The Casual Blog

Tag: osprey

Spirit bears, dental hygiene, and why our eating matters

A rare spirit bear, also known as a Kermode bear, near Klemtu, British Columbia

During my recent trip to the wilds of British Columbia, I didn’t have room for all my new photo files on my hard drive, so this past week I bought a massive (14 TB) new one.   Once I got the new device running, I edited more of my wildlife photos. Those included shots of the very rare spirit bear, an osprey that had caught a salmon, and a humpback whale, some of which are here.  It was a moving experience to share space for a little while with these creatures.  

This week it was time for my six-month dental check up. I’m a big believer in good tooth care, since we each get only one set of teeth, and it’s much more difficult to eat without them.  So I put some effort into rinsing, brushing, and flossing, since if I don’t, who will? Well, actually, it kind of takes a village. I’ve got a whole team giving advice, encouragement, and occasional repairs at Dr. Williams’s general dentistry practice.  

Of course, my tooth health depends on a lot of others.  I’m thinking of all the hardworking folks who make the dental floss, toothbrushes, and tooth paste, who wire the building and and keep the electric grid working, who put in the plumbing, who operate the water system, and trusted teachers from my childhood, especially my Mom.  

An osprey and its prey. Moments later, the fish got loose, and was caught mid-air by a bald eagle.

But of those closest to my mouth now, I want to thank  D, my latest dental hygienist, who pushed me hard to add a Waterpik to my routine, which I did a few months back.  I used to think Waterpiks were silly and useless gadgets, but I’m now a believer. D says my Waterpiking has been very good for my gums.  

I like that D is truly passionate about tooth care, and I always learn some interesting tooth facts in our cleaning sessions.  She pointed out that TV and movie people all whiten their teeth nowadays, whereas in older movies teeth are grayer. She told me that drugstore whitening products use the same chemical as custom work (that is, peroxide) and generally work fine, but they likely won’t go on as evenly. 

In moments of existential dread, I’ve sometimes wondered what’s the use of worrying about teeth, or any bodily maintenance issues.  With all the enormous risks on our horizon, including nuclear weapons, asteroid strikes, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, runaway superintelligent artificial intelligence, and of course the dire effects of global warming, it’s difficult to factor in individual bodily worries.  The vastly different scale of the two sorts of problems prevents comparisons.

But we can’t help but feel that we as individuals have some significance, and our lives are worth taking some trouble over.  Along this line, I’m reading This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Haaglund, a Swedish philosopher at Yale.  Haaglund suggests that each individual carries various identities, such as parent, child, professional, church goer, and customer, which may be added to or fluctuate over time.  Part of the essential work of living a life is choosing how to realize the goals associated with those identities and prioritizing when the identities conflict. Haaglund’s theory is thought-provoking, and I expect to have more to say about it in a future post.  

But for now, I’m comfortable that having serviceable teeth is not inconsistent with trying to stop environmental degradation or prevent nuclear accidents.  Our identity as caretakers of our bodies is entirely reconcilable with our identity as citizens trying to avoid catastrophe.  

Grizzly bear cub

 In fact, the issues of personal health, societal well being,  and the environment are interconnected.  One of the great ironies of modern first world life is how, with all our wealth and knowledge, and with the miracles of modern dentistry, we eat so poorly.  Most of our deadliest health risks, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity, are closely related to our typical food choices.  

In my nature photography travels over the last few weeks, I’ve shared meals with a lot of prosperous, well-educated, and gifted people, who have traveled widely and made some beautiful photographs.  Much as I enjoyed our talks, I was really saddened to see how poorly a lot of them nourished themselves. Offered a choice between French fries and fruit, most always took the fries.

Grizzly mom getting a plant food snack

 I’d have to be nuts to think of taking away anybody’s French fries (and I admit, I enjoy them from time to time), but I’m just saying, fruit is generally the better choice.  Given how important eating is to our health, it’s remarkable how little most of us think about it, and how many of us do it unwisely. How well or poorly we nourish ourselves is a major determinant of the length and quality of our lives.  It’s a really big deal.  

