Organic Food: Safer, Friendlier, Better?

This is the title of Chapter 2 in a great little book we picked up from our local public library called How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies. I told myself I was not going to get into politics in my blog, but truth is, I think about politics a lot and am fascinated by power struggles and wild differences of opinion. I also happen to subscribe to the belief that the personal is political, so there you go. After spending a week with my dad recently and wondering every minute how we could have ended up so far apart politically while at the same time holding such basic core values in common (e.g., independence, self-governance, fiscal responsibility, stewardship, and an abiding appreciation for “nature”), I especially appreciate this book for its head-on, scientific, nonpartisan approach to some of the biggest environmental issues we face.

The authors are Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. They do an excellent job presenting the complexities surrounding key environmental issues; each chapter focuses on a single issue—organic food, pesticides, fertilizers, alternative energy, genetic engineering, plant patents, invasive plants, legal and illegal plants, local restrictions, global warming—all issues I am deeply interested in but do not know enough about. Each chapter includes essential scientific information about the issue, relevant governmental policies and policy options, ratings from left-wing and right-wing perspectives, plus the “bottom line.” The introductory sections also provide a clear overview of how science and political science interact, as the authors compare the contradictory roles of various players (politicians, scientists, lobbyists, the public), making it abundantly clear why it is so hard to get at the truth of these issues—not least because “politics is about making value judgments,” while “value judgments are outside the realm of science.” So policymakers are left having to decide what outcomes are desirable and at what cost, without the benefit of “hard science” to guide them, because science, which can be contested or modified with future study, does not offer The Truth, but often raises more questions. Add in the conflicting pressures from the public and the lobbyists, with their often narrowly defined self interests, and it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do.

As I read the chapter on organic food, I found myself thinking in new ways about where I stand on the continuum between increased government regulations and letting producers do what they need to do to raise crops. Where the environment is concerned, I generally weigh in on the side of increased government regulations for the protection of people and the Earth, while my dad generally weighs in on the side of free market and entrepreneurs.  I generally distrust businesses that have profit as their primary motivation, while dad thinks bureaucrats put too many limits on business owners who need flexibility to respond to the market. We both mistrust large corporations, but I lean toward increased regulation to try to protect consumers, while he recommends lowering their taxes and getting the government off their backs so they could be more competitive in giving consumers what they want.

But I can see how the lines could get blurry. For example, I don’t want the city or the neighborhood association to tell me I can’t grow native perennials or vegetables in my front yard but must have a perfectly manicured and weed free (i.e., chemically treated) lawn, so in that instance I would be anti-regulation, I suppose.  As a gardener who tries to raise plants “as organically as possible” but who sometimes reaches for pesticides or fertilizers to solve particular problems, I can appreciate on a small scale how challenging it is to find a balance between philosophical ideals and practical applications. But I definitely want the label to tell me what is in that bottle of spray so I can make an informed decision before I use it. Even if the ingredients are labelled “natural” or “organic,” I prefer to know about any potential dangers they might pose to honeybees or other beneficial insects before I spray my grape vines. I also know that I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to pay a little more for organic and locally produced food, a luxury that many, many people do not have in today’s economy. Given all that, is it right to mandate numerous regulations that increase the overall cost of production and impose undue burdens on small producers, when we have no guarantee that organic methods are superior to conventional methods, or to restrict the ability of large producers to produce foods in the most cost-efficient ways possible?

The authors do a very good job of raising some of the questions that I generally avoid thinking about too deeply. For example, I happen to believe that growing organically is better for our health and better for our planet,  but is it then preferable to buy from a large-scale organic farm, even if they must use nonrenewable fossil fuels to ship their produce to my town, or is it better to buy from a small local farm, even if the farmer occasionally uses pesticides and fertilizers? If a local milk or meat producer avoids the use of hormones, treats her animals humanely, allows them plenty of time outside to graze, and does not put animal waste products or other questionable ingredients in their feed, but does occasionally treat them with antibiotics when they get sick, should the farm lose its credentialing as an organic producer? If a farmer returns from the weekly market with bushels of unsold turnips and lettuce and other produce, should he be allowed to feed it to his pigs at the end of the day, knowing it will go to waste before next Saturday’s market? Or should the state, in an attempt to protect people’s health, be allowed to define the unsold turnips as “garbage” and thus outlaw feeding it to animals that will be sold for meat? These are important but difficult questions that we all weigh in on every time we put food to mouth.


