Public Comment

Healthy Living: Adapting an Age-Old Body to Contemporary Berkeley

By Marcella Murphy
Friday August 03, 2007

I have found that the challenge of healthy living is this: to adapt the body that my ancestors carefully evolved to live a particular way of life to the demands of life in twenty-first century Berkeley. What an undertaking! 

My hunter/gatherer ancestors walked all day, every day just to amass food, water, and fire fuel enough for survival. They did not read printed text, but they were well aware of the messages the various flora and fauna communicated through scent, sound, and color. They had to learn to read the signs of the winds and the clouds to avoid being stuck in the wrong places during rough weather. They weren’t smarter than I am, they just developed other ways of learning about a very different world than the one I experience. 

So, what did they do? They gave me a body that, if it does not get lots of exercise every day, will develop all kinds of cardiovascular problems. They gave me eyes that see colors well, but are poor at distinguishing detail. The gave me a legendary sense of smell, which is highly undervalued in a culture that believes that only pine, floral, and lemon are acceptable scents. Those hunter/gatherers definitely did not prepare me for life in my current habitat. 

Although they did provide me with a remarkable immunity to the various viruses and bacteria that share my habitat, they could never have foreseen the dangers that beset me each day as I walk streets infested with powerful motor vehicles which, though they are not so much hostile to the pedestrian as they are indifferent, are nonetheless deadly. For that, I must use the instincts they probably honed while on the alert for wild animals lurking in thick vegetation. Even so, I doubt if they provided me with any protection against the toxic fumes the modern hazardous beasts spew. 

There is evidence that at least some of my ancestors became herders and farmers. They also walked all day behind the flocks or the plow, but they had a pattern of eating well in the warm months and very lean in the winter. Since I have access to the same amounts of food all year long, I have a tendency to gain weight in the winter, no matter how much I try to avoid it. Luckily, the winter weight seems to melt off with the lengthening days without too much effort, but creatures raised in captivity, be they animal or vegetable; predator or prey; develop different characteristics than those whose lives are spent in the wild, and every year the doctors and scientists tell me that something else that I enjoy eating is bad for me. Since truly wild food is all but unavailable in Berkeley, I eat what I can and try not to lose sleep over the consequences. 

Foraging in Berkeley presents me with possibilities that would surely have overwhelmed those distant ancestors. Nearly every tribe on the planet has brought its cuisine within my reach. Like most of the people I know, I find the greatest challenge is to pace myself. Few meals, small meals, and no all-day or late-night snacking seem to work best for me. 

For low-emission transportation, nothing beats a good long walk, especially after a healthy meal. Walking allows me to connect with my fellow creatures, human, animal, and plant, and to stay informed about what is going on in the neighborhood. Over the years I have come to recognize many Berkeley faces; merchants and mendicants; children and the adults they become; longtime residents and new arrivals. I especially enjoy watching the fruit trees go through their annual cycle, and greeting the roses (the girls, I call them) that bloom at the end of my block. Sometimes I chuckle as I pass a gym and see people who pay a fee to walk on a treadmill to nowhere, while I walk from my home to my destination for free, with lots of entertainment along the way. To each his own. 

The main thing that seems to keep me sane is to remind myself that, since nature never intended that humans should live to be more that about 40-years-old, I have long since exceeded my allotted time. Everything from here on is overtime (which is worth at least time and a half, right?)  



Call for Essays 


Healthy Living 

As part of an ongoing effort to print stories by East Bay residents, The Daily Planet invites readers to write about their experiences and perspectives on living healthy.  

Please e-mail your essays, no more than 800 words, to firstperson We will publish the best essays in upcoming issues.