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Nathanael Johnson grew up in the kind of house where kids ate lots of kale and brown rice, played outside in the woods, and sang together before dinner. His parents tried to raise their kids the “natural” way, and for a long time, he thought that was the best.
Johnson’s a journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, New York Magazine, California Watch, This American Life, and KALW. He’s also a new father, with a newly personal stake in figuring out how to live well. He set about trying to locate the truth he thought might lie between the unquestioning acceptance of the natural, and slavish devotion to the modern. The result is the new book 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. He talked with KALW’s Holly Kernan about the relationship between the natural and unnatural in our world.
HOLLY KERNAN: You give a really good example of a fight over the forests in Nevada City, or around Nevada City, where you grew up, and you talk about the preservationists who were in conflict with those who wanted to harvest the timber, and that these communities were actually able to come together and find a solution. Can you explain what happened there?
NATHANAEL JOHNSON: Yeah, this is kind of an amazing story, actually. So this goes back to those two groups in Nevada City, the kind of hippie and the more conservative lumberers and those folks and there was a proposal to trade away some of the Bureau of Land Management forest up there and trade it to a big timber company that would come in and harvest it and Gary Snider and a bunch of people that live near him petitioned to stop this. And the guy that the petition came to was a Bureau of Land Management official named Dean Swickard. And this was not your average government bureaucrat. This was a Marine pilot who had just come back from Vietnam and he was a really remarkable guy. He had gotten to this position, he had risen through the ranks, in almost record speed and he was now an administrator, and he didn’t want to be a desk jockey. He decided, I’ve got this job, I’m going to look the people in the eye and I’m going to touch the ground of the people that I’m working with. So he actually goes up to the San Juan Ridge, outside of Nevada City, and meets these folks who are all upset and some of them are wearing Birkenstocks and talking about the spirit of the trees
KERNAN: And the others just want that tree to become lumber?
JOHNSON: Right, but he also saw, Dean Swickard also saw, a lot of these folks were really intelligent scientifically minded people he could work with. So he said, let’s cut a deal. If you guys, instead of just trying to stop everything that I do, if you can come up with a plan to cooperatively manage this land, then I’ll back you. And if it makes sense, if it’s a plan that isn’t just about putting an end to all industry, but actually can serve the mandates of the B.L.M., then we’ll make it happen. And they did. It took a really long time, it was incredibly frustrating, they had meetings for I think six years, but eventually they came up with a plan and the B.L.M. accepted it. And the idea was basically that they would grow big trees fast and they would harvest those trees in a very selective scientific way so as to both improve the habitat and make a lot of money, because when you sell big trees, you can really get a premium.
KERNAN: So this was high quality wood as well.
JOHNSON: Yeah, high quality timber, and high quality habitat.
KERNAN: And they were also managing the forest to mitigate forest fires, right?
JOHNSON: Right. Because one of the problems that you’ve seen in California is that there’s been such a ban on lumbering in National Forests, it’s just starting to come back a little bit, but the environmental movement did such a god job at shutting things down that there’s actually been a little bit of, it’s caused some problems with the fire load, and with the amount of timber that’s on there. These areas do need to have fires move throughout them once in a while, they do need some management or else they just get incredibly choked with wood and it can be really catastrophic. And we’ve seen year after year the cost of managing the fires going up, it’s going up because of global warming in part, but also because we haven’t done a really rational job of managing these forests.
KERNAN: And managing this duality that you’re talking about, the example of Nevada City, is where people from very diametrically opposed points of view were able to come together and find a solution that worked for everyone.
JOHNSON: I mean, people still fight like crazy, don’t get me wrong. And there’s still, they’re working on their first real, one of their larger timber harvests right now and there’s still people out there that like, don’t even think you should cut down a single piece of brush because that messes with nature’s way. So that fight continues, but what was really heartening to me was this idea that nature’s industry and human industry could exist in the same place, and that you could have a form of nature that’s supporting us and is still beautiful and there’s still room for the animals. Environmentalism just seems so hopeless when it’s saving these last little jewels from our ever-expanding gullet.
You can find Nathanael Johnson at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on January 31st at 7pm, speaking with Michael Pollan about his book. The event costs $40 and includes a copy of All Natural. For tickets and information, click here.