It’s a Small World After All

This has been one of those “it’s a small world” weeks, during which places I used to not think much about have now become important to me, since my sons have spent time there. On Monday, February 21, Matt’s former sergeant from Alpha Company died in Kandahar, Afghanistan. As platoon leader, Matt had worked closely with this man for over a year, until recently, when Matt was moved to a different position and ultimately to a different company. Although the sergeant was not included on the list of names for care packages (Matt only gave me names of privates and specialists, not officers), I remember Matt talking about what a good man he was. I can only imagine how the soldiers in his platoon must feel. The sergeant was twenty-nine years old; the reports say he died of non-combat causes and that medical investigations are underway. Matt put together a video tribute, which included photos of the platoon in happier days, scenes of the devastatingly beautiful countryside surrounding their outpost, and a soundtrack of the Army band playing Amazing Grace.

On the other side of the world, many of Isaac’s fellow scientists were thought to be in New Zealand when the earthquake hit, while others were stuck back at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, unable to fly into Christchurch to stow their polar gear at the USAP warehouse until the airport could reopen. In the meantime, the sun is setting in Antarctica, winter storms are moving in, and the ice sheet that forms part of the road to the airport at McMurdo is breaking up. Isaac told me there was a link to a chart in googledocs where people could add notes about those who had been confirmed safe. By Saturday, all USAP personnel had been accounted for and the link had been removed, but according to one of Isaac’s team members, three full plane-loads of people were still waiting to leave the ice before winter sets in, her boyfriend among them.

I have been obsessing about the earthquake victims and the polar scientists all week, in between feeling deep sadness for the sergeant’s family and fellow soldiers. As a result, I have not paid as much attention as I should have to all the wars and revolutions going on across the middle east and northern Africa, where many more people are suffering. Not to mention the protests in this country brought on by the attempts to do away with collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Since I don’t watch television, I’m not limited to what the mainstream media wants me to know, but that also gives me a skewed perspective, I’m sure, as I seek out only certain kinds of information, depending on my own personal interests and relationships. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of such large-scale natural and human-made disasters. And yet, part of me can feel an odd sense of detached interest, as though I were viewing Earth from some distant satellite, able to sense the plates moving beneath the ocean floor, the volcanos spewing forth steam, the waters rising, islands disappearing, the ice caps melting; noting the lines drawn in the air by planes flying from city to city, seeing people massed together in cities all over the globe, wondering what’s going to happen to us all.

Still it is quiet and peaceful here, with yesterday’s snow melting off the trees and falling softly into the woods, birds visiting the feeders and searching out places to build their nests, daffodils and hyacinths starting to push their way out of the ground, buds swelling on the trees, brocolli seeds sprouting under the lights in the back room. I wish everyone all over the world could enjoy this sense of peace. I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I also know that none of us will get out of this alive.

Squirrels in the attic—not just a figure of speech

The squirrel behind the wall is driving me mad! It sounds as though he has an entire construction crew up there sawing and banging away. Any minute I expect to see him bust through the wall up near the ceiling in living room. Every morning as I sit here writing in my otherwise quiet house, I can hear him chewing away, and I imagine the hole getting bigger and bigger and the walls of my house getting thinner. Soon I expect there will be baby squirrels nestled down in a big pile of woodchips, and then where will it all end? (How many baby squirrels would likely be born at a time, anyway?) Maybe the whole extended squirrel family is inside my house, setting up separate apartments. It sounds that way sometimes. I don’t know if I’d feel better if we had an actual attic or not. My granddady used to just let them move in each winter, and I would hear what I thought was Squirrel Nutkin bowling above the ceiling of my bedroom.

