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In defense of “natural”

Yesterday I ranted about the misuse of the word “natural,” so today I must, in the great Socratic tradition, take the other side.

We just returned from a long trip to the East Coast. We went to visit family and to soak up culture that we are largely lacking on this coast. In both respects, it was a great success.

But one of the things about travel is that it puts your usual life in stark relief. It can be a useful time for reflection on what you love about your life and the place you have chosen to live, and what you want to change. My husband and I both toy with the idea of living in a big city, because we love so much of what cities have to offer, but we keep returning to the Republic of Santa Cruz. Why?

Well, first of all, there’s the food. At times I felt like we were awash in a sea of high fructose corn syrup. Feeding my kids anything like a healthy diet was nearly impossible. Stores with healthy offerings, available pretty much anywhere where we live, are hidden in out of the way corners. Certainly, if we’d settled into a normal life, we probably would have found those little corners where we could feed ourselves healthily. But as travelers, we were constantly thwarted, and I was constantly giving in to foods I’d never consider in our daily life.

We spent two weeks in New Jersey, not far from New York City. We spent most of the first week traveling into the city every day: We saw The Lion King (fabulous and worth every one of those many pennies we had to haul from the bank to buy tickets). We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We went to the MoMA. We went to the really amazing Tenement Museum to learn how my kids’ forbears lived when they first came to this country. It was all great.

But live long enough almost anywhere in California, and you feel a huge nature deficit when you’re in the east. Not only is there very little nature (most of it is manicured parks, which don’t count!), but people don’t seem terribly interested in it. We spent a fun morning at a play structure in New Jersey, watching with awe as a family of muskrats played nearby. Not another person noticed them. The kids and I watched two birds busily making their nest high up in the roof of part of the play structure. It was better than anything you can see on TV, watching Daddybird and Mommybird flying in with bits of grass and a ribbon from some child’s birthday party.

Only one other child noticed. He looked up at the nest and the busy activity, picked up a rock, and threw it.

Luckily, the nest was high and his aim was bad.

Look at a map of almost any sort of lifestyle data, and you’ll see nature and health dominate the West Coast and turn up in tiny, isolated spots elsewhere. For example, it’s the unusual Santa Cruz mom who doesn’t breastfeed. I even know an adoptive mom who convinced her body to make some milk for her baby. But the map of breastfeeding rates in this country tells the story pretty clearly:

CDC breastfeeding mapWe left-coasters have a significantly different attitude toward life — we choose the natural route whenever possible.

In a way, these differences are comforting. I remember when I was in college and a linguistics professor lamented to me that our country was becoming so homogenized, that we were losing our regional accents along with regional food and other markers of local culture. I think we did go through a period of homogenization with the increased speed of communication, but it seems to have leveled out.

70 years after TV started to make us all the same, Santa Cruz is very different from similar towns near New York City. And this is not a bad thing.

The last day of our trip, I found myself in a Florida supermarket, speaking to my daughter in exasperation.

“For god’s sake, we’re in Florida,” I told her. “And I can’t just find a bottle of fresh-squeezed orange juice!”

Awash in a sea of high fructose corn syrup, we finally found a display of juices. Overpowered by the huge display of Simply Orange, processed and packaged by the Coca-Cola Company, I found a few bottles of locally produced orange juice. Apparently, Floridians prefer to drink the same orange juice they drink in New York City. Despite our differences, most of us try to be as much the same as possible.

Me, I’ll take the local variety any day. Hurray for nature, muskrats playing in the grass, birds in love, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and babies, whether they breastfeed or not.

Posted in Culture.

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