Friday, June 8, 2012

The messiness of nature

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with this, but I've been musing lately on how inexact nature is versus our human-designed approximations — and how we identify now with the reproductions rather than the originals.

Take breastfeeding. Was anyone else surprised the first time you saw a human nipple squirting out milk from multiple holes? I'd been so used to bottles growing up — had never seen a human breast "in action," so to speak — that I'd guessed the function was similar. One tidy hole, one neat path for milk to eject out of, like a tube.

The body is not so precise:

Dissection of a lactating breast, from Gray's Anatomy.
1 - Fat
2 - Lactiferous duct/lobule
3 - Lobule
4 - Connective tissue
5 - Sinus of lactiferous duct
6 - Lactiferous duct

I don't want to get too gross, but I was thinking about how this relates to peeing and other eliminations as well. It's odd how our waste comes out quite practically but not always that precisely. Maybe this is more apparent for those of us with female genitals than for those with penises, which do seem to spray more cleanly (not that you can always tell from visiting boys' bathrooms). I remember once having to explain to a male friend why women need to wipe after peeing — that (at least, for those of us in cultures where we sit to pee instead of squat) the pee tends to go all over, not aimed straight down except when the stream is strongest. That if we didn't wipe, we'd be quite damp in all of our cheeks.

I had the privilege and horror of watching a lot of late-night television when Alrik was in his newborn phase of "Somewhere in the world, people are awake, so why shouldn't I be?" and I was inundated with portable catheter commercials. I don't want to use a catheter, don't get me wrong, and don't envy or scorn those who have to, but it made me wonder fancifully if people would ever consider that a "cleaner" way of peeing. (I mentioned I was sleep deprived, right?) One straight tube, out and down.

It relates to parenting, this obsession of our culture with the clinical and precise, when it comes to breastfeeding, as I mentioned before, and to birth.

Besides considering breasts just a little too animalistic, for a long time and still in some stubborn circles, bottle feeding, particularly with formula, was considered more exact and scientific. You can see how many ounces go down during a feeding. You can analyze exactly what ingredients your baby has eaten. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, can seem a little magical — your baby latches on, and what happens between her mouth and your breast is opaque. She grows, she poops, she pees, she smiles — if all is well, that's the best measure we have.

Take the contrast of unhindered vaginal birth with managed labor or a C-section. Natural birth is prone to stops and starts, to fast paces that slow down and then race away again, to dilations that seemingly stall or even regress. The mystery of what the baby is doing in the pelvic canal — opaque here as well. The guess of when the baby might emerge, or how. The monitors and medicinal drips and interventions that seek to hurry things along have little patience with the fickleness of natural birth. And a C-section, with its straight-across line, cut with a scalpel under the brightest lights, is the surgical contrast to vaginal birth: This baby will be born here, now, because we so determine it.

Food is another one. We could just eat what we find, what we kill, what we grow. But we prefer packaging, and charts that tell us how much of what to eat, and ingredients lists that spell out what's inside, and numbers and percentages to keep track of.

I talk about these contrasting scenarios not to extoll one or shame the other — and certainly not the people experiencing one situation or the other — but to think through our culture's discomfort with natural processes, our distrust of letting our bodies do what they do without assistance and refinement. We're ashamed of our elimination (this is why Ina May Gaskin preaches "love for butts"); we're leery of relying on breastfeeding alone to feed our babies; we're fearful of birthing at home, away from the machines and experts who can rescue us from nature.

I really do want to emphasize that I'm not setting up a dichotomy where nature is good. Nature is amoral. It doesn't give a natural-growing fig about you. What nature is is what has worked for our species over many generations. It's what is expedient, what is life-preserving, but morals don't enter into it.

One reason we're scared of nature is that we can't control it, because we are it. Only in scattered moments do we feel it sweeping over us and we have to choose: Be one with it; be part of nature; be natural — or we fight it off and lurch toward science and medicine and hope for salvation there. The moments I have most felt nature's inexorable force? During labor, when I can do no else but surge with the contractions. I suspect people might feel similarly at death. We can hold off nature only so long.

I had seen the Lysol douche ad before I linked to it in my Sunday Surf, but it struck me again just how perennially worried we are that what our bodies can do is not good enough. That the way we smell or look or behave is not up to snuff with our modern sensibilities. I am a little reassured that no one (I hope?) douches with Lysol anymore, although we sure do disinfect the crap (literally) out of everything else. I've been reconsidering lately my Western-womanly acquiescence to hair removal as well. I still do shave (sporadically, poorly), but it seems so silly to me that we've set up hairlessness as an ideal.

