2011 December blog

Geoffrey Cannon

Juiz de Fora, Brazil. This is the 21st of my monthly columns for our website. They have reached what in my young day was the age of 'majority'. No, the stern-visaged fellow above isn't me, it's my hero of this month Rudolf Steiner, and I am coming to him after the first item below, which reflects on what I try to do here.

Then I tell some stories about what I observe in my room where I work, in my house and garden, and in another place. Eugène Marais in his The Soul of the White Ant tells us that we often can best understand concepts and big things by watching and meditating on objects and small things. A yellow blossom from our ipê tree falls on the book I am reading on my upstairs verandah, and I pick it up and consider its complexity and significance, knowing that it will soon shrivel and decay. So it is for all living things, at different velocities. Understanding life depends on being aware of death. This leads on towards the end of this column to a basic observation about food, which I offer as the key to nutrition.

Nutritional metaphysics

Where fancy is bred

A valedictory statement I quoted early last year in my first column, was made in his 94th year by José María Bengoa (1913-2010), a founder of public health nutrition. It was in his keynote address to the first World Congress on Nutrition and Public Health held in 2006 in Barcelona, masterminded by Lluis Serra-Majem. He said: 'We are getting closer and closer, like a great magic wheel, to the ideas that the Greeks held about dietetics – that it isn't only knowing about foods but rather the dominion of life itself, both in the biological and social sense. It seems as if we are redefining nutrition as the beginning and end of life itself, as the basis for health and… of almost all human pathologies'.

His insight goes way beyond current conventional concepts of the nature of science. For what dietetics means, in the Greek sense, and as practiced until its annihilation in the 19th century, is the philosophy of the well-led life. Perhaps his most provocative phrase is 'the dominion of life itself'. For what is life? (1). It has measurable aspects, but is beyond what can be numbered. Moreover, we can comprehend any aspect of quality only in metaphysical terms (2). Numbers have value. But in being circumscribed by numbers, the current convention of nutrition science remains stuck in the marsh and underbrush of what should be a whole wonderful world, of what we can learn and teach of 'the beginning and end of life itself'.

What columns are for

What am I doing here. Columns (I prefer the print term to the electronic 'blogs') are meant to be subjective. They do not need to dwell on normally accepted theories and notions, and besides, there's plenty of scope for that elsewhere. They should though, include information and observation. They should also suggest ideas and values (3).

By their nature, ideas can be challenged, and good ideas can be provocative or even seem fanciful – at least, at the time. Please do not assume that I am always committed to the ideas I express, for ideas have lives of their own, and we should not feel that we always have to possess them. 'Tell me, where is fancy bred/ In the heart, or in the head?/ How begot, how nourished?' Quite. Ideas have a special value, for facts do not come first. It is ideas that come first. Experiments are to check to see if facts fit with ideas. This observation makes many folks uneasy, because ideas and values are products of consciousness, and so have metaphysical aspects.


  1. Life. Two books with the same title are Schrodinger E. What is Life? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944; and Margulis L, Sagan D. What is Life? Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. The more recent and beautifully illustrated book includes many quotations from literature, philosophy and mythology, as well as from modern science. Both celebrate life. Neither seriously tries to encompass 'life'.
  2. Metaphysical. Meaning here, what is above and beyond measurement or empirical verification. Metaphysics, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, 'deals with the first principles of things, including such concepts as being,… time, space, cause, and identity'.
  3. Values. Conventional science 'sticks to the facts'. As Stephen Jay Gould puts it, in a surprisingly bone-headed book: 'Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts'. In order to maintain this absurd positioning of scientists as counters and shufflers of beans, he then goes on to say 'Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values'. That is to say, science cedes everything that is immeasurable to religion! Reference: Gould SJ. Rocks of Ages. Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine, 1999.

Human aspiration

In the soul and spirit

Now I come to Rudolf Steiner , born 150 years ago this year, and plunge deeper. One of his devotees, the US novelist Saul Bellow, spoke of his shock of recognition: 'When Steiner tells me I have a soul and a spirit, I say, yes, I always knew that'. Other modern masters, including Wassili Kandinsky, Andrei Tarkovsky, Josef Beuys and Bruno Walter, have developed Rudolf Steiner's philosophy in their own work. You may be thinking 'what have painting, movies and music, let alone souls and spirits, got to do with nutrition?' (1). Please read on, and I will do my best.

Throughout his life and in his many works, Rudolf Steiner also focused on two mysteries of the natural world and of the human species, both of which are avoided by conventionally trained scientists. These – life and consciousness – above all differentiate this planet and our species from all others, as far as we know. Rudolf Steiner said: 'To truly know the world, look deeply within your own being; to truly know yourself, take real interest in the world'. So now I look at what is in front of me as I write, which leads me on to some ideas about what is good food.


