“It is my contention,” Jerome Rodale once declared, “that the deficient, fragmentized, refined modern diet is at the bottom of much crime today. The brain is not nourished properly. Thus there is confused thinking, and vicious behavior.” Like many social conservatives, Rodale was horrified by the street violence and hippie drug culture that became a regular feature of the news during the 1960s. He thought that America’s youth—the baby-boomer generation—had been “spoiled by a life of affluence” and were “too lazy to work for a ‘straight’ living.” Jerome Rodale was a self-made millionaire, a man who read Horatio Alger novels in his free time. He subscribed to the American Dream without reservation and, for the life of him, simply could not understand why anyone would want to “drop-out” or engage in public protest in the United States. Minority anger and student activism were, for Rodale, essentially pathological in nature. Resentment toward “the system” was really just misdirected hostility stemming from poor dietary habits.
Rodale did not understand why sociologists and criminologists concerned with juvenile delinquency refused to entertain the possibility that America’s horrendous eating habits might have something to do with the growing crime problem. “They scoff,” he grumbled, “at such suggestions.” Yet while they do, “the crime rate seems to be going up and up, until one of these days it won’t be safe for anyone to walk down any side street at night, or perhaps even in the daytime.” In a disapproving nod toward the Moynihan Report, Rodale claimed that experts in government and academia seemed convinced that the juvenile delinquency problem was essentially a cultural problem—that, in sum, “these hoodlums come from broken homes.” “Well I have news for them,” Rodale declared. “This is not so.” “The world,” as Prevention’s John Yates put it, “is a very orderly place, everything follows from something else, and if you abuse your body, you’ve got more of a chance of getting into trouble with the law.”
In answer to the question—Who Created the Undisciplined Generation?—Prevention staff writers professed, in 1971, that “a whole generation was raised in the United States on potato chips, soda, greasy hamburgers and assorted candies and snacks. Such a typical teenage diet, loaded with refined starches and sugars, produces chronic ups and downs in blood sugar levels.” A diet such as this led to “mental confusion, depression, anxiety and abrupt mood changes.” Young people brought up in such a dissolute fashion shunned moral complexity and tended toward extremes; they were attracted to radicalism, outlaw culture, and violence like moths to a flame. Even so, Rodale piously declared: “It is my considered opinion that we can feed our young ones into decency, and even honesty.” Proper nutrition improves the character and can turn a criminal into “a model citizen.” Thus, Rodale maintained that the “best place to solve the problem of juvenile delinquency [was] in the cooking pots of the homes.”
In Natural Health, Sugar and the Criminal Mind (1968), Jerome Rodale went as far as to suggest that the Communist threat, the Kennedy assassination and Hitler’s crimes against humanity might have all, albeit indirectly, been caused by the excessive consumption of refined white sugar. In a particularly creative historical stretch, Rodale claimed that if Ivan the Terrible had “understood the principles of nutrition, the entire course of the Russian monarchy might have been different, the revolution might never have happened, and there might be no Soviet menace today.” Likewise, Rodale contended that Lee Harvey Oswald must have been suffering from hypoglycemia, and that he probably would have refrained from shooting the President of the United States were it not for his abominable addiction to the sweet stuff.
“Adolf Hitler,” argued Rodale, “makes a startling case for the harmful effect of sugar on an individual, for Hitler was a sugar drunkard. This, no doubt, is one of the factors that contributed to his becoming a restless, shouting, trigger-brained, raving maniac.” “There can be no question,” contended Rodale, “that Hitler suffered from low blood sugar, due to an over-consumption of sugar.” “Hitler could never get enough of his favorite whipped-cream cakes. There was always a box of candy near him”—and he quite simply “could not drink wine unless he put sugar in it.” Rodale maintained that all of that sugar caused Hitler “to lose his sense of values.” The same thing, incidentally, happened to Napoleon, who was also “addicted to sugar and pastries.”
Virginia B. Jaspers, the Connecticut nurse made infamous in the 1960s by the murder of three babies under her care, was also, argued Rodale, a sugar junkie who had been rendered mentally defective by an over-consumption of sweet snacks. Jaspers had lost her patience and shaken the infants to death after they refused to take their bottles. Rodale insisted that the root of her maniacal behavior was to be found in her “child’s passion for ice cream and soda pop. She was a sugar addict and had to have a box of candy at her side all the time. All day long she drank sweet carbonated beverages.” Thinking along similar lines, Adelle Davis maintained that sugar consumption was behind the atrocious murder of Sharon Tate. Charles Manson’s “Family” had been, she claimed, subsisting on candy bars for days before they went on their infamous rampage. The diet had, she insisted, driven them mad. “Where the diet is good,” Davis declared, “there is no crime.”
Jerome Rodale could not believe that such a dangerous substance had been granted such wide public acceptance. In 1968, with palpable disgust, he described a family excursion to an ice cream festival sponsored by the local Parent Teacher Association, wherein “more than five hundred persons” gorged themselves “on all kinds of over-refined carbohydrate foods—ice cream, candy, cakes, soda pop, hot dogs and the rest.” Rodale lamented the fact that children learn from their elders, and that the elders at the festival were setting such a terrible example. “Grown men were eating away on the circus type of sugar cotton on a stick—great big colored puffballs which were pure sugar.” If nothing changed and current trends continued, Rodale maintained that by 1988 “marriage and the family” would “be threatened” and half the adult population would consist of hippies.
In 1971, it was already well known that the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, had presidential ambitions; it was also known that Reagan had quite a sweet tooth, and that he kept a bowl of jellybeans on his desk at all times. Jerome Rodale sympathized with Reagan’s conservative politics and his mistrust of hippies. Even so, he could not support the idea of a Reagan White House because he found the Governor’s penchant for candy profoundly disturbing. Rodale issued public statements to newspapers warning “that a man who eats jelly beans, gum drops and chocolate-covered peanuts would be a poor performer in the presidency.” He did not relish the thought of an emotionally unstable jellybean addict in the White House with his finger next to the button.
If anything has united health-conscious North Americans, it is the belief that white bread is inherently evil. Indeed, they have denounced refined white flour with a consistency that is matched only by the equally steadfast manner in which they have condemned refined white sugar. But this is a well-worn position that dates back to the very moment when the refinement process was patented in the mid-nineteenth century. The newfangled loaves had only just started to appear in American kitchens when health reformer Sylvester Graham set out on his quixotic crusade against white bread. His diatribes against the refinement of flour had all of the righteous indignation of an itinerant preacher’s altar call.
But Graham’s jeremiad was only heard in small circles, and even there he probably found some hard hearts. Americans liked their white bread, for the most part. They liked the look of it. They liked its ethereal fluffiness, and its delicate (some would say nonexistent) flavor. Besides, white bread stayed fresh considerably longer than its virtuous brown predecessor, because the refined flour from which it was made had been emancipated from its more earthbound, perishable parts. For Graham, the impoverished remnants of the denuded wheat berry that went into white bread represented everything that was wrong with the industrialization of the American food supply. He believed that something precious and essential was irretrievably lost during this violent process.
Graham’s sentiments have been recycled and reused by pure-food activists, almost verbatim, for over a century and a half. One Prevention writer described white bread as “pre-sliced absorbent cotton” with the nutritional value of sawdust, whilst another maintained that consuming it was a mortal sin: “Destroying God’s temple takes place when we ingest material that has been bleached, processed, and stripped of all its God-given nutrients.” Adelle Davis went so far as to claim that France was easily overwhelmed by the Nazis in 1940, in part, because of “the enfeebling French passion for white bread.” There was certainty and perhaps some comfort to be found in this stridency. Newly-minted health enthusiasts, still trying to figure out what was required of them, could be absolutely sure of at least one thing: white flour products were expressly forbidden.
