Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/April 1881/Physical Education IV

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625572Popular Science Monthly Volume 18 April 1881 — Physical Education IV1881Felix Leopold Oswald




"Disease is a hot-house plant."—Haller.

EVERY disease is a protest of Nature against an active or passive violation of her laws. But that protest follows rarely upon a first transgression, never upon trifles; and life-long sufferings—the effects of an incurable injury excepted—generally imply that the sufferer's mode of life is habitually unnatural in more than one respect. For there is such a thing as vicarious atonement in pathology: a strict observance of any one of the three or four principal health-laws rarely fails to reward itself by a long immunity from the consequences of otherwise evil habits. Frugality thus counteracts the morbific tendency of indolence; perfect continence may steel even a feeble constitution against the effects of hunger and overwork; and, by avoiding the great vice of intemperance, the Epicureans atoned for a multitude of minor sins.

But the surest of all natural prophylactics is active exercise in the open air. Air is a part of our daily food and by far the most important part. A man can live on seven meals a week, and survive the warmest summer day with seven draughts of fresh water, but his supply of gaseous nourishment has to be renewed at least fourteen thousand times in the twenty-four hours. Every breath we draw is a draught of fresh oxygen, every emission of breath is an evacuation of gaseous recrements. The purity of our blood depends chiefly on the purity of the air we breathe, for in the laboratory of the lungs the atmospheric air is brought into contact at each respiration with the fluids of the venous and arterial systems, which absorb it and circulate it through the whole body; in other words, if a man breathes the vitiated atmosphere of a factory all day and of a close bedroom all night, his life-blood is tainted fourteen thousand times in the course of the twenty-four hours with foul vapors, dust, and noxious exhalations. We need not wonder, then, that ill-ventilated dwellings aggravate the evils of so many diseases, nor that pure air should be almost a panacea.

Outdoor life is both a remedy and a preventive of all known disorders of the respiratory organs; consumption, in all but the last stage of the deliquium, can be conquered by transferring the battle-ground from the sick-room to the wilderness of the next mountain-range. Asthma, catarrh, and tubercular phthisis, are unknown among the nomads of the intertropical deserts, as well as among the homeless hunters of our Northwestern Territories. Hunters and herders, who breathe the pure air of the South American pampas, subsist for years on a diet that would endanger the life of a city dweller in a single month. It has been repeatedly observed that individuals who attained to an extreme old age were generally poor peasants whose avocations required daily labor in the open air, though their habits differed in almost every other respect; also that the average duration of life in. various countries of the Old World depends not so much on climatic peculiarities or their respective degree of culture as on the chief occupation of the inhabitants; the starved Hindoo outlives the well-fed Parsee merchant, the unkempt Bulgarian enjoys an average longevity of forty-two years to the west Austrian citizen's thirty-five.

In the cities of the higher latitudes, sedentary occupations in a vitiated atmosphere become often a sort of "second nature": artisans and shopkeepers, after following their business for a number of years, frequently come to dislike fresh air, as the convent slave, by an analogous suppression of his better instincts, becomes averse to free inquiry. But this abnormal indolence seldom becomes hereditary—perhaps never, if we except the children of inebriate idiots. The mediæval prejudice against all natural propensities—founded on the dogma of innate depravity—is, indeed, strikingly refuted by a young child's love of out-door exercise. Without the mediation of supernatural revelators or preternatural bugbears, a healthy boy prefers even the hardships of our northern winter sports to the atmosphere of a comfortable stove-room, and in summer-time the paradise of childhood is still a tree-garden. No domestic events of our later years can efface the impression of the woodland rambles, butterfly hunts, and huckleberry expeditions of our boyhood: the recollections of our first outdoor adventures endure like the mountains and rivers of a promised land whose cities have vanished for ever.