  1. Soul, and spirit. These concepts are typically considered to be spurious or meaningless by those trained in any modern scientific discipline, or at least as irrelevant to science. Indeed, anybody brought up in the empirical convention is likely to shy away from theories of our nature and our place on earth and in the universe. This however seems to me to be in large part what any science – which until the 1830s was termed 'natural philosophy' – should amount to.

My living world (1)

Through my window

What I see as I work. A humming bird that flew in one morning (left), and (right) a wasp making her nest outside my window (right). Aspects of life…

Now I come to what is in front of me. People often ask me: 'What's it like, living in Brazil?' My unhelpful answer is 'What's it like, living in the US?' (or wherever is the country of the person asking the question). Yes, I know where the question is coming from. Brazil is exotic. Its image outside and even inside Latin America is a mix of Copacabana beach, football, the Amazon rain-forest, stick-ups, desperate poverty, emaciation, almost naked women, corrupt politicians, jungle Indians, prison riots, military rulers, Carnaval, Formula 1, and anacondas. Which is like seeing the US as a mix of Coney island beach, demolition derbies, the Grand Canyon, stick-ups, desperate poverty, obesity, completely naked women, corrupt politicians, Indians on reservations, 9/11, imperial rulers, Mardi Gras, the Indy 500, and grizzly bears.

All true, and more, but without much meaning. Living in a Brazilian city, for the employed middle classes like you and me, is in many ways much like living in London, Chicago, Rome or Mumbai. Wake up, get up, have a shower, have a shave (men), dress, drink coffee, say hello to the family, engage in domestic duties and pleasures, check email, access a news source, worry about money, progress work, occasionally eat out or see a movie.

Living with nature

The differences for me are not about Brazil. They are more precise. They are about living in a tropical country, not in but above a city, in a house backed by protected forest, and with our own 'forest plot' on one side. Remnants, true, but life teems outside our house and inside too, and teaches me what I would never have sensed had I stayed within a city anywhere. The lesson is about life. It is also about food and nutrition, and health and disease, slowly and hesitantly learned from observation and reflection. To explain this I will tell some parables.

Living in my family house and in my study here as I work. I experience life, and also death. The more specific the observation the more general its significance. In the evenings the geckos (little lizards) that live high up by the wooden ceiling of my study, emerge. Maybe they sense that I enjoy their company, these reptiles originating in the Permian age over 250 million years ago, from which dinosaurs descended, but which were more adaptable. Around midnight as I wrote this passage here, one was splayed outside on the window in front of my desk, facing me, watching a small moth, and then it pounced, and I watched the convulsions of its throat as it gulped its still living prey.

A couple of days before, the sun shone after a spell of chilly Antarctic winds, and I opened one of my big sliding windows. A parrot flew in and panicked, fluttering round and round, banging its beak on the interior glass. So I opened the window in front of me, and made 'there you go' noises. Instead of flying out, it perched on a bookend within my reach, looking out to the forest. I cupped it in both hands, its green head under my thumbs, for the family to admire. Then out to the garden, I raised my thumbs, and whoosh it was gone, up into the trees.

Living dangerously

The two pictures above record earlier stories from my study. On the left is a beija-flor (humming bird) that flew inside. This was worrying, because in its frenzy to get out it might well buckle its long beak, used to gather nectar and pollen, in which case it would die. Every window opened, it escaped. On the right above is a wasp's nest, just above the outside sill of the window in front of me, literally at arm's length. This species of Brazilian wasp is the size of European hornets. Watching the mother build the nest with mud brought from the garden in maybe three thousand flights, and then later observing the young ones emerge, induced a sense of reverence in me. Sometimes I worked with the window open. Dangerous? Like most non-human creatures, wasps normally use their power to hurt only when attacked. So I shook the cushion of my chair before sitting down. Besides, 'the sense of danger must not disappear'.

No, I have not adopted the Jain position. The beginnings of wasps' nests inside the house get scraped off the walls. Cockroaches are shoe-heeled, bang. Any jumping spider on my desk gets bopped – not easy, they move fast – and I've become a maestro at squashing mosquitoes by clapping my hands as I work. But I tolerate ants, apart from big stingers. Let them eat crumbs. So many species of ant, I had no idea. Our 7 year-old Gabriel steps over processions of leaf-cutter ants, and admires beetles and caterpillars. With the passage of time I have come to realise that these experiences are telling me about food and nutrition and health, through becoming more conscious of life and death.