Did it then follow that whole wheat bread—made of virginal, unsullied flour—was permitted? Not necessarily. Even the subject of bread could be thorny. Jerome Rodale, for one, stood squarely against the consumption of bread in any form to his dying day. “Bread,” as he so often declared, “has no place in the Prevention System. It is not the staff of life, even though it is whole wheat.” “To me,” he added, “this prescription against bread is one of the most important planks in the Prevention System, and applies to the organically-raised wheat as well as that raised with chemical fertilizers.” Unambiguously clear statements such as these left little room for amendments or innovation.
All the same, as if to keep Prevention’s six million readers on their toes, Robert Rodale successfully performed yet another doctrinal about-face in the late 1970s. On his watch, bread not only made it back on the table, it became a staple, one of the centerpieces of his new and improved, high-carbohydrate version of the Prevention System. Prevention magazine continued to sing the praises of whole-grain bread in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s. Jerome Rodale must have rolled over in his grave!
“They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”—George W. Bush, “Address to the Joint Session of Congress Following the 9/11 Attacks,” (delivered on September 20, 2001)
The pro-GMO guys have, it seems, taken to wrapping themselves in the flag of not only Science, but Philosophy and Atheism too. What a splendid piece of propaganda this is! Brings to mind George W. Bush’s infamous speech to the Joint Session of Congress Following the 9/11 Attacks, wherein he famously declared: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
We’re well aware of how sleazy conservatives like Bush wrap themselves in the flag of patriotism (e.g., if you oppose my policy you hate our Country). And we’re well aware of how sleazy fundamentalists wrap themselves in the flag of religion (e.g., if you oppose my doctrine you hate God). But we’re less aware of how public relations experts wrap themselves in the flag of science (e.g., if you oppose GMOs you hate science).
Whilst I admire the skill and sophistry of the Don Draper who produced this meme, I find its message profoundly dishonest. First of all, I know plenty of atheists who oppose GMOs and plenty of religious folk who support them. Same is true of philosophy: philosophers are to be found on either side of this issue. Regardless, philosophy and atheism have nothing to do with GMOs, so this is really neither here nor there.
Unlike the absurd attempt to link support for GMOs to atheism and philosophy, the attempt to link anti-GMO sentiment to anti-science sentiment is at least plausible. These two patchouli-scented crowds do indeed overlap with some regularity. Still, it’s specious to suppose that someone who’s anti-GMO is anti-science in 2016. After all, the debate over GMOs is nothing like the “debate” over Climate Change or Evolution.
Look, if you still believe—today, in 2016—that climate change isn’t happening, and that we’re not causing it, you’re no longer welcome at the adult table. Likewise, if the overwhelming mountain of evidence in support of the theory of evolution by natural selection still hasn’t convinced you, you’re a lost cause. But to say that the same is true of GMOs is deeply dishonest. There are plenty of well-respected researchers—people with PhDs who publish in the same peer-reviewed journals you publish in—who maintain, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that the potential risks associated with the widespread usage of GMOs far outweigh the potential benefits. In light of this, it’s disingenuous to imply that I’m an enemy of all things modern just because I oppose GMOs.
I’m not anti-science, dude. I’m just anti-bullshit.
In the annals of childhood storytelling and imaginative play, one of my favorite books is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Despite being banned by most libraries and receiving universally negative reviews from critics when it was first published in 1963, the book quickly became and has remained one of the most popular and well-loved staples of children’s literature in North America. And like many kids who loved Max and the wild things, I’m sure that at least some of its popularity can be explained by how well it resonated with the imaginary places I constructed in childhood to escape the consequences of being banished to my dull room as punishment for some ill-advised behavior. Yet I’m also convinced, more recently, that the Wild Things and their world are indicative of a far more pervasive and omnipresent part of our culture—one which imagines the wild as a far-off, exotic, and ‘natural’ landscape as a safety valve to escape the pressures of our post-industrial and denatured lives. And while the temptation to envision an unspoiled world in the face of the complex environmental challenges of the 21st century is certainly understandable, responding to them effectively begins with imagining this narrative differently.
Why? Because narratives, stories, and myths matter: they shape the way that we think about one another and the world. They shape the way we, even as children, imagine certain places, spaces and ideas. And when it comes to nature, the environment, and where the wild things are, they have very real consequences for the way we understand, see and act in the world. Let me illustrate this with one example from a setting that is probably familiar to you: the public park.
Last summer, my husband and I stopped with our two boys at a playground on a break from walking around the much larger public park in our hometown. On the playground, they joined other kids on the gym equipment while we took stock of the area for a place to sit. In the process, we noticed and sat near a huge supply of wild black raspberry bushes with ripe fruit lining the cultivated playground lawn. As we watched other caregivers, parents, and careful folk unpack their Tupperware containers or other brightly colored snack-themed paraphernalia, my husband and I turned around and picked some of those black raspberries for our kids, who then devoured them. Yet no one else did, even though there was more than enough for everyone, including all of the adults and their friends, to go around. And when the kids were done, we left the gym equipment to explore the paths through and around the trees for salamanders, snakes, butterflies and all manner of bugs. Yet while the playground was full with families and we encountered other adults with the occasional kid on those paths, our boys turned over rocks, climbed trees and scaled logs virtually alone. There was wildlife and wild raspberries aplenty in this very public and very popular park. But no one seemed aware of or interested in them.
Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that all of the parents and participants we encountered want to find bugs or chase butterflies or check out the berries with their kids in the park. But it’s a bigger mistake to assume that they don’t value the trees or butterflies or berries either. After all, it is not as if we don’t value nature, or wildlife, just because the kids are at the playground that day. In fact, given all of the ‘new research’ dedicated to extolling the virtues of the forest in fashionable parenting manuals these days, I would venture to guess that most families and parents in attendance at the park that day value the lessons of nature and the wild more than their parents’ generation did. We just don’t tend to look for them in our local park.
It is also probably safe to say that many, or even most, of the adults we encountered would probably not recognize the fruit on those bushes as black raspberries, or, if they did, would not be willing to pick and eat them directly from those branches. And many or most who might have been interested in the wildlife probably did not know how or where to find a red-backed salamander. So our separation from the natural world, including a basic knowledge of how to recognize food, plants or wildlife that are native to the park and everyday surroundings is certainly part of the equation. And sure, my husband and I have some experience in recognizing black raspberry bushes, so perhaps this makes sense.
But lack of knowledge doesn’t explain the undeniable fact that it wasn’t because the adults at the park on that hot summer day ignored or dismissed or distrusted the wild black raspberries at the edge of the playground that they went uneaten. It was, rather, because they literally didn’t see what was right behind them, didn’t notice the bushes and trees that surrounded the playground—that, in short, the raspberries went uneaten because because they were invisible. My husband and I were the only adults, in fact, to approach the bushes in close enough proximity to either recognize or contemplate whether the fruit we saw on them was edible.
So I suppose it would be useful to here entertain the sociological explanations for parental tunnel vision, including lack of time, busy schedules, helicopter parenting and a host of other pressures that keep us from spending time in or noticing the more unstructured aspects of park play. But, again, that only gets us so far, because busy schedules get cleared for nature and wildlife, if even only on occasion.
So this leaves us with the final and most important question: if we value nature, and wildlife, and/or the natural environment, or if we value hobbies and past times because they enable us to get out into ‘nature’, and/or if we make sure to spend time going camping, hiking, or ‘getting away’ from urban or suburban life to greener pastures and trees when possible, why do we neglect the wild side of our local public parks?
The answer takes us back to Sendak: wildlife, wild things, and ‘nature’ are not found in the urban or suburban park, but away from human life, in camp grounds and on hiking trails, in the ‘country’, and, most importantly, removed from everyday human life and experience. We ‘escape’ to nature where it is valued for its capacity to be unspoiled—that is, untouched or unmarked by human habitation. And the more unspoiled, the more fantastic, and the more exotic, the more we value the ‘wild’ of it all, the more we think of it as a cure for what’s wrong in our lives, and the more we feel the need to protect it and the parts of ourselves that find refuge there.
