Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Woman Who Speaks Tree
English photo.
Woman Who Speaks Tree
The Body Toxic

Woman Who Speaks Tree, Confessions of a Tree Hugger

by Linda Tatelbaum
About Time Press, 1050 Guinea Ridge Rd., Appleton, ME 04862
134 pgs., paperback; $14.95 + $3.50 pstg. for one or two books, $4.50 for three or more

In nine essays, Linda Tatelbaum, self-described “certified organic tree-hugging hippie professor,” writes poetically about her back-to-the-land life in Appleton, Maine, with her husband, Kal, and son, Noah; about her parents; about gardens, streams, students and, of course, trees. She describes the road taken to that life, peeking into kitchens of abandoned homes, wanting those canning jars by the sink, to can similarly abandoned persimmons or pears; wanting to make her own path to her own chicken house.

She recalls funny little “rules” encountered on a commune during the hippie era; and a palindromic trip to West Virginia in a VW (WVVW) seeking a homestead and community, only to ask, after several disappointments, “will I ever understand the journey that nourishes our generation even though it bruises us with disappointment?”

Tatelbaum and Winer, disillusioned in W. Virginia, head to Kentucky, knock on Wendell Berry’s door and ask if he knows of a place for sale. He says, “Go back and settle where you come from. That’s what I did.”

But their N.Y. and N.H. home towns don’t feel right. They search until, in 1977, “the pine-green hills of Maine guided us to our home.” There, with almost no construction skills and with essential help from friends, they build their energy-efficient, off-grid home without destroying their marriage.

Then came Noah, who “entered the world through an old apple tree” – a fascinating story about the tree under which Tatelbaum drew well water. They rediscover their Jewish roots and cultivate them to fit their Maine life.

The income plan is to sell chamomile blossoms to Celestial Seasons – until they learn that the company pays by the ton. So Tatelbaum goes back to teaching college English, eventually at Colby, while maintaining the homestead lifestyle and continuing to foster her love for trees. “Over the years, I’ve been one to question the cutting of this tree or that on campus,” she says; one essay revolves around that very question as it relates to an impressive beech.

Woman Who Speaks Tree is full of symbols – kitchens, milkweed pods, canning jars, palindromes, trees – and of humor: “Sooner or later everyone shows up at Parsky’s [funeral home].”

Family, life, death, food, home, nature, God … Wendell Berry would love this book full of warmth and wisdom that grew, in part, from his advice. So would you.

– J E

Just in Time: A Source Book to Guide Maine's Comprehensive Chemicals Policy Initiative
The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being
by Nena Baker
North Point Press, 2008
288 pgs., hardcover; $24

Nena Baker concludes the introduction to her carefully documented book with the declaration that "[f]or more than three decades, the chemical industry, with the complicity of our elected leaders, has kept us in the dark about the toxicity of everyday substances and successfully resisted policy efforts that would better protect the public." With this rousing excoriation she is in effect issuing a challenge to the new administration in Washington, and to state lawmakers: It is time to take decisive action restricting harmful industrial chemicals in consumer products.

No longer can they claim ignorance of the harm being done. "Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies show that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which throw off the body's hormone system in various ways, cause lab animals to exhibit disorders and diseases that are on the rise in humans. The list includes cancers of the breast, testicles, and brain; lowered sperm count; early puberty; endometriosis and other defects of the female reproductive system; diabetes; obesity; attention-deficit disorder; asthma; and autism." Moreover, new technologies enable scientists to detect, through biomonitoring assays, toxic substances that accumulate in human fat, bones, blood and organs.

Maine is one of a handful of states that have already begun systematically reviewing endocrine-disrupting chemicals and heavy metals known to cause harm and then to enact protective legislation. The 2007 "Body of Evidence" biomonitoring survey conducted in Maine quantified levels of 46 toxic chemicals found in subjects routinely exposed to industrial toxins in air (inside and out), water, food, cosmetics, cleaning products, upholstered furniture and carpets, electronics and other consumer goods.

