Nathanael Johnson grew up in an California family that didn’t believe in sugar, diapers, or TV. In his debut book, he sets out to see what science has to say about the true health benefits of his parents’ all natural lifestyle. Nathanael Johnson joins host Steve Curwood to discuss his book All Natural.
CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Our ancestors depended much more directly than we do on the natural world for food and shelter, yet cultures often distrusted and feared nature. After all, dangerous creatures lurked in forests and savannahs, along with poisonous plants. But these days, some people see our increasingly technological age as the source of ailments - so they opt for free range and organic.
Nathanael Johnson’s parents were early adopters of the natural lifestyle, outlawing sugar and TV, and making clothes optional at home. So, about to become a father himself, Nathanael Johnson decided to investigate the science behind lifestyle choices, from childbirth to vaccines. His debut book All Natural, is an effort to determine if his parents’ approach to living was healthier or not.
JOHNSON: I grew up in a family that really believed that it was healthier to embrace nature, rather than protecting ourselves with technology against nature. When I was a baby I didn't wear diapers at all. They just kind of followed me around and wiped up and, you know, it was a lifestyle of a lot of kale and a lot of brown rice and backpacking every summer. They really did have this feeling that technology was corrupting. They made sure that there weren’t televisions in the house and when they eventually did break down and get a computer, they made sure that we played outside for three hours for every half-hour that we were on the computer. That was the rule.
CURWOOD: To what extent did you buy into this lifestyle that your parents set out for you?
JOHNSON: When I was young, I really bought into it, this idea that what's natural is healthy is really tenderly wedded into my sense of childhood innocence, but at a certain point, probably around the age of five, I started wondering if my parents lifestyle was actually holding me back. Because that was the age when I started coming into contact with other families and seeing how they lived.
CURWOOD: Tell me about the incident at age five or so where you first had to question your parent’s lifestyle?
JOHNSON: [LAUGHS] So my parents took me my little brother to a potluck out at this little lake, and it's a warm summer evening, there’s mosquitoes buzzing around, families are spooning up casserole and chicken salad. And in the lake, there’s a floating platform, and all these other kids are swimming out to the platform and pushing each other off, and it just looked heavenly to me. So I pulled at my parent’s pant leg and said, “I want to go swimming.” And I haven't brought a swimming suit, but this was really not a problem because in our family, nudity was the norm around the household. So my parents said, “Just go skinny-dipping. Go on in.”
So me and my little brother, we swam out to the platform, we pulled ourselves up, we’re ready to take all comers and instead everything just stops. And this little girl on the platform shouts, “They’re naked! They’re naked!” And they all dive off the opposite side and they swim for shore. It was like one of those monsters from the 1950s horror movies wanders into the beach party and destroys everything. And that was the first time I came back and had this strange sense of shame that I hadn't really ever felt before. And it made me wonder if there was something wrong with the way we were living.
CURWOOD: How much of a rebel did you become against your family’s all natural lifestyle?
JOHNSON: I wouldn’t say that I was a rebel. I wasn't acting out, but I was always the annoying one. I was always the one that was questioning, saying, “Is that really true? Can you prove to me that if I have this ice cream cone it's really going to be bad for me because I think that maybe, just maybe, it's going to make me stronger.” I was always the skeptic in the family who wanted hard evidence. It wasn't that I ran away from home and started smoking cigarettes and watching television all the time and eating sugar by the handful, but I did start thinking.
CURWOOD: Let’s fast forward to the arrival of your own child. Now you have to start making choices for this person that you’ve brought into the world. What do you do?
JOHNSON: Exactly. I obsessively bury myself in research.
JOHNSON: My wife comes from a very different background. My parents are West Coast hippies, her parents are East Coast Republicans. I was born at home and she was born by scheduled Cesarean section. And we both kind of rebelled from our parents - all children seem to - and we met somewhere in the middle. But we really had to negotiate all these different things. She wants to protect Josephine from the sun, I tend to want to protect Josephine from sunscreen. Becoming a parent forces you to move from abstraction down to the brass tacks. It forces you to put your ideas into practice, especially your ideas about nature because normally the way we think about nature in this country is pretty abstract. It's out there, it’s in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where we revere it, but when it comes into your own life and you actually have to deal with it, make a choice whether to control it or adapt to it, it becomes very different. And an infant really is a representative of nature. And so I started having to, from the beginning, make decisions. I was born at home. Was I going to do that with my own family, or was I going to try and influence my wife who has a lot more to say about this decision? And then all the way up, making choices about what my daughter would eat and all these things. I really felt like I had to pin down what I really believed and how much of my parents’ lifestyle I was going to copy. And that was in a large part the genesis of this book.
CURWOOD: Your book begins with a chapter on birth, and you did some deep research here. You spent time with midwives in rural Appalachia. Tell me what you learned at the farm in Tennessee?