The problem with this, of course, as the 19th century conservationists eventually realized, is that the ‘environment’ and what is ‘natural’ is not a some destination merely to be set aside for future enjoyment. Downwind or downstream pollution do not respect either political or social boundaries, and we ignore the impact of these, as well as the issues of sanitation, air quality, and job safety—that is, human problems—that directly shape their intensity and direction, at our peril. But we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to wonder about, and in, the beauty and refuge of experiencing wildlife and nature in our everyday lives. In our park, all we needed to do was pay attention to the trees, bushes, and the entirety of the green space and park landscape surrounding us that day to find it. And all one ever needs to do is slow down, get off the bike, treat the path as the destination rather than the route to get there, and explore. And what happens if you do so? You find that there is a wild side, even in the center of a post-industrial city, not just rife with wild black (and red) raspberries, but of snakes and salamanders, of toads and butterflies that settle on and under your feet, and of trees or logs or bogs that can be crossed, or climbed, or tested at will.
But the deeper and more meaningful implications of this—of fully recognizing and exploring your neighborhood, park and everyday life as part of the natural world—are far more radical. Recognizing where the wild things are at the edges of the playground, on the path to the gym equipment, and in the everyday environments of our daily lives inheres deeper, more meaningful lessons concerning the role of knowledge, the significance of humility, and the place of natural limits on our world than any weekend camping expedition. Because paying attention to what is wild in our everyday lives ultimately makes us responsible for making sure what we find, whether they are bees or blueberry bushes, will be valued and protected as well.
I still love Sendak and the thought of escaping to far off places with the Wild Things. And I don’t think we should stop valuing the beauty and power of the natural landscapes and places to transform us. But we do need stories that enable us to imagine and thus see the wild spaces all around us to help us understand that we are, in fact, connected to and part of those landscapes. Perhaps in doing so, we can begin thinking differently about how to achieve a more sustainable world.
“In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth,” cried I, getting angry, and glad to be angry, because so only was it possible to oppose his tremendous concentrativeness and indomitable will, “cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?” “Be with me,” said Hollingsworth, “or be against me! There is no third choice for you.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)
Scott Nearing lived to be 100 years old. One would be hard pressed to find a single progressive twentieth-century cause that he did not advocate at one time or another. Nearing participated in the labor movement, pacifism, socialism, the woman’s liberation movement, civil rights, communism, and, for the second half of his life, environmentalism, organic farming, and the natural health movement. He also found time to write over fifty books, hundreds of pamphlets and articles, and a novel. He was a religious virtuoso who had a habit of getting himself kicked out of institutions. In 1915, Scott Nearing, then a professor of Economics, was fired from the University of Pennsylvania for protesting against child labor; in 1917, he was fired from the University of Toledo for protesting against the First World War; and in 1930, he was expelled from the Communist Party for writing a book contradicting Lenin and suggesting that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic power.
Making Scott Nearing toe the party line, any party line, was a difficult task. “Although collectivism is part of his creed,” one journalist observed, “try as he will to cooperate with his fellow men, he cannot play the party man. Neither the Right nor the Left has been able to make him conform.” It is likely that Scott Nearing’s first marriage to feminist and woman’s rights activist, Nellie Seeds, ended in large part because he could not compromise his ideals for anyone. When he found their lifestyle too opulent he gave away almost all his clothes, began dressing very simply and eating a Spartan vegetarian diet out of nothing but the same wooden bowl and spoon—this, in protest against his own family. Not surprisingly, Scott Nearing’s single-mindedness made him awkward socially. “He abhorred gossip and small talk, avoiding commonplace trivia,” wrote Helen; “he was not an easy or avid conversationalist.” Scott saw most friendliness as a form of affectation, which he disapproved of as much as “dancing and dress clothes.” Although Helen had religious virtuoso tendencies, it took a while for Scott to convert her to radicalism. “There were times,” she later wrote in her memoir, “when he had to poke or pull me along toward his own rare intense level of dedication.”
Like Scott Nearing, Helen Knothe came from a wealthy northeastern family. As a young woman, she looked forward to a career as a concert violinist. Knothe was, as she said, artistic and musical. She had lived in Europe for years, spoke several languages, and was well versed in Eastern mysticism and the occult. She had studied for a number of years under the Indian guru Jiddu Krishnamurti. Helen Knothe had a serious side, but she was for the most part a fun-loving, spontaneous, free spirit. She once, on impulse, flung herself off to Australia to join a commune. By contrast, Scott Nearing’s obsessive-compulsive personality was legendary. He told his friend Upton Sinclair that he could stay in his summer cottage for as long as he wanted, but he could not touch any of his tools as they “might be mislaid.” Helen once jokingly exclaimed, “I bet you even fold up your toilet paper neat and square.” He confessed that he did. Scott Nearing had a lifelong love affair with order. Carefree Helen Knothe nevertheless fell in love with him. She was in her mid-twenties. He was in his mid-forties. “For more than fifty years,” she remembered, “my life was Scott-centered.” They were not officially married until 1948, however, when Nellie Seeds died, leaving Scott Nearing a widower.
To say that Scott Nearing was at a low point in his life in 1928 would be an understatement. He had recently separated from his first wife, his professional career was over (he had now been fired by two universities), journals declined his articles, and he was broke. Knothe and Nearing’s first years together were tough, made worse by the onset of the Great Depression. After living in a cold-water flat in New York’s Lower East Side for a few years, they became thoroughly disillusioned with American society. They concluded that they were living in a social order based upon perverse values: competition, acquisition, conspicuous consumption, aggression, and war-making. Theirs was a society that butchered for food and murdered “for sport and power.” They resolved to emancipate themselves from American society on ethical grounds: “The closer we have to come to this social order the more completely are we a part of it. Since we reject it in theory, we should, as far as possible, reject it also in practice. On no other basis can theory and practice be unified.” They fixed upon moving back to the land as the only viable solution. Thus, in 1932, Helen Knothe and Scott Nearing moved to rural Vermont, purchased a derelict farm with what little money they had left, and began the herculean task of creating a self-sufficient homestead out of a patch of tired New England soil.
“Sentiment without action,” Edward Abbey once said, “is the ruin of the soul.” The Nearings could not have agreed more. In their manifesto, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (1954), they contended that as long as theory was divorced from practice it did violence to the soul by dividing “the personality against itself.” “The most harmonious life,” they argued, “is one in which theory and practice are unified.” “We desired to liberate and dissociate ourselves as much as possible, from the cruder forms of exploitation: the plunder of the planet; the slavery of man and beast; the slaughter of men in war, and of animals for food.”
Since they disapproved of all these “forms of exploitation” they could not in good conscience enjoy any of the spoils. The Nearings claimed that they had tried to live an ethical life in an urban setting and found it impossible. Invariably they encountered the same obstacles: “complexity, tension, strain, artificiality, and heavy overhead costs.” It was, they maintained, “virtually impossible to counter city pressures and preserve physical health, mental balance and social sanity through long periods of city dwelling.” More importantly, the costs of living in the city “were payable only in cash, which had to be earned under conditions imposed upon one by the city—for its benefit and advantage.” As long as they remained in the city they would be more or less in “the system’s clutches,” helpless cogs in an “impersonal, implacable, merciless machine operated to make rich men richer and powerful men more powerful.”
The Nearings insisted that they were doing more than merely saving their own souls when they left the city; they were not “shirking obligations” or “seeking to escape.” They adamantly maintained that their errand into the wilderness was a political act; life on Forest Farm was an argument: the personal was altogether political. “We believed that we could make our contribution to the good life more effectively in a pre-industrial, rural community than in one of the great urban centers.” As the Nearings saw it, their first major contribution was to stop adding to the problem; their second was to prove that it was possible to live a harmless life, by creating a viable alternative to America’s wasteful lifestyle.
