly says, “Touching benefits all parties”. But as humans we have a very large skin canvas, much of it devoid of hair. The human primate is visually obsessed, and having this canvas available, will adorn it. It is therefore small wonder that the very first cosmetics and treatments of skin consisted of minerals, especially the ferric oxides of hematite for its glorious reds, and limonite for its vibrant orange. To this palette we add black from pyrolucite, and white from ash, chalk or lime – all these colours are derived from minerals found at hand, and from the earth.

Needless to say, very quickly in our early history, total covering or even immersion in mud evolved for a number of reasons. Today, this form of beauty and health treatment has taken on a new guise and is toted, perhaps, for all the wrong reasons. The spa and wellness culture has produced a tsunami of quasi-scientific drivel and has become a major money-spinner for people who need it the least. But hidden in this facile industry is buried the roots of our connection with the earth. There is mounting interest in the medical benefits of such treatments as shown by the studies of Poensin et al, where their paper “Effects of mud pack treatment on skin microcirculation”, concluded: “These results suggest that the vascular changes induced by mud pack therapy are not fully explained by vasodilation in response to local temperature elevation. Further studies are in order to identify the other mechanisms involved”. Another example is the ongoing research in the treatment of psoriasis by the application of minerals and salts derived from hydrothermal vents. I predict that it is only a matter of time before the highly enriched mineral flows from the so-called Black Gushers found on tectonic fissures will be assayed for its medicinal properties. What is clear to me, is that the application of earth derived products to the skin is as old as man itself and herein lies the clues for our largely lost connections to the earth.

Many years ago I was working in the far north of Namibia in a town called Groot Dagbreek (Great Dawn) when, purely by chance, I met a most extraordinary man. Sem Shikongo is a West African, with master’s degrees in Forestry from Aberystwyth University and Psychology from the University of Frankfurt. Not only is he one of Namibia’s foremost ecologists and sustainability specialists, but he is also a shaman. When questioned about this extraordinary suite of disciplines he answered that he, being a West African was motivated to pursue his real true calling, that of shaman, by his discovery of the works one of Africa’s greatest teachers, Malidoma Patrice Somé. Hardly known in the West, Somé’s wrote one of the most profound spiritual guides to come from this continent, the astounding “The healing wisdom of Africa: Finding life purpose through nature, ritual and community”.

Allow me to give you an example of the profound findings of Somé, as practiced by Shikongo. Having worked all over this continent, I know that rural and isolated communities are deeply connected to the flux of everyday life, particularly observed through eyes attuned to the extraordinary and the unexplained. We westerners would take no notice of unexpected occurrences such as the hatching of a chicken with two heads or, perhaps, the inexplicable behaviour of weather or plants, but to many communities and individuals such happenings spell tragedy or disaster. The result hereof is sometimes hysteria, especially in women. This is where Sem has learned from Somé. The patient is asked to bring a spade and follow the shaman into the bush, where a sandy or loamy patch is selected. The patient then digs a long trench, the length of her body, and about half a meter deep, after which she strips off her clothes and lies down in the trench. The shaman now covers her in the fresh, warm soil. That’s it! In most cases, this treatment works instantly, bringing deep calm and peace, simply because the patient is earthed. The interface between patient and earth is the skin.

Have you ever seen a child in autumn, where you rake leaves into a gigantic heap and bury the child, only the head protruding? The child is instantly immobilized, dreamy and quiet. Methinks this is simply an example of ancient wisdom transposed into the 21st century.

The continent of Africa is perhaps one of the world’s greatest repositories of traditional wisdom, both in terms of the spiritual and the practical, and this treasure is being eroded at an alarming rate through the western invasion of technology. Isak Dinesen has warned us, decades ago, that we do not understand the African way, and that we are at risk of permanently breaking our common bond of humanity. In Shadows on the grass, she writes:

We Nations of Europe, I thought, who do not fear to floodlight our own innermost mechanisms, are here turning the blazing lights of our civilization into dark eyes, fitly set like the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, essentially different to ours. If, for long enough time we continue in this way to dazzle and blind the Africans, we may in the end bring upon them a longing for darkness, which will drive them into the gorges of their own, unknown mountains and their own, unknown minds”.

