The two best summers of my life were unusual.
For the first, I was 20 years old (if memory serves), and I had moved back in with my parents, between careers and life paths. I had a 1986 Toyota 4Runner, a gym membership, a job as a Pizza delivery driver, a few hundred dollars, and not much else. But I had a family, who helped me out.
But my family and I didn’t always get along. It was never anything terrible — no abuse, no drugs, nothing of that nature. We just didn’t always see eye-to-eye on things. We had a disagreement over house rules (something related to expected chore-work), and my parents presented me with two options: either conform to the rules, or live somewhere else.
So I moved into my 4Runner.
I lived in that truck for about three months, hitting the laundromat about once a week to do clothes, hitting the gym (and the shower at the gym) every morning, and working about four nights a week. And the disagreement with my parents was amicable enough that they even invited me over for dinner every week or so, even though I wasn’t welcome to actually live there. All in all, it was pretty idyllic, for a 22-year-old single guy.
The second best-summer was a few years later. I had moved to Minnesota to become a truck driver. After living with an uncle for a month or so, getting CDL classes in line, I ended up camping about seven miles away from the school. During the week, I would wake up before dawn, take a chilly shower (the camp-site had no hot water), hop on my bike with my books, and pedal over to the school room. After learning about diesel engines and truck law for the day, I would swing by the store and grab a six-pack of beer: one drink for each evening, and one for my uncle when he arrived on Friday to help me pack up my gear and head to his house for the weekend.
The evenings were the best part. After biking back to the site, I would go for a walk through the fields there, just absorbing nature, and sometimes reading a pocket copy of the Iliad, which I took everywhere with me at the time. I would read, and when I returned from my walk, I would sit down, have dinner, and study my driving material. When it got too dark to read (sometimes as early as 7:30), I would go to bed.
It is hard to describe what exactly made those summers so enjoyable. If you had asked me at the time, I probably could not have put my finger on it. In hindsight, I think that they were both expressions of individual agency, in opposition to what convention dictated I ought to do. This probably had something to do with it.
But more than this, both summers were exceptionally conducive to health, specifically regarding my relationship with the sun.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the sun is cancer, but I have come to believe that the opposite is true: the more sun, the better. This counter-intuitive connection is one that Yukio Mishima came to in his essay on the subject, and that Bronze-Age Pervert wrote about in his more recent book, Bronze-Age Mindset, which I have reviewed elsewhere on the site. But it wasn’t until I read this fascinating blog-article that I retrospectively made the sun-connection in my own experiences:
Some physicians warn us never to expose bare skin to the sun.
Anthropologists ask: if sunlight is a fatal poison, why did natural selection strip away our fur?
We might expect naked chimps and gorillas instead. They live under a jungle canopy.
Our human ancestors sweltered under a tropical sun for millions of years since Australopithecus.
Yet only the hairless survived.
Scientists have struggled to account for the adaptive value of human nudity.
Could it be that sunlight provides essential benefits in addition to destructive radiation?
Natural light energizes cellular processes, influences gene expression, and governs hormones and behavior.
Without natural light we develop deficiency symptoms.
Does that make light essential nutrition?
I cannot recommend reading the full post highly enough. The science can be a bit heavy in places, but the gist is clear, even to the scientifically-illiterate: we were built to absorb the sun, preferably with as little clothes or chemicals between us as possible. Our unnatural sleep schedules, unnatural food, and unnatural light make us less happy, and less healthy.
During my summer in the truck, and my camping adventure to get my CDL in Minnesota, I was waking up with the sun, or slightly before. Just as importantly, in Minnesota, I was also going to bed when the sun went down. They were perhaps the only times in my life that I actually did that.
Living alone, without much in the way of technological comforts or social support, is generally accepted as the worst way to live. And yet, for me, these were immensely — and somewhat inexplicably — enjoyable periods of my life.
I believe that the sun is the missing ingredient — not just in my own life in my earlier 20’s, but in the majority of middle class people’s lives today. Tacitly, we more or less define “civilization” in terms of the barriers we can errect between the elements and ourselves. We wake up when we want, and go to bed when we want (is it really when we want?). If it’s cold out, we turn up the heater; hot out, we turn on the AC. I’ve written about swimming in cold water before, and perhaps another benefit of exposure to the cold is merely the tuning of one’s body in with the seasons. One would expect a similar benefit to heat exposure, and wouldn’t you know it: the health benefits of spending time in a sauna are also very well known.
After living in the greater Seattle area for most of my life, I can say that living in blue-skied hawk-country is a physiologically different experience. It doesn’t actually rain as much in Seattle as people imagine, but it is basically always overcast. There is very little difference in appearance between 7AM and 3PM. It’s all more or less the same grey-tone sky. Even if people did get out from behind their computers and desks and classrooms and offices and basement TV rooms, there wouldn’t be much sanity in the sky for them. This is particularly tragic, as the Pacific Northwest attracts so many outdoorsy types — bike-to-workers, mountain-hikers, and weekend kayakers. For me, it was one of the great redeeming qualities of that region.
I learned recently that Seattle is actually not the suicide-capital of the United States (not even close to it, in fact). But the real suicide capital — Los Vegas, at a whopping 34.5/100,000 — is one of the few places with a more disturbed and unnatural lighting situation than Seattle. The entire state of Alaska — “land of the Midnight Sun,” and of no sun at all during the winter — also has an unusually high suicide rate. While suicide is not a perfect metric for mental health, it does help illustrate patterns of poor psychological health, and unhappiness. Seattle, for all of its technology, its comforts, its safety nets, and its compassion, is still a stressful and unhappy place.
But further East and over the mountains, beyond the cedars and into the pines and wheat fields, where you can see the sun rise and set in the open geography, the sun is king. You can see it on people’s skin. They aren’t as rich. Their cars aren’t as nice. And with the advent of the internet, people are beginning to move indoors for work and recreation, in rates approaching those of the coast. But still, there is a much lower level of collective anxiety. The time passes more clearly, with clear morning, afternoon, and evening, in addition to defined periods of summer and winter. It is easier to find yourself in the natural rhythm of the environment, and this — I think — provides a seatedness to living, an assuredness in where you are and where you are headed. Aside from the clear health benefits of physical exposure to nature, an awareness and synchronization with the natural cycles of nature seems to be immensely beneficial, to one’s health and to one’s sanity. Perhaps even as important as nutrition and fitness training.
And, of course, sun-tanned bodies simply look better.