By Jean English
It was a good day on the farm. We womenfolk did our inside chores while the menfolk worked outdoors. We emptied the chamber pots that the men had used the night before, and we managed to empty most of them into the two-seater. Only spilled one. We made the beds where the men had slept. We swept the floors that the men had muddied. We dusted.
We peeled and chopped potatoes, onions and carrots for our midday stew, and we made cornbread. It was early fall, the larder was full, the kitchen warm and comforting.
We scrubbed the laundry on a washboard and ran it through the wringers. Crank, crank, crank. Lucky we didn’t crank someone’s noggin right off, the handle was just head-high to an adolescent. We ought to connect the wringers to a treadmill and run a sheep on the treadmill, I observed, the way the menfolk used the sheep and treadmill to power the corn grinder. “You want to keep a sheep in the kitchen!” my young one exclaimed.
After the menfolk came in for dinner and Pa gave permission to eat, I asked young Sam what he had done all morning. “Manure, manure, manure,” he lamented. ’Twas the season to feed those fields. Unhappy as the work had made him, it had also built a good appetite. He ate like a farmer. Pa had six bowls of stew, and even little Ma had three, despite the fact that she was in a tizzy at not being able to remember who her seventh son was. “I have two girls and seven boys,” she kept fretting, “but I can only remember who six of my boys are.”
It was a good day but not perfect. Some of us womenfolk were offended at not having the right to vote. Some wanted to be outdoors. Some sought to flirt with the menfolk, and of course, ’twas not allowed.
Still, it was a good day in 1870 for us: three chaperones, two teachers, and 27 sixth graders visiting Norlands Living History Center in Livermore Falls, Maine. The girls learned a lot about life in the old days, and I was surprised at some of the things they had to learn: how to peel an onion and a potato, for instance; the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. Are whole foods never prepared at some homes? The boys had their own problem getting the yoke on the oxen, but solved that once they realized that either the yoke or the oxen were upside down.
It was such a good day that it was hard to leave. It was a gorgeous fall day and life made perfect sense. You grew stuff, you ate it. You did your best to stay warm and dry. You stopped in the middle of the day to eat good food with your “family.”
Alas, at 2 o’clock we were transported via bus at amazing speeds (relative to 1870) to the loathsome Western Ave. in Augusta. Strip malls and parking lots. People buying goods – and bads – without having had any spiritual connection with the making of those goods.
We stopped at Pizza Hut, a treat for the class. It was good for them, a chance to get out of their 1870 characters and be themselves. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what a visitor from 1870 would say if he or she could step into Pizza Hut and see the disposable napkins, the plastic straws and cup tops, the waste. “What do you do with these after you use them?” the visitor might ask. Nothing at Norlands was wasted. Frugality was the way of the day. “We throw them away,” we might answer. “And where is ‘away?’” the visitor would ask. “Away, well …”
Well, ‘away’ is turning out to be nowhere, or, rather, everywhere. The plastics we throw ‘away’ get incinerated and come back to us as dioxins. The exhaust we produce as we drive those incredible speeds comes back to us as global temperature change, weather extremes. The pesticides we’ve used – some went away and came back, some just stuck around, some left their relatives to keep us company: DDT and its metabolite, DDE, for instance. Some never left our bodies. The genes we’re inserting into every plant and animal every chance we get (which is every time we get funding from a multinational corporation) – they’ll be coming back to visit us. Do you like science fiction? You’ll be living it soon.
‘Away’ is everywhere. Our system is just as closed as Norlands was in 1870, but we’ve made it bigger – global, even – and injected toxins into it. Nature builds things up and breaks them down, says Dr. Paul Connett (reported in this issue of The MOF&G); man has made things that don’t break down, and that is where most of our environmental problems (translated: health problems) originate. At Norlands, man and nature were in step. Things got made, things got consumed, things got made again. There was a rhythm. There is no natural rhythm on Western Ave. in Augusta, or in most other parts of industrialized countries. Things get made, things don’t go away, more things get made. Bad stuff accumulates.
How do you blend the best of today with the best of the 1870 era? First, know that everything you do counts. Good or bad. Try to do more good than bad. Shoes made in China? Don’t buy them. Human rights there are as rare as environmental wrongs are common. Nikes from Southeast Asia? Don’t buy them. They are made by impoverished women working in sweatshops. Food grown with pesticides, or trucked across the country? Avoid it. You know why. Toys made of plastic? Forget them. (But will you excuse the pile of Legos in my living room?)
