Someone once asked me why I had to touch so many things -- seed pods, smooth unvarnished cedar benches in old Buddhist temples, rock walls, wooden baseball bats, leather, dirt. Unaware of my habit, I mumbled something mundane about textures. He went on with his hands-off life, and I kept leaving my fingerprints next to my footprints, trying to sort out trees by their bark and apples by their shapes and skins.
Later it seemed to me that the outsides of things are too often underestimated, maligned, and marginalized. "Beauty is only skin deep" is a dig on skin as well as beauty, and both could use a few defenders against the critics who discount the one because they can't measure it, and strip off the other because it's only a layer.
Our skin is, after all, just as critical to life as any of its more glamorous internal co-organs. The barrier it provides against water and any number of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites is no small thing. It synthesizes at least one vitamin and stores others. It is capable of self repair. It can stretch or shrink. It enables sensation and even makes pheromones. Not too shabby for a surface.
Neither should the skins of foods be disregarded. The old saying about the peel being good for you actually happens to be true. It's generally in the peel where nutrients are truly concentrated, whether it's the common vitamins or other impressive sounding things like anthocyanins, resveratrol, and lycopene.
Beyond the basic science are a number of other more elusive characteristics to do with aesthetics, flavors, textures, and appearance. Take a good loaf of sourdough bread. It should look and sound and feel right first -- deep brown with a hollow thump when tapped and a crackly crust stout enough to scuff up the roof of your mouth. And because the best flavor is found in the crust, each bite best include some crust along with the soft center. If the crust has failed, the whole loaf is a lost cause, and if it can't be choked down it's better off tossed into the henhouse or compost pile.
Interestingly, touch is probably the most enduring of the senses. When we visit Grandma Annie, who turns 98 this fall, she holds our hands. Sight is gone, with taste and smell not what they used to be. But she still has good hands.
For me anyway, touch might be the most cherished sense. It's enough to keep me fighting for the heel of the loaf, the child's hand, and the oiled leather boots. Sometimes, it seems, surfaces matter most.