I have often been asked at what age infants can first be safely exposed to the influence of the open air. My answer is. On the first warm, dry day. There is no reason why a new-born child should not sleep as soundly under the canopy of a garden-tree on a pillow of sunwarmed hay as in the atmosphere of an ill-ventilated nursery. Thousands of sickly nurslings, pining away in the slums of our manufacturing towns, might be saved by an occasional sun-bath. Aside from its warmth and its chemical influence on vegetal oxygen, sunlight exercises upon certain organisms a vitalizing influence which science has not yet quite explained, but whose effect is illustrated by the contrast between the weeds of a shady grove and those of the sunlit fields, between the rank grass of a deep valley and the aromatic herbage of a mountain meadow, as well as by the peculiar wholesome appearance of a "sunburned" person or a sun-ripened fruit. Sunlight is too cheap to become a fashionable remedy, but its hygienic influence can hardly be overrated. Even in the glorious climate of the Latian hills, the Roman Epicureans constructed special solaria—glass-covered turrets—where they could bask in the full rays of the winter sun, the balm of old age, as Columella calls it; and, on the summerless Isle of Rügen, Nature has taught the poor fishermen to carry their bairns to the downs of Stubbenkammer, whenever the Baltic fogs alternate with a few sunny days. Dry sand is, indeed, an excellent medium of solar caloric. Children like it instinctively; most babies are fond of rummaging in some tangible, yielding element. In-default of a sunny beach, get a car-load of river-sand, spread it and expose it to the sun for a couple of hours, then rake it together, mix it ad captandum with a bushel of pebbles (good-sized ones, lest they might be mistaken for sugar-plums), divest your bambino of all superfluous clothing, and let him wallow all afternoon, if he chooses; if the surface of the pile gets too warm, instinct will teach him to dig down to the cooler substrata. Or take him to a meadow where fresh hay has been piled up in little stacks; climbing and tumbling will do him more good than lying motionless in a narrow baby-carriage. The inventor of the Kindergarten recommends a grassy hollow with scattered playthings, piles of dry leaves, etc. (near a shade-tree in midsummer), where young squealers can take care of themselves for an hour or two, and warrants that they will not cry, unless their botanic researches should happen to acquaint them with the properties of the German horse-nettle. On mild winter days, too, self-motive babies ought to pass a few hours out of doors, even if the ground be a little wet; a sunny nook on the lee-side of a garden-wall is a healthier playground than the dusty floor of a stove-room.

From the fourth to the end of the fourteenth year children should spend the larger part of every summer in out-door exercises, Next to a total reform of our dietetic habits, a general observance of this rule would be the surest way to regain the hardiness and longevity of our forefathers. The years of growth lay the foundation of our bodily constitution, and, under favorable circumstances, the human system, during that period, seems to accumulate a surplus of physical vigor, which in after-life will become available as an annuity-fund of health and happiness. Education, like charity, ought to begin at home; in boarding-colleges, protectories, orphan asylums, etc., the rudiments should be taught in winter schools. At the price of life-long infirmities precocious erudition is too dear-bought; besides, it should not be forgotten that in the years when students can take a personal interest in their lessons they will make more progress in a single month than during years of involuntary confinement in boy-pens, as Dr. Salzmann calls our municipal baby-schools. The employment of young children in cotton-factories is a crime against society, and ought to be legally prohibited, like the trade in Italian organ-boys and Chinese slave-girls. Swiss artisans, who have passed their boyhood in the mountains, are comparatively proof against the influence of in-door occupations. And, in the mean time, out-door life need not be a life of idleness. That children are fond of play means simply that they prefer entertaining employments to tedious ones. Youngsters under five years gambol instinctively like young puppies, in order to acquire the art of locomotion, but soon afterward they begin to play with a conscious purpose, and do not object to playing at something profitable; young savages and peasant-boys join in the labors of their parents with an eagerness that vindicates human nature against the charge of innate frivolity. Make your boy a Jack-of-all-out-door-trades before you make him a classic polyglot, and, if you destine him for any trade in special, let him play with the tools of that special trade. "The best plan of education," says Goethe, "is that of the Hydriotes, the Greek trading-sailors, who take their infant boys out to sea and let them sport around amid oakum and belaying-pins before they learn to handle them with a business purpose. Such a school has graduated the heroes who with their own hands could grapple the fire-boat to the flag-ship of the enemy."

Even for their children's sake, married men should never quarter their families in the heart of a great city. Not everybody can own a farm, but, wherever the suburban cottages adjoin waste building-lots and dry ravines, there will be no lack of opportunities for out-door pastimes. Let the girls make weed-brooms, and the boys construct fortifications, à la Uncle Toby, if they can do no better, and miss no chance to send them out in the country for a day or two. Our town parks are too exclusive; sauntering between inviolate grass-plots and prohibitory placards is dull work for urchins that long to commit horse-play; but there are few cities, even on the Atlantic seaboard, where the "open country"—woods, fallow fields, and hillsides—could not be reached by a two hours' walk. There let your children spend every sunny afternoon; make arrangements with your neighbors, and engage a guide if you can not afford to go yourself; teach the youngsters to collect beetles and butterflies, encourage the fern mania if your girl has outgrown the buttercup period, connive at a bird's nest or two, do anything to keep them out of the tenement dungeons. If you are blessed with a farm (or a tolerant country cousin), haymaking, apple-gathering, turkey-herding, repairing of ditches and garden-walls, will make earth an Elysium to every normal child; never mind the weather; a summer shower, a chilly morning, or a hot afternoon will not hurt a healthy boy, and the girls will take care of themselves—or rather of their dress—if the grass is wet. If you send them to school before their teens, give them at least the full benefit of their vacations and of every free Saturday. In fall and winter a day of athletic field-sports will keep a boy in tolerable health for the rest of the week, and a vacation tour of six or eight weeks may atone for many months of sedentary life.

