Monday, December 08, 2008

wee escapades and intimations of mortality

I'm somewhat exiled from my second family these days, so I heard with horror yesterday that my fave girl, six-year-old Courtney, has been in the wars again, having broken her arm during a family party. I was at Sarah's for a co-op bbq, and she told me that the day before, the intrepid girleen had been jumping off a wardrobe into a portacot, showing off to some younger kids, when the greenstick fracture occurred. Her screams were impressive, apparently, and they no doubt scuppered the party. 
About eighteen months ago, Courtney was playing with a friend in a field near Mount Gambier. There had been a campfire, and the ashes were still smouldering. Courtney tripped and fell, landing with her forearms in the hot cinders. 
Courtney now has her arm in a cast, which she's enthusiastically getting everyone to sign. I will see her in a day or two, I hope. Unless something thoroughly unforeseen happens, she'll make a full recovery. When she was burned before, people weren't quite so sanguine about it, burns being much more iffy injuries. There was talk of skin grafts, permanent disfigurement. She was flown from Mount Gambier to Adelaide, I think with the Flying Doctor Service, charming the socks off the medical staff along the way. She received excellent treatment, and again made a full recovery, not a trace, or barely a trace, remaining. 
Naturally there has been much talk of the resilience of children, and there's plenty of truth in that, but Courtney is also a child of good fortune being an Australian, twenty-first century girl. 
The other day, I read an intriguing article in Cosmos magazine. Its theme was that human evolution may have come to a halt, because we have reached the stage of a 'grand averaging'. As part of the argument, geneticist Steve Jones points out that 
In Shakespeare's time, two out of three babies were dead before they were 21. In Darwin's day, just half of them were dead. Today, that's down to just one percent. That's a great achievement in the developed world, but for evolution it means that there are no differences in mortality to the age of reproduction, and therefore no material for natural selection.
This is just a hint of Jones's elaborate and really quite compelling argument, and I hope to reflect further on this stuff in a later piece, but for now I want to focus on the accident-prone and fortunate Courtney. 
In those earlier times of high child mortality, it was not unusual for women's pregnancies to reach into double figures, to try to ensure the survival of the one, two or three children that women choose to limit themselves to today, with the expectation that all will be bouncy happy and healthy. And that situation would've pertained not only in Shakespeare's time, but for centuries and millenia before that, leaving aside the odd enlightened ancient civilisation. In fact, Courtney's campfire accident prompts me to imagine the earliest days of homo sapiens, when campfires were de rigueur, and the risk of getting burnt in the family or tribal fire might well have been the most serious and frequent one faced by toddlers. How would an accident like Courtney's be treated then? Maybe they kept a few tried and tested balms in the cave. Maybe they licked their wounds a lot. Maybe, after a few hours of moaning and groaning, they'd get sick of the child and cuff her out of the way. Certainly there would be largely unconscious calculations as to how much time and effort they'd spend on the hurt child, what with all the other mouths to feed and survival tasks to undertake. Quite possibly, if the wounds began to fester, they'd dispose of her over a cliff or with a heavy rock. More likely, they'd simply abandon her when it came time to move hunting grounds. 
Broken limbs, the result of climbing accidents or tribal or familial infighting, would have been commonplace of course. Courtney's greenstick fracture might've been treated with a splint of sorts, and she would've survived, misshapen but not horribly so, especially considering that few of her fellows would've escaped intact from various tumbles and spearings and bludgeonings. That was life, but not as we know it. Today we expect miracles, and get them every day. If not, there'll be hell to pay. 
So I look forward to signing that cast and hearing her tell of her latest little escapade.


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