Book review: 'All Natural' a skeptics journey

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"In this age of global warming, killer germs and obesity, it's easy to feel as if we've somehow slipped out of sync with the global ecosystem," writes award-winning journalist Nathanael Johnson in "All Natural." A protege of Michael Pollan, Mr. Johnson expands his mentor's approach to food and the way we eat by applying his investigative talents to a specific set of things which exemplify that "out of sync" sensation.

His inquiries include the modern birthing process, the arguments for and against vaccinations, selecting the right food, avoiding common environmental toxins, taking a common-sense approach to forest management, investigating farming methods (in a chapter playfully entitled "Masterbacon"), and negotiating the pros and cons of alternative medicine.

Mr. Johnson's book takes the form of a highly readable journey, ostensibly initiated by the decisions he found himself facing when about to become a father for the first time (hence beginning the journey with the chapter on birth), and having to protect and provide for another human being. But we soon discover that his inquisitiveness and need to separate the scientific wheat from the hokum chaff was informed by his own experience of being the child of parents who sided rather determinedly with the chaff.


By Nathanael Johnson
Rodale ($26.99).

While he is able to bring considerable experience from this countercultural past to bear upon his present-day concerned self, he provides a surprisingly even-handed approach to his subjects, giving credit where it is due, rather than where nostalgia or sentiment suggests it ought to lie. Indeed, his entire premise is ably summed up in his rather long subtitle: "A Skeptic's Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing and the Environment Really Keeps us Healthier and Happier."

The key here is "happier." Sure, he acknowledges, we can live the kind of "organic" life his parents did, trusting that nature knows best, which might, if we're lucky, make us more healthy, but does that necessarily make us happy?

In other words, can too much brown rice be counterproductive?

Throughout, Mr. Johnson uses illustrations that draw attention to the line we walk between the modern conveniences we take for granted and the natural inconveniences we have forgotten were our forebears' only option. Surgery, for example, is the only cure for a burst appendix. Sleeping with your baby can, on occasion, crush it. Too much hand-washing can weaken your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to disease. A creamsicle can overcome whatever empty calories it contains by providing sheer joy.

The brown paper, hand-drawn cover suggests that the author is skeptical about the non-natural approaches he lists, but in fact he applies a rigorous standard of accountability toward those very things that most often slip beneath the folklore radar. His title is therefore a bit coy. Adding a question mark would make it more accurate, but there's no question that this book is an informative, valuable and engrossing read.

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Micki Myers ( is a writer living in Squirrel Hill. Her cancer memoir, "It's Probably Nothing ... (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Implants)," will be published in October by Simon & Schuster.


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