The Nearings argued that people could save the planet by living simply and conscientiously. Many of those who had become disillusioned with political change in the early 1970s found this message empowering. “I read, in 1976, Living the Good Life,” wrote one follower, “and then saw you shortly thereafter speaking in Boston. It was during this time, and directly due to you, that I became absolutely clear that I as a single individual . . . could accomplish whatever I set out to do. And what I set out to do was to participate in the healing of the planet.” “Up to this time,” she added, “I had thought that I hadn’t nearly enough of the ‘stuff’ it would take to achieve this. I made it too lofty a goal for myself by placing it only in the hands of those who apparently had large amounts of ‘power and influence.’” “You have shown,” enthused another, “that actions speak louder than words. Doing is more important than knowing and knowledge which cannot be translated into action is of little worth.” By removing themselves to the wilderness and teaching by example the Nearings were perhaps unknowingly continuing a long New England tradition—they were building a city on a hill. But this city on a hill was adamantly anti-city.
The Nearings raised a stone house with their own hands and named their Vermont homestead Forest Farm. “We were not young,” they would later write, “but we were adventurous.” Within a couple of years, they were almost completely self-sufficient, living off of the vegetables and fruits they grew on the farm and describing outsiders as “visitors from the outside world.” When nearby Stratton Mountain developed into a popular ski resort virtually overnight in the early 1950s, the Nearings relocated to Maine. Tellingly, however, the Maine homestead was also called Forest Farm, highlighting the fact that “Forest Farm” was an idea and not a specific place; it was an ecologically conscious way of life that unified theory and practice.
Living the Good Life (1954) was the memoir of Helen and Scott’s two-decade-long (1932-1952) Vermont project, a manifesto published on the centenary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). Comparisons were made almost immediately, with journalists often referring to the Nearings’ book as the Walden of the twentieth century. Although sometimes resenting the comparison, the Nearings did much to encourage it. They quoted from Walden at length in Living the Good Life and had clearly been inspired by Thoreau. Regardless, the Nearings had no pretensions to originality. “We were trying out a life style,” they wrote in 1979, “that was not new in history, but was new in our generation.”
The Nearings’ commitment to the ecological logic of individual responsibility was not born full-grown; they grew into it. Over the years the gulf between their private lives and public lives narrowed, as every aspect of their existence succumbed to the gravitational pull of their ideals. They eventually, for instance, boycotted all of the food-oriented holidays. On Christmas and Thanksgiving, when most Americans made merry, the Nearings fasted. “We do it,” Helen Nearing wrote in 1980, “as a protest against the folly of feasting, against the national gluttony of overfed people overeating.” Feast days were obscene in “a world where there are people who are starving”—“in a world where there is enough to go around, but it is not shared equally.”
Life at Forest Farm became a spectacle, a political act, from the food the Nearings ate to the house they lived in; even their lithe physically fit bodies became prooftexts and arguments for their way of life. “The whole of our lives so far has been our message,” Helen Nearing wrote in 1995. The rural utopia described in Living the Good Life (1954) became a veritable new frontier in the minds of many of the environmentally conscious youth that came of age in the 1970s. Much like the frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner envisioned a century ago, homesteading came to be seen as an ever-present possibility, a comforting thought; a potential escape route from the complexities of modern life; something to fantasize about on a bad day. It was a pressure valve that provided for the safe and largely apolitical release of the socially disaffected. Rather than mobilize politically in the urban centers to push for structural change, idealists were encouraged to withdraw from politics, remove to the country, and live a self-sufficient existence. Even if most of those who entertained the homesteading fantasy never actually moved back to the land, the idea that they could had a powerful effect on the imagination of a generation of ecologically-conscious North Americans.
The Nearings became countercultural celebrities in the 1970s. Forest Farm, in turn, became a sacred place. A trip to Forest Farm became de rigueur for many young homesteaders. World Forum claimed in 1973 that “visiting them” was “like a pilgrimage.” Forest Farm became “a shrine for the faithful;” “a Mecca for people attracted to living a sane and simple life close to the land.” “Every year,” declared Booklegger magazine, “hundreds of young people, long-haired and knap-sacked, make the journey to the Nearings’ Forest Farm at Harborside. They leave with renewed vision.” Advertisements appeared in hippie homesteading magazines such as: “Leaving for the Nearings on the 25th. Have room for two.”
The Nearings’ fame was at least partly due to the popular press. Journalists regularly constructed antecedents for the counterculture. In 1970, the Buffalo Evening News declared that Scott “was a dropout from society 40 years before it was ‘in,’” while The Nation said of the Nearings—“Whether they know it or not, they are by way of becoming an ‘in’ couple.” About a half a year later, the New York Times ran an article on the Nearings entitled, “They Lived Today’s Ideas Yesterday.” They would eventually be touted as “the elder statesmen” of the homesteading movement and “The Counter Culture’s Pioneers.” Establishing their credentials as the bona fide forerunners of the homesteading movement, the Boston Herald American wrote, “Scott and Helen Nearing [had] already had their fill of a fledgling rat race . . . long before the world heard of ‘hippies,’ when Timothy Leary was still in knee pants.” Harold Henderson was blunter: “they left the city well before doing so became fashionable.” Thus, after years of obscurity, Helen and Scott Nearing became countercultural celebrities; as People magazine put it, “the Nearings suddenly became chic radicals.”
Pilgrims to Forest Farm regularly employed explicitly religious language to describe their experience at the seaside homestead. As if they had just returned from a visit to Machu Picchu or Chartres Cathedral, Mark Jackson and Karen Roberts recalled their demeanor: “Speaking in guarded whispers, we felt as if we were on sacred ground, blessed to be there.” “Art in twentieth-century America has many forms,” declared another, “and I view the Nearing homestead as one of them.”
The Nearings were personally revered just as much as (if not more than) their work of art, Forest Farm. In an article chronicling the activities of a homesteading conference, Jack Aley claimed that many homesteaders “worship Scott Nearing as a living folk hero” and refer to him colloquially as “the seer.” He noted that a solemn silence prevailed when Scott addressed the crowd of 2,000 young people at the conference, and that “several young women close to the speaker’s platform had beatific smiles on their faces.”
Ellie Thurston believed that she was in the presence of a holy woman when she met Helen Nearing for the first time: “I began to feel a little shy,” she confessed, “or maybe awe-struck is the word, as we followed the famous Helen Nearing into her very simple, wood-heated kitchen.” “I just couldn’t help but feel somewhat humble,” averred Thurston, “in the presence of the very Mother of the homesteading movement.” She maintained that the Nearings were “practically the founders of today’s ever-growing back-to-the-land movement.” “The name Nearing,” Thurston observed, “is a household word among young back-to-the-landers, with the significance that the name Sigmund Freud would have in psychological circles.” “They’ve been referred to,” she added, “as the “senior gurus” of the homesteading movement.”
Visitors reported feeling spiritually transformed after spending time at Forest Farm. Mary Beth Fielder and her companion were filled with something akin to religious ecstasy after a day with the Nearings. Fielder described the experience in a letter to Helen. “After saying goodbye we stopped at a beach a few miles down the road and as the clouds changed color over the ocean we cried, laughed and prayed that we, like you, would have the courage and perseverance to bring our inner visions into reality.”
For Alice Ellison, visiting Forest Farm was a redemptive experience and an important catalyst for personal growth: “meeting you and seeing your beautiful home have helped me to make some solid changes in my own life. . . . You have touched me profoundly.” Likewise, Sharon Watson wrote, “Since being with you I have been rethinking my garden, diet and general way of life . . . . It is wonderful to see a place where life is in such harmony and that feels so true and balanced. This is what I want in my life.” If mankind is “to work harmoniously together” for a better future, averred Robert Brown, we must all take heed of “your living example.” What is striking about these sentiments is how thoroughly apolitical they are. A pilgrimage to Forest Farm led to introspection and guilt-ridden repentance, not political action.
The Nearing homestead was at times so overrun with long-haired onlookers that it took on the appearance of a countercultural theme park for the ecologically conscious. On these days organic farming was transformed into a spectator sport. Ellie Thurston described one of these particularly crowded days: “300 people crowded in and around the garden, cameras flashing, movie film rolling, tape recorders humming,” while “Scott leaned on his hoe” and preached the gospel of homesteading. Commenting on the pilgrimage phenomenon at the end of the decade, the Nearings remarked, “Before we moved from Vermont to Maine, the trickle of visitors had become a stream. During the next years in Maine it became a flood.
