The temperature was in the 90’s, just like it had been for weeks, and the humidity was mosquito-like, which it had been for weeks, also, when my wife and I went for a walk on the multi-purpose path in the Rocky River Metropark.
The Metroparks, more than a hundred years in the making, are a series of nature preserves, more than 21,000 acres, which encircle Cleveland and its suburbs. There are hundreds of miles of paths and horse trails, picnic areas and fishing spots, and eight golf courses.
Our home is perched alongside the eastern edge of the Rocky River valley and we are able to get to the park in minutes, where it is considerably cooler in the shade of the forest and along the river.
We walked down the Detroit Road entrance to the park, past the marina, the Dog Park and the soccer fields, as far as Tyler Field, before turning around. As we neared Hogsback Hill, an isolated high point on the near bank of the Rocky River, I suggested we go up to see my friend Barron Cannon, whom we hadn’t seen since the spring.
“You know I don’t want to,” my wife said.
“I know,” I said.
Barron Cannon is a trim young man in his 30s who lives in a yurt he built in the backyard of his parent’s house at the top of Hogsback Lane. He has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Philosophy and is a committed yogi as well as a radical vegan.
“He needs to be committed,” my wife has said to me on several occasions, usually right after we have visited him and are out of earshot.
“Why can’t he occupy Wall Street instead of his mom’s backyard?” she likes to add.
Barron Cannon does not have a job or a car or a television. He has never voted.
“I’ll vote when anarchists are on the ballot,” he once told me.
I wanted to remind him that anarchists who vote are like atheists who pray, but I thought, what was the point?
We found Barron Cannon in the backyard, lying face-up in the sun on an Elmo Sesame Street beach blanket on the south side of his yurt. He was naked except for a fig leaf covering his private parts.
It was a literal fig leaf.
My wife looked away when he propped himself up on his elbows and the fig leaf rolled away
“Sorry,” he said, pulling on a pair of cargo shorts. “I was getting my daily dose of sunshine here on the acropolis.”
He was tan, from tip to toe. I could see he hadn’t been using an SPF lotion of any kind.
“You should be careful,” I suggested. “Too much sun isn’t good for you.”
“That’s where you’re right, but even more wrong,” he replied.
“Too much sun may be bad, depending on your skin and heredity, but avoiding the sun is not good for anyone. Remember, we evolved in the sun, living outdoors for almost all of our two million years on this planet.”
He put on a pair of old-fashioned Ray-Ban black frame sunglasses and leaned towards me.
“Then, not very long ago, we started messing with Mother Nature and started avoiding the sun. When you avoid the sun you may not get rickets, because you can always take a pill, but all the pills in the world can’t replace the real thing.”
He pointed up to the sky.
”When you strictly avoid the sun you increase the risk of dying from internal cancers,” he added.
I must have looked skeptical, because he tilted his dark glasses down his nose Lolita-style and exhaled.
“Look it up,” he said.
It turns out the International Journal of Epidemiology more than 30 years ago reported that colon cancer rates are nearly three times higher in New York than in New Mexico. Since then many other studies have found solar UVB induced vitamin D is also associated with reduced risks of breast and rectal cancers.
“When the government and our medical organizations started telling us to avoid the sun, they literally forgot to tell us we would need to get our vitamin D somewhere else,” he said`.
By this time my wife had wandered off and was commiserating with Barron Cannon’s mother about the flower garden her son had torn out and replaced with a root vegetable plot that spring.
“Vitamin D is a hormone,” he said, “and it’s produced naturally when skin is exposed to UVB in sunlight.”
He told me vitamin D sufficiency is linked to a reduction in 105 diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer. Some researchers believe vitamin D deficiency contributes to nearly 400,000 premature deaths and adds a $100 billion dollar burden to the health care system.
By some estimates vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic, with some studies indicating greater than 50 percent of the global population at risk.
77 percent of Americans are considered vitamin D deficient, according to government data.
“Do you know why?” Barron Cannon asked me.
“No,” I said.
“I think overzealous sun avoidance is the only plausible explanation for the 50 percent increase in that figure in the past 15 years,” he said, slapping a fist into his palm for emphasis.
“I take vitamin D every morning,” I said. “I don’t have to go out in the sun. Besides, it’s been unbearably hot this summer and there are lots of bugs since we had such a mild winter.”
“You think science is complete and knows everything,” he said. “You assume modern science understands all the benefits of sunlight and that the only good it does is make vitamin D.”
“Yes,” I said.
“That is not true,” Barron Cannon said. “Let me give you an example.”
He told me about a recent study authored by Dr. Bryan Becklund and Professor Hector DeLuca of the University of Wisconsin and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. They discovered that vitamin D, or something in UV light, retarded progression of an animal model of multiple sclerosis, which is a painful neurological disease for which there is no cure. While vitamin D suppressed progression of the animal model, UV light worked even better. The report concluded that UV light was having an effect independent of vitamin D production.
“If it’s true in humans, it means that sunlight, or UV light, contains something good in addition to vitamin D,” he said. “We just don’t know what it is.”
Our ancestors evolved naked on the plains of equatorial Africa.
“The sun was directly overhead. We have a long, long evolutionary bond with the sun. Humans make thousands of units of vitamin D, and who knows what else, within minutes of whole body exposure to sunlight. It is unlikely such a system evolved by chance. When we sever the relationship between ourselves and sunlight, we proceed at our own peril.”
Barron Cannon gave me a sharp look and leaned back on his elbows
At a loss for words, I was grateful when my wife reappeared.
“I’m getting a little toasty in all this sunlight,” she said.
I agreed that we should be going. We both bid Barron Cannon goodbye and made our way home.
After dinner that night, as my wife watched ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on Turner Classic Movies, sitting on the front porch in the orange-red light of a quiet sunset I skimmed a review of a paper in the British Medical Journal by Professor Simon Pearce.
“Some people are taking the safe sun message too far. Vitamin D levels are precarious in parts of the population. They stay at home on computer games. It’s good to have 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to the sun two to three times a week.”
As I put my iPad away I thought I might give it a try in our backyard, without slathering on any sunscreen as I normally did, but definitely wearing a pair of shorts.
Where did Barron Cannon get fig leaves, anyway, I wondered?