25 September 2010

Sleeping Rough

In Cassiobury Park at dusk I noticed a man of middle years, a little way ahead, making a slow and strangely aimless progress under the trees. Dressed in a dark overcoat and of outwardly normal appearance, it was at once apparent that he was anything but normal. His very walk betrayed him as one of society’s misfits, mentally or socially deficient, unable to make sense of the crazy set of rules devised by the rest of us. He had the air of utter solitude, the desolation and loneliness that mark the tramp: and a moment later he stooped to examine a discarded cigarette packet.

There are others sleeping rough in the park and woods. Occasionally, in out-of-the-way places, their shelters may be found: comfortless lairs of brushwood and polythene, with a cache of empty old tins and packets nearby.

Our own shelters are scarcely more permanent. We are separated from the wilderness only by the thickness of a pane of glass. Out there, as the winter begins to bite, conditions at night are frequently lethal for the soft, warm, high-tech machinery of our bodies.

The human animal evolved in the tropics, and is designed to work best in tropical temperatures. As man slowly migrated northwards he had to adopt new strategies for survival. The endless forests of temperate Europe teemed with game: the trade-off between cold and hunger was well worth the effort.

First he lost most of the pigment in his skin. It was no longer needed to protect the body from too much ultraviolet radiation, and even proved a handicap, for much of the body’s vitamin D is produced by the action of sunlight on the skin.

To help with heat insulation, he became more hairy. Of more importance, he developed the practice of wearing clothes, using the pelts of prey animals. Clothes are as old as northern man himself: the arguments of nudists that it is more natural to go without them in these latitudes are utterly fallacious.

The most important asset of all was fire. The earliest true men, belonging to a species called Homo erectus, used to keep a fire burning perpetually. Probably one member of the tribe was charged with tending it; when on the move, the fire was nurtured in the form of smouldering embers.

The capture and taming of fire represents one of the key feats in man’s mastery of the environment. It must have happened independently many times and in many places over aeons of time. Fire occurs spontaneously in nature, often following a lightning strike. It has no substance, yet gives pain and destroys. Its forms and colours are those of a spirit. Early men must have viewed it with terror.

But they must also have noticed how a bush fire drives the game before it, and must have taken advantage of the opportunities spontaneous fires gave. Any animal which died in the fire and was part roasted would have been eaten too, and they would have noticed with pleasure how much better this flesh tasted and how much easier it was for them to eat.

Then, sooner or later, one individual, more daring than the others, made the leap of imagination that even then was the stamp of genius.

The invention of friction-fire is even more remarkable. As any Boy Scout will tell you, it’s not just a question of rubbing two sticks together. Lighting a fire by friction is a difficult operation, as well as being hard work.

Another brilliant invention – the bow and arrow – gave rise to the bow-drill, in which the string of the bow is looped once round a stick. If the top of the stick is then held in place using a slightly hollow pebble, and the bow worked back and forth, the stick revolves at high speed. Result: smouldering punk-wood in a few moments, fire in a few moments more.

With ready fire and warm clothing, man moved ever northwards. The Inuit, whose unique way of life is now becoming a thing of the past, reached the ultimate in ingenuity with their igloos, houses made of snow itself.

The ingenuity of our ancestors in southern England led to winter pit-dwellings which must have been extremely cosy. Excavations at Stone Age campsites show an impressive degree of co-operation and skill in the construction of these pits. Roofed with branches and ferns and lined with skins, such a house would be occupied by a whole family group. Each occupant acted as a radiator, and after a very short time the interior temperature would be well up into the comfort zone.

In building these dwellings, as in a vast range of other techniques, the people who used to roam this landscape were experts at survival. Nearly all their skills depended on mutual co-operation and division of labour within the tribe. Solitude for a Stone Age man meant certain death, and probably, as in some primitive tribes still clinging on today, expulsion was the ultimate punishment.

The unfortunates sleeping rough in modern Britain have none of ancient man’s knowledge, nor can they draw on the inexhaustible supply of food the forest provided. Whippendell Wood would barely support even one family. The ecosystem has effectively been wrecked: the tramp must depend on the grocer’s shop along with the rest of us.

The grocer’s shop relies on an agriculture which would be virtually impossible without chemicals. If for some reason the supply of chemicals ceased, the whole structure of our society would collapse.

The old and unfit would simply die. For the rest, the black-and-white laws of survival beyond the window-pane, now faced only by the tramp, would become the new reality.

On an early-autumn night, that is a sobering thought indeed.

(Introduction to these pieces; see all)

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