By the 1970s the number of visitors, by head count, has ranged between 2,000 and 2,500 in the course of a year. It often reached dozens in a day.” Most pilgrims arrived, like Sheila and Richard Garrett, “uninvited and unannounced,” counting upon the Nearings’ open-house policy. They were “come-seers,” and like everyone else, they were welcomed, fed, and invited to join in the work of the day or do nothing—provided that they did not get in the way of those who were working, especially the Nearings. Irrespective of these restrictions, the number of visitors continued to grow and the situation became so overwhelming that in 1976 they were forced to put up a sign which indicated that they would only receive guests from three to five o’clock in the afternoon. Even this arrangement became too much to bear, and so, in 1978, they forbade any visitors from showing up without prior notice via the mail (the Nearings, of course, did not have a telephone). They even declared 1978 a “sabbatical” year. The Nearing Edict of 1978 was not altogether successful. Many of the faithful continued to show up unannounced. The decree did, however, significantly curtail the exhausting ritual.
The Nearings worried that the lax cultural values of the 1970s might be fundamentally incompatible with the austerity of the homesteading life. They admired the pilgrims’ idealism, but found their work ethic wanting. As Helen Nearing once put it, many came to Forest Farm, but few stayed: “They said we worked too hard. They wanted to lie in a hammock and discuss the Good Life.” Most homesteaders refused to submit to the Nearings’ highly regimented lifestyle, preferring a more relaxed pace. They also dissented from the Nearings’ tee-totaling ways as well as their aversion to swearing. Scott Nearing actually resigned from the advisory board of the War Resisters League when the word “shit” appeared in the League’s magazine. The Nearings abhorred “dances and beer parties.” They were exactly the sort of “puritanical, sour, righteous” Old Left radicals that Charles A. Reich contrasted with the free-spirited radicals of the counterculture in The Greening of America (1970).
To the young people who visited them, many of the Nearings’ pet peeves seemed old-fashioned, dated relics from a bygone era. The Nearings’ moralism vis-à-vis health and the body, however, made them positively au courant. “It is unnecessary for us to say,” the Nearings once declared, “that the difference between good health and bad is the difference between the success and failure of almost any long-term human project.” In Living the Good Life, the Nearings quoted (favorably) an English medical doctor named G. T. Wrench who likened disease to a “censor” that “pointed out” those errant individuals whose lifestyles were “faulty.” Ellie Thurston found this attitude to be widespread among the leaders of the homesteading movement. At one homesteading convention, she wrote, “I couldn’t help but speak up in defense of falling ill occasionally—some of the diehards honestly seem to think homesteaders are immune to any kind of disease because of our ‘healthful’ way of life.”
The analogies used to differentiate The Good Life from its opposite frequently revolved around notions of purity, hygiene and cleanliness. One follower tellingly described the Nearings as “a clear stream in a polluted river.” In the emerging moral economy of health and wellness of the 1970s, to be a vegetarian and a nonsmoker, to eat organic food and drink water from a spring, was not simply to be living a healthful life, it was to be pure, clean, undefiled, unpolluted, and in a certain important sense, righteous and good. Much of this moralism comes through in Helen Nearing’s cookbook, Simple Food for the Good Life (1980), which Food & Wine magazine described as, “The funniest, crankiest, most ambivalent cookbook you’ll ever read.” In the book’s lengthy diatribe against the eating of meat, Helen Nearing describes the “savage” and “repulsive” custom of consuming “putrefying corpses” as “unethical” and “unhygienic,” and expresses disgust at “the ghoulish practice of making . . . stomachs the burial ground for dead bodies.” It was this holier-than-thou tone that most bothered socialist critic Jigs Gardner about the Nearings: “They make people feel like sinners by endowing what one would think of as neutral acts—eating, for instance—with a strongly moral tone.” “Without directly saying so,” Scott Nearing “makes you feel like an epicene degenerate for enjoying [white] bread.” “Moralism,” averred Gardner, “lurks everywhere in the militant Simple Liver’s world: I’m better than you are because I’m a vegetarian . . . or because I wear old clothes, and so on and so on . . . . Using a woodstove, growing a vegetable garden . . . entitle one to a feeling of sanctimonious superiority to the mass of yahoos out there in suburban Consumerland.” What Gardner grasped was that the Nearings saw all of these personal lifestyle choices in explicitly moral terms. Consider, for instance, how Scott Nearing dealt with the death of his son, John Scott. In 1976, John Scott died of a heart attack. He was 71 years old. Though he was asked, Scott refused to attend his son’s funeral. Sitting out the funeral was, he claimed, a protest against his son’s unhealthy lifestyle. He went so far as to write a nasty letter to his dead son’s daughter, which, in essence, maintained that her father got what he deserved.
The Nearings’ intolerance toward physical weakness grew more marked with age as they began to take full credit for their undeniably impressive vitality. Continuing the Good Life (1979) was full of references to their health: “We homesteaded in Vermont for nineteen years without having a family doctor. We have homesteaded in Maine for more than twenty-five years equally free of permanent medical advice because we have been chronically well.”
The Nearings came to view their “abounding health” as an act of the will, a conscious choice, rather than as a fortuitous byproduct of both their healthy lifestyle and their ample good fortune. When a doctor friend proposed that Scott Nearing begin receiving monthly vitamin B12 injections, he responded curtly: “If I did this I would be trying to prolong my life under medical supervision for the rest of my life. Thank you, but I would rather die much earlier than follow such a course. . . . If I cannot stay well by a normal diet and temperate living, the sooner I die the better for me and the society of which I am a member.” There is in this statement—and most of the Nearings’ thoughts on health and wellness—an echo of Scott Nearing’s onetime interest in eugenics. In The Super Race: An American Problem (1912), he declared that the “perpetuation of hereditary defect [was] infinitely worse than murder.” “The murderer,” he argued, “robs society; the mentally defective parent curses society, both in the present and in the future, with the taint of degeneracy. The murderer takes away a life; but the feeble-minded parent passes on to the future the seeds of racial decay.” We must, Scott Nearing concluded, do everything in our power to ensure that the “scum of society” do not have children.
For most of the 1970s, when the homesteading movement was in full bloom, Scott Nearing was in his nineties and Helen Nearing was in her seventies. Yet they continued to build houses out of stone with their bare hands, dig sizable ponds with shovels, maintain a massive garden virtually all year round, cut and split all their own firewood, and do physical work on a daily basis that regularly exhausted young people in their twenties. The Nearings’ vitality granted legitimacy to their way of life among the health conscious. “Your health,” one homesteader declared, “is evidence of how successful your outlook on life can make you physically as well as mentally.” Their bodies had with age become arguments and prooftexts for their way of life.
The Nearings used their age and remarkable health to browbeat and belittle homesteaders (usually ex-homesteaders) who publicly pointed out the difficulties and physical discomfort associated with moving back to the land. For instance, the March 1979 issue of Country Journal contained a number of letters to the editor from crestfallen homesteaders who had tried their best, failed, given up, and moved back to the city. Helen Nearing responded to these letters in the following edition with derision: “Scott and I know it is hard work subsisting by your own sweat on a homestead. We’ve done it for half a century, but who’s crying?” “Not we,” she crowed. “If we oldsters can stand it, what’s wrong with your various authors that they should creep back to the protection of the city? What’s all this grousing about hard work . . . .? Scott, at ninety-six, enjoys it. ‘Good exercise,’ he says. ‘Keeps the blood boiling.’”
The Nearings responded with anything but sympathy when homesteaders complained that being back to the land in the middle of a bitterly cold winter could be miserable. One homesteader, suffering from chronically cold feet, wrote to the Nearings quite clearly looking for consolation and advice. Helen Nearing responded callously, practically blaming the woman for her condition: “It seems to us that your circulation is probably inadequate. We’ve lived in New England through more than 40 years’ worth of subzero winters, and neither Scott nor I have ever suffered from chronically cold feet. In fact, I often pad around on our stone floors—in the dead of winter—barefoot!”
