Nathanael Johnson ’01, who wrote an interesting piece for PCM about C-sections a few issues back, has a new book out. The award-winning journalist who has written for Harper’s and produced stories for NPR says he spent his whole life preparing for All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest for Health and Happiness in An Age of Ecological Anxiety. Raised in an “all-natural” family, Johnson is drawn to the controversies over natural birth, diet, the environment and alternative medicine—all ultimately as a way to understand his family and early childhood. In All Natural he examines both the polarization and nuances involved in determining whether the natural approach to living really is best for humankind.
What inspired the book?
I grew up in a family that really believed that many of humanity’s attempts to protect itself from nature were misguided. For instance, my dad insisted that I go diaper free as a baby because he thought that the natural perfection of my developing pelvis would be deformed if I constantly had a big wad of absorbent material between my legs for two to three years. Part of me starts to scoff, but then I’d think, “That actually is a plausible hypothesis.” It’s hard to assess because stories in the popular press written about the all-natural constellation of concerns are usually utterly dismissive, or utterly credulous.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing it?
I had no idea how to organize it at first, and if I’d been lazy it would have just been a series of essays without any narrative through-line, and without any larger argument. So I resolved to build the book around the development of my thinking – to tell stories from my all-natural childhood, then bring the reader along as I fact-checked the family ideology. I spent days cutting chapters apart with scissors and moving the sections around. The process is like working on a big puzzle, but all the pieces are invisible – you have to hold them in your mind. And to complicate things even more, you can change the shape of any piece, or decide that it’s actually part of a different puzzle.
Were there are startling realizations during your research?
Lots! I was surprised to learn that childbirth is getting more dangerous in this country, and that more U.S. citizens are killed by unnecessary medical care than the numbers who die because they can’t get access to care. I was shocked and bemused by the way the demands of modern America have reshaped the bodies (and the mating habits) of pigs. I expected to find at least one blind spot in the orthodoxy about vaccination, because so many intelligent, admirable people are worried by shots, so I was amazed when every fear and theory about the dangers of inoculation led to scientific dead ends.
Are you working on any writing projects now?
I started keeping a journal when my daughter was born and I was struck by how often I was writing about her our adventures with the urban wildlife of San Francisco. So I’m playing with the idea of starting with these toddler’s-eye-view stories from my journal, and then researching our observations and writing down the most interesting bits to produce a father’s field guide to the urban ecosystems that so many of us walk through without ever noticing.