But I keep remembering a show we saw one time—one of those funniest home videos or rescue 911 or some such—which showed how badly things can go. From what I can remember, this attractive single woman kept hearing something up in the attic and figured it was some kind of animal but was afraid to go up there herself, so she called the fire department—you know, the same fire department that rescues kittens from trees, at least on television. I think in real life they just tell you that if the kitten got up the tree by herself, she can get herself down the same way. Anyway, on this particular television show, sure enough the fire department came round and agreed to go up in the attic to take a look. As I recall, the woman was good looking, and the firefighter was one of those take-charge kind of men who prides himself in helping damsels in distress.

So the firefighter sets up a ladder and starts climbing confidently into the attic. When he gets near the top, the squirrel runs at him out of the dark attic, chattering wildly, and startles the man, who then falls backward onto the floor, breaking his leg. So now the woman still has a squirrel in the attic, plus an injured firefighter in her living room. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but I think more firefighters showed up, determined not to let a squirrel get the best of them and embarrass them all in the process. They put a splint on their buddy’s leg and helped him over to the couch. Eventually, they managed to chase the squirrel out of the attic, who then proceeded to run madly around the living room and through the fire place, setting his tail on fire in the process. By then everyone was in a panic, especially the squirrel, who ran under the couch, which began to smoulder, so the firefighters carried the burning couch out into the yard and sprayed it with water. I can’t remember if the woman thanked them for getting the squirrel out of her attic or not.

Well past middle age

At forty—even at forty-five—I could, without too much effort, think of myself as “middle aged” and easily imagine that I could live another forty to forty-five years, especially since three of my grandparents and several other relatives lived well into their eighties and remained active and in reasonably good health until the end. But when I turned fifty, I had to admit that it was extremely unlikely that I would live to be a hundred years old and that I had, without knowing the exact moment, passed right on through the midpoint of my life. Still, there was a chance, however slight, that I had used up only half my allotted time.

However, now that I am well into my fifties, the gig is definitely up, and I find myself thinking more and more about how I should spend my precious remaining years. I think about what I want to say to people before I die and wonder whether I have learned anything worth passing on. What do I want to accomplish; what do I still want to find out? My aunt, who is 84 and a voracious reader, told me during a recent visit that if she expected to receive answers to all her questions after she dies, that would be one thing. Otherwise, she’d just as soon stick around awhile and try to figure out a few more things on her own. (I definitely want to stick around awhile myself.)

I recently began reading through my old journals, thinking I should either do something with them or destroy them, and not just leave them unread in a closet to be discovered by others after I’m gone, without at least knowing what they contain. I don’t think I’ve said anything horrible about anyone, and I’ve revealed very few secrets that I know of. But my journals were never meant for public consumption, which makes me wonder whether I should do as my friend Frank did and leave instructions to destroy all my writing, unread, if I die before I have a chance to sort through everything myself. But assuming the journals contain at least some germs of insight or some stories worth telling, what do I want my children and grandchildren to know? What will be my legacy? Who will be the keeper of my stories?

Why is there a dead parrot in my freezer?

Or I should say, why is there still a dead parrot in my freezer? I originally put it there myself one winter day over a year ago (or maybe it’s been two years by now). Our furnace had gone off while we were at work and we came home to a shivering, sniffling little gray-cheeked parrot, with his feathers all puffed out and his eyes runny. He looked miserable, and I felt bad for him but didn’t know what to do for him besides turn up the heat. But it was already too late. Soon after, he stopped eating, and a few days later I found him dead on the bottom of the cage, where he had fallen from his perch. I intended to bury him in the spring when the ground thawed. In the meantime I wrapped him in newspaper and put him in the freezer. But to my chagrin, he’s still there, and I obviously can’t use the excuse that it’s been too cold or I haven’t had time to bury the poor little thing in all that time.