There was something almost monstrous about Helen and Scott Nearing. Their idealism was all-consuming. This was especially true of Scott Nearing. He loved teaching: yet he engaged in activities that led to his dismissal from two different universities. He thought child labor and the First World War were wrong—and he was going to protest against them, come what will. Scott Nearing loved Communism: yet he wrote a book contradicting Vladimir Lenin and suggesting that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic power. That book resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party. He thought, at the time, that certain aspects of Soviet foreign policy were wrong, and he was going to say so, come what will. The Communist Left turned its back on Nearing in the 1930s; but he did not turn his back on the Soviet Union. Scott Nearing defended Stalin well into the 1950s, long after the American Left had repudiated him. One can only assume that he loved his son John: yet he was willing to sacrifice even this love on the altar of his idealism. Scott Nearing disowned his own son because he disapproved of his politics and his eating habits.
How are we, who are not consumed by similar passions, to make sense of people like Helen and Scott Nearing? How are we to make sense of these lovers of discomfort and discord? The Nearings took the logic of individual responsibility to many of its more radical conclusions. In their personal lives and in their little City on a Hill, Forest Farm, we can see so much of the beauty and ugliness of the purpose driven life.
(For my inaugural post on Committing Sociology, I offer the proverbial oldie but goodie, a post from some months ago.)
I’m a guy. I like to cook. So people often say, hey, you must be a good cook! or something to that effect. (No, not really. I’m OK, but nothing like my old friend Richard Hepner, who’s a professional chef, working for lousy pay in very unglamourous venues most of his life while turning out, for instance, exquisite tapas or other Mediterranean cuisine, who has a feel for ingredients akin to a jazz musician’s ear for improv) It makes me vaguely uncomfortable that it’s even the slightest bit notable that I cook, that it’s even mildly something worth remarking upon. Continue reading Cooking and Patriarchy: Expectation and Practice→
Bevan Ramsay’s latest work, neatly encased in square, thin and minimalist white attire, bursts open to reveal only, in retrospect, what it could: soft, sensuous curves, bombastic colors, and a quite loving embrace for the chaos of this world as well as the beauty that such chaos can reveal. In Harmonia Hindi (2012), Ramsay takes one of the strangest and most superfluous representatives of our culture—the silk scarf—and repurposes it to reveal the ways in which the common, the everyday and, indeed, the thrown away, can be reclaimed and, perhaps for the first time, become part of something beautiful. CDs, old photos, liquor bottles, and other refuse rub elbows with items boasting more auspicious origins and all, it seems, serve equal measure in Ramsay’s painstaking arrangement of their parts to bring wholly new, brightly illustrated, and inexplicably moving compositions to the silk scarf via digital print architecture.
If Harmonia Hindi had a theme song, it would be a South Asian remix of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” set to sitar music. Like Cohen, Ramsay is a Montreal native. Both share a deep-seated aversion to romanticism and a worldview that could be perhaps best described as tragic. Keep these lines from “Suzanne” in mind as you contemplate the first six pieces that comprise Harmonia Hindi: “Now Suzanne takes your hand / and she leads you to the river / she is wearing rags and feathers / from Salvation Army counters / And the sun pours down like honey / on our lady of the harbour / And she shows you where to look / among the garbage and the flowers / There are heroes in the seaweed / there are children in the morning / they are leaning out for love / they will lean that way forever / while Suzanne holds the mirror.”
Like Suzanne, Ramsay shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers. Like Cohen, he resolutely refuses to be a passive observer. There is no Emersonian all-seeing Eye to be found here, no patient wildlife photographer hiding motionless in a bluff, seemingly embarrassed to be human. All to the contrary. Ramsay is a part of this world and he knows it. As such, he interacts with his environment fearlessly and, at times, perhaps recklessly—even irreverently. In the works that comprise Harmonia Hindi, Ramsay doesn’t just gaze at the refuse of a consumer culture gone haywire, he actually plays with the garbage and the flowers, arranging them into intricate patterns and gorgeous designs—which are, incidentally, strikingly reminiscent of the sand mandalas carefully constructed (and then destroyed) by Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Although the subject matter of Harmonia Hindi is set against the backdrop of a year spent in India, nothing Bevan Ramsay has produced thus far in his artistic career more clearly reflects his Montreal roots. Bevan grew up in the working-class Montreal neighborhood of Verdun, a rough part of the southwest with a bad reputation that it long ago ceased to deserve. Even so, though it’s gotten much better recently, Verdun remains one of those places that Bruce Springsteen used to sing about when he was depressing and awesome. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Bevan was a kid playing in parks, corrupt Verdun mayors allowed the entire city of Montreal to dump its filthy brown street snow along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. By late January, the mountains of snow by the river were treacherous and imposing. Each spring, they would thaw, revealing tons upon tons of garbage, and leading some to derogatorily refer to Verdun as “Verdump” (a tag that the neighborhood has yet to live down).
Bevan Ramsay’s large devoutly Catholic family lived in a small house on Galt Street, a mere stone’s throw from the Saint Lawrence River; so playtime meant, more often than not, playing in (and with) garbage. This is where he developed his straightforwardly honest relationship to the material world. This is also where he developed the kind of comfort with garbage that makes him at home in India’s delightfully chaotic landscape.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has recently implored us all to “Love trash, love decay – because it’s real and it’s the only thing that’s going to inspire people to be aware of the planet’s true ecological state. Pictures of beautiful healthy wildlife in natural settings only serve to reassure us that everything is OK.” We couldn’t help but think of these words as we looked at some of the later pieces in Harmonia Hindi. Ramsay has clearly followed Žižek’s advice. He loves trash and decay—and, because he’s a talented artist, he knows how to make us love them too.
Ultimately, however, he achieves this not by rejecting the beautiful—he still, after all, loves pretty things—but by relating to the South Asian landscape the way theologian Martin Buber says we ought to see pretty much everything: namely, as a YOU, as a THOU (as opposed to an IT). Ramsay asks us, in Harmonia Hindi, to accept Buber’s contention that it is possible to appreciate a world in which “There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget.” Garbage and flowers, beauty and ugliness, life and death, and a wasteful consumer culture are all boldly confronted, without the need to reconcile them, through Ramsay’s painstaking compositions.
What is clear, more than anything, in the creation of the beautiful set of images imprinted on these scarves, is not how much is intended by their existence, but how much is revealed through them in Ramsay’s careful and discerning lens. What, with the human body and the human condition as one’s canvas, you might ask, could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, truth be told, but not in Ramsay’s world. Through him we see only his truth and, more importantly, we learn how beautiful that truth—even the ugly parts—is to him.
Yes, scarves are superfluous and silly, particularly juxtaposed against the story of deprivation and striving that our world so often seems to tell, but the answer is not to get rid of them. Indeed, Marx was wrong about what we need in this world. Life isn’t about fulfilling our basic needs, it is about finding a reason for which we should go on doing so. What better answer than something so clearly enamored with all of the messiness of this world, gifted to us by a man so much inspired and thankful to be living in it.
“Oh, the fatal curiosity of the philosopher, who longs, just once, to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness. Perhaps he will then suspect the extent to which man, in the indifference of his ignorance, is sustained by what is greedy, insatiable, disgusting, pitiless, and murderous—as if he were hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger. ‘Let him hang!’ cries art. ‘Wake him up!’ cries the philosopher”—Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Pathos of Truth” (1874)
Like Horst Hutter, I maintain that images are a kind of food which must be properly digested like any other. Some things, like an ISIS beheading—child pornography or a drone bomb snuff film—are extremely hard to digest; so hard, in fact, that they can leave you with a species of spiritual indigestion, which manifests itself in bad dreams, generalized anxiety, and PTSD. The decidedly disturbing sculptures that comprise Bevan Ramsay’s Soft Tissue leave you with haunting images that take weeks to properly digest.