JOHNSON: Well, I went to the farm in Tennessee, which is one of the original communes. And they started the midwifery center. Ina May Gaskin is the head midwife that was one of the original founders of the farm and they really have a remarkable program there, much lower C-section rates than we have in the rest of the country and much lower rates of complications. So I wanted to go see what they were doing right there. I was really hoping to be able to see a birth. I asked one of midwives, “Would it be alright if I went in and just talked to one of the women who’s here?” And she said, “We just don't do that. We don’t want to bring your male energy into this process; this is a very private spiritual process.” And I was surprised because I expected that sort of thing, that reflexive privacy from big hospitals, but I hadn't expected that from this homespun midwifery clinic.
CURWOOD: ...until, and you changed your perspective completely on this...
JOHNSON: I learned from Ina May and from going back and looking at anthropology and research on human evolution that the process of birth really depends a lot on the way that people feel and the company that they keep. The hormones that lead to a successful labor have a lot to do with the way that people feel. This idea that my energy, or my presence as a stranger, my disruption, could actually slow things down actually makes a lot of sense.
CURWOOD: I have to say one of the most amazing things that I learned from this book was that despite technological progress, the mortality rate for women in childbirth has actually been going up in recent decades in places like California. Can you explain that for us?
JOHNSON: Well, when you look at the maternal mortality rate in California it does seem to be rising. There’s pretty good evidence that it’s going up and probably in the rest of the country as well. And there are certain complications that are directly related to Cesarean section - there is no scientific disagreement about this. This really terrible complication where the placenta grows through the scar of an old C-section has increased to just epidemic levels. It’s still incredibly rare but the increase is really remarkable. And there's even better evidence showing that severe maternal injuries - women who have acute kidney failure during labor, it’s going up significantly. The number of women who have heart attacks during birth has increased 80 percent in the last decade. And so, while it's still much safer to give birth than it was back at the turn of the century, we are seeing some erosion in our progress. And whether it's from these social factors like obesity or whether it's from medicalization - and it’s probably from both - it does say something about how pushing forward with technological process in our hospitals. If you push too far, sometimes the results turn bad.
CURWOOD: Final note here on birth - what happened with your own daughter?
JOHNSON: I think that I really learned from the midwives in Tennessee that it's important beyond all else for the woman to be comfortable and where Beth was most comfortable - where my wife was most comfortable - was in the hospital. So we ended up at a hospital that has a midwife-run labor and delivery unit with very up-to-date standards and we felt very comfortable there.
CURWOOD: And what was the outcome?
JOHNSON: We had a beautiful little baby girl who’s just become the light of our lives.
CURWOOD: And your wife’s health?
JOHNSON: My wife is incredibly healthy; she bounced right back and two days later we actually walked home carrying the baby.
CURWOOD: Nathanael Johnson, tell me what you learned about vaccines? And what did you think going into your research and what did you learn?
JOHNSON: I wasn't one of these people who was crazy about vaccines who, you know, there are a lot of people who are pretty extreme and vehement that vaccines are causing all types of problems. But at the same time, I did worry about them. It just seemed so alien to inject yourself with something made far away by a corporation that you don’t know anything about. And I worried there was some blind spot that the medical orthodoxy was overlooking. So I started doing the research on this, and to make a long story short, I was really stunned to find that every theory that I tracked down, every worry about overloading the immune system and autism and all of these things lead back to scientific dead ends. And there was so much science there that just really made me feel comfortable by the end. And now when Josephine goes in for her shots I really don't have a second thought.
CURWOOD: I want to ask you now in the end where do you come down on all of this? Are you a proponent of the technological or the all natural perspective?
JOHNSON: Well it would make my book a lot easier to sell if I had an easy answer to that! If it were simply ‘trust nature and you’ll be healthy and live forever’ or ‘nature’s bad - just do anything you can to protect yourself against it’ - that kind of polemic would be a lot easier to explain to people. But I think in the end these polarized visions we have over nature have less to do with nature and more to do with the way that we look at the world. The way forward is to hold both perspectives at the same time and the people that I found in the middle of these debates who were really doing interesting work and moving the ball forward were the people who were able to look at the big ecological picture, and then bring in that detailed scientific deductive practice to get the details right.
CURWOOD: In your conclusion you do seem to come down on one side here. Could you read from that one section for me please?
JOHNSON: ‘It's not so terrible when the all-natural right-brained reflex guides us toward phony alternative medical practitioners or overpriced groceries. Sure, people, or more often, pocketbooks, are harmed by a credulous assumption of natural goodness, but the number of people seriously hurt by these things is relatively low. I’m more concerned with the problems that arise when the technological left-brain gaze fixes tenaciously on the perceived problem, while ignoring the larger systematic problems that might exist. The gravest dangers we face, in my opinion, stem from our tendency to grasp desperately at control where none is available. They stem from our tendency to focus so intently on small technical solutions that we lose sight of the whole and holy.’
CURWOOD: Nathanael Johnson's new book is called All Natural: a skeptic’s quest to discover if the natural approach to diet, childbirth, healing and the environment really keeps us healthier and happier. Thank you so much, Nathanael.
JOHNSON: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
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