For the last ten years or so, after retirement, I embarked on a new life, a life of deep reading, writing and travel. It is indeed strange and wonderful, once an ecologist is set free from the deadly pressure of academia and teaching, how a worldview is formed. Mathematicians and musicians do their best work when they are young and unfettered, before their discipline forces them into conformity. The opposite is true for ecologists and naturalists where their understanding of the natural world, especially at the landscape level, is only formed much later in life. This allows them to make connections, sometimes at a subliminal level, and understand systems and system dynamics at the hidden level.

My current field of interest is primate behaviour and I am deeply blessed to have seen the great apes of Africa at close quarters and for extended periods. Although I have trekked Gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda 18 times and have spent hours in the midst of chimpanzee groups of up to 400 individuals in Budongo Forest, my all time favourite ape is the gelada, occurring in the majestic Simian Mountains of Ethiopia.

I can spend hours observing these remarkable creatures. Although not related to the Cecopithidae, and here I speak especially of the Vervet Monkey, which is known to have the most extensive vocal repertoire of all primates, they nevertheless hold the distinction of producing the most humanlike vocalizations of all primates. But the feature that distinguishes them above all other primates is their highly ritualized use of grooming as social appeasement and comfort. Given the male’s fearful array of dentition, touch and grooming has now replaced direct combat.

This now brings me to human tactile acuity. In 2013, Lisa Skedung et al published a remarkable paper: “Feeling small: exploring the tactile perception limits” in Scientific Reports 3. This is the abstract:

“The human finger is exquisitely sensitive in perceiving different materials, but the question remains as to what length scales are capable of being distinguished in active touch. We combine material science with psychophysics to manufacture and haptically explore a series of topographically patterned surfaces of controlled wavelength, but identical chemistry. Strain-induced surface wrinkling and subsequent templating produced 16 surfaces with wrinkle wavelengths ranging from 300 nanometer to 90 micrometer and amplitudes between 7 nanometer and 4.5 micrometer. Perceived similarities of these surfaces (and two blanks) were pairwise scaled by participants, and interdistances among all stimuli were determined by individual differences scaling (INDSCAL). The tactile space thus generated and its two perceptual dimensions were directly linked to surface physical properties – the finger friction coefficient and the wrinkle wavelength. Finally, the lowest amplitude of the wrinkles so distinguished was approximately 10 nm, demonstrating that human tactile discrimination extends to the nanoscale.”

Why on earth is the human skin so sensitive? Why, under controlled scientific conditions, can the human finger feel a microbe? This capacity borders on science fiction, and equals the ability of geckos to walk on vertical glass, using micro-fibres that function at the level of Van der Waal-forces.

It is my firm conviction that we have developed extraordinary tactile acuity for a number of important reasons, most of which give us an evolutionary advantage. But I also believe that there is a hidden function to this evolutionary suite. We have evolved to survive, but we have also survived to be intimately connected to our life-giving planet. Think about it. The aged, quietly sitting at a fire with a purring cat on their lap, the man’s hand on a dog’s head, the fluid interplay of horse and rider, the feel of a river pebble in the closed hand. We were born to touch and be touched.

This is known as cultural enrichment. These are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences, including:

Cultural diversity: The diversity of ecosystems is one factor influencing the diversity of cultures.
Spiritual and religious values: Many religions attach spiritual and reli- gious values to ecosystems or their components.
Knowledge systems (traditional and formal): Ecosystems influence the types of knowledge systems developed by different cultures.

Touch is the United Nations of humanity.

Only three years ago in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, I was leading a group of tourists to experience the glory of gorillas. After a particularly arduous trek, which lasted 14 hours, I returned to my little hut in the forest (tour guides are given the most appalling accommodation). I flopped down on my bed, too fatigued to sleep. Somewhere in the late afternoon I became aware of something or someone watching me. Raising my head slightly and looking over my chest, I saw a female gorilla at my door, silently looking at me.

