Falling Leaves and Deep Roots
Abscission, according to Wikipedia, comes from the Latin ab, meaning away, and scindere, meaning to cut. This time of year abscission is all around us. But our word for abscission is Fall, the beautiful season in the Ozarks and much of this country when temperatures are moderate, humidity is low, and the leaves turn fiery earth tone colors. The colors change our visual landscape, and many of us await with excitement for the week of peak color, then go on a scenic drive in the country to take it all in. The name for the season, fall, is a misnomer of sorts. Leaves do fall from the trees, but they fall because nature has programmed them to do so. It is not as simple as the sufficient pull of the wind for the leaves to separate themselves from the tree branches, and fill our yards. We are witness to nature’s miraculous adaptation to the change in season – cooler temperatures and less daylight – as deciduous trees activate a thin layer of cells between the branch and the leaf stalk. As these scissor cells grow they literally push the leaves off the tree. Before it does so the tree directs nutrients critical to its existence from the leaves to the roots so it is best-suited to survive the winter. “Trees are deeply programmed by eons of evolution to insist that their leaves drop away,” says NPR science writer, Robert Krulwich. It is in their nature.
As a physician and health writer for Ozarks Living magazine I have come to understand that much of chronic disease is the result of living against our nature as human beings. My favorite saying to patients when I teach them about food-as-medicine is to use this rule of thumb, if it has a mother or it comes from the earth. Another food writer, Michael Pollan, says “shop the edges of the supermarket, the produce section, where there are no health claims.” Avoid the middle of the store, where the foods “scream of their whole grain goodness, including cereals that will save you from heart attacks.” In the absence of “packages and big budgets,” Pollan goes on, “the quieter the food the likely the healthier the food.”
Is it possible that the best way to eat is to eat food that our body’s recognize based on “eons of evolution?” I think it is, and Pollan would certainly agree. Unfortunately, we have to go deeper because many of the items that appear as food to our eyes have been genetically altered, sprayed with pesticides and fungicides, pumped with hormones and antibiotics, stressed in cages or stock yards, or simply victim to the pollutants we dump into our waters, such as mercury.
We are fortunate in the Ozarks that, as a whole, we do not live in a food desert. This is not entirely the case. The geography of the food desert can be as little as one square mile in impoverished neighborhoods where transportation and budgets are limited. In these areas the most readily accessed is the local convenience store where one finds edibles masquerading as food. These food-like substances tip the scales of normalcy that make up our biology and ultimately trigger an alarm in the body called “inflammation.” When these food masqueraders are consumed on a regular basis inflammation becomes long-standing or chronic. To make this fire dance even more complicated our food culture demands, and the marketing of food delivers, sugar in all its forms in a far greater proportion than what we might have found or consumed as hunter-gatherers. Here is the epidemic of adult onset diabetes and obesity now seen with increasing frequency among children in our country. The diets found in traditional cultures are the diets that are closer to nature and in harmony with native surroundings. Not surprisingly, where chronic inflammation is low conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, dental caries, auto-immunity, and dementia are uncommon.
Yesterday, my wife and I made a Saturday morning drive to the farmer’s market where we bought tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, peppers, daikon, apples, and those hard-to-find free range organic chicken livers that only I (not her) will eat. Today, I am seated on my deck enjoying the beautiful fall weather while I find the words for this bi-monthly column. About half the leaves in my backyard have fallen from the trees with the help of those scissor cells and a little nudge from the wind. I learned another word today, eudaimonia. It means happiness or welfare, or human flourishing. Credit for this word must be given to Dr. Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology. Abscission and eudaimonia are words that tickle the intellect and nourish this writer’s search for meaning. These are the deep roots. But for now they help me think of all the ways I am connected to nature, and the joy this time of year brings.