His name was Spike, and he belonged to my son Isaac, who had bought him with birthday money and allowance money when he was about eight years old. He was mostly green (a deep emerald green on his backs and wings, lime green on his belly), with gray cheeks, and a spot of orange under his wings. He was a small parrot, slightly bigger than a parakeet, and much louder. He was a sociable little bird but never quite learned to talk, although he often made little screechy sounds that mimicked our inflection, and he got very excited and much louder when people were trying to have a conversation. Whenever we played Latin music on the CD, he would bob his head and dance back and forth on his perch. Other music didn’t affect him the same way; we wondered if he were responding to some genetic memory. Occasionally, we let him out of his cage to fly around the house, but he mostly wanted to sit on our heads, which got annoying. He was about fifteen years old; if he hadn’t gotten sick, he might have lived another ten years. As it was, he had already outlived all Isaac’s other pets. At one point his room was so full of small pets (the parrot, two finches, two parakeets, two hamsters, a rat, an African frog of some sort, two snakes, a tortoise, a lizard, a box turtle, several goldfish, and a beta) that Isaac decided it was too noisy in there and moved to a different bedroom downstairs.

I have to admit this isn’t the first time I have had something strange in my freezer. My young sons routinely used the freezer in their pretend play. More than once, while rummaging around for fish sticks or frozen corn for dinner, I would come across miniature “freezing chambers,” with Hans Solo or Princess Leia encased in ice. One year Matt tried to save his snow balls for another day. Both he and his brother used the freezer and refrigerator to conduct numerous “scientific” experiments during elementary school. And for years, I could expect to find frozen mice in various stages of development (pinkies and fuzzies) as feed for Isaac’s snakes. And of course, the parrot wasn’t the only small pet to die during the winter. But this is the longest I have ever held such a thing in my freezer. It doesn’t take a genius, probably, to figure out that Spike’s death marked the end of an era that I was reluctant to let go.  Although at the time I complained incessantly about the noise and the mess and the many projects, I loved having my boys at home, and I miss them terribly.

What time is it in Antarctica?

Photo of a penguinI wish I knew more about physics. At the very least, I would like to understand something about the time-space continuum. Perhaps that would help explain how a single summer day in childhood can go on forever, but as one gets older, whole years seem to disappear between breakfast and dinner; decades pass between dinner and bedtime. When I think about time, I am reminded of my in-laws, who, when asked the time, would always respond, “by the clock?” The usual answer in their family was “yes, by the clock,” at which point further clarification would be required to determine which clock—the kitchen clock, which always ran ten minutes fast, or the clock in the den, which was usually five minutes slow, or some other clock in the house? I don’t remember people consulting their watches in these instances, but I suppose that was possible. Occasionally, people would respond, “no, not by the clock,” which meant the other person would do the math for you and give you the actual time. Of course, that assumed that the clock had not gained or lost additional minutes since the last time anyone checked. This was in the days before cellphones and computers and microwaves and every other kind of household gadget had clocks synced to satellites, so one could never be completely sure that the time you were given was accurate, whether “by the clock” or not. I always wondered why my in-laws didn’t just set all the clocks to the same time, rather than go through this complicated ritual. I didn’t realize then how slippery time was and how difficult to keep track of, with or without clocks.

I have since noticed that this ritual may not be as uncommon as I at first thought. Other people, including myself, go through a similar routine when they change time zones while travelling or when they “spring forward” in March or “fall back” in October. Some people, like my stepfather, will reset their clocks immediately upon crossing into a new time zone and seem to have no trouble with the concept of “gaining” or “losing” an hour. They never concern themselves with what time it “used to be.” They live completely in the present, and they always tell time “by the clock.” Other people seem to have trouble letting go of the “old time” and may refuse to change their watches when going on short trips or crossing only one time zone. Even those who do change their clocks and watches to the “new time” may for a while feel the need to calculate what time it is in the place they recently left or what time it “used to be” before someone decided we should save daylight. Although I don’t wear a watch (or perhaps because of that), I tend to obsess a bit about different time zones and am continually doing the math in my head, adding an hour when I think about my mother or my brother, subtracting an hour when I think about my grandchildren, subtracting two hours when I think about my daughter-in-law, trying to picture what each of my loved ones is doing at that time in that place. I also love checking the World Sunlight Map to see which places in the world are just waking up and which ones are shrouded in darkness. And yet it worries me not at all if the clocks in my house are a few minutes fast or slow, or if they are all set to different times.

