In his new book, All Natural, Nathanael Johnson navigates the age of ecological anxiety.
Nathanael Johnson's new book, All Natural, is an account of the local journalist's quest to balance his all-natural upbringing with modern technology—and modern anxieties. He'll be talking with another bullhorn of environmental awareness, Michael Pollan, on Thursday, January 31st at 7 PM the Ferry Building (find tickets here). To whet your appetite for that conversation, here's a shorter one between Johnson and San Francisco's Scott Lucas.
San Francisco: Your book is about ecological anxiety. Questions like, is it better to deliver a child in a hospital or at home with a midwife? Is raw milk safer than pasteurized milk? Are parents better off vaccinating their kids or not? How did you get interested in these issues?
Nathanael Johnson: The backstory starts with my childhood. My parents believed in embracing nature, rather than protecting ourselves from it, which is why they moved us from Berkeley—where I was born—to Nevada City, where I grew up. And which is why my parents didn’t put my little brother or me in diapers. They just cleaned up the floor after us.
SF: That sounds horrific.
NJ: It's a difficult thing to pull off. There was lots of bending over to clean up after us. Lot of slipping in terrible messes that we had left.
SF: What was wrong with diapers?
NJ: They did this because they thought that the diapers would warp the developing bones of the legs. So they left us completely open. That kind of makes some sense. Having a bulk between the legs might warp the bones. But there’s no science to back this up at all. I’m actually standing up right now looking at my feet. My left foot is straight ahead but my right foot points to two o’clock. My parents went to extremes to make me physiology perfect, but I still ended up a little bit crooked.
SF: While you were writing this book, your wife became pregnant. That experience ends up as a chapter on how you both decided how and where she should give birth.
NJ: I had to figure about all these big feelings I had about home childbirth—I was born at home right there on Benvenue in Berkeley. My wife, Beth, was born by Caesarean section. Her perspective was a little more important than mine in determining where we gave birth. I was finding all these places with awful names like Warrior Women Births, just to make one up. No way. What I really wanted was the place called No-Nonsense, Evidence-Based Midwifery. I wanted something that could tap into the skills that midwifes have without entering into the realm of New Age weirdness.
SF: That’s a hard line to walk in the Bay Area.
NJ: It’s hard to survive on that line. It’s really—people tend to polarize. It’s easier to stay in business as a midwife if you have some groovy, out there promise.
SF: So you didn’t want to go that route. What about a hospital?
NJ: Almost by default, we started going to St. Luke’s Hospital here in San Francisco. As we got to know the hospital, we found that they have a midwife-led delivering unit. It’s in the hospital, but all the births are handled by midwives. There’s an OB and an operating room if something goes catastrophically wrong. That was the mid-point we were looking for. I had thought maybe that because I was so aggressive with my research I thought we would do something out of the ordinary. But both of us ended up loving the hospital. Beth really liked it. Her comfort was incredibly important to me. Not just to be nice, but because the research shows that the comfort of a woman has an impact on the birth process itself. Some are more comfortable at home, and some in the hospital. We ended up at a happy, but anxious medium.
SF: Your book also talks about vaccines, which are the subject of much controversy. Were you vaccinated as a kid?
NJ: My parents ended up getting my brother and me vaccinated, but a lot of people in Nevada City weren’t. When I was writing the book, I found one of my friends from when I was a kid who hadn’t been vaccinated, and watched her go through the decision now about whether she should vaccinate her son. She had this very nebulous, free-floating fear. Not that vaccines were evil, but whether there might be blind spots in the medical orthodoxy. She had a lot of trouble getting answers from pediatricians. Doctors would hand her pamphlets. She couldn’t get the level of detail that she wanted. She was a normal person, without any expertise in the health field, and she felt like she wasn’t getting the whole story about vaccines. All that she wanted someone to sit her down a coach her through it.
SF: And you ended up as that coach?
NJ: Yes, that person ended up being me. We looked at the safety of vaccines together.
SF: What did you find?
NJ: I was shocked by what I found. I, like her, thought that there must be something legitimate about these fears in the culture. But every line of evidence we tracked down turned out to be very well studied scientifically and not what we needed to worry about.
SF: So if there’s no good evidence, why does the idea continue to persist?
NJ: I think that it comes down to problem of communication. Americans, at a fundamental level, don’t totally trust corporations or the pharmaceutical system. For good reason! We have this medical system that is giant and shadowy. Our only real point of interaction with most of the time is our individual doctors, who are so harried and have such little time. It’s very hard for them to take the half-hour that’s needed to talk through these fears.
SF: In a lot of ways, there’s this sub-theme lurking below all of this about how Americans relate to experts. We are very ambivalent about them, aren’t we?
NJ: I’ve been thinking about this. Americans are both really skeptical of people in charge, but at the same time always grasping for the next guru, the next parenting master, or the next diet book. I think it has something to do with us as the nation of immigrants, who are all uprooted from our traditions. Instead of pragmatic history to draw on, instead we start from scratch every single time. We’re susceptible to the gurus and also ready to throw them out at a moment’s notice.
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