The other day Dan and I found ourselves in a buffet line behind two college students who each outweighed me by double – and I need to lose sixty pounds or so. They were talking about how no matter what, they couldn’t seem to lose weight.
Being born-again-thin my husband had to share what worked for him, of course. (It’s the Gary Taubes method. I hasten to point out it doesn’t work for EVERYONE. It’s possible in the future, if we don’t destroy our medical industry, we could get our diet prescribed according to our genetics. I once had a friend who ate only carbs and at a prodigious rate [and we’re talking fries and nachos, not healthy stuff] and was incredibly svelte. But for a lot of us that’s the kiss of death.)
These two young women looked at him, not as if they resented the intrusion, but as though they had no clue what he was saying. And then they nodded sagely and said “We must avoid processed foods.” From then on, no matter what he said, that’s what they heard.
I shouldn’t laugh, truly. I was once like them, and bought my sugar “in the raw” and my rice brown and…
To our purpose nothing. If you don’t process carbs well, then eating honey or eating white sugar (or eating some of the fruits that have more sugar, like bananas) comes to exactly the same. Your body does not have your prejudices. It has not clue if it’s “natural.” If it can use it, it does and it doesn’t much care how it came in. (Now fiber might be an admirable thing, but it turns out we don’t need nearly as much of it as people used to think, and besides whatever else it does it does NOT slow down the absorption of calories or what have you. At most it makes you feel full longer.)
But to these girls, “not processed” had become sort of a magical quality. Their body was supposed to know that they bought it from the expensive organic grocery store and not their corner store. Which probably explained their weight. When you think “virtuous calories” don’t make you fat, you are bound to expand.
It’s the same thing as people who buy all their meds from the “natural” or “herb” store, and know they’re fine, because “it’s natural.”
The sad thing, of course, is that there is enough “natural” stuff that can kill you. I mean, apple seeds contain cyanide, if you take them in enough quantity. And as Friar Lawrence goes on at length in Romeo and Juliet, almost every “natural” fruit or flower has components that can cure in one concentration and kill in another?
So, whence this fetish made of “natural?”
As far as I can tell it started with the Romantics. (I shall be beating up on the Romantics and their myths at MGC too. And I might be doing it for the next several days. At least when it comes to writing.)
Round about the eighteenth century, society had advanced enough that most people thought they were losing something. Now, I want you to take in account that, unlike shown in the wretched Pride and Prejudice movie, most manor houses might not have chickens living in the house (Actually during the peninsular war, the strange closeness between Portuguese and their livestock was one of the permanent complaints of English soldiers) but they had a home farm. And while the daughter of the house wouldn’t go barefoot (what were the filmmakers thinking? That England in the Regency was the middle ages? Heck, the daughter of well-to-do merchants or even middling ones wouldn’t go barefoot and the daughter of a prosperous farmer probably wore something like clogs. Going barefoot was a sign of extreme destitution) she probably was acquainted, at least to walk by, with beast and fowl and their ways.
Some of the more sheltered and really wealthy girls might not know that oh, dear little lambs grew into ill-tempered rams, and that all creation puts out massive quantities of manure. But the average person was close enough to nature to smell it, every day of their lives.
Which makes us chuckle at the idea that they considered themselves so far removed from nature that nature became something magical and almost sacred.
But then look at it the other way. Turn it around. Compared to how people lived just a couple hundred years before their time, they were removed from nature in the most important sense of all: for the first time society had a significant surplus, so that there were no famines. For the first time, it was possible for a farm to produce more than it needed to provide a bare livelihood. For the first time, even poor people could have two suits (though probably both bought very used.) For the first time things like the Black Plague didn’t rage through killing massive numbers. And while their child mortality seems appalling to us, if you birthed 10 children, you had a good chance of raising five. More if you were relatively wealthy. (This led to a population explosion.)
So from their point of view they were getting dangerously refined, and needed a little nature.
All of which would be fine, if the leaders of this movement weren’t also the sort of people who ARE far from nature and who romanticized everything in nature.
I don’t fully understand this, unless they had excuses like “but that’s not really nature because the chickens are penned and that’s why their sh*t stinks” or whatever. They probably did. The communists are convinced the only reason for sin is “capitalism,” and not just “human nature” and blame capitalism even in times when there was none.
But anyway, they imagined what it must have been like to live in harmony with nature, and put all the virtues in the past. They rejected Christianity (except when they decided there had been a “primitive” Christianity which suited their tastes – by which we mean was sort of like paganism with crosses) and embraced the ancient religions, but of course without what really went with paganism: the fear of the quasi-understood gods and the constant “bribery” of said gods. They embraced “natural” diets, which mostly consisted of eating stuff they imagined had “just growed”, they liked ruins because they spoke of an older, more natural time. They preferred the affectation of poverty over the ostentatiousness that signified wealth in their society.
It’s very easy to laugh at the romantics. What’s really hard is to see they are still with us. Yeah, yeah, okay, very few people these days build ruins. At least on purpose. However, in my region, people build “authentic adobe houses” – with all the modern conveniences, of course. And they haven’t given up on the idea that “closer to nature” is better.