Like touring a sweatshop, a garbage dump, or a factory farm, Soft Tissue forces you to remember that we are indeed “sustained by what is greedy, insatiable, disgusting, pitiless, and murderous.” Even so, it would be a mistake to view Ramsay as yet another preachy moralist trafficking in the pornography of pain. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ramsay is an artist and a philosopher—which means that his loyalties are deliciously divided: the artist in him wants to let us hang in “dreams on the back of a tiger,” whilst the philosopher in him wants to wake us up! This creative tension runs through all of Ramsay’s work, but it’s never been quite so obvious as it is in Soft Tissue. There’s something undeniably erotic and sensual about these sculptures. Yet, at one and the same time, we find ourselves—in equal measure—repulsed by them. In the Bible, this strange, ambivalent mixture of fear and wonder is known as awe.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Village Explainer (2016)
“When a man who is happy compares his position with that of one who is unhappy, he is not content with the fact of his happiness, but desires something more, namely the right to this happiness, the consciousness that he has earned his good fortune, in contrast to the unfortunate one who must equally have earned his misfortune.”—Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (1922)
I was born on a hippie commune in 1974 where yoga, free love, and vegetarianism, blended together seamlessly with Christian mysticism and Tibetan Buddhism. We left the commune a week or two before John Lennon was shot. It was 1980, we were in North Carolina, and I was six years old. I realize now, and only in retrospect, that I have been going back to the commune, as a scholar, over and over again. Much of my academic odyssey through the history of America was a personal attempt to make sense out of the strange epoch that produced me. As an undergraduate history major, I was attracted most of all to the 1830s and 1840s, which witnessed an extraordinary flowering of utopian experimentation, radicalism, and reform. I was amazed to learn that my parents’ generation—the babyboomers—were not the first to dabble in free love, vegetarianism, and Eastern mysticism. They were also not the first group of relatively privileged white middle-class people to turn their backs on traditional politics in favor of personal development. I have always agonized over the ethics of this inward turn. Is the personal really as political as proponents of this strategy say, or is this move essentially irresponsible and narcissistic?
My first attempt to answer this question came in the form of an undergraduate Honours Thesis entitled “Antislavery Realpolitik: Salmon P. Chase, the Kansas-Nebraska Debate of 1854, and the Politics of Reform on the Eve of Republicanism.” I used the letters, diaries, and speeches of the prominent abolitionist to demonstrate how a profoundly moral individual might choose the messy road of democratic politics, knowing full well the compromises and disappointments that it would entail. Chase’s willingness to grapple with the moral complexity of political engagement astonished me and held my attention for quite some time. In graduate school, however, I soon found myself gravitating back toward the other kind of abolitionist, who would have little or nothing to do with politics or compromise. Under the tutelage of my advisor, Ron Walters, my fascination with radical abolitionism gave way to a more wide-ranging interest—spanning two centuries—in those who have spurned political activism for a personal, utopian approach to social reform.
My first-year paper, a major rite of passage at Johns Hopkins, focused on the lives of Helen Knothe Nearing (1904-1995) and Scott Nearing (1883-1983), two socialists who moved from New York City to rural Vermont at the height of the Great Depression. In their homesteading manifesto—Living the Good Life (1954)—the Nearings insisted that we could all change the world for the better by withdrawing from politics, moving back to the land, and living a self-sufficient existence. Living the Good Life became a classic among hippie homesteaders soon after it was republished in 1970. The Nearings, in turn, became countercultural celebrities and their New England homestead, Forest Farm, became a sacred place. Thousands of long-haired idealists made the pilgrimage to Forest Farm in the 1970s. I thought that my research into the Nearings at the Boston University Special Collections would lead to a dissertation on hippie homesteading. But something in the Nearing Papers kept drawing my attention away from the back-to-the-land movement: the Nearings were obsessed with food, health, and disease. All of these concerns came together in what was commonly referred to in the 1970s as the natural health movement.
I began to track the relationship between radical ideas about politics and radical ideas about health. What I expected to find was a necessary connection between the two. After all, I reasoned, many nineteenth-century reformers—such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)—were vegetarians who obsessed over food purity, as were many of the radicals and reformers during the Progressive Era. Upton Sinclair (1868-1968), Jack London (1876-1916), and Scott Nearing are obvious examples. The list could go on. Still, ultimately I would have to confess that this expectation rang true because it accorded with my personal experience.
I was brought up in a single-parent household where progressive politics and health consciousness seemed to go hand-in-hand. My mother was a feminist who railed against Reagan, wrote angry letters to politicians, and went to demonstrations to protest against this and that; she championed the cause of the mentally ill, wrote an M.A. thesis on literary decolonization, and composed environmentalist hymns such as “Hugged by a Tree” and “World with Whales.” But she also ate sprouts and tofu, popped large quantities of vitamin pills, shunned meat, avoided hydrogenated fats, burned incense, played the guitar, sang folk songs, went to a Buddhist temple, wrote a book about a Tibetan lama, and interrogated the food labels at the grocery store mercilessly. And she was not alone. Virtually all of the activists that I had known were vegetarians of some description who fretted over chemical additives, organic food, genetic engineering, food purity, and disease causation. My experience with the Student Labor Action Committee (SLAC) is a case in point.
When my wife and I joined SLAC in 1999, the organization’s main objective was to force Johns Hopkins to abide by Baltimore’s living-wage legislation. Baltimore was one of the first cities in the United States to enact an ordinance of this kind. The law stipulated that every organization that received municipal money—directly or indirectly—had to pay its workers “a living wage”. In Charm City at the time, a living wage was judged to be about $10.00/hr (the minimum wage was, then, less than $6.00/hr). Johns Hopkins was unaffected by the living-wage legislation. Even so, we maintained that as the largest employer in the state of Maryland and the recipient, each year, of over a quarter of a billion dollars in federal money, the administration had a moral obligation to abide by the law regardless of whether or not it technically applied to Johns Hopkins. We organized demonstrations and letter-writing drives, yet to no avail: the administration simply would not budge. In 2000, we staged a sit-in and occupied JHU’s Garland Hall (the president’s building) for 17 days. A number of local restaurants kindly donated food—delicious food—but much of it went to waste because it contained meat. Back then, before the kids, my wife and I were strict vegetarians, as were most of the members of SLAC. We subsisted on organic food, drank echinacea tea daily, went to a farmer’s market every Saturday, and spent a great deal of money on vitamins. For these reasons, and others, I was quite sure of what my research into the relationship between health reform and the Left would unearth, long before I started digging.
Initially, what I found supported my preconceived notions. As I had suspected, an interest in a recurring cluster of unconventional ideas about food, health, and disease was indeed something that united a diverse group of radicals and reformers on the political Left. Still, this was not enough. To prove that there was a connection between liberal-left politics and popular health reform, I had to demonstrate that the influence of these ideas was confined, or at least largely confined, to those on the political Left. This would, I thought, be relatively easy to prove. But I was wrong. Indeed, before long I realized that the influence of these ideas extended far beyond the countercultural world of faded blue jeans, brown rice, and yoga mats, even during the early 1970s. Moreover, it soon became clear that these ideas were more than just un-conventional or un-orthodox, which is to say that they were united by more than what they were not. By and large, I found that these ideas had a grammar, a syntax, and a logic—the logic of individual responsibility; they shared a common style too, which seemed to echo the rhythms and sounds of the Old Testament, not the Old Left. Taken together, this recurring cluster of ideas about food, health, and disease constituted a fairly coherent belief system—an ideology of natural health—which can be stated as a series of existential propositions: First, every human being is in possession of a free will regarding health. Second, good health and a long life are rewards for a certain kind of behavior. Third, certain lifestyle decisions lead inexorably to the salvation of the body—that is, good health and a long life—while others lead to sickness and ill health. Chance has little or nothing to do with this process, and allowances were only rarely made for mitigating factors such as hereditary predisposition. Commitment to these three propositions was, I discovered, what held the various factions of the natural health movement together.