My living world (2)

In our garden

Other times here in our garden. Gabriel as a baby watching Paulinho feeding our monkeys (left) and (right), a baby sabiá about to fledge out of its nest

Felt experience when we are children stays with us, I'm sure. We carry the sense of being nourished in all senses, throughout life. On the left above is Gabriel as a baby. 'Our' family of between six to nine micos (small monkeys) come out of the forest from time to time. They know we are here and that we are friendly and helpful, and they want bananas. What impresses me is Gabriel's attention, as he is held up by Paulinho, who helped us in our garden at that time.

On the right is a section of the nest built thigh-high inside our dense hedge this year by a mother sabiá laranjeira (rufous-bellied thrush) that seemed to know that Cristal our cat was No More. A verse that children learn at school here includes 'Minha terra tem palmeiras onde cantá a sabiá' ('My land has palm trees where thrushes sing'). Then the nest contained two small brown speckled eggs. Gabriel was impressed. Then one morning as I shaped this column, I looked and there was one tiny moving bunch of damp skin – the first to emerge from its egg. I told Gabriel and he tip-toed out and peeped, and as with me and the emerged wasps, I felt his sense of reverence.

The two chicks grew so fast. In less than two weeks they crammed the nest, and when I went to take a picture the mother flew out and wheeled around, squalling at me to be gone. Yes, I knew about this from books and films, but it's now that I feel the mother bird's anxiety, and I wondered if she would get used to me before her babies fledged – flew the nest.

Living in the day

Then I did wrong. The next morning I wanted close-ups, and after my first shot – above, right – I came closer yet, and both chicks freaked and flapped and fluttered out of the nest to the ground on the other side of the hedge. We found one and put it back, and until mid-afternoon it was perched in the hedge by the side of the nest. All day the mother bird twittered and called, hopping along an adjacent hedge, and perched on the roof of our outhouse, then nearby in the trees of the forest, but the other young one – not yet a fledgling, I felt sure – seemed gone. Watching and hearing the mother bird calling, I felt bad and sad. This was my fault. In the evening the nest and the hedge were empty, as they were the next two days. I had interfered.

The morning after that Anderson, Paulinho's successor, beckoned me out to the garden. Look, hush, he said, and pointed, and I took pictures – of the mother sabiá teaching one of her young ones to feed itself, under our plum tree whose burst fruits were on the ground. Death is in life, I thought. One chick survived. But soon after, before I could develop that riff, Anderson beckoned me out into our forest plot, and there was the mother with both her young. They both had become fledglings, after all. She had not called to them in vain.

There is a lesson here. With support that does not amount to interference, creatures know how to live – including what to eat. Our species is the exception because it takes humans so long to be able to look after themselves, and because there is so much confusion and interference. Lizards and birds do not spend much of the time, during their most vulnerable and impressionable early life, watching television and accessing internet propaganda that pushes degraded ultra-processed substances as if they are real food and the way to make friends and be happy.

All that day I was joyful – still am, as I write this. Later I will disentangle the nest carefully and bring it in, and ask Paulinho, who is a carpenter, to make an open box for it as our remembrance. But there again, perhaps the nest should decay, as all living things do. Again I am thinking of the magic wheel of life, and remember James Joyce's rendition of Giambattista Vico's grand theory of life and the universe: 'Egg burst, egg blend, egg burial, and hatch-as-hatch-can'.

My living world (3)

Outside another house

Two ways for fish to perish: in the natural way of things (left), and (right) for bad reasons, because of changes in the weather and excess human pollution

Our holiday house is on the salt-water canal das ostras (oysters) outside Cabo Frio, a city on the Rio state littoral, first colonised by Amerigo Vespucci himself and his men as from 1502. Our neighbourhood is zoned: only one or two-storey houses are allowed, to strict specifications. Our house is one of the first, and Raquel has restored it. On the left above is Jalder, the plasterer in our gang of builders, who habitually walked into the canal during his lunch break, cast his net in a way used for many centuries, and grilled a shared lunch.

There are two main species of fish in the canal, named by the Tamoio, the long gone original fishing communities, who many centuries ago left their signs engraved on rocks overlooking the bay where Vespucci landed. The main species are parati, after which the resort on the southern Rio littoral is named; and carapicu, the preferred catch, fried whole like sprats or sardines. There also are peixe-voadores, flying fish; they leap out of the water for flies or – so I like to think – joy of living. One of the fishermen then living in a hut on an empty lot opposite, once waded across to our house and showed the children here how he kept the fish he caught, alive in a pocket of his net. He sold them to a restaurant in town, maybe to the bistro in the historic quarter whose owner and chef plays bebop.

