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CHAPTER

I
Blood Counts

Blood acts as a mirror, reflecting the march of life, of ages and civilizations. It speaks of our beliefs and prejudices, of our potential and our limitations as flawed beings.

Blood filters into every aspect of our language, and defines who we are: in our emotional states, in our social ranking, in our state of innocence or moral guilt, and most important of all, in our relationships to each other.

And like all things biological, chemical, and physical -- the mystery of nature -- it is governed by its own set of rules and regulations. If you can imagine blood in a test tube, separated by means of a centrifuge into its key parts, you will notice three distinct substances, each with its own colour and function.

I liken plasma to a river, offering a delivery system for the ingredients in blood, as well as carrying products that help regulate bleeding and clotting.

shed blood
bleeding heart
bloody-minded
out for blood
blood sports
cold-blooded
blood on your hands
blood from a stone
blood brother
bad blood
bluebloods
makes your blood boil

The white blood cells are commonly likened in our language to soldiers going to war on behalf of the nations that are our bodies, identifying, targeting, and destroying foreign invaders.

To me, the platelet is the nurse or doctor in our veins, ever ready to sew you up when you have been shot.

Round in shape and a little concave on each side, I think of the red blood cell as the cell of love. It kisses your cells with the gift of oxygen, and it is a non-stop kisser.

In its appearance, blood stands alone and virtually unmistakable.

I don't often see the colour of arterial blood, in nature. The closest I have seen to blood-red is a sunlit field of poppies. The sight of flowering poppies arrests me, every time.

Silent under the skies, teased by the wind, it resembles a vast blanket of undulating blood.

What we now know about blood seems all the more astounding, when we think about where we have come from. For some two thousand years, philosophers and physicians imagined blood as one of the fundamental characteristics of our body and soul.

See a gallery of our understanding of blood throughout history.



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While blood is universal in its nature and functions, it is also a marker of the gender difference between men and women. Typically, men associate the spilling or the sight of blood as the by-product of accident, sport, or war. When a woman bleeds during her monthly cycle, it is a symbol of coming of age, of fertility, a sign of her sex.

Still today, the notion of "the Curse" is tattooed on the collective psyche. In 2012, for example, a man named Richard Neill posted a message on the Facebook page of U.K. maxi-pad maker Bodyform, complaining that happy advertisements about managing menstruation misled him as he stepped into a sexual relationship with his girlfriend. Bodyform responded by posting an online clip featuring a fictional CEO named Caroline Williams who replied directly, and playfully, to Richard Neill.

Watch the hilarious response from Bodyform on YouTube read more

As much as our blood works to regulate itself and help repair or maintain the health of our bodies, it can also circumvent its own rules, turning on us in potentially lethal ways.

It took scientists a long time to figure out that mosquitoes are the vectors of malaria. In the eighteenth century, for example, malaria raged in the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina. It was so bad that the spring and summer was known as the "sick season" on slave plantations, and some Southern whites left their plantations entirely to be run by African slaves until the season passed. It was thought, at the time, that noxious airs were responsible for the fatal illness.

It was not until medical breakthroughs in 1898 that we came to understand that the disease is transmitted, from one human being to another, by means of the mosquito.

We are more connected than we think, and sometimes in dangerous ways. The more we learn about blood, the more we understand how all blood is hopelessly and forever intermingled, just like humanity itself, across culture, across gender, across age, race, and even across time.

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