This Aquatic Life

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Morton Beebe / Corbis

My favorite inanimate thing — and I have owned many things — was an old wooden boat. She was sixteen feet long and too heavy to lift, and I could just barely drag her over a sandbar to the water. She had been, long before, a lifeboat on a ship. They made her lapstraked and beautiful back then, and strong. But they did make her heavy; it took three strokes just to get her moving. Get her going, though, and boy she went — she rowed out straight as a city street, through waves and wind with a wonderful, easy motion. As a young teenager I would take little kids, dogs, even old aunts on hours-long rows in that boat, way offshore with neither sail nor engine, just a box of cookies and some cushions, and my passengers were as happy as I was.

I sanded and painted and caulked and coated that boat, I even injected her timbers with chemicals to stop the softening. But nothing beats the rot. One morning in August I couldn't drag her anymore. She buried herself right there on the beach. Broke up under her own weight. The sand really did close up over her. I found the mound it made years later and dug. You could still smell the wet wood in the discolored sand underneath. But there was no boat there any more. Reduced to tiny particles. It's what happens to man-made things, around salty water.

Our bodies are just the opposite. They love salty water — can't get by without it. By weight we're made mostly of it. We get formed in a sack of it. We get sick — quite often — just from the lack of it. This is one of the first things you learn as a surgical resident: a patient who isn't doing well probably needs fluids. After antibiotics, the greatest advances in patient care during our fathers' generation were in fluids — unsung, unglamorous and inexpensive. The understanding of fluid-and-electrolyte balance — basically knowing how much salt and water to give people when they're sick — has probably saved as many lives as our wonder drugs have.

I do a lot of shoulder arthroscopy now. We give quarts and quarts of salty water during this type of surgery. The fluid accumulates under the skin. It's what allows the operation to be "minimally invasive" — its transparency lets us see what we're doing. I was worried sick when I started using salty water this way: could patients take all that fluid? Many thousands of cases later, the answer is clearly yes — no problem. By the next day the swelling is always gone. It's just salty water.

So here is a simple test to tell if a thing is alive. Put it in salty water. Some things, like babies and crayfish, will do well. They get bigger, stronger and more organized. Others, even "smart" things like iPods and cell phones, laptops, cars and TVs, stop working immediately. They rust and decompose. (I know because I've dropped most of these things in.) Inanimate things, including, alas, my boat, naturally fall apart. They are obeying a law of nature. The salty water just makes them do it faster.

Even things made of chrome and plastic are, curiously, "natural" — obeying a principle that's been observed countless times. The principle says that things become less well organized over time. But living things do something distinctly unnatural. They get bigger and better organized. Think about it. The little kids who sat in my rowboat are all big and smart now. It might only be for a short time and in a certain place but all life violates the law that demands "things fall apart." From the algae that organize pond gunk into efficient little green cells, to human beings, striving constantly for that special kind of organization called understanding, living things build up and organize where Nature would tear down and break apart. Nowhere is this unnatural behavior more evident than in our thinking — minds and brains are perhaps the least natural things of all.

It's striking, especially to us concrete, surgical types. I operated on the knee of a 99-year-old man a few years ago. He had been in good shape until he was hit by a car. The cartilaginous articular surfaces of his knee — the parts that rub together when the knee bends — were pristine. They were as smooth and white and glistening as those of a teenager. Here was a surface that had rubbed against another surface under 150 lbs. of force at least two or three million times a year for nearly a 100 years. And the knee was still perfect — there was absolutely no arthritis. How could this be? Only by virtue of being alive. The living joint has all sorts of intricate self-repair machinery, machinery that works to undo damage — right down to the molecular level. And, frankly, it doesn't usually work as well as it did in that patient. But its there in all living things — an automatic machinery that works against the laws of nature. We can call it hypercomplexity, or fearful and wondrous manufacture, but no one who works closely with it, or has loved a wooden rowboat, can call it "natural."

Dr. Scott Haig is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He has a private practice in the New York City area.