I will confess I’m one of the world’s born non-campers. No, seriously. I can see it as part of military or survival training, where it serves a purpose, but having lived a significant portion of my life without an indoor bathroom (grandma wouldn’t have the bathroom indoors. It was a BATHROOM mind, not an outhouse – mom’s family had an outhouse and I have myself urinary track infections holding it in rather than use the thing when we visited every Sunday afternoon – with shower and everything, but to her mind it was “dirty” having it indoors.) I will not voluntarily subject myself to it again. As with roller coasters, where I find my ears giving me issues and halfway through the ride I go “I’m paying for THIS?” I don’t see any point leaving my house and going somewhere to be uncomfortable.
Your mileage may vary. And yes, there’s a lot to be said for going some place quiet now and then (most camping sites don’t qualify.) But the craze for camping relies on the idea that even if you are in a bunch, being close to nature has its own peculiar virtue.
Camping, though, annoys me (particularly when people try to convince me I’d really, really like it if I just look at it another way) but not markedly. Like drugs and roller coasters it falls under “uh… you’re odd, but carry on and be your crazy self. Just don’t drag me into it.”
HOWEVER… the… ah… ethos of camping (not the Athos of camping, which involves sharp pointy things) has invaded how we think of life. The idea that all you need is a tent – or cabin – a bottle of wine and your true love has become sort of what to aim for in society.
Only not really, because, well, we’re humans and even the people who camp for fun would rather not do it in the dead of winter, under a blizzard. (Or under a lizard, if you’re camping in the Jurassic. – yes, I AM very silly.)
So what we have is this schizophrenic mentality where the most conspicuous consumption aims to make things look simple and unadorned. And don’t go and tell me that’s just “good taste” – according to whom? This sort of thing used to change every so often until the Romantics.
And you know, people who are advocates for nature, and who think that the human race should leave no mark on the Earth live in 5000 square feet homes.
We are divorced from nature, in the sense that even my kids – whom I take time to shove into the hardships of life now and then – except for Portugal have never seen a chicken outside a petting zoo (and even in Portugal, Marshall was so taken with a baby duck that a vendor offered to give it to him. I had to explain to the then 14 year old the mess it would be to bring a pet duck to the US.)
So people take a lot of things for granted that just ain’t so, and have made nature sort of a goddess and the Earth a sentient thing that must be “served” and “preserved” and who knows what else. And they think their bodies react differently to “natural” things. And they think that even if they eliminated all those factories, that terribly unaesthetic work thing, the world would go on humming.
This is how we get to the wonderful point that an intrusive and counterproductive healthcare bill can be sold as “giving you the freedom to pursue your art or craft” – because in the future, food (unprocessed of course) just magically appears, while we’re all happily writing novels, creating sculpture, or simply painting seashells. (With Recuerdo de Espana, of course. Because by that time it will be ironic and … never mind.)
Worse is projecting this fetishization (I’m sure using that word a lot) backward and outward. This leads to the idea that other humans, who live in ways different – and often more brutal and primitive – than ours, must have some virtue, because they’re “closer to nature.”
This is what accounts for both the love affair with brutal tyrants (the natural man!), wanting distant places to remain poor and quaint (as much as I like Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice, their entire idea that India should stay poor and unsullied is gag-worthy) and PREFERING the most dysfunctional cultures (like most forms of Islam) to our own – because they’re poorer, they’re closer to nature and therefore “better.” It also accounts for a good deal of not just human hatred but Western hatred.
And all the time these poseurs are shamming it. Not just to us, no, to themselves. However, take one of these “the little brown people have the right way” and dump them in Portugal, outside touristic areas, in an unheated stone farmhouse in the mountains in the middle of January (and Portugal has a temperate climate) and see how fast they start ranting and raving and longing for central heating, and hating everyone and everything around them.
Or watch them try to grow and harvest their own food and see how quickly they give it up (like most of the back-to-the-earth people in the sixties.)
Do you know when I’ll believe their sincere about their “natural” and “voluntary poverty” fetish? Not when they’re living in 300 sq feet, perfectly designed to maximize utility houses, set in scenic regions where they can live outside a great part of the time, no.
I’ll know they’re serious when they do what Dave Freer does and move to a rural/more primitive (by which I mean early twentieth century not tenth) community and live as a member, not lording it over people. (I know why Dave did it, and respect his choice, but I’m sure he also wouldn’t mind a few more creature comforts. I also know most eco-fluffs in this area would have a nervous breakdown after a month living as he does.)
Or easier – I’ll know they’re serious when they move to a rural community here in the US (which is still miles more comfortable than anywhere in the world) and integrate without patronizing the locals (who, from those I met, are just smart as anyone else, even if they don’t read the stuff I do – but then not many people do that. They usually go higher brow…)
Until then, I wish they’d leave me alone and stop shoving their “unprocessed”, their “natural” and their “unspoiled” in my face.
I’m the product of five thousand years of civilization. I’ve EARNED the right not to go back to nature.
Related post on nature vs. nurture — “I’m a Genius” at Mad Genius club. (And yes, that declaration implies tongue is pressing so hard against cheek it will eventually perforate.)
Also, if you are inclined to do so, consider Raygun Chronicles fundraiser. It would be good to see a totally indie anthology with pro writers, etc. And trust me, they’re doing it on shoe string as is. This model pays pro rates while avoiding big publishers. Give it a try.