In the preceding chapter I have pointed out the main cause of catarrhal affections. "With the exception of deep-seated breast-coughs, "colds" may be nipped in the bud by a few hours of hard, sudorific work in the open air. It may be an heroic cure, requiring a good deal of will-force in cold weather, but it is an infallible and the only radical remedy. In half a day the nasal ducts and the perspiratory exhalants will throw off irritating matters which would defy the drug doctor for a couple of weeks, or yield only to exercise their influence in another direction, for poison-remedies merely change the form of a disease. But the beneficial effect of out-door exercise is not limited to the respiratory organs: their quickened function reacts on the digestive apparatus, on the nervous system, and through the nerves on the mind; true mental and physical vigor in any form can be maintained only on a liberal allowance of life-air; those who feed their lungs on miasma become strangers to that exuberant health which makes bare existence a luxury. After years of in-door life the victims of melancholy, dyspepsia, and dull headaches come to accept their discomforts as the normal condition of mankind, but upon the first appearance of such disorders our instinct suggests the cause and the cure with an urgency which makes confinement in the atmosphere of our northern dwelling-houses the greatest affliction of childhood. If we reflect on the fact that our earth is surrounded by a respirable atmosphere of at least eight hundred million cubic miles, it seems a sad comment on the enlightenment of modern civilization that the unsatisfied thirst after life-air should inflict more misery upon millions of our fellow-men than hunger and all the hardships of poverty combined. "On the day of judgment," says Jean Paul, "God will perhaps pardon you for starving your children when bread was so dear; but, if he should charge you with stinting them in his free air, what answer shall you make?"

Perfect health depends upon a daily supply of fresh air as much as on our daily bread; but within certain limits the human organism is capable of adapting itself to abnormal circumstances. A man may accustom himself to devour his weekly allowance of solid food at a single meal, and in a similar way the vitalizing elements of air and sunshine can be hoarded up—allotropically, for all we know—for days, weeks, and months in advance. The Zooloo hunter who, after a six days' fast, gets a chance to satisfy the cravings of his stomach; can not be expected to content himself with half-pint rations à la Luigi Cornaro, and in midsummer, after six months of sedentary life, a boy should get his fill of out-door exercises; let him drink sunlight at every pore, do not stint his allowance of oxygen, compensate him for long arrears of woodland air and mountain-rambles.

With a little experience vacation trips can be managed very cheaply. Professor Jordan, of the Ilefeld Pedagogium, takes his summer boarders to the Hartz, or even to the Austrian Alps, at an aggregate daily expense of fifteen marks (three and a half dollars) for twenty or twenty-five big boys with North-German appetites. They carry their own beds in the form of a plaid and a pair of foot-sacks (boot-like felt socks), and sleep wherever they find a shade-tree or an open barn. Their portable commissariat consists of biscuits and brown sugar; with fresh milk and such entremets as the mountain inns may afford, they make out two good meals a day, besides occasional luncheons of nuts and huckleberries. Twenty-two of the twenty-four hours are thus spent in the open air, but the long summer days are almost too short for all the entertainments on the liberal professor's programme. Zoölogy, botany, and geology are only collateral pursuits, the main thing is the uproarious fun in the mountains; climbing cliffs, tumbling bowlders from projecting rocks, and chasing squirrels from tree to tree do not endanger the toilet of the excursionists, for every one of them wears turner-drell, a sort of coarse linen, as tough, though not quite as soft, as corduroy.

Observant managers of such expeditions soon get rid of the dismal prejudices against cold spring-water, "wet feet," and "untimely baths." The craving of a thirsty wanderer after cold water is not an abnormal appetency, but a natural instinct, and can be indulged with perfect impunity; a bath in sun-warmed river-water is healthy as long as it is enjoyable; South-Sea Islanders and the children of the Genoese fishermen spend whole afternoons in the surf, and—barring sharks and medusas—without fear of dangerous consequences. There is no harm in wet stockings as long as the feet are in motion; at home it is perhaps better to change them at once, though the Canadian lumbermen dry them on their legs before the camp-fire, or even in bed—i. e., under a pair of "Mackinaw blankets," which blankets have often served as overcoats during the day, but in the course of the night are dried by the animal warmth like a pack of wet sheets. Sunstrokes can be obviated by a simple and very inexpensive precaution—temporary abstinence from animal food. A refrigerating diet (vegetables, fruit, etc.) counteracts the effect of a high atmospheric temperature, but the calorific influence of meat and fat, combined with solar heat and bodily exertion, overcomes the organic power of resistance, the pyretic blood-changes produce congestion of the brain and sometimes instant death. I venture the assertion that in nineteen out of twenty cases of comatose sunstroke it will be found that the victims were persons who had gone to work in the hot sun after a meal of greasy viands. One to two p. m. is the sunstroke-hour.

