18. Carrier bags

On my way home today I met my neighbour bringing five of his Highland cows, heavily in calf, trotting down the road.  The hard road and their trotting gait revealed how light of foot these stocky, earthy animals are.  The  feel of ‘up’ was there, in the way belonging to a cow; but is an ‘up’ in which the spine is horizontal (other than the neck).  Seeing cows moving in this unusual way revealed, above the dancing hooves, the clear function of the spine to have the body hanging from it, and, secondly, the work needed to support the head at the end of the necessarily mobile neck which must be able to reach the ground in order to graze.  My trip had been to the supermarket, to which, of course, I had taken my own shopping bag.  The shopping bag is an interesting gateway into human movement and the human spine.  A bag is a basic sign of intelligence and society, of planning and creativity.  I hear a man on the radio this week who, in Kent, lives entirely on what he forages in the wild.  He had just harvested 100 kg of sweet chestnuts.  He needed bags, badly.  If we want to collect, to choose, to move things from A to B, to store them then we will make bags.  Physically we need to be upright, truly upright, in order for the effort of carrying to be sustainable, to be able to hold things close enough so that we are  not pulled over, unbalanced.  But the gesture of being upright has in it, too, the basic facing the world, the seeing of the world from a position of balanced detachment, which would allow you to plan, to have using a bag as part of your life.  The beautiful shaggy Highland cows have only their rough-tongued mouths to hold and carry with.  From them to the gorilla: the typical walking posture of the gorilla is on all fours.  His legs are short, his arms are long and the typical contact with the ground with the arms is with the knuckles, with the second little bone of each finger.  If you look, from the side, at the shape of the walking gorilla (the skeleton is most helpful) you will see a single long curve to the spine, together with other connected features – the head is in front of the spine, like the cows, the ribs are under the spine, the shoulder blades are horizontal, the knees are bent.  I would ask you now to try to explore the difference between you and this image of the gorilla.  Gorillas, as indeed is the tendency in primates generally, are capable of upright standing, but not with the minimal effort that is possible for human beings because of the pure verticality of the arrangement of our joints, and the fully straight legs we have as we stand normally.  Once we come out of the vertical, once our legs bend and our head is no longer poised on top of the spine, then we start to need to do more work to keep ourselves in that less vertical and no longer torque-free condition.  One basic way of describing the Alexander Technique is that it is helping us not to lose our uprightness, with its possibilities of observation, imitation, creativity (its possibilities of bags being carried), as we bend, in order to gather, to pick things up, to work, to play.  We can keep the basic characteristics of our upright spine and poised head when we bend.  We do not have to become like an ape.

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