By Jeanie Johnson
(Picture: Dorathy Sprague Thompson & daughter Jeanie Thompson Johnson)
In a scene from National Lampoon’s 1989 movie Christmas Vacation Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase), a Food Additive Designer, shares his new project with a co-worker: a non-nutrient cereal varnish, a “product that coats the flakes so milk cannot penetrate them” or as Clark says, a crunch enhancer.
By the late 1980s most all of us had become aware of the chemical overload in everything from breakfast cereal to kid’s toys. Rachel Carson was a household name and Earth Day was almost two decades old. When Christmas Vacation appeared in theaters, DuPont’s 1952 advertising slogan, “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” (which became Better Living Through Chemistry) had been modified. “Through Chemistry” had been dropped, but the original slogan remained firmly planted in the common lexicon and became pop culture shorthand for the building awareness of our shared plight. Today the chemical soup we live in is an unbelievable concoction of millions of multi-generational “crunch enhancers”, pesticides, herbicides and other skull and crossbone progeny. In Al Gore’s new book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, he reports that of the 83,000 chemicals listed in the inventory to be tested, the EPA has required testing of only 200 and has restricted use of a mere five. Five. Questions of why the agency charged with protecting our safety would be so lax can, in part, be answered I believe by remembering that chemical companies are allowed to withhold a large share of the medical information they possess on chemicals by claiming proprietary secrets.
In November of 2011 my mother died following what my family generally agrees was seventeen years of life with Alzheimer’s disease. We had a doctor evaluate her many years before her death and he had pronounced a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. She took her drugs in those early years while we all hoped they would do something to mitigate or slow the progression. Our belief now is that they did nothing to affect either the effects or the rate of progression. In our journey as a family, with the multi-layered losses of that horrendous disease, were our frequent conversations about chemicals. We talked about that because our parents had ended their active lives on three and a half acres of country that was shaped like a tongue sticking out into rotating soybean and corn fields north of Beloit. Each night our parents walked their dogs into the fields and when they returned they all settled down in the family room for favorite TV shows. I have clear memories of driving out to visit them and seeing the crop duster laying down streams of chemicals on the fields all around them. They were in that house, the one they built themselves and loved, for nearly fourteen years and during that time two dogs died from rather odd maladies unexplainable by the local vet. About seven years ago my Dad discovered sores around both legs and when he had them checked and biopsied, he was told he had pre-cancerous lesions. And then there was Mom and her Alzheimer’s. We have no scientific studies to prove that the chemical overload on and around their property resulted in Mom’s disease. We have only our strong, gut feeling that our parents suffered as a result of their long residence in the middle of heavily sprayed and treated fields. Is it so difficult to believe?
First there were the canaries in coal mines. Then there were frogs. Now there are bees dying in such vast numbers that their colonies are collapsing. What will we do if the bees die out? And there are our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and aunts and grandmas and friends who are part of the surge in the numbers of Alzheimer’s cases and rare cancers and sudden occurrences of strange diseases. We know that our antibiotics will not protect us much longer from strains of bacteria which, in the end aided and abetted by “better” chemicals, will have been much better at survival than we are. Still, the EPA has tested only 200 of the 83,000 chemicals and restricted the use of only five. Five!
I resist the charge that talking about these terrible statistics is somehow negative thinking, a doomsday and gloomsday preoccupation bordering on obsession and that if only I’d stop talking about them they’d miraculously go away or the angels would come and rescue us or alien spacecraft would descend and whisk us off to another, less polluted planet. If I would just stop talking about the chemical soup, I’d personally be happier and I could drink the city water and pretend I didn’t know it’s really not all that good to drink. (Kind of like the Kool-Aid, but don’t think about it.) I resist it because I watched my Mom disappear in a slow and agonizing off-gait waltz with a toxic mist that enveloped her even while we could still see her gauzy shape in the distance and because I know what it was like to want to do something about that and also know there was nothing to do – for her. I resist that brand of ostrich-type thinking because I worked for a Naturopath and every day sat with people who had exhausted their bodies in treatments with chemicals and had come to us as the place of last resort for help. I resist it because it is not reality and because we must face what is in front of us or we will allow the continuing destruction of the natural world and watch our loved ones die in increasing numbers from bizarre and devastating illnesses while we arrange and rearrange the deck chairs on our Titanic waiting for the benevolent aliens or angels or Jesus or Buddha. Meditation, yes. Prayer, of course. But denial? That is akin to stuffing the canaries and bees and frogs and my Mom back in the coal mine and slamming the door shut. Don’t look. Don’t read or discuss or question and don’t, for God’s sake, do anything about any of it.
This past winter I spent a few days sorting papers Mom had given me a few years before Alzheimer’s called her name. They were the genealogy work of my Grandfather which he had done all of his life and what Mom had been working on herself. In between the handwritten pages of requests for dates and places, was a poem my mother’s favorite Aunt had written. My Great Aunt Alta wrote eloquently of the natural world and what it would bring her in peace and beauty if she could but get there amidst her struggles. I share this poem not only as a monument to my mother who loved the Wild, but for all of us as a calling that, no matter the gray fog at our windows or in our hearts and minds, we must work hard to rise up out of denial and care for the Earth and all Her creatures.
Keep me the country for I shall be coming.
Hold me the summer for I shall be there.
Save me the singing and soft gentle humming
Of birds and of bees in the shining bright air.
Here at my window the gray fog is trying
Harder to enter than ever before.
Rain on the cobbles the city makes crying.
Pain and dark loneliness watch at my door.
But I shall escape them and I shall come running
Back to the white cottage and spread of the tree.
Guard the green pastures where small calves are sunning.
Keep me the country for I shall be free.