So I was glad to see this was the subject of a recent op ed  piece in the NY Times entitled Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us  The authors explained that our typical diet accounts for elevated death rates, and noted that this is a political issue that is not being discussed by politicians.   They proposed thinking of how we eat as a medical issue, and encouraging healthy eating as a fundamental part of a healthy life. They had several practical ideas for new policies, including getting doctors to put an emphasis on nutrition and discouraging junk food with taxes.  They suggest that improvements to our eating would simplify the problem of how we provide health care, since we wouldn’t have to provide so much of it.   

All this seems sensible, but somehow our nutrition system is harder to talk about than our healthcare system (which is also hard).  The food industry has done an amazingly effective job at conditioning us to think of food as primarily about fun, rather than survival.  Even suggesting that we should eat more plant foods and less processed junk sounds kind of grumpy and unfun. At parties, insisting on talking about healthy eating is a good way to get some alone time.

But this mindset may be slowly changing.  There was a report this week that the meat industry is fighting the growing popularity of plant-based meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.    The industry is pushing for new state laws to outlaw using the word meat to describe these products.  My first reaction to this was outrage, but then I realized, it’s kind of good news: leaders of possibly the cruelest business on the planet are worried about their continued profitability.  They must view plant food as serious competition.

And there’s increasing awareness  (though still not enough) that better diets are good not just for individual human bodies, but for the planet.  For example, industrialized meat production is a significant contributor to global warming. As the Times noted this week, even reducing our meat consumption by 25% would significantly lower our collective carbon footprint.    

But while I was organizing these thoughts, the Washington Post reported that in connection with  the next version of the federal dietary guidelines, the Trump administration has prohibited the use of scientific studies likely to support eating less meat, dairy, sugar, and processed food.    There is, of course, a lot of science that points in that direction, and it’s beyond irresponsible not to at least take a close look at it.  If your objective were to destroy more of the natural world and maximize people’s likelihood of an early death, one way to get there is exactly this:  suppress the science.

Near where we saw the spirit bear

A charming New England beach trip, with friends, shorebirds, croquet, and a spot of evolutionary theory

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Last weekend we took Friday off and flew to Boston, then drove down to Westport, Massachusetts, a small coastal town on the border with Rhode Island, where we were privileged to be guests of Sally’s cousin and her family. The area has a lot of New England charm, with stone walls and farm fields. Our hosts’ house was beautiful, and also well designed for relaxing. We did a lot of sitting around and talking, eating, and laughing.
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Two mornings I got up early and walked down to the beach to stroll with my camera. The beach was rocky, but pretty. It was peaceful to just walk with no one around as the sun came up. I watched the shore birds, and felt a combination of amusement, delight, and wonder.
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In the backyard, we saw a beautifully camouflaged tree frog sitting on the stone wall. It decided to jump onto Sally, which she liked.
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We also took a boat ride and saw quite a few ospreys, including nesting fledglings and patrolling parents.
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We took along a 12-week-old golden retriever puppy, the cutest thing ever, friendly and curious, with amazingly soft fur. This one had a specially designed life jacket.
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On Sunday after a beach walk and a lovely breakfast, we watched the end of the British Open, where Rory McElroy triumphed like a true champion. Then we played some croquet in the backyard. It had been some years (like maybe 40) since last I tried croquet, and I was definitely rusty. But it’s a fun game, and I’d enjoy playing again.
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It was also fun to sit on the back porch and read. I finished re-reading Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived, by Chip Walter,a book that must have not been too successful, since Jocelyn had a free copy for me. It is a non-specialist science book about the evolution of homo sapiens and other humans.

I hadn’t known that we were only one of at least twenty-seven human species that existed in the last seven million years, some of which overlapped in time with us. Our kind originated about 200,000 years ago, but came close to extinction about 70,000 years ago, when only 10,000 or so individuals were alive in southern Africa. Walter’s book explores how it is that we alone survived and became what we are.
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Our brains had something to do with it, of course, but that begs the question why our brains became what they are. According to Walter, it relates to our long childhoods, which relate to our ability to learn from other humans, which relates to our social natures. We are naturally curious – learning machines. And we are creative, because creativity gains attention for the individual and brings innovative progress for the group. Our development of symbolic thought and complex communication systems allowed for social organization that made us the dominant creature on the planet. There’s a lot interesting fact and theory here, and also an acknowledgement that there’s still much we don’t know about ourselves. A stimulating, worthwhile book.