Baker's superb investigative reporting puts this scandal into perspective, explaining the built-in disincentives for industry and government to act responsibly in the public interest. She also identifies heroic figures and villains in the ongoing effort to reform chemicals policy – researchers like Fred vom Saal, who has challenged the American Chemical Council's spurious claims about bisphenol A, and Richard Wiles and colleagues at the Environmental Working Group, whose studies exposed violations by 3M and DuPont in the manufacture of perfluorinated chemicals (as in Teflon, Scotchgard, and Gore-Tex) and who catalyzed a national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics as a result of health problems linked to phthalates.

Evidence of the harm hormone-disrupting substances cause, especially to children, is compelling: bisphenol A (BPA) leaches from hard polycarbonate bottles, pacifiers, toys, tin-can linings, etc., and is linked to numerous endocrine disorders, including cancer; perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) for nonstick coatings and stain/water resistance persist for years in the body, potentially leading to damage in all organs; and phthalates, used to soften plastic and to fix persistent chemical fragrances in personal-care products, are absorbed from vinyl (polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) items, including shower curtains, toys and a wide range of cosmetics, putting us at risk for reproductive and neurological damage. Baker devotes chapters to these as well as triazine herbicides (atrazine the most prevalent), which are carcinogenic and cause gross malformations in frogs, and to polybrominated flame-retardant chemicals (PBDE additives to plastic in computers, TVs, mattresses and bedding) – compounds that impair learning and behavioral and may be implicated in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Baker explains: " ... the vast majority of [the 80,000-plus industrial substances registered with EPA] have not been tested for potential toxic effects because the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act [ToSCA] of 1976 does not require it. ... [In fact,] EPA cannot take any regulatory action regarding a suspected harmful substance until it has evidence that it poses an 'unreasonable' risk of injury to human health or the environment. The barriers to action are so high that, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accounting Office, EPA has given up trying to regulate chemicals and instead relies on the chemical industry to act voluntarily when concerns arise."

This does not happen, as a rule. As recently as mid-September 2007 (after publication of The Body Toxic ) – even as a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked BPA exposure to heart disease and diabetes, in addition to known endocrine-disrupting effects – EPA and FDA officials defended BPA as safe and not subject to enforcement action.

By contrast, the European Union has had, since the end of 2006, more stringent laws requiring manufacturers to issue risk and exposure information on some 30,000 chemicals. According to these “REACH” regulations (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical Substances), manufacturers must demonstrate the safety of products before they are sold, and authorization to use chemicals that are very persistent and bioaccumulative is required.

The campaign to enact these precautionary standards was contentious. Baker reveals that the EU chemical industry heavily pressured lawmakers to obstruct passage of REACH and that its U.S. counterpart enlisted the support of EPA, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Departments of State and Commerce to lobby against the proposal. But European Parliament members resoundingly announced their decision: Despite the price tag attached to REACH, "the alternative [paying for damage to health and the environment] is even more costly."

Baker's discussion of her own biomonitoring results will resonate with those in Maine who volunteered for the "Body of Evidence" testing (including MOFGA's director, Russ Libby). She ponders in particular the finding that she has extremely high levels, comparatively, of a perfluorinated chemical common in carpet, furniture and clothing treated with stain and water repellents. Although chemical manufacturers insist that traces of contamination found in body-burden studies are too low to be of concern, Baker disagrees, pointing to research showing damage from low-dose exposures to compounds that disrupt hormonal balance, such as PFCs. (This is a significant refutation of the "dose makes the poison" concept, used by industry to argue that a low dose means a low-grade [inconsequential] effect.) The problem is magnified by the indestructible nature of perfluorinated chemicals. By comparison with DDT, with its 10-year half-life, Baker notes that PFCs in soil do not break down under any conditions.

Legislation passed in Maine last year requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to identify chemicals of high concern and replace them when safer, affordable alternatives exist. (Herbicides and insecticides, all of which are hazardous, are not candidates for Maine's priority list because thus far toxics-reform advocates leading this particular initiative choose to defer to the state Board of Pesticides Control for regulating the agricultural chemicals it oversees.)

As activists take on the challenge, they will be aided immeasurably by the record of government and corporate malfeasance from recent decades cited in this book. Especially useful are summaries describing how individuals inhale, ingest or absorb through skin the worst of the toxic substances in consumer products and how to keep plastic pollutants out of our breathing zone.

– Jody Spear

(Spear works on toxics issues with the Maine Sierra Club Conservation Committee.)

MOF&G Cover Winter 2008-2009
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