Dying from abuse

Shown above on the right is a glimpse of the catastrophe. After dawn in holiday season one day I looked out, to see the surface of the canal covered with bodies. The garden of the house includes a small strand of sand. For two days I picked up over a thousand dead fish, which quickly rotted and stank. The ones you see are carapicu.

The reason was human interference with nature. Climate change here has bought much rain, which makes the water from the lagoon less salty. The sea-salt industry established since the 17th century is now in ruins, and after more rain the fish swim towards the ocean. But that week the city was packed with visitors whose wastes were piped as raw sewage into the ocean and thence with the tides, into the canal. The fish were trapped; starved of oxygen, maybe fifty thousand died, maybe more. But some remained in the lagoon, the tourist season subsided, and I was greeted a week later by splashes and sights of silvery peixe-voadores.

However, if these interferences continue, there will be no more fish, no more Jalder and his mates eating fresh food, no more local fishermen. Lower-income families will move to the favelas of Rio. The bistro will become a hamburger joint. The houses on the canal will be ripped up and their plots sold to developers of high-rise apartments as holiday homes for rich people from Rio who will use the canal as a jet-ski racetrack, as some do now. The ecosystem of which we are a part is healthy only if the fish are healthy.

My living world (4)

Life and death at home

Cristal waiting for Gabriel to stop tormenting her, five years ago (left), and (right) where she is now, by one of her favourite places in our front garden.

Cristal wasn't 'our cat' in the sense that a dog belongs to a family. Raquel found Cristal when she was a month-old kitten, in 1999 in Palmas, in the North. She agreed to live with Raquel there, and then here in Juiz de Fora in the South-East, and then also with our son Gabriel who (left, above) she is seen enduring six years ago. A couple of times she was seriously annoyed. One time she took off into the forest, and by strange chance was seen by Raquel as she was driving past, by the busy main road below.

The other time was recent. Her ears were cankered by the sun and she was wearing a plastic hood, which she hated. She vanished, and after hours of searching I came across her on a wall by the road outside the house, baleful and miserable. Somehow she had jumped up onto the high stone pillar on one side of our iron gates at the front of the house and jumped down outside. Now she is dead and buried. The sun caused burns, then wounds, then cancer that spread. White cats with pink ears should not be in the tropics. 'If you go on walking in the sun' said Raquel 'this will happen to you'. So now this Englishman with pink ears goes out in the midday sun wearing a hat.

The vet advised cutting Cristal's ears off, which was horrible and wrong. This had to end. One morning I got up at dawn and dug her grave, under the stone pillar by our front gate where she sat like a sphinx when as a family we all left the house for a while. After he got up I took Gabriel out to see and to explain. He was big-eyed and held my hand. 'Perhaps she will get better' he said. No, I said, she won't.

So we went to the vet and said hello to Cristal, scrawny and mutilated, and the assistant put the line in, and she licked our fingers, and I watched her eyes glaze. I had dug the grave twice. The second time was after realising that I had to fit a thick slab of concrete over her. This would stop a marauding quati, an animal like a big raccoon, coming in from the forest and digging her body up. So we brought her back. I had lined the grave with banyan leaves from our garden, and lay her in, and covered her with more leaves, and earth, and the slab, and more earth, and then on top, as you see (right, above), two big round stones and some flowers.

The next morning I said to Gabriel, come and see where Cristal is, and gave him a flower with a long stem, and he asked 'is she in there?' and I said yes, and he said O, and I showed him where the flower stem would fit, at the side of the hidden slab. So there she is beneath her favourite place in her front garden.

Chow killed the cat

Two things made Cristal suffer and killed her prematurely. It wasn't only the sun. To our shame we fed her commercial chow from great shiny plastic sacks with pictures of pampered prizewinning pedigree pussies. Chow is ultra-processed ready-to-eat pet product. Immaculately formulated to provide synthetic versions of all known nutrients, it also contains substances that are habit-forming. Cristal would eat only one brand. Eventually she wasn't interested in chicken or meat, only chow. And so she became vulnerable to the diseases we humans suffer from, when we consume a lot of ultra-processed products – human chow.

The lifespan of animals in the wild is on average probably shorter than that of equivalent house animals. And sure, wild animals suffer from infections – including cancers caused by infectious agents – and starvation, as well as predation. But just like humans living in balance with nature, wild animals usually don't become diabetic, or suffer hypertension, angina, heart failure, or cancer, or cataracts, bone and joint failure, or diseases of the liver, kidneys, bladder or guts. Like the lizards and wasps and birds in our house and garden, usually they live, and remain healthy and active, and then they die, with little or no intervening disease.