Knowing full well that one is not supposed to interact with these potentially dangerous animals, I slowly stood up, taking my camera, and edged out of the door onto the wooden balcony. I landed up near the steps, holding my breath. The gorilla slowly moved towards me, first lying down in front of me, and then started examining my trouser legs with her hands.
She looked up, and saw, mouth pouted, a little scab on my elbow, and with her blunt nail, slowly scratched away at the skin. Having finished her grooming, she silently sat down, literally on my feet, and gently placed her cheek on my knees. At this point I started weeping.

Let me conclude this lecture with, perhaps, the most profound proof of our tactile connection with the world, and its remarkable power. For many years now I have been quietly working on a long-term study to investigate the possibility to palliatively use elements from nature as a comfort and support for the dying. The idea first came to me whilst working for our national broadcaster as an ecological consultant on a classic programme “How do you explain this”. Programs such as these tend to go through phases, where a particular subject becomes flavor of the month, and in this particular instance we were swamped with questions on mythological creatures such as milk drinking snakes, fire birds and other irrationalities which haunt the folk lore of a people largely rooted to the land. Being irrepressibly curious about the origin of such tales, I asked the listeners to submit even more questions and tales, most of which I passed to the Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal, our national Afrikaans dictionary.

Soon afterwards, I received a short letter in ringing prose which would have, unedited, become an instant classic in the genre of short stories. It went thus: In the late 1940s, a young woman of 20, living on the banks of the Orange River, was dying of consumption. As is the way with my folk, especially in rural communities, women of the district mustered to sit with the poor child during her last days. On the night she died, the young woman looked out of the bedroom window, saw the coming glow of the full moon and asked her caregiver whether they could carry her bed out into the approaching moonlight so that she could see it for the last time. They duly did this, for it was summer, and sat with her, silently. As the moon cleared the rim of the pearly horizon, the girl died. At this precise moment, an owl called. The goddess of death, Lilith, had spoken.

The second example that I want to use is, perhaps, the most profound. For many years I worked as an assistant to the Hospice team in my hometown Stellenbosch. Most of the work done in this polarized community was based in black townships, where poverty is the norm, sanitation practically non-existent, and destitution endemic.

Her name was Matie, she was 16 years old, and she was in the very last stages of rampant Aids: blind, deaf, incontinent and deeply, deeply confused. Her blind eyes searched in a predictable figure of eight pattern, her breathing was erratic. As we have been taught, the only way to alleviate such confusion was to hold the patient tightly and synchronize your breathing – this usually brought a measure of comfort. But this time, everything we tried failed – Matie could not find relief. I walked outside, hoping to find some consolation myself, and on impulse, collected some dried leaves and placed them in a small cardboard box. Moving back into this room of death, I, again impulsively, went to her bed and placed her cramped hands in the leaves. As if anesthetized, she relaxed instantly, the eyes stopped searching, the breathing normalized. I then knew, finally, that our love and connection to nature is hardwired into us, waiting silently to be activated. Some of us are fortunate to be earthed, in time, before we die. It’s easy, if you have a spirit that is open to tactile exploration, since, in the words of Louis Pasteur: “Chance favours the prepared spirit”. Take this chance.

I am utterly convinced that our love of nature is innate. Evidence of this is scant in our connected world, in the fleeting gratification of our emotional and electronic needs through Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp and, above all, our complete amputation from the earth. But, if we are prepared to open our ears, eyes, minds and wonderfully developed tactile facilities, we will again discover what Abrams calls “the delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an inanimate earth”. Nature, in its glorious complexity and chaos, is waiting for contact.

I will end this lecture with, arguably, the greatest statement ever made on the nobility of science and the nobility to be human. Jakob Bronowski, in his matchless series, “The Ascent of Man”, made this eternally true statement in the chapter “Knowledge and Certainty”:

“We have to touch people.”

I thank you

Dave Pepler