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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Humans — such amazing things

Early fall light, Conception Bay North. —
Early fall light, Conception Bay North. — Russell Wangersky/SaltWire Network

Early Sunday evening, in late-ish September, when it’s crisp out in that kind of way that is defiantly fall. Someone’s got an early fire in, smoke on the wind, and there aren’t many people out walking; it’s the sweet spot, when school night and suppertime have almost everyone corralled inside, except for occasional dog-walkers and the runners who want to be on their own.

Passed one yard where a coach was handing out slices of pizza to a bunch of kids wrapping up an abbreviated season. Still further along, and there was a physically distanced baseball team, barely teens, all in red uniforms, half-paying attention while a coach explained a particular nuance of defending the third-base line. Meanwhile, along the fence on the first base side, a long line of kitbags, some with baseball bats, spread right out to the outfield because each individual bag was a minimum of two metres apart.

I’m perfectly fine with the idea that much of our meaty mechanics come from the trial and error of evolution, stretched out over thousands of years.

It was about then that I realized I had felt something of this evening before, the particular sharp cool air that I think of as the bridge between summer and fall; that I’d actually felt it in Banff in spring, and also in Nevada and Arizona in November. And that it wasn’t distinctive like a remembered smell, but that it was the kind of thing that worked like smell, hauling up a particular loose grouping of memories.

Enough time on my hands then to actually stop and try to figure out what it was that was so striking. When I did, I was also struck by the sheer oddity of it. It was the temperature and feel of the air on the space between my upper lip and my nose, that strange little space where a moustache might be, if I had the ability to grow one successfully. The little dent there is actually called the philtrum, and in animals other than humans, it helps to tie together sensory organs and deliver complex odours to the right sort of tissue.

But with us, it’s just a dent — strange, then, that a couple of times a year, cool air crashes unexpectedly into that area on me, and reminds me precisely of the same experience.

We’re odd creatures; sometimes, when I’m holding things in both hands, like holding a screw upright between my left thumb and forefinger, while at the same time grasping a screwdriver in my right hand using my wrist and forearm to twist, I’m quite simply blown away by the complexity that’s involved with who we are.

I’m perfectly fine with the idea that much of our meaty mechanics come from the trial and error of evolution, stretched out over thousands of years.

But I’m much more fascinated about how the sensory information that floods us every single time, from smells to the myriad aspects of touch, even to sensations like cold and pain, end up knitting themselves together into odd collections in the huge storehouse of our minds.

Why my head would store a scrap of a memory of cold air on my lip from Alberta with similar scraps from eastern Newfoundland and two western states both intrigues and confuses me. I can’t imagine the purpose — I mean, maybe, in the past, that skill would somehow help someone to survive, like an opposing thumb and forefinger clearly would. At the same time, that span of a remembered feeling stretches across a minimum of 14 years — or, for humankind of generations past, a large amount of a lifespan.

We are marvels, beyond explanation.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.

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