The ideology of natural health was not incompatible with liberal-left politics in the twentieth century. My own experience bears witness to this. Even so, I found that its emphasis on individual responsibility often made it much more compatible with a socially conservative outlook, especially during the 1980s. But to linger too long on this point would be a mistake. Much like evangelical Protestantism and the New Age movement, the natural health movement was a challenge to the modern scientific worldview, not merely the post-New Deal liberal faith. Sprout-eating health gurus, crystal-gazing spiritualists, and sweaty televangelists had at least one common goal: to make the world a meaningful place for the American people. They wanted to banish the confusion and uncertainty that they thought modern science had engendered, and they all achieved a certain measure of success, though we are here interested primarily in the contributions made by the mainstream leaders of the natural health movement.
I am not the first to compare twentieth-century health reform to religion, nor am I likely to be the last. Thus far, however, the value of this comparative approach has not been fully realized because those who have employed it have done so in a fuzzy and imprecise manner. At its worst, the comparison is used in such a way as to stretch the definition of religion so much that it ceases to be meaningful. If, for example, mall-shopping is a religion—as a friend of mine from New Zealand once argued at a dinner party—then what could possibly not be described as a religion? If everything is a religion, then nothing is. Funny as it was, my friend’s disquisition taught me much more about his highly unconventional definition of religion than it did about shopping. Analogical reasoning can only yield significant insight when all key terms are used in a more or less conventional way. In this instance, however, adhering to a conventional definition of religion is not enough. There are a wide variety of religious traditions in this world, and an even wider variety of ways in which those traditions are interpreted, so religious analogs can be found for many secular practices.
If all religion is fair game, as it was for mythologist Joseph Campbell, and one’s knowledge of religion is encyclopedic, then finding the religious in the secular is fairly easy—too easy in fact—since one can selectively draw upon a wealth of potential examples. Thus, if an analysis of the similarities between religion and American health reform is to be truly meaningful and suggestive, it must be hemmed in by the limitations of culture and history, time and place; a specific religious tradition must be identified, with demonstrable ties to twentieth-century America, and this tradition must be used, throughout, as the only point of comparison. To that end, let me state from the outset that I believe the philosophical origins of twentieth-century health reform are to be found in the religious traditions of the West, and not, as is commonly assumed, in those of the East.
Health reformers such as Jerome Irving Rodale, Adelle Davis, Carlton Fredericks, Adolphus Hohensee, Robert David Rodale, and Mark Harris Bricklin drew heavily upon language and concepts derived from Judaism and Christianity, not from Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Taoism. They were especially indebted to many of the elements of the Protestant tradition that came together during the Second Great Awakening and continue to inform the modern evangelical worldview, such as: 1) the rejection of predestination in any form; 2) the concomitant emphasis upon free will and individual responsibility; 3) the belief that we are all in need of salvation from a corrupt and unclean world; 4) the notion that living a virtuous life in this world is hard work and ceaseless struggle; 5) the idea that feeling more or less inadequate on a regular basis is an indispensable characteristic of the virtuous life, as it wards off complacency and propels the individual toward perfection; 6) the belief that the wayward cravings of the body are, ultimately, the individual’s worst enemy; 7) the notion that the spiritual must be incorporated into everyday life; and, finally, 8) the idea that conviction ought to lead to repentance. Being convinced of the truth of the gospel of health was not enough; it had to lead to behavior modification and lifestyle changes.
Health reformers employed the biblical language of sin and redemption, in part, simply because of who they were. They were products of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, as such, this language came naturally to them. But there were other—less spontaneous but more practical—reasons for expressing their message in such a manner. The storytellers of the natural health movement knew their audience. They understood that they were preaching the gospel of health to the most religious country in the industrialized world; to a country where prayer is common and church attendance remains high; to a country shaped by centuries of Protestantism; to a country where many still believe in Good and Evil, angels and demons, salvation and damnation, Heaven and Hell. They understood that by and large, in America, Protestant theology is optional, but Protestant psychology is not. Even so, health reformers departed from the mainstream American Protestant tradition in one critical way: they embraced a secular form of perfectionism.
Like most Protestants, health reformers posited the existence of a fateful Fall from Grace: it was, for them, the Fall into the industrialized world of machines, pesticides, lazy living, obesity, pollution, white sugar, cancer, and Wonderbread: “What’s going on is that we are all becoming exiles from nature. Not being driven out of our native land by a cruel tyrant, but simply walking away of our own volition, enticed by nothing more than cuteness and convenience,” wrote one health reformer in 1978. “In fact,” he added, “the biggest threat to our health and well-being today is this gradual shift from a natural lifestyle to a technological, synthetic—call it phony if you will—lifestyle. It’s constricting our arteries and our spirits. It’s giving us depression and diabetes. It’s making us passive, fat, bored and lonely. It’s making us allergic, addicted, and malcontent.” Unlike the Fall described in the Book of Genesis, the Fall described by health reformers was reversible. The evil brought into the world by modernity could be exorcised. The gates to the Garden of Eden could be reopened. Human nature was not hopelessly flawed. One could retrain the body to crave that which was healthy.
If the ideology of natural health was a sort of Protestantism, it was a peculiar Protestantism wherein God was optional, The Fall was reversible, and original sin was altogether absent. These were major breaks with the Augustinian worldview that has informed mainstream Protestantism since the Mayflower. Health reformers departed from the Augustinian tradition decisively when they rejected original sin and all of its secular analogs. The intolerance towards human frailty that has so characterized the thought of twentieth-century health reformers can be traced back to this root cause. Health reformers have as a rule failed to appreciate their own limitations, just as they have failed to account for the limitations of the human beings who they have judged so harshly. As we shall see, the natural health movement was liberating and undeniably empowering for many Americans, especially women. Even so, it gave rise to a new orthodoxy, with a decidedly unforgiving approach towards aging, mothering, and disease. As one alternative medicine provider put it in 1977: “You’re going to have to take the blame for everything once you get your body back.” In health-conscious circles across America, tragedies such as cancer, heart disease, depression, schizophrenia, crib death and miscarriage were redefined as punishments meted out to those who failed to obey the natural laws of health.
Between 1970 and 2016, millions of Americans embraced concerns that were once the exclusive province of a quirky subculture: health-food stores and health clubs proliferated; anti-smoking campaigns won astounding victories; vegetarianism and breastfeeding became much more common—and the demand for organic food, vitamin and mineral supplements, water filters, exercise gear and alternative health care created multi-million-dollar industries. Pre-1970 America had its fair share of health nuts, exercise gurus, vegetarians, anti-smoking activists, organic farmers, and alternative health-care providers. Yet even the most widespread of these health enthusiasms never affected anything more than a small percentage of the American population. Twentieth-century health reformers succeeded in doing what generations of health reformers before them failed to do: they broke through to the masses and helped define mainstream American attitudes toward food, health, and disease. “History,” observed the authors of Panic in the Pantry (1975), “is full of food fads. But our current preoccupation with organic and additive-free food has assumed truly unprecedented dimensions. Sylvester Graham would have been pleased—and probably a bit envious.”
I am writing from Montreal, Canada. Today, we will reach an unusually hot 28-degree high in temperature (that’s Celsius—for friends south of the border, that’s 82 degrees Fahrenheit). The average high in Montreal on May 4th, just so you know, is 16 degrees Celsius. In honor of the unusually hot day, I thought I would pay tribute to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, whose records demonstrate clearly that nine out of the 10 hottest years on record globally have occurred in the 21st century and ask: why haven’t we gotten anywhere on addressing climate change?
Most of us blame politics—lack of political will, lack of resources, or fear of job losses and economic competitiveness are the standard scapegoats for our lack of action. If we are to believe political leaders, then, most of the solutions lie with international cooperation, right? Well, right and wrong. Continue reading Think Climate Change Isn’t Your Problem? Think Again.→