Second, try to embrace activist Nancy Allen’s philosophy of doing something political every day. The importance of this philosophy has been reinforced in my mind lately as a result of an “Environment and Health” conference in Brunswick; of Ross Gelbspan’s talk at Common Ground about global climate change; of finally getting around to reading Our Stolen Future; of keeping up with Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly. Here are some of the imperatives I’ve picked up from those and other sources lately:
1. We must stop producing synthetic chemicals and releasing them into the environment unless they have been absolutely proven to be safe. Regulation after release isn’t working fast enough or well enough. It has taken up to 50 years to comprehend the consequences – cancer, endocrine system disruption, global climate change, the hole in the ozone layer – of our past actions. Now, genetically engineered organisms are being released into the environment at breakneck (breakbody?) speed. How will these organisms affect us in 50 years? No one knows! That’s reason enough to cease their release immediately.
2. We must remove from the environment any chemical or product that may cause cancer or disrupt the endocrine system. We must, as Sandra Steingraber says in Living Downstream – An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, have the courage to act on partial evidence. We need to use a human rights approach in thinking about chemicals, she says. “Such an approach recognizes that the current system of regulating the use, release and disposal of known and suspected carcinogens – rather than preventing their generation in the first place – is intolerable” and shows “reckless disregard for human life.” Peter Montague, who writes Rachel’s, says it more strongly: “… murder is murder even if the victim is anonymous. And scientists, risk assessors, and regulators who grease the wheels for such a system – even if only by their complicit silence – have blood on their hands. They are the enablers of a system that profoundly violates the human rights of the thousands (or millions) whom it victimizes.”
3. We must count the dead publicly in the war on cancer, as Bella Abzug advises. We must convince legislators and industrialists that prevention of cancer and other diseases is a necessity.
4. We must eliminate incineration of “wastes” worldwide, as Dr. Paul Connett says. Anything that is manufactured should be reusable, recyclable or compostable. Sound like Norlands?
5. We must support local, organic growers as much as possible and fill our plates and our children’s plates with their healthful foods, as Dr. Dixie Mulls recommends in this MOF&G. Along these lines, let’s have large increases in fines for pesticide infractions and use that money to support research on organic methods of production and on marketing healthful foods. We can impose thousand dollar fines on Wal-Mart repeatedly for its ignorance of pesticide regulations and for placing its customers in peril (see Sharon Tisher’s report on the Board of Pesticides Control in this issue), but these fines are just pennies in Wal-Mart’s money bin. We need fines – and publicity about those fines – that have impact – not just on Wal-Mart’s pocketbook but on the public.
6. We must take excessive power away from corporations. Corporations are guilty of physically abusing – sometimes murdering – our bodies by the chemicals they have unleashed into the environment, often knowing all to well that these chemicals were deadly.
7. We must require corporations to clean up the messes they’ve made. “Recently,” writes Peter Montague (Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, 9/4/97), “we hear a drum beat of public relations from Monsanto, claiming that it has turned over a new leaf and is now committed to behaving in a civilized fashion. If this is so, Monsanto could demonstrate its awakening by leading a global effort to locate and destroy PCBs, cleansing the planet (to the extent possible) of this brain-damaging, immune-suppressing, cancer-causing substance. Has anyone seen a sign of serious intentions from St. Louis?”
8. We must educate the public about the dangers of pesticides and the ludicrous notion of perfect lawns, perfect fruits. “Here’s a way to get that idea across real quick,” says Tom Saviello, chair of Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control, in the BPC’s Communicator (10/17/97): “Put every pesticide on the restricted use list. Do away with general use pesticides and put pool chemicals, bee sprays, weed ’n feeds, everything on the restricted use list. That way everyone will either have to get an applicator license and be as responsible as that guy in his field” [who doesn’t always act responsible, either – ed.] “or do without pesticides. This would change the mindset of the homeowner community … big time.” Do it, Tom.
9. We must write to local and national legislators. We must write again and again and again. We must demonstrate. We must voice our demands until they are met, as they were with the Vietnam War, with Nixon, with women’s and civil rights (to an extent). We must write letters to editors. We must believe in the power of the people.
This is a long and formidable list. It could probably be longer, but enough is enough for now. I just know that the more I stop to look at and love this wonderful world – watching a swallow feed on a bayberry seed; letting the notes of the sonata my daughter plays on the piano flow through my soul; snuggling with my young son while we read – the more my life becomes a political statement. I have a long way to go before I’m a Larry Dansinger, a Nancy Oden, or Will Bonsall or Molly Thorkildsen, or Beedy Parker, or so many of the people I’ve met through MOFGA who seem to have incorporated the rhythm and the good values of the Norlands-style life into their days. At least I have my direction, though, and my destination.