This summer I became painfully aware of the tricks that time plays and of how time can contract and expand simultaneously. In July, while my younger son, Isaac, was on his honeymoon in Peru, my older son, Matt, was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan with the Fourth Infantry. I wanted the days to go slowly so Matt would not have to leave; and I wanted the same days to go quickly so Isaac would return home soon. Now, three months later, Isaac is at McMurdo Station in Antarctica with a team of scientists, while Matt is at a checkpoint in Kandahar province, with a platoon of soldiers and their Afghan counterparts. I am still in “central time,” continually calculating what hour it is where they are. When it is noon today in Missouri “by the clock,” it is 9:30 tonight in Kandahar and 6:00 tomorrow morning at McMurdo, where it is spring and the wind chill is 4 degrees F today. All of this  completely boggles my mind. On those days when I am lucky enough to  be able to chat online with Matt or receive a phone call from Isaac, I can’t help but marvel at how my sons are able to talk to me “from the future.”

Starting Over

I wonder how many posts to blogs begin with an apology for not having written sooner. Of course, I’ve got the usual excuses—I’ve been busy—but who isn’t busy these days? (I like to say that if you don’t have attention deficit disorder these days, you should try to develop it as a necessary job skill.) Keeping busy has become a lifestyle for most of us, what with our day jobs and our avocations, our volunteer committees, our so-called leisure activities, not to mention all the time it takes just to keep up—going to the grocery store, preparing meals and cleaning up after, washing and folding laundry, dusting and vacuuming, scrubbing the sinks, bathing and brushing our teeth, phoning our family, checking in on Facebook, reading the newspaper, sorting the recyclables. Still, I should have more time than most to do what I say I want to do, which is to write. We no longer have children at home, the grandchildren live far away, our last pet died a year ago, I’m not trying to work on an advanced degree in my “spare time,” and we don’t own a television. But I do like my sleep, and the hours are sadly limited.

By the time I get home from a full day of staring at a computer monitor editing other people’s writing, the last thing I want to do is sit at the computer and write. For one thing, the editor in me is all too eager to say, “No good! Delete that last sentence. Don’t say that! That’s boring!” For another, there are so many other things I also want to do. For example, I’d like to have a glass of wine and finish that book I’ve been reading about Antarctica. I’d like to plant my spring garden. I’d like to go for a walk through the woods or play music or dance with my husband. I’d like to work on the sweater I’ve been knitting. I’d like to knit baby hats for my coworker’s triplets and a poncho for my granddaughter. I’d like to get out my watercolors and paint. I’d like to reupholster the wing-backed chair in the living room.  I’d like to go on one of those eco-tours to help save baby sea turtles or repair fences out west somewhere. I’d like to learn Chinese.

Lately I have found myself doing the math in my head to try to calculate how much time I likely have left, how much time I’ve wasted so far. It is obvious that I am well past middle aged, unless I expect to live to be 110. I hope I have at least a good thirty years remaining, but of course, there is no way to know. Still, my genetics seem fairly sound, and I try to take care of myself. But there are always accidents to worry about and new diseases we haven’t yet discovered. Occasionally, I am caught off balance by a line from a poem by W. S. Merwin that comes back to me at odd moments when I am least expecting it and reminds me that “Every year without knowing it, I have passed the anniversary of my death.” What a thought! When I was young, I used to think I didn’t know enough about life to write with authority, and so I missed many opportunities to write about my experiences at the time. All these years later, I still feel as though I am not wise enough or experienced enough, but I’m beginning to think that there are a few things I’d like my children and grandchildren to know, which they may not have an opportunity to learn if I don’t try to pass them on in the years I have left.