And the moral is…

Good food goes bad

Why is this? After my time here in Brazil, in touch with the living world, the answer is obvious. To paraphrase Elmer McCollum, a founder of modern nutrition science, good food goes bad. (He added 'but eat it before it goes bad'). That is, long shelf life leads to diseased human life. (And that of animals also). Time and life are related. If time is taken out of the equation we lose touch with life. This I understand, as I observe the animals, birds and insects that live with us here. They eat growing and living things.

Methods of processing that kill time, by changing the nature of edible substances so that they decay only very slowly or not at all, because of being degraded or dead, are good for trade, but make us diseased and kill us. The change made by ultra-processing is undetectable by chemical analysis, which does not distinguish between iron in a rock and iron in a leaf or in blood, and is impossible to measure directly, because life – not in the sense of absence of death, but of vitality – is immeasurable.

The secret of life

No, I am not suggesting that we all should eat live moths, worms, or mice. But I am saying that Jalder and his mates are more likely to stay healthy eating fried carapicu fresh netted from the canal, rather than tinned sardines with much the same chemical composition. Here is the answer to the 'French paradox', of a nation whose rates of heart disease are – or have been – much lower than that of other European countries. Traditional French cuisine, centred round the convivial meal, has always included a lot of food that is either fresh, or processed by methods that preserve much of its vitality.

Nor am I suggesting that in all our ways of life we should 'go back to nature'. But the closer most of our everyday food and drink is to its origins in nature, the more likely we are to stay fully alive – healthy and energetic. By analogy, we actually know this already. Why else do we take vacations on the beach in the sun, to 'recharge our batteries'? Why else do our usual ways of life, including what we eat, create such intense need to go on holiday to some exotic spot, rather than take pleasure in where we are and what we do? But you won't read advice to base your diet on fresh and minimally processed food and home-prepared meals, in any publication produced by conventionally trained scientists. Nutrition science based on chemical principles makes no distinction between live food and dead edible substances. It is ignorant of time and life.

Now, after football with Gabriel and his chum Luis Roberto, I enjoy lunch. Pointing to a bowl of substantial salad, with herbs and chopped olives making soaked fradinho ('little brother') beans delicious, Raquel says 'you better finish these, they'll be rotted tomorrow'. So I do.

Rudolf Steiner

Attending to nature

All of nature begins to whisper its secrets to us through its sounds. Sounds that were previously incomprehensible to our soul now become the meaningful language of nature."

Rudolf Steiner,

The closest Rudolf Steiner comes to nutrition in any current usual sense, is in his theory and practice of biodynamic agriculture, This envisions farms as whole living organisms, microcosms of the world seen through Gaian eyes. It transcends methods of low-input farming counted as 'organic'. Biodynamics springs from his general theory of anthroposophy – an overarching philosophy whose purpose is to understand the nature and meaning of humans in the world and universe. The biodynamic philosophy is concerned with first principles of living and working in nature, not just with the composition of the products of farming.

Biodynamic theory holds that properly raised crops and animals have special vitality, an élan vital, evident in them, and in us when we habitually consume them and their products. This notion seems quite possible to me. We all experience surges of energy and elation, and of enervation and exhaustion, which no doubt can be tracked neurologically or chemically, but these traces are not the experiences themselves, which often remain mysterious. Life itself is beyond our understanding.

PS. Now Pluma our dog is dead. She was a kuvasz, a Hungarian breed. Vast, white, hairy, unsuitable. One morning after I finished this column she went nuts, fell down, looked dead, staggered up, had multiple fits, and after two days died. Buried in the forest now. Odd. Tests showed nothing except sky-high levels of some liver function. Raquel noticed a bite on her nose. The day before she threw her first fit there were lizards over a metre long in the back forest. Some lizards are venomous. Not the geckos in my study…

Acknowledgement and request

You are invited please to respond, comment, disagree, as you wish. Please use the response facility below. You are free to make use of the material in this column, provided you acknowledge the Association, and me please, and cite the Association’s website.

Please cite as: Cannon G. Where fancy is bred, and other items. [Column] Website of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, December 2011. Obtainable at www.wphna.org

The opinions expressed in all contributions to the website of the World Public Health Nutrition Association (the Association) including its journal World Nutrition, are those of their authors. They should not be taken to be the view or policy of the Association, or of any of its affiliated or associated bodies, unless this is explicitly stated.

This column has been reviewed by Fabio Gomes, Isabela Sattamini, Hetty Einzig, and Claudio Schuftan.

2011 December blog: Geoffrey Cannon

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