From Icekid to Iceman

20 February, 2019
By Marco Levi

A feel-good story has been making its way around the world. It is the story of Casey Lynn Hathaway, a 3-year old boy who was found alive after being lost for two days and two nights, alone in the woods of North Carolina in night temperatures below freezing.

 

Children, cold and brown fat

When rangers found him, entangled in a briar patch, the boy appeared to be in remarkably normal condition. While on social networks people responded with references to a "miracle of God", nobody pointed out how the incident could be metaphorically ascribed to the deep connection between a young human's body and the cold. As research has demonstrated, children have abundant stores of what is known as ‘brown adipose tissue’— or brown fat. When their bodies are exposed to low temperatures, the mitochondria encased in these cells start burning off the surrounding fat particles. Heat is released as a byproduct of the produced energy, and helps maintain body temperature, thus ensuring infants’ survival under extreme conditions. In 2009, Marken Lichtenbelt's scientific team were able to locate this type of cell in human adults, too, particularly around the neck and spine areas, but their superabundance in small children warrants a consideration: perhaps there is some kind of genetic memory binding children and cold. As if Man had always known this. Not about the brown fat, but the importance of cold for the body.

 

Cold as an instrument of life

Many ancient rituals practiced by inhabitants of colder climates involved exposing newborns to the cold. To this day, particularly in certain remote parts of Russia, you can still hear of mothers "baptizing" their offspring in the icy waters of frozen rivers and creeks.
It is as if early humans believed that in those small bodies, cold could be akin to a life-starting force, turning on the engine. Of course, we should consider the primitive world. A world of unbridled natural forces, where no man or woman could afford the luxury of not being strong, of not having to work on him or herself with the only kind of tools available to them: one's own body. Blood, breath, and will. Maybe instinctively, early humans knew they were incomplete at birth, and saw life as an opportunity to fulfil their innate potential. One had but to look around. More energetically complete creatures existed in nature. Bears and wolves could evidently be in the snow without freezing to death. The human community clearly needed individuals like that in order to survive. Strong men and women. And the message had to be communicated to the newborn. To their brown fat. And so, for those babies, cold functioned as a kind of ancestral imprint, a small initiation so that a small life could feel on its skin that the good old days inside the womb were over. That winter, too, was around: the harsh winter of the dawn of man.

 

"A good bear saved me!"

Another noteworthy aspect of Casey's story were the words that he, despite being in shock, was able to say to the ranger. Casey revealed how a good bear made sure he was safe by watching over him. Now, whether this was an actual wonder of nature à la "Jungle Book", freezing North Carolina edition, or fairy tale-like fascination from a brave kid who just didn't want to die, it probably doesn't matter. What matters is the underlying notion in this fortunately happy-ended story. In mankind's subconscious, traces remain that bind together extreme cold, humans, and, like Casey reminded us, even bears— all under the banner of the hard road to travel in order to stay alive. Since the very beginning; since being born. And even while living in the central heating of modern times, there's a feeling inside all humans telling us that nature is the true dimension, and that work must be done in order to take that inner nature back.


Photo by Mark Basarab on Unsplash