Its unfortunate, that idea of a bad back. It’s an idea the protracts the misery. My back is good. It’s carried me, held me up for more than 60 years. Like most people’s, it would hurt sometimes. It had gone into spasm several times over the years ‘til I learned to do exercises minimizing the hurt and duration. Walking barefoot in the sand really cut the recovery time. But this last time it was a totally different order of discomfort; a couple of leaky discs and a fiery sciatic nerve leaving my leg strength diminished by half and a foot gone numb.
The spine with a mainline of organized nerve at the core is an amazing device that gave rise to the codfish, the leaf-nose bat, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the Swan, the Giraffe, and the Bullfrog ga-lowming into the deep night. When a great idea like a backbone comes along in nature it makes for a real florescence of species alive now and long extinct. A single Blue Whale vertebra can weigh 350 pounds and one from a deer mouse about that of a medium grain of sand. Shark’s backbones aren’t bone at all but made of cartilage so they move like the water itself. The loggerhead turtle has one and the prairie grouse and the giant western salamander, the only creature known to eat giant banana slugs, which have no backbone. We come from a family of creatures that found the notochord, a firm tissue stiffener that allows the larva of the eventually sessile Tunicate creature to swim better to find an advantageous home. Tunicates loose the notochord and become bags of soft tissue filtering seawater for a living. Next up the line of complexity, before true backbones, are the lancets, the blade-like creatures, who have a permanent notochord with the beginnings of a head. Once the backbone came into being it blossomed into fliers, swimmers, fast runners, herds as far as the eye could see, and the biggest animals the earth has ever seen. It’s a very versatile body model and we have all seen the pictures of our vertebrate cousins as embryos looking so much like each other with a brainy head, big eyes, gill slits and a backbone with a tail. Pig, cow, chicken, salamander, tortoise, chimp.
It was just a muscle cramp in my hamstring at first and it hurt in my hip-joint, then grenades of shooting pain that over the first couple of weeks grew and grew. It hurt when I coughed, a very bad sign I was told. I went to Dr. Chen, the acupuncturist, who actually stuck a pin in my sciatic nerve; the thing lit up like a lightning stroke caught on film, embedded in my mind forever. I did not go back to him, Then it got to nerve damage with loss of control, I fell down a couple of times ‘til I adapted to a cane. I got an MRI and saw pictures of my spine in black and white on the computer screen; that stack piled up looking like eroded and lichen encrusted rocks. My spine was aging. But not so bad as some, I was told. It’s a months’ long self-mending process and a few shots of cortisone in the epidural zone got me going on my way back to long sweaty walks. My back is not bad, it’s just telling me two things in my first bout, round one, with decrepitude; that I am getting on in this lifetime and this pile of bones behind me holding the whole thing together is just a brilliant miracle in the story of our planet.