I went to a state fair recently, and have been raising some butterflies with Mikko and Sam, and am cleaning up the garden, so I've once again had to confront some of my own discomforts with and disconnection from nature. Butterfly chrysalides are disgusting looking. But they work. Sheep feel just like wool. The milk that we drink comes from cow mammary glands much like the above illustration. Honey is … I don't even want to think about what honey is. The vegetables and fruits we eat? They're hoping we'll poop out the seeds. There are so many oddities about natural processes. Why don't caterpillars use a nice, smooth plastic case? Why don't we all wear human-made fleece instead of wool? What does honey have over Splenda? These are the types of questions that come to mind.

I've learned some things while hanging out in the "natural" community.

I've learned that my body and scalp fare better if they're not washed as much. It's the dirty hippie thing, right? Only it's actually cleaner, because the oils and skin sloughing take care of themselves.

I've learned that I can give birth without medication, without cervical checkswithout attendants at all — and that it's a beautiful, overwhelming, frightening, ecstatic thing.

I've learned that my babies can thrive on breastmilk alone for months and months, that they can grow pudgy with neck folds and rounded tummies, without my having a clue about how many ounces or how many times a day they're feeding.

I've learned that imprecise works, that natural is good enough, that it doesn't usually need to be improved upon. There are exceptions I embrace every day and leave open for the future, but when there's not a need for intervention, then I can feel comfortable leaving well enough alone.

It's not scientific. It's just what is.

What natural things seem jarring to you?

I wrote this post in September and for some reason didn't publish it till now. Maybe because it doesn't have a point? You decide.

Anatomy Photo Credit: Gray's Anatomy 1918


Momma Jorje said...

Squirting breasts are quite odd and amusing. Spencer often lets go during letdown and gets sprayed in the face. It makes us both giggle.

I'm a lazy shaver, too, but it does still bother me at times to have hairy legs. And while I love to be out in nature, I hate for bugs to be ON me and especially fret about ticks.

I'm Katie. said...

Nature is astounding. We've got nothing on 4+ billion years.

Fresh and Feisty said...

I love your thoughts here! And, I'm glad I'm not the only one who was surprised when my nipple was like a sprinkler or shower head rather than a garden hose :)

Anonymous said...

I 100% agree with everything you're saying. We need to trust in the process. Our bodies have worked out better ways to do things than we can even understand. We're only at the tip of the iceburg in understanding our nature.

I do disagree with your use of the word science though. All those things you mentioned about the butterflies and our bodies, that's science. I literally laughed out loud at your comment that fruits are hoping we'll poop out their seeds because I had that exact same thought in my botany class last fall. I think a better word for what you're calling science is technology. Technology is the things we create based on our understanding of the world (e.g. science).

Anonymous said...

Beautiful blog post about accepting who we are (the natural who we are). I am working day by day and moment by moment, to listen to my inner voice (my natural voice) instead of everyone else's. It is better to follow the inner child's desire to eat a dandelion than drive 15 miles to the store just to buy a soda and a bag of chips... and there is much more in our backyards, as well as others and even parks that is edible. We need only not worry about humiliation when it comes to going against the grain. And of course growing intentionally works as well, but sadly capitalism and technologically minded people are even trying and succeeding in ruling our home gardens. Namaste. :)

Unknown said...

Absolutely amazing post. I am speechless. Completely agree!

Betsy B. Honest said...

Yeah, I totally agree with all these observations, and yes, the first time I saw that milk came out of multiple holes I was completely shocked. I thought there might be something terribly wrong with my nipple.

I think we try very hard to make like we aren't animals so that we know for sure there is such thing as God who loves us most of all.

But, I guess, for humans this is only natural.

Aiy! It hurts my brain!

Betsy B. Honest said...

Yeah, I totally agree with all these observations, and yes, the first time I saw that milk came out of multiple holes I was completely shocked. I thought there might be something terribly wrong with my nipple.

I think we try very hard to make like we aren't animals so that we know for sure there is such thing as God who loves us most of all.

But, I guess, for humans this is only natural.

Aiy! It hurts my brain!

EarthMamasWorld said...

I love this post. Nature is amazing!

melissa said...

The point may not be as clear as in some of your other writing, but it's in there, and I enjoyed following your thought process on this. Charts and percentages and the like can certainly be reassuring, but there it's so much freedom, I find, in letting things unfold according to a natural, unprescribed path. Unschooling comes to mind as well :)

Karen du Toit said...

I get your point! Natural, as nature intended, is better! I do agree!!

Rachael said...

I agree with the comment above, that it's not science so much as technology that's in opposition to nature. But. Science is an attempt to create a description or model of nature. And this sentence does indeed capture the problem even with science: One reason we're scared of nature is that we can't control it, because we are it. OK, it's really with technology (not science) that we try to control nature. But we can't even create an "objective" picture of nature, as we try to do through science, because it is impossible to get outside of nature and look back at it. Whatever our point of view may be, we're always standing on nature.... But my understanding is that most scientists are aware of this paradox.

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