Among the permanent benefits which young persons may derive from a pedestrian tour, it is not the least that they will mostly get rid of the night-air superstition. Sweet rest and pleasant dreams he knows not who has never slept under a Mexican live-oak tree on a bundle of fresh-plucked Spanish moss, or in the loft of a Tennessee cotton-gin while the winds of the summer night play in draughts and counter-draughts through four open louvres. The advantages of a hardy education in all such things are quite incalculable; the word hardiness sums up the chief characteristics that distinguished the moral and physical life of the ante-Christian ages from the scrofulous effeminacy of our stove-room civilization.

The teachers of the Pedagogium and similar institutions assured me that their scholars were never more aufgeweckt (wide-awake) than during the first six or eight weeks after the long vacations; even the drawing-masters had no reason to complain about "club-fists." It is a very common but quite erroneous notion that the burly strength of the human hand impairs its capacity for delicate manipulations: the iron-fisted Gemsen-jäger of the Tyrolese Alps are the nicest marksmen; and Leonardo da Vinci, who could draw a perfect circle without a compass, could not the less break a silver piaster between his two thumbs and two forefingers.

The Ilefelders were also the first to make Saturday an hygienic sabbath. In spring and fall, all such Saturdays should be consecrate to the wood-gods; leaf-forests, under the influence of sunlight, exhale the antidote of our atmospheric poisons. Start the youngsters at sunrise with a basketful of cold meats, and orders for an equal quantity of strawberries, or, if the woods are safe, let them go on Friday night, and camp in the open air; they will long for the advent of that night as Tom-a-lin for the festival of the fairies. Let them rise with the sun and spend the whole day in active exercise, the merrier the better; in a mountain country arrange a new programme for every week, explore the local Ararats, and let the boys scale them in succession, as the members of the Alpine Club tackle their bergs and horns. If the weather should disappoint you, do not hesitate to improve the next sunny day, though it should happen to be a Sunday. The God of Nature can be worshiped in his own temple: the wonder of his living world is his most authentic revelation. Where Sunday is the only free day in the week, no puritanical tyranny or Jesuitical ingenuity will ever prevent the poor from making it a day of recreation; the only question is, whether that recreation shall be sought in the secret rumshops and back-alleys of the city, whose gates the Sabbatarians would shut upon us, or in the free woods and mountains, where the worshiper of the All-Father can find inspiration as well as joy and health. The wood-thrush, it is true, does not modulate her anthems in a whining drawl; the pine-tree lifts his head without fear of provoking his Creator by a want of crawling humility; no dread of a joy-hating priest-god disturbs the gambols of the squirrel and the aërial dances of the brook-midge; the butterfly and the humming-bird do not think it necessary to "mortify the eye with dreary drab," but their happiness imparts a lesson not less divine for being at variance with the doctrines of an atrabilious fanatic.

According to the Grecian allegory, the wood-craft goddess Diana was the antagonist of the Cyprian Venus; and a penchant for out-door sports is indeed the best safeguard against certain vices of youth. The precocious Don Juans of our great cities could be more easily reformed by a hunting expedition to the next Sierra Nevada than by all the homilies of Fray Gerundio. Like depraved humors, prurient propensities yield to active exercise more readily than to physic and prayer. Hunting tribes are generally continent, stalwart, and comely; wood air is a cosmetic; the finest types of the human form are not found within the precincts of the Palais Royal, but in the Caucasus and the Kentucky forest counties.

Enjoyable winter excursions are a privilege of the rich; still, a pair of good skates make a convenient pond or a small river a great blessing. From a sanitary point of view, the neighborhood of larger streams is not so much of an advantage; besides being the terror of parents during the skating season, a big river is apt to render the contiguous lowlands more or less malarious, especially after every inundation. In snow-bound villages children have to depend mainly on in-door exercises; cold air, however, is a powerful tonic, and a two hours' snowball-fight will generally suffice to vitalize a juvenile constitution for a couple of days. Mountain air, too, is a peptic stimulant, and pedestrian excursions are doubly invigorating if they include a good deal of up-hill work.

For those who wish to select their dwelling-place with regard to the hygienic interest of their children, the best location is, therefore, on the whole, the bank of a